Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Lesson on Failing

This summer at the SOS March & National Call to Action, I was pleased to see some young and enthusiastic, but independent-minded and healthily skeptical teachers. Among them was DCPS elementary school teacher, Olivia Chapman (on twitter: @sedcteacher). Olivia dual-majored in special and general education at The College of Saint Rose in her native upstate New York  and then worked for a year as a substitute teacher in Albany, New York, before accepting her current position. I was so impressed with Olivia (plus I'm always looking to feature the voices of teachers and education professionals who are on the ground) that I solicited a guest post from her. If she is symbolic of the young, smart, dedicated, and energetic teachers that neo-liberal reformers so often talk of attracting and keeping in the teaching profession, from Olivia's account below, they're not doing a very good job. Who, especially with all those qualities, lasts long in a stifling and absurd environment such as Olivia describes? For our nation's sake, I pray that Olivia and so many of the discouraged newer teachers I've talked to in recent years stick it out. We need you! As one of my children's teachers told me as we talked about the limitations of standardization and high-stakes testing were doing, "The pendulum is always swinging; I'm just waiting for it to swing in the other direction." In too many schools and systems, teaching rich, meaningful, and varied content and leading our children to embrace the beauty of the life of the mind has become an act of defiance when it should be an ethos. Here is Olivia's piece:

A Lesson on Failing

We hear a great deal these days from the media and education reformers about our “broken” public school system and about “failing” public schools. While I certainly haven’t been to all public schools and seen them for myself, I see and read about success in public schools often enough to know that not all public schools are “failing.” Unfortunately, though, I happen to work at a school that is failing and I used to be part of the reason for that failure.

Just to be clear, I'm not referring to a label of “failure” often placed on schools due to their failure to meet No Child Left Behind's lofty and unattainable AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) requirements. My school is failing because of what NCLB’s mandates have done to the students, teachers, and to the community. My school is failing because morality, honesty, compassion, and values have been replaced by an obsession with data, accountability, standardized testing, and evaluations.

Authentic, creative, and innovational learning experiences have been replaced by practice tests, overwhelming amounts of interim assessments, multiple choice drill and practice sheets, and an inundation of mandated programs and paper work that have little impact on real student learning.  I have seen genuinely good, veteran teachers lose touch with their morals out of fear. I have seen children bow their heads in shame upon the revelation that their test scores labeled them below basic in reading or math. I have had parents refer solely to their children’s test scores to describe their abilities, telling me that their children are good at math, but bad at reading and vice versa. I have witnessed cheating and lying to save careers. I have witnessed the stealing of materials and resources because budget cuts have allowed for very little funding for what our students really need. This is the harsh reality and this is failing. We are failing ourselves and we are failing our students. We are neglecting to truly educate our students because teachers aren’t allowed to be innovative and creative. Instead, we are overwhelmed by the task of producing robotic test-takers rather than thoughtful, lifelong learners.

When I was hired at DC Public Schools I was told that if I couldn’t get the students' test scores up, I was dispensable. Teachers who have students with high test scores are put on pedestals and those without are stigmatized, humiliated, and downright disrespected by the administration. This was the culture that I was thrown into as a first year teacher. At first, I was determined to succeed at attaining this highly esteemed respect from my colleagues and my principal.

I spent my first year teaching relentlessly chasing this prize. I drilled, I practiced, I taught test-taking strategies. I made the students want to stay in for recess to practice testing by rewarding them with dollar store surprises and animal crackers. I begged and pleaded for parents to get their kids to school early and stay after for more standardized test review. I thought that if my students had awesome test scores, I would earn the veneration I had yearned for. More importantly, I thought that this would prove that I was a good teacher. In reality, I lost sight of who I was and why I had become a teacher. Oh, and my students test scores turned out to be pretty low, despite my sixty-hour work weeks and endless nights spent grading bubble sheets. In addition, at the end of the school year I was rated "minimally effective" due to my students’ low test scores.

I spent the summer after my first year reflecting on why I had become a teacher and thought about quitting and traveling the world. But I soon realized that it wasn't teaching that was the problem, it was the environment I was teaching in (not to mention I didn’t have enough money saved to even travel locally)--the high-stress intensity of the testing atmosphere, the "walking on eggshells" feeling that you get when you know something bad is going to happen despite any precautions you may have taken. I decided to scrap the entire test prep regimen that I thought, and was told, was crucial to student success. I figured I had one more year to improve my rating before being terminated, so why not teach the way that I thought would be most effective, most compelling, and most beneficial to my students? Why not teach my students the way that my best teachers had taught me?

Last year, for my students' sake as well as for my own, I took the focus off of testing. I told my students that standardized testing was something that we had to do in order to prove to the city and to the nation that they have good teachers and that they are learning at school, and my head-strong group of fourth graders was determined to prove themselves. I reassured them regularly that I would not refer to them by a label determined by their test scores and that they were so smart and had so much knowledge that they did not need to worry about taking the silly old test. I treated the test as if it were just another thing on our fourth grade “to do” list. This constant reassurance gave them confidence to take on the test, but it also took the emphasis off of the end-all-be-all aspect of high-stakes standardized testing.

With this weight off of our shoulders, I moved my students on to more authentic learning. Genuine, meaningful learning cannot prosper when the burden of bubble sheets, arbitrary teacher firings and terms like “below basic” are clouding our brains. For the most part, I replaced weekly multiple-choice assessments with projects that met the standards as well as met the students' interests. We read materials that sparked intellectual curiosity, debates, and critical thinking.  I stopped using the “preferred” textbooks and found ways to fund class sets of books and magazines that were engaging and appropriate for my demographic. In the end, their test scores were fine. No, I didn’t produce any miraculous increase in proficiency levels, but these kids now know how to think, they gained content knowledge, they know a few things about the world around them, and they genuinely care about learning more.  

Critics of my anti-teaching-to-the-test approach often ask, “Well, how do you know that the students actually learned without looking at data from their test scores?” I look at tons of data! I listen for conversation skills, I review projects, I read reports, I observe debates and discussions, and I use rubrics to assess skits and videos. Sure, I throw in some multiple-choice style tests when appropriate and yes, I look at that data too. More importantly, I know that these students learned because they left my class with authentic means to express and apply their knowledge. These students still stop by my room to tell me what they are learning and doing in school. They value what I taught them because they see the importance of each lesson in their everyday lives. Furthermore, they look to deepen their understanding of topics of interest. They still ask me for help selecting books that will interest them and help them expand their knowledge. Some of my former students still check our class facebook page for extra learning activities to do at home. They ask me questions like, “Ms. Chapman, do you have any friends who are doctors/lawyers/engineers/authors that I could write to about how they got their careers?” Their fifth grade teacher informed me that during the earthquake, my previous students climbed under their desks because they had learned what to do during natural disasters by becoming “meteorologists” and writing live weather reports in class last year. 

I read somewhere that teachers whose students do not excel on high-stakes standardized tests are probably the best teachers.  I don’t necessarily agree with that. However, I do believe that teaching to the test makes children dislike school and makes teachers loathe teaching. I have realized in my first three years of teaching that the aspects of public education that are “failing” are our current education policies, reforms, and those who are pushing them, those who think that spending large sums of money on testing and teacher evaluations will make children smarter. Then administrators continue the “failing” by pushing these policies onto teachers, and in turn, so do the teachers who reluctantly choose to go along with them.

My school did not make AYP again this year. We now have a new principal who never ceases to express his endless devotion to getting an 80% pass rate on this year’s tests. I'm sure that my defiance of his test-prep regime, of his mandated ten multiple-choice question bi-weekly formative assessments, and of his failure to see the students he is supposed to educate as anything more than test scores will cause great controversy. I have been warned that I walk on thin ice because of the test scores that are tied heavily to my evaluation. In spite of this, what I fear most is not a poor rating based on a single test. What I fear most is failing my students and their community again by believing that my students' success and my own is based on teaching to that single test.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Failed Sonnet

I have probably mentioned that before dedicating most of my "free" time to writing about education (which I thought would be more practical and sane--HA!), I was doing a lot of creative writing, especially poetry and short fiction. During the primaries and elections of 2008, while in a poetry workshop, I wrote a sonnet about the state of our nation and what we needed to turn it around.

My idea was to write a modern version of the masterpiece, The New Colussus written in 1883 by Emma Lazarusthe poem that is engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty. I see this poem as the promise of America, or at least what was once the promise of America. The New Colussus is an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. Sonnets come in many forms, but they all have fourteen lines and somewhere in them, towards the end, there's a turn. The rules of the Petrarchan sonnet are fairly strict (for more details, see here) in terms of rhythm and rhyme scheme, but the basic structure is as follows: the octave (the first 8 lines) typically introduces the theme or problem using a rhyme scheme of abba abba. The sestet (the last 6 lines) provides resolution for the poem and rhymes variously, but usually follows the schemes of cdecde or cdccdc.

Here is the original poem by Lazarus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Following the parameters of the Italian sonnet and trying to mirror the original as faithfully as possible, including employing only ten syllables per line, I highlighted what I thought were the flaws of modern America, and then I culled my resolution from speeches, ideas, and promises of Barack Obama.

Ultimately, my sonnet failed. For one, the turn happened too late--I waited until the last two lines to offer my resolution. The sonnet also lacks cohesion, if not narratively, then in cohesion and flow of sounds and rhythm. Also, the end rhymes are far from pure. I knew all of this at the time and can see it all the more glaringly now, but I simply haven't been able to re-write it. It's a knot, albeit a deliberate and well-wrought one, that I can't untie. Needless to say, I never got it published. 

While I would still consider it a failed sonnet in form, with another presidential election year soon to be upon us, I have started to see the poem as perhaps symbolic of Obama's presidency. Is he turning too late? Has he waited too long to offer his policy solutions and ideas? Are some of then destined to be failures (which is what I would argue about his ed policies)? Also, what has changed since I wrote this? "Dearth of protests"? I wouldn't agree with that now.

Here is my version:
The Mutated Colossus
Not like democracy of our fancies 
With wrapping arms, casts off destitution; 
Here worship youth, our elders shit upon.
Cower inside gated communities,
Living through the screen, lap up tragedies,
Disgrace our poor, make desert into lawn,
Codify Moses’ ten, rule by gun
Perma-happy grin, plastic surgeries.
Keep your processed meat, products armed with scents,
With brand name reverence, dearth of protests,
Fast food schools, deifying ignorance,
Porno-violence, but fear of nude breasts.
Expel greed, grudge, gloom; in our existence
Athena, Asclepius, Justice vest.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It's My Blogiversary and I'll Cry if I Want to

One year ago today I started All Things Education. Happy Blogiversary to me! Unfortunately, so far I have spent my blogiversary at a dentist's appointment (but no cavities :) and reading depressing tweets from Rupert Murdoch's big speech about education racketeering, I mean, reform. So now it's time for some reflection.

I'd always enjoyed writing, but I started writing more seriously during my last year of college. For my senior project, I translated a series of short stories from French to English and that hooked me. After graduating, I continued writing, but then fell in love with teaching which I did for about ten years before deciding to take a break to spend more time with my children and more time writing. I took several writing workshops and got some of my creative work published. If you're interested, you can find links to them on my other blog, which I initially started to share my writing and get some feedback. I started writing more and more about education and decided to dedicate an entire blog to it. Then, I started tweeting. . .

This time last year, I had maybe 1,000 hits on my (other) blog which was a couple of years old. My education blog has earned close to 32,000 hits in just one year. I now have a couple hundred subscribers when I used to have maybe 5. Last fall and winter I had 60 - 70 followers on twitter. Now I have between 730 - 740. I have gotten a few pieces published in larger publications, which, again, I link to in my other blog.

As a writer, this is all very, very affirming and I want to thank all of my readers, followers, and mentors. To those who support me, you give me confidence and courage. To those who question, critique, and push back, it is from you that I learn and grow. To all of the writers, bloggers, tweeters, and activists who influence me, you inspire me, teach me, and make me think (for a sampling of my influences, see "What I Read" on the right). To the editors and authors of bigger blogs and publications who have featured or linked to my work, thank you for giving my ideas and work a chance. Finally, to my husband, thank you so much for encouraging me to take on all of this and for helping me ( successfully, most of the time :) to keep my pettier instincts in check.

For the coming year,"I will continue to blog and to solicit guest posts, but I also want to return some to my creative writing as I've neglected it in the past year. I also need to, um, GET A JOB. If I have treated the past three as apprenticeship years, now I must find a way to move up to employee status. Besides the reasons stated above, I took a break from teaching because I didn't like the direction the system was going in; the corrosive effects on good practice and rich and meaningful curriculum of high-stakes testing and standardization all ran contrary to what I had been taught and what I knew to be high quality education. The idea of improving our education system using anti-intellectual reforms, under anti-intellectual leadership seems antithetical. That being said, I have felt more and more, although I am involved as a public school parent, that the longer I am out of the classroom, the longer I am not working in schools, the less what I have to say is valid or relevant and also the less useful my work is. So besides pursuing writing gigs, I am also going to pursue teaching ones. I've learned so much as a parent and reading, writing, and blogging about education; at the very least what I've learned will make me a better and more informed teacher (too bad one of it counts towards renewing my license!)

This is not to say that I am feeling certain or confident about any of this. It scares me to the point that I wake up anxiety-striken in the wee hours almost every morning. I worry that I won't be able to find a job. I worry that I'll have to take a job that I don't like, that I'll be forced to be a McTeacher teaching McEducation in a McSchool. I worry that I'll get a job I like but that I'll be overwhelmed with it and my parenting responsibilities and will fail miserably at both. I worry that no one will want to hire me because I'm too old and my skills too rusty.

However this all turns out, I'll certainly let you know. And, hey, thanks for reading. It has meant the world to me, really.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Education Films Series IV: The Class

This post is dedicated to all of my mentors and co-workers. Thank you for all you've taught me (and all you will teach me :)

Another education film I've seen recently (well, in the past year ) is The Class featuring Francois Begaudeau as high school English teacher, Mr. Marin. The film is based on his memoir which chronicles his experience teaching in inner-city Paris. It wasn't a documentary, but it almost could have been; I felt like a fly on the wall in Mr. Marin's classroom. It was so real, in fact, that I had a hard time watching it. It's not that the students were so tough (not at all--as a side thought, I wonder if the experience would have been different in the Paris banlieues or suburbs--some are comparable to U.S. inner city neighborhoods and more recently some inner-loop suburbs). Rather, I had a hard time because although according to the movie he was a three-year veteran, he seemed to be making some rookie mistakes. Some are the same mistakes I made as a rookie, mistakes which were thankfully pointed out to me by veteran mentors.

For one, Mr. Marin seemed to argue excessively with his students. The same summer I completed my master's degree in education, I taught a summer school course at the inner city high school where I would continue to work for the following two years. One student in the class was particularly difficult and I made the rookie mistake of letting him engage me in pointless arguments and of taking his behavior personally. In an attempt to help sort things out, the director of the summer program observed the class and then met with the two of us. After, she told me, among other things, that my and the student's discussions sounded as if they were between peers. "This sounds like a peer interaction. I'm not comfortable with that. You're not his peer," she reminded me pointedly.

It was too late for me to go back and change how I had interacted with him, but given her insights, I changed course. The student was still difficult, but not as much as he had been, and I was able to manage our interactions much more professionally and appropriately. What I learned then has helped me for years to come, and it liberated me. As long as it didn't disrupt the learning of others, I could make sure students felt heard and like their concerns were taken seriously, but in such cases students didn't have to concede I was "right" for me to remain confident in my role. I was their teacher, not their peer; I was the adult in the room.

But in The Class, it seemed like Mr Marin was caught up in the struggle of "I'm the teacher, you're the student" instead of just simply being the teacher. Perhaps this is a cultural difference.When I lived in and studied in France, I noticed that there wasn't as much the tradition of questioning the teacher as we have in the US, and perhaps the film reflected a change in their school culture. Perhaps engaging with his students on this level was his way of being open to that, but his sarcasm, his attempts to out-smart and out-embarrass his students seemed counter-productive, unprofessional, and a waste of time. Instead of trying to embarrass them before they embarrassed him, he should have just gone for setting the standard of no embarrassing of anyone by anyone.

Back to Ms. Levy. . . during the school year that followed summer school I had another mentor teacher. He observed a few of my classes and then went over his observations with me. (I also didn't have my own classroom that year and so I was fortunate to have the eyes on me of the teachers in whose rooms I taught.) One of the things I most remember being critiqued on was that I told students when they walked in late, "You're late." I'd say. My mentor told me, "Rachel, you know they're late, they know they're late, why stop class to point it out? Why put them on the defensive?" Although this was a small point, it was a key one. I found I could apply it to many other interactions with and generally giving feedback to students. I learned there's a time, a place, and a way to give feedback; publicly, sarcastically and in a way that's likely to humiliate students, as I saw Mr. Marin do some in The Class, is the wrong way. Mark the students late, of course, and hold them accountable for their trespasses like tardiness but do so in a way that's proactive, private, and appropriate.

Of course, while I think my criticisms of Mr. Marin (and I have positive feedback as well) are valid, I don't know that much about his school or what's expected of him or how France educates its teachers. I'd really have to ask and hear him explain why he reacted the way he did. Furthermore, I appreciated how Begaudeau let all of us viewers into his "classroom." As a new teacher, it was hard for me to be vulnerable to my mentors and their criticisms. Not only were many of the students I taught challenging, but I felt like I was doing a horrible job.

Around the time that I watched this film, there was a lot being written about video-taping teachers in order to evaluate them. As I got to watch (and then critique) Mr. Marin's teaching and as I recalled my own experiences, I was reminded of the value of mentoring, coaching, and evaluation.

Luckily, my observation of Mr. Begaudeau is not high stakes, especially given that I've never stepped foot in his school, nor do I know much about the training teachers get in France. This seems to be at least one of the shortcomings of the Gates Foundation initiative to video tape teachers. The teachers don't get the feedback quickly enough for it to be useful and the feedback is given by people far removed from the particular school and classrooms. Furthermore, one of the Gates-funded academics involved in the project seems to be looking at it as an opportunity to develop "cottage industries." Are we trying to improve teaching and learning here or are we trying to create even more unnecessary education-related "cottage industries" to waste precious dollars on?  On the contrary, the video-taping experience that California ESOL teacher Larry Ferlazzo describes here is a cost-effective and valuable way to use video-tape evaluations to improve teaching.

As for mentoring, luckily the observations my mentors did of my teaching were not high stakes. They were designed to help me improve my practice, not to see if I should be fired. Observations and evaluations are valuable and necessary. Evaluation and improvement shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but unfortunately, they're largely coming to be. Just like I learned that giving feedback to students is all in the how, so is giving feedback to teachers. The goal should be to make our students better students, and to make us better teachers. When your mentor is your boss, and the feedback can get you fired, people will be much less open to the feedback and to giving an honest presentation of their teaching and philosophy of teaching. It makes an evaluation something to be gamed, rather than a tool to develop, improve, and build.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Education Films Series III, Our Town: The kind of teaching and learning that we all want in our towns

A few weeks before Waiting for Superman came out, I watched a documentary called Our Town. It's about an English teacher in Compton, California, who leads a group of students through putting on the first play, Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town, their high school has produced in years. It is a pure documentary--there's no agenda (or at least not any obvious one to me), moralizing, politics, or what my husband terms, "auto-hommage."

I liked this film on so many levels. It's not flashy, it's not sexy, mountains are not moved, it's not "Glee." Instead, it's real. Putting on a play is painstakingly hard work and the challenges of being a student and teacher in an inner city school are not small. The play was modest, it was not perfect, and some students failed to fulfill their committments to it. Despite the challenges and the lack of miracles, the film shows what a valuable learning experience putting on a play can be and how much such performances can mean to their schools' communities: the house was full every night.

Although I wholeheartedly agree that kids need a base of factual knowledge, I'd like to see a lot more emphasis on this type of learning experience, especially in places like Compton. This type of learning can be both meaningful and academic, academic in that kids studied and learned from a rich literary masterpiece and meaningful in that they saw the fruits of their hard work and commitment and owned their performances. Furthermore, there are elements of learning to being on stage that aren't available in other traditional content classes. Finally, kids in the most underprivileged communities need the same opportunities as kids in privileged communities to study subjects such as art, music, PE, science, social studies, foreign languages, and theater, both in and after class.

One negative: I didn't like the way the basketball program was demonized. On the one hand, I understand how much high school sports, in particular male high school sports, especially football and basketball, can suck up disproportionate resources and attention, while theater groups and the like are left to fend for themselves. This is a valid complaint. But my take is that the theater programs, etc, should be equally well funded and supported. Team sports aren't at all a negative. Just as being part of a performing arts cast can be a meaningful learning experience for kids, so can being part of a sports team.

To me, this documentary serves as a much better alternative to Waiting for Superman than any other recent education documentary out there. The teacher featured isn't superman--no one can be that--but she navigates  the nitty-gritty of educating teenagers with humanity and fortitude. These are the kinds of teachers we need to focus on retaining, and we can do so in part by allowing them to move away from test prep and towards rich and meaningful education.

It also struck me, since I wrote about teaching character recently, that this is the way to teach character, not explicitly and not on some chart or report card, but through having kids engage in interesting and meaningful learning and projects, to have them work hard and be part of a team and part of a community.

As for the students, when they look back ten years later, they're not going to remember the teacher that covered two years of content in one year; they're going to remember and value this amazing learning experience they had. In experiences like this, the teacher can end up covering way more material than anyone can imagine or measure. Despite the value of rich content, the most valued content of our memories are experiences, especially experiences like these where we confront a real challenge and come out better, wiser, and prouder. I hope that we aren't so busy with what we can measure that we end up losing what students and their families treasure.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bridging Philosophical Differences

Yesterday evening I posted on twitter a link to this post in Bridging Differences by Diane Ravitch, saying that I thought she made very compelling arguments against Parent Trigger-like legislation, that it's bad for democracy.

I got some push back on that. One of my favorite push-backers said that a) Teacher Trigger laws existed first and that b) Diane's post was "pure ad hominem."

Normally I don't mix my tweeting and my blogging. I generally think it's silly when people blog about what people say on twitter. Blogs and twitter are two very different mediums--I have different expectations and standards for each of them. That being said, I want to respond to what my critics said and I want to explain what I found so compelling; twitter is a terrible place to try to accomplish this.

First of all, I'd have to learn more about the particular ones being referred to, but I can't imagine that "Teacher Trigger" laws would be a good idea, either.

Second of all, "pure adhominem" (emphasis mine)? I don't see it, not purely. I can see why someone might find that in the piece, but it's certainly not the only thing there. Several months ago (see here and here) I decided that unless they are blatantly stated, divining people's motives is impossible. It's also not productive or often relevant to any given problem. I also, frankly, have a hard time getting through the day if I look at the world through such a dark lens, so though I don't always succeed, I try really hard not to, at least not publicly.

But what I found compelling in Diane's post was not who's doing the Parent Trigger and for what reasons, but rather, the philosophical arguments. Here's what I found compelling (emphasis mine):  
"To me, a public school is a public trust. It doesn't belong to the students who are currently enrolled in it or their parents or to the teachers who currently teach in it. All of them are part of the school community, and that community needs to collaborate to make the school better for everyone. Together, they should be able to redesign or create or discontinue programs and services. But collaboration is not the same as ownership. The school belongs to the public, to the commonwealth. It belongs to everyone who ever attended it (and their parents) and to future generations. It is part of the public patrimony, not an asset that can be closed or privatized by its current constituents.
If a school is dysfunctional, those who are in charge of the district are obliged to find out why and to do whatever they can to fix the problems. If the principal is incompetent, he or she should be removed. If there are teachers who are incompetent, they should be removed. If the school is doing poorly because it lacks necessary resources, the district is obliged to do whatever it can to improve the school.
But giving the current parents the power to close the school or to hand it over to a private management company is akin to saying that whoever uses any public facility should have the same power, the power to transfer control to a private entity. It means if those who use Central Park in Manhattan don't like the way the city of New York takes care of it, they should be able to sign a petition and privatize it. If a majority of those who patronize a national park sign a petition, they should be able to hand control of the park over to private managers. This makes no sense."
I agree philosophically with what Diane is saying here. I value public democratic institutions and I want to see them preserved. I agree that democratic public institutions are in a tenuous state right now and I agree that they belong to the public: to past, present, and future generations. Maybe others don't agree with this. Maybe they think I over-value public democratic institutions or that they've failed. Maybe they think the free market can do better. But I don't think so. I'm certainly not anti-commerce, but I don't think free market mechanisms work in every context, particularly not if the markets have been rigged. That's not an ad hominem attack, that's expressing a philosophically different way of looking at the world; it's expressing a different value system.

So let's protest what we see as ad hominem and address its wrongs specifically, or, even better, let's minimize their distraction by brushing them aside, and instead focus on the philosophical (and yes, factual) heart of our common ground and differences.