Monday, August 25, 2008

Primary Response

Update: While I'm concerned with structural issues first, Christian is already jumping into the policy and perception stuff. As I'll mention later, much of what he's writing about in that post are very similar to the things he actually said on the panel. He's also bringing up the rather difficult disconnect where people who are critical of charters are being labeled as allies of the old, failed system. If you aren't with us, you're with the terrorists. You either help the recovery or hurt the recovery. But there are more than two sides to this, and Christian reminds us of that fact. I'm putting this first because, like A1 Steak Sauce: Yeah, Its that Important. End Update.

Begin Original Response Post:


I wanted to write this sounding as official as possible, then I thought about how hollow such responses always sound in the ‘letters to the editor’ section of any newspaper. As one of the organizers and the moderator of Rising Tide III’s Education Panel*, some folks are pretty firmly raking me over the coals all over the internet and have been since about 12:15 pm CDT Saturday afternoon. After one hour and ten minutes spent discussing one of the pressing topics concerning public education in New Orleans, I was happily dining on the delicious BBQ plate from J’anitas outside. I had no idea that inside there were folks experiencing shock and dismay and outright anger about some things that had been said on the Education panel minutes before.

I dragged my ass out of bed on Sunday and started reading the responses, not to the Education Panel but to the conference as a whole. To be completely honest, when I came across the first post solely about the Education Panel, I thought: “sweet, that ain’t how I saw it, but at least they were tuned in .” And then I kept reading, and reading, and reading. Page after uploaded page of folks digesting certain comments, wholesale critique of political points made, charges of bias and a whole online debate erupting in the blogosphere about one hour and ten minutes on Saturday morning. I know this is an exaggeration, but it feels like the NOLA blogosphere doubled the number of posts about education in just under 24 hours.


Now I could say “my job here is done,” pat myself on the back, and claim that my overall master plan for involvement as one of the organizers of this panel was to “highlight this issue and encourage healthy online debate about these topics,” but that’d be so much bullshit my parents would smell it back on St. Simons Island.

I could get all offended and defensive that folks are questioning my abilities as a moderator and an organizer, my overreaching political bias**, my general inability to promote balance and counterpoints, etc.; but getting defensive would only ignore the very valid points and concerns many folks are making.*** Hearing those valid concerns are why I feel the need to respond. I only hope the folks I am responding to can keep their own hackles down long enough to see their concerns addressed.

Since this is my primary response, there is one thing we need to tackle off the bat. I will respond to content, bias, political and policy concerns at a later time. One of the big problems people run into when talking about education – which is a notably emotional and divisive topic – is structural in nature, and that’s what we need to deal with first.

The emotion: it is easy to get defensive and angry when talking about education. If you are a parent, teacher or student, there is always someone saying something you don’t like. That is, if you substitute the word “like” with the phrase “believe in with conviction.” They are sharing an experience that is wildly different than your own, and every anecdote is loaded with biases, politics, experiences, hopes and disappointments. This makes discussion about education issues infuriating, and someone always leaves unhappy with what was said. And when I use the term “unhappy” I really mean “offended, defensive or sickened.”

This is compounded by the fact that so many people will listen to a conversation and psychologically focus on only those parts where their beliefs and experiences are challenged the harshest and most boldly. If the discussion is actually about challenging beliefs and experiences harshly and boldly, then folks are going to have big, big problems with what was said. That’s also not something to shy away from.

But emotion has to be balanced. People didn’t come up with their opinions Just To Piss You Off, they have reasons or experiences to back up their concerns, and the listener has to understand that. As I’m reading all the critical posts, I am keeping this in mind as well.

The structure: a lot of folks are critiquing the Education Panel for the time we spent on one topic matter. Though I believe we touched on several issues, the conversation kept coming back to one primary topical framework. Part of this is my responsibility as a moderator to move things along. But also, as a moderator, it is my responsibility to make sure we have explored a topic as completely as possible and that all my panelists have had a chance to give their opinions and build on the conversation. The benefit of a panel discussion (a real one) is the ability to really get your teeth into something. This was Rising Tide III, after all, not Around the Horn.

For the record, there were other topics on the notes that we wanted to discuss, we just weren’t able to get to them in the timeframe and still faithfully give them the attention they deserved. Honestly, you should have seen the original list of topics we started with back in June when we started getting this thing together. Other organizers politely reminded us we would only have an hour and fifteen minutes of time during a conference that was going to have a keynote speaker, a film and two other panels. Perhaps if we had been able to explore topics on behavior/discipline issues, special education issues, test scores and vouchers, we would not have been perceived as so slanted.

Panelists were also chosen based on conference considerations and relevance. While I would have loved to bring in 15 people representing various organizations, demographics, and professions; set them up on different panels and then switch them around World Series of Poker style, we just could not do that within the framework of Rising Tide III. So we pared it down. Even then, I thought our panel was keenly diverse through profession, interest in education, and interest in internet media to be relevant.

Concerns were raised, several times and by the more left leaning panelists and organizers, that the Education Panel not turn into a charter school bashing session. As the moderator, I believed my own more conservative opinions and ability to play Devil’s Advocate, as well as the various issues we planned to go over, would keep such a thing from happening. I assured my fellow organizers such. Then I assured them again. And again. And then: moderator fail!!!1!1!**** The result of not having the time to explore other issues (behavior and special education topics would have turned into an RSD bashing session) did leave a rather anti-charter impression, in retrospect. My opinions as to the balance of the discussion are something I will touch on later when I go over content, bias, political and policy concerns.

To conclude this primary response, however, I ask that everyone to look back at their criticisms and understand our constraints based on structural issues. Think about how you would plan an educational issues panel discussion, who you would invite (with considerations given to internet media interest as well), what topics you would cover, those topics in priority, and what you could fit into an hour and fifteen minutes. Then think about the list of people who would probably be offended or get defensive over what was said on your panel. Once we have a meeting of the minds on that, we can start talking about the good stuff.

* To be referred to in future posts as the Democratic People's Republic of Education Scholars Striving to Impede Neoliberal Goals (DPRESSING)

**That sound you hear is the howling laughter of people in Georgia and Tennessee who have been counting the days until someone from New Orleans considered me a 'liberal' or 'progressive.' That would be 719 days for you kids keeping score at home.

***Don't hate; appreciate. Better act like you know.

****I can still had barbeekyu. Nom.


Huck said...

Hi, Cousin Pat - Of course, I understand the limitations that such a format presented for you. And I sincerely don't think that there was any ill-intent or malice involved at all in the way the panel evolved. Believe me, I've been on panels where discussion trends naturally in one direction and gets stuck there without the slightest sense of how it ended up that way. I think you will find that most of the critics of the panel aren't in disagreement with many of the topics discussed and even some of the ideological foundations driving the opinions expressed. It just seemed that certain topics predominated in a conversation that really required more breadth and depth of opinion.

Your tempered reaction to the criticisms and your positive outlook and open-mindedness to hearing them is a good example. Thanks for posting your thoughts; and I hope there is opportunity to continue to talk more openly about this very emotional and sensitive subject.

Kelly said...

"people will listen to a conversation and psychologically focus on only those parts where their beliefs and experiences are challenged"

I know this and acknowledge that this is why I got SO worked up during your panel. I'm also trying for the first time to navigate this darn system with my three-year-old and quite frankly, I'm scared.

I thought that you handled the flow of the panel quite well and I wish that there had been more time.

jeffrey said...

What Huck said.

That and I still very much enjoyed the panel. In my mind, the continuing discussion of this here and elsewhere is further evidence of the fact that this could have been an all-day topic. But you said that already too. So... what you said too.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Thank y'all for listening. And, yeah, this one panel could have been an all day topic. We did spend a lot of time on one issue on Saturday, but it is also a very important thing to talk about. I'll say again that I was quite surprised by the reactions. I hope we can keep the conversations going and really sink our teeth into many of the issues we didn't get a chance to talk about.