Saturday, September 25, 2010

Katrina and her Little Sister Rita by Paul Epstein

Katrina and her Little Sister by Paul Epstein
(clicking the link above or the title will take you to myspace to hear the song)
I wrote and recorded this song not long after the disasters that were hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In such a time of tragedy that destroyed so much -- homes, lives, and ways of life, I felt like one more sad, depressing song was not called for. Instead, I took inspiration from the blues and jazz traditions of New Orleans and wrote something that would celebrate the resiliency and the strength of the region. I gave it a "Poke Salad Annie" feel and dusted off my synth guitar to play the bass and the electric leads. The song was used in a book of stories about Katrina called "Katrina in their Own Words" by the Southeast Louisiana Writing Project. Whenever I sing it for an audience, I get everyone to echo the chorus lines. It's always fun, and great for dancing. Here are the lyrics:

Katrina, and her Little Sister Rita
©Paul Epstein, 2006
Down in Southern Lousianna, the Mississippi coast
You know we like to party, we love to play the host
two ladies came for blackjack
never want ‘em back

I’m talkin’ ‘bout Katrina, And her little sister Rita
They blew in and tore the house down, you don't ever want to meet 'em.
We love our women strong
But they done us wrong

Banshees howlin’ through the gulf, it’s party time again
Rich folks gettin out of town, po’ folk take it on the chin
Blackjack for Katrina
Busted New Orleans

Rita thought she’d go to Texas, they were ready for her there
So she headed for the bayou, where she cleaned the cupboards bare
Katrina’s little sister
Sho’ nuff won’t miss her

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Truth and Hope vs. Lies and Fear

If you listen to politicians and pundits, we are in a slow recovery from an economic catastrophe or we are witnessing the end of our free market economy.  Should we be hopeful or frightened? If we look at facts and dispel untruths the future looks brighter due to President Obama’s policies.

Democrats, led by President Obama have made earnest efforts to solve the nation’s problems, truthfully laying them out and hoping the other side would work with them. Republicans led by Boehner, McConnell and increasingly spurred by extremist voices such as Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh have been scaring Americans with lies and innuendo. They suggest our president is a Muslim (why, he might even be black!), is not a citizen, that health care reform would pull the plug on Grandma and take away their health insurance, that financial reform would lead to more bailouts, and that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—the ‘stimulus’) has not helped the economy. They stir up fears of immigrants, conflate terrorism with Islam, and stir up anger verging on revolutionary fever against government.

Unfortunately, we are a very impatient people, and apparently for many it is not enough that a depression has been averted, our banking and investment system has been brought back from the brink of total collapse, our auto industry revived, and our economy has been growing, albeit slowly, for over a year.

What are Republicans saying? First they try to scare everybody into believing we’re heading back into recession. Second they say deficits will bury us so we need to cut spending immediately. They say the stimulus didn’t work and the proof is that President Obama “promised” unemployment would not go over 8%. Finally, they want those who earn over $200,000/year to continue to enjoy the lowest tax rates since the 1950’s. 
President Obama never promised the road out of this recession would be easy or quick nor that unemployment would stay below 8% if ARRA was passed. His economic advisors published that prediction in January, 2009, before he took office. Unemployment surpassed that before the bill was passed in February on its way to top 10% before ARRA began having some effect.  Ask all the road workers, bridge builders, auto workers, unemployed receiving extended benefits, and teachers, policemen, firefighters and other state workers whose jobs were saved if stimulus spending works. Go to and look at how it’s being spent:

  •  unemployment benefits
  • health care for unemployed
  • aid for seniors
  • rebuilding infrastructure
  • energy efficiency and weatherization
  • $1,000/family in tax cuts and many tax credits 

The Recovery may not have provided instant prosperity in the midst of world-wide economic turmoil, but it has been working, and is today.

What do the Republicans propose to create jobs? Give those who earn over $200,000 tax cuts, stop spending, and let corporations operate free of regulation. That’s the recipe that got us here, the recipe for the lackluster G.W. Bush years during which the few jobs that were created were low paying jobs, and the path to housing bubbles, toxic assets, and the credit crisis. The Bush tax cuts and two unfunded wars is what turned the Clinton surplus into trillions in debt dropped in the lap of President Obama.

Republicans still cling to the discredited belief that reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy will create jobs. S&P 500 companies are holding more cash than ever, but are not using it to create jobs. They won’t add to their employment rolls until there is more demand for their products. The Bush tax cuts that put a trillion dollars in the pockets of the rich were in place for eight years of anemic job growth. Why would continuing them create jobs now?

Deficit fears at least have some basis in truth though Republicans weren’t worried about almost five trillion dollars in deficits during the eight years of the Bush presidency. The national debt isn’t keeping the economy from growing faster and it isn’t keeping jobs from being created. It will become an inflationary problem down the road if we don’t get it under control, which is why Obama wants to use the money from discontinuing tax cuts for the rich to pay down the deficit.

Maybe we will have to get used to a slower growing economy, though Warren Buffet thinks we’re poised for a big growth cycle, hopefully one based on productivity. Growth during bubbles creates false wealth for which we later pay a price in bankruptcies, bank failures, and lost savings. Americans must save more and live on their income rather than count on ever expanding housing values or an overheated stock market to give them unlimited credit. 

President Obama has not made wild promises; he laid out his agenda truthfully from the beginning and has faithfully been keeping promises, including winding down the war in Iraq and concentrating on the true masterminds of 9/11 in Afghanistan. We’ve been in a deep economic hole that we are climbing out of. The stimulus package created or saved millions of jobs—not enough to get us completely out of the hole, but enough to begin to grow our economy.  Too many Americans don’t want to hear the truth: that the answers aren’t simple and solutions aren’t quick.

Those congressmen who rub their hands in glee over the slow recovery should be ashamed. That they obstruct legislation they would ordinarily support to create jobs and help small business so their party can benefit from a weakened economy borders on unpatriotic. Lacking a responsible Republican party willing to engage in honest debate, Obama needs a stronger majority of Democrats. 

We are told that the upcoming elections belong to the Republicans because anger and enthusiasm are on their side. It is time to get enthusiastic in defense of our country by proudly supporting Democrats who have taken bold and difficult stands on reforming Wall Street and the health care system, and supporting Obama’s efforts to get the economy back on track. It is time for truth and hope to once more triumph over lies and fear.

(first published by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Sunday, September 19, 2010: )

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Teachers Need Time and Support to Use Technology Effectively

When my mother was in her 80’s, my brother bought her a computer so that she could participate in e-mail exchanges and receive digital pictures of her grandchildren. It was a disaster. Though her mind was sharp, this lifelong learner with a Masters degree could not ‘read’ the screen, and every window that popped up represented a paralyzing choice for her, “If I click wrong, I might fail again.”

We know that humans who do not develop language in childhood may never speak, that young minds need countless hours of exposure to letters, words, phonemes, in order to be ready to learn to read. We have learned that writing, too, is a developmental process. Students, regardless of when they start, tend to go through many stages on the way to becoming competent writers and readers; and learning to read and write for the many challenges and purposes that we face in school, in work, and in the community is a life-long task.  But as a society we agree that we must invest in literacy because reading and writing are critical skills.

In the 21st century, the ability to use computers and other digital technology is a critical skill.  If education is the “great equalizer,” as Horace Mann put it, then it is up to the public schools to provide access, time, and direction for students to learn to use these technologies for the full range of purposes our students will pursue in school, work, and in the community. Such is literacy in the 21st century: writing is a digital activity.

As Governor of West Virginia from 1988-1996, Gaston Caperton instituted a statewide program to place three computers and reliable basic skills software in every classroom. This introduced basic computer skills to students and teachers, and my state’s early embrace of computer technology has been maintained and upgraded by subsequent administrations. For a mountainous rural state, technology offers the possibility of overcoming physical obstacles and bringing the world into isolated classrooms.

In the twenty-three years I have taught in West Virginia elementary schools, many students have benefited tremendously from these computers, but I’ve also seen many computers sitting unused in the backs of classrooms or used for games and activities with limited educational value. Though teachers received some training in using the hardware and software, from what I’ve seen, few integrated these powerful tools into their everyday lessons.  Only recently, as teachers have started receiving an array of ‘in classroom’ equipment like laptops and projectors am I seeing a shift.

But simply providing equipment is not enough.  I have learned through my involvement with the National Writing Project that teachers need to be comfortable with their own writing process before they can be effective teachers of writing. They must also be comfortable and confident users of technology before they can effectively employ technology in their lessons.

I was very fortunate to have had a principal in 2000 who recognized that a teacher enthused about writing and technology with a computer lab would not only ensure that all students in the school were using the computers for reading, writing, and enhancing content learning, but he could also collaborate with other teachers, increasing their knowledge and skills.  Since then, I have found that when my colleagues see the power of computers to motivate students to engage in the writing process, including dreaded revision and editing, and when they get support in using the technology to enhance their classroom objectives, they embrace writing and technology.

The National Writing Project model of sustained professional development led by teachers is the most promising way to influence the nation’s teaching force to embrace both writing and technology in the digital age. In our local writing project workshops, we have led many K-12 teachers in their first use of computers to revise and edit writing, create PowerPoint presentations and digital stories, make blog posts and engage in online discussions. They have reported returning to their classrooms and making better use of computers in their teaching.

Technology spending is necessary and important to increase availability of technology tools and internet infrastructure. But teachers must be at the center of change aimed at preparing students for the 21st Century. The National Writing Project has put extensive time and expertise into developing and researching teacher leadership. Teachers are the Center of Education: Writing, Learning and Leading in the Digital Age should remind those who lead schools, districts, and teacher preparation programs that there are among them teachers who are exploring innovative uses of technology to enhance students’ educational experiences. Teachers must be given time and opportunity to share their most promising practices in their schools and districts through mentorship, coaching, or professional development programs in order to effectively implement a 21st Century curriculum for all students.

first published in April, 2010 by the College Board, also by Charleston Gazette (WV) in July, 2010.