Where are the Teachers in WI Government?

We know that teachers in Wisconsin can be quite political when needed (remember how many marched, rallied, and spoke to protest Act 10?)  We also know that educating our children is one of the most important services our government provides.  So why is it then, that very few teachers are in the Wisconsin state legislature?

It seems to me that if the state government really wanted to improve public education, the best people to give input are public school teachers.  To be sure, many current legislators support public education (my own representative, Rep. Sondy Pope, is one of them), and WEAC does great work advocating for teachers, but the legislature is missing the crucial voices of teachers themselves.  Of the current ninety-nine representatives in the WI State Assembly, only one has ever taught in public schools, and in the Senate that number is zero (based on the information in their biographies).

So, where are the teachers in WI state government?  We are the ones who see the effects of cuts to education funding every day, and we are some of the most dedicated public servants- working long hours, caring for their students as if they were our own, and even spending our own money on classroom materials.  Who better to speak up for public education in Wisconsin than teachers?  Is it that teachers don’t run for office?  Or perhaps they have but were defeated?  If we really want to fix public education, we need to stop talking about it waiting in line for the copier or in the lunchroom; instead, we need teachers to run for office and win.

Thanks for reading.

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Hunger and Food Insecurity: An Introduction

Not only is food essential for life, it is also a human right.  Clause 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, …” and the UN General Assembly has gone so far as to pass a resolution titled, “The Right to Food.”  Despite this recognition, however, people around the world still go hungry and contend with food insecurity, as well as the effects of it.

With the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) in 2015, the UN established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s)- seventeen goals with a total of 169 targets designed to make the world a better place.  Goal 2 “aims to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. It also commits to universal access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food at all times of the year.”  While the situation around the world has improved since the MDG’s were established, people still suffer from chronic hunger.  The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) states, “About 793 million people in the world still lack sufcient (sic) food for conducting an active and healthy life.”

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The United States
Looking at the above map, we see the United States is not in as bad a situation compared to the rest of the global community.  In fact, the proportion of undernourished is less than 5% of the population.  It’s important to recognize, however, that millions of U.S. households are food insecure.  According to the USDA’s Household Food Security in the United States in 2015:

  • 12.7 percent of U.S. households (15.8 million households) were food insecure
  • 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security (italics in original)
  • Children were food insecure at times during the year in 7.8 percent of U.S. households with children (3.0 million households)

While those numbers are down from 2014, they should still be cause for alarm.  There is no good reason that people living in the world’s largest economy go hungry.  To be sure, the government has a number of programs in place to help ease the effects of hunger and food insecurity, but the fact that we have so many people living that way is problematic.

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Federal Food Assistance Programs. Source: Feeding America, http://www.feedingamerica.org/take-action/advocate/federal-hunger-relief-programs/

Wisconsin
The situation in Wisconsin is also disheartening.  In 2014, 687,370 people were food insecure, and in Dane County alone, that number was 58,480 (Feeding America).  Looking at the Kids Count Data Center, we see that 52,554 individuals participated in SNAP that year.

What Can Be Done?
Despite the federal programs available, it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure “universal access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food at all times of the year.”  The first question we should ask is why federal and state lawmakers continue to allow the problem of hunger and food insecurity to perpetuate.  The fact that these problems still exist means one of two things- either politicians are choosing to ignore them, or they are choosing to give other policy areas priority.  We, as the electorate, and as human beings, should be concerned that our elected officials are not protecting basic human rights.  Hold them accountable- email them, call their offices, etc.

Also at a policy-level, we should ensure USDA child nutrition programs receive more funding.  If children live in food insecure households, their only meals might come from the schools they attend.  As such, we must make sure they are fed while they are in school.  To address the issue of feeding children during the summer (when school is not in session), the USDA has the Summer Food Service Program.  For that to work, however, more people need to be willing to sponsor or manage sites.

If those ideas don’t appeal to you, here are some simple actions you can take (from “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World“):

  • Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you don’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad. You can also do this with take-away or delivered food, if you know you will not feel like eating it the next day. You will save food and money.
  • Shop Smart—plan meals, use shopping lists and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly for perishable items. Though these may be less expensive per ounce, they can be more expensive overall if much of that food is discarded.
  • Buy Funny Fruit—many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right”. Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.

Conclusion
Food is a basic human right, but for some reason, our lawmakers continue to allow hunger and food insecurity to plague our society.  Since they are failing to provide for their constituents, we need to step up and help.  No person, especially a child, should go without food.

Thanks for reading.

Additional Resources
Sustainable Development Goal 2

Food and Agricultural Organization

World Food Programme

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin

Ensuring Food Security in Wisconsin Households

City of Madison Food Waste Reduction Taskforce

Educating Youth to be Active Citizens

When I saw the list of topics for the German Marshall Fund’s Triennial Transatlantic Leaders Retreat, I was intrigued. Halfway down the list was a topic on which I have previously written- “Youth quake: Engaging youth worldwide in learning and service.” I immediately  began thinking about what I’ve written and what I might add to those ideas to create something as if I were there as a guest speaker on that panel.  My overall premise is that if we want to engage youth, they need to have a framework around which they can build, and they absolutely must have opportunities for political participation.

A Framework
For the past four years I have used the Millennium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals, in my classes.  Seeing as how the SDGs constitute a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” they are ideal for giving youth opportunities to be active citizens.  As a framework in class, not only do they help us learn about the work of the UN and NGOs, we also come back to them when we discuss current issues.  Giving the students a framework they can reference throughout the year makes increases their retention of the material and provides them with a base for their political participation.

Opportunities for Political Participation
While there are a number a ways citizens can participate in the political process, I want to focus on three- writing letters, presenting policy proposals, and volunteering.

When it comes to the MDGs and SDGs, I’ve given the students numerous opportunities to research a variety of those goals and then to write letters to UN officials with their opinions about addressing those problems (see my previous post about this activity here).  When we get a response from those officials, it lets the students know that their voice matters.  This year for example, we heard from Laurent Thomas of the FAO in response to the students’ letters about food security.

A second idea is to give students the opportunity to present policy ideas to their elected officials.  The U.S. can learn much from our friends across the Atlantic in these regards, especially with their children’s parliaments and the European Youth Event (see my previous post about this idea here).  If our youth feel they have a say in the process, then perhaps it will lead to increased political participation.

Finally, besides voicing their opinions on how to best cure the ills of society, students should actually have opportunities to work improving society.  This year, my students and I started VeronaAid, a student-driven charity whose “mission is to deliver aid to the impoverished citizens of Dane County and to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.” We meet once a week to work on spreading our message and coming up with ideas for fundraising.  Because the students have a voice in this venture, they have an interest in seeing it succeed.  If you would like to see examples of their activities, please check out the website and our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).  If we tie this back to my idea of a framework, SDG 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere;” the students of VeronaAid are working towards this goal with every diaper bag or backpack they fill and every presentation they give.

Questions
What do other teachers do to encourage their students to engage in political participation?  How can we coordinate our actions at my high school with those of other schools in the area and even around the world?  Are politicians ready to listen to students’ policy ideas and give them serious consideration?

Thanks for reading.

Letter in Opposition to AB 194

On May 4, Wisconsin state legislators introduced AB 194, a bill that will require students to take a civics test (based on the U.S. Citizenship Test) in order to receive their high school diploma.  I have read the bill, and I am against it.  What follows is the text of the letter I sent today to the sponsors, my representative, and the chair and co-chair of the Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations.  What do you think- should graduating high school seniors be required to take the civics test?

Thanks for reading.

Dear ,

I am writing to you in opposition to AB 194, which “requires a person to correctly answer at least 60 of 100 questions on a civics test, which is identical to the civics test required to be taken by persons seeking U.S. citizenship, as a prerequisite to obtaining a high school diploma or a high school equivalency diploma.” Requiring a civics test will not make a student more patriotic or more of a citizen, nor will it lead to a sound understanding of our government.

Tests such as the one that would be required by this bill require only rote learning. As a high school social studies teacher, I do not want my students to memorize random facts; I aim to have them perform tasks that require higher order thinking. By requiring purely memorization, this bill goes against sound pedagogical standards.

Instead of encouraging students to learn random facts about the United States, we should be encouraging them to be involved and to vote. We should have lengthy discussions on topics like campaign finance, the role of public opinion, and polarization in politics. We should teach them how to conduct research on policies and candidates so that they can make informed decisions at the polls. We should talk about the abysmal voter turnout in the 2014 midterms and why people did not vote. We should be discussing the problems of our current system and their ideas for addressing them. By requiring students to have only rudimentary knowledge of our political system, this bill will not lead to a more informed and engaged electorate.

I am not saying that students should not know the basics of our government. They should know who represents us in Congress, and they should understand the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. They should not, however, be required to take a test to showcase this knowledge. This test will do nothing to help students become active participants in the political process.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Jason Knoll

Gov. Walker’s #1 Priority

According to this tweet from Gov. Scott Walker, the most important issue that needs to be addressed above all else is border control.

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Not increasing jobs and growing the economy.  Not improving public education and reducing college tuition.  Not addressing the alarming rate of poverty.  None of those.  The problems associated with those issues are nothing compared to to border control.  This is how he plans to revive America- by securing the border?

To quote the snooty waiter from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “I weep for the future.”

Thanks for reading.