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Culturally Progressive is where I write about literature, culture, and politics and share work of mine that has been published elsewhere. Scroll down for new posts. If you want to read more about me, click About Tanya. You can see my upcoming and past appearances. To get an email from me once a month with updates, click here. Thanks for stopping by.

I am having trouble making sense of it all, so I point you to a few things I’ve been reading:
The National Guard arrived in Ferguson last night presumably to keep calm in the streets. Would it not send an even more powerful message for those officers to guarantee the safe passage of thousands of children to school?
Grand juries nearly always decide to indict. Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.
The grand jury decision on the Ferguson case was in keeping with a longstanding pattern: Police officers rarely face prison time after a fatal shooting, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week. One reason is that intent is hard to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ prosecutors tend to see police as allies, and jurors are inclined to be sympathetic to law enforcement.


I’ve started a newsletter so you can receive monthly updates on my writing life, snarky commentary on what I’m reading, and photos of my dog. If you’re already a WordPress subscriber to my blog, this might be a better way to follow what I’m up to.

Join me! to subscribe to “A Healthy Mix of the Sacred and Profane.” Or click here to view the first letter I sent out yesterday.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarian rule is truly possible only in countries that are large enough to be able to afford depopulation. The Soviet Union proved itself to be just such a country on at least three occasions in the twentieth century—teaching its citizens in the process that their lives are worthless.

From Masha Gessen’s exploration into the causes of Russia’s extremely high mortality rates. Read the whole thing at The New York Review of Books blog.

People want to call abusive men—men like the man I used to love, and men like Ray Rice—“monsters.” But that term, with its connotations of the unnatural and uncontrollable, absolves the abuser of the responsibility for being human. It also makes it easier for people to blame women like Janay Rice — who admits to loving a man who has abused her — for staying in a relationship with someone “inhuman.”

- From this brave article by Lacy M. Johnson at GOOD about why we should stop calling abusive men “monsters”

[Adrian] Peterson isn’t a monster. Nor are the millions of parents who spank their children every day. Raising kids can be frustrating. You try so hard to make them behave, but they just don’t listen. You hope a spanking will get their attention, and it does. But they’re not listening to your words. They’re listening to the switch, or the belt, or the sting of your palm. With every blow, you’re losing contact. Remember that the next time you raise your hand.

- From William Saletan’s brave piece about corporal punishment (and his own experiences with it) over at Slate

There’s not much difference to me between the adjunct crisis in higher education and the labor conversations that fast food and other low wage workers are having. It’s just that we like to see ourselves as different. We like to see our destinies as different. But they’re the same thing.

– Excerpt from an interview between inequality scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom and reporter Carla Murphy of Colorlines.

I appreciate that McMillan Cottom talks about structural change for vulnerable workers across class lines. I recently left academia after three years as an adjunct professor, where I struggled with voicing my concerns about adjunct exploitation.

But McMillan Cottom reminds me not to fall into the myth of scarcity — there is room to talk about all these injustices. Exploitation is exploitation is exploitation. Read the fascinating interview here — it touches on feminism, labor protests, and reparations.

cover of Dana Goldstein's "The Teacher Wars"As many reviewers have already said, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars is a super smart look at the history of the American education system, with a focus on the key stories and leaders we need to know in order to understand what’s happening now.

If there’s one thing I took away from the book (which is currently #8 on The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list), it’s that none of the proposed solutions in our current (and heated) education debates are new. In fact, they’ve all been tried before. We are, as usual, repeating history.

I’ve been following Dana’s reporting on education (and feminism and criminal justice) ever since we were part of the same writing group in Brooklyn in 2012 (I even got to workshop early drafts of the book’s first chapter). When I was teaching writing and urban issues at American University, she was a guest speaker in my classes (students loved her).

I’ve been so excited to see her successes, and the timing of this book feels particularly symbolic: Last month, I left academia for a full-time job in the education reform movement (I’m a writer at Bellwether Education Partners). I’m so happy to have more time to delve into the issues she so smartly writes about, and to do so while on the clock, so to speak.

Last night she joined New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey and’s Jamelle Bouie to discuss the book, and while there were a ton of smart things I could highlight from the discussion, let me focus on one.

Dana’s book (and other writing over the years) describes the dichotomy where teachers are either seen as heroes (e.g., their work with the highest needs kids is a form of community service) or devils (e.g., they are failing our kids, our schools, and our communities). In the best case scenario, teachers are the “angel-magicians” who mentor vulnerable children, and in the worst case scenario, they are killing the American Dream.

Dana argues, and I would agree, that this dichotomy is damaging because it locks teachers into one camp or another without leaving room for improvement. Teachers aren’t viewed as professionals who can use training and mentorship to grow, but as a corps of do-gooders who either are or miserably fail to be saviors.

At the same time, as Dana said in a recent interview, “Because we have a relatively weak social safety net [in the United States], we’re really asking [teachers] to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids.” So there is a sense in which teachers are doing extraordinary work.

At yesterday’s event, I asked Dana how to dismantle the harmful dichotomy while still acknowledging the tremendous teachers who work in extremely challenging circumstances. How can we name and honor the teachers who are essentially being asked to double as social workers, “particularly in high-needs schools in poor areas, where children are often coming from unsteady home lives?”

Dana recalled public school teachers from her childhood (in racially integrated schools!) who were heroes for some kids, buying winter coats for those who couldn’t afford them, etc.

But she also talked about wanting teachers to have less of these cases per classroom. Ideally, Dana said last night, a teacher has only a few students that she needs to be a hero for, and the rest of the students just need “a great instructional leader.”

Obviously this means we need classrooms that are more integrated, both racially and economically.

Based on her research, Dana thinks we also need to systematically move the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms. Does this imply the Teach for America (TFA) model works as a solution? Not quite, argues Dana. She doesn’t want new or novice teachers who only work for a few years (a missionary-style model that Dana’s book traces as far back as the 1800s).

Her problem with the TFA-style model is the “churn and burn cycle,” where even if a classroom teacher is an all-star veteran, the constant turnover in the school around them can negatively impact student achievement.

This makes sense when you think about how kids need consistency to develop trust and build relationships. But Dana also added that part of the “churn and burn” problem is that the attention and energy of the adults in the school is “focused on recruitment not instruction.”

So how do we get the best teachers into the classrooms that need them the most?

Dana has reported on the Talent Transfer Initiative, an attempt to get the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms and to get them to stay there.

Last night, she also talked about polling that reveals the reasons teachers leave: No career ladder. Little or no recognition from adults (feedback, compliments, mentorship). Problem principals.

Tackle those issues and teachers might be willing to work in some of the most challenging schools.

To read more, including Dana’s 11 recommendations for improving American education, go buy the book.


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