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Sometimes learning is uncomfortable

Some of our lawmakers want to be sure educators (and other state entities) don’t teach any “divisive” concepts while teaching about race relations, slavery, social injustice, and stuff like that. Sounds to me like these lawmakers want some serious revision history to be taught, or they’re trying to “fix” instruction that might not meet their approval.

I experienced typical history teaching in school and am now trying to fill in some gaps to better understand how slavery and racial injustice shaped our nation. My observations during life confirm that these issues have shaped our country with tragic results. Guess some lawmakers want to be sure we fail to honestly face racial division and current and past injustices.

Below is my reading list related to this topic from the last year. Remember, I’m just playing catchup. Please beware; some might perceive some of this stuff as divisive. Some of it even hurts my feelings or makes me uncomfortable when I read it. Sometimes discomfort means we’re learning something new.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (currently reading)

The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas by Kenneth Barnes (currently reading)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America by John Lewis

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel E. Joseph

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Douglass

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King Jr.

Teacher Voices Too Easily Ignored

It’s become a cliche’ that most education policy is sponsored, written, argued, and voted into law without ever consulting educators. This needs to change!

I’m linking to a well-written, but sad, account of a teacher who testified before the House Education Committee recently concerning House Bill 1371. Sounds like some of our elected officials could use a few lessons in active listening. They might be listening to those with money but not those most able to help them shape policies to benefit voters and our children. Follow the link for Gwen Faulkenberry’s short story.

Teacher Gwen Faulkenberry spoke to the House Education Committee on behalf of rural children, who make up the vast majority of school kids in Arkansas. She hoped to educate lawmakers on what education means to regular folks, but instead they taught her a painful lesson.

A Couple of Free Speech Thoughts

Some are outraged that Twitter and other social media sites are banning certain individuals. I agree that we want to avoid limiting the free expression of ideas, but if you enter a theater and yell fire, you’ll be banned from that theater. If you enter a school and disrupt the teaching or make dangerous comments, you’ll be removed.

I’m for free speech and feel free to express opinions, even if they’re not mainstream.  But, if I incite violence or create danger, a privately owned social media business or a public school may remove some of my privileges.

Individuals wishing to incite violence will still find outlets for dangerous speech, but they can only use social media sites (businesses) willing to allow their dangerous speech and the possible accompanying litigation. Banned individuals are not the victims of a police state. It’s just capitalism and common sense. If they’re political figures, they might try having a news conference or writing a newspaper op-ed. Or, they can probably hop on other social media sites. Whining is not appropriate.

Storming Sacred Spaces

Statuary Hall in the US Capitol

I once walked through Statuary Hall of our nation’s Capitol. No one told us to be quiet in those halls. It just seemed natural out of a sense of respect. While there with a group of school principals from all fifty states, my wife and I visited the State Department after being interviewed earlier so that we could be cleared for security later that evening.

We were given time to view pieces of furniture that had connections with some of our country’s early leaders. My wife and I stood on a terrace looking out over Washington DC. In the distance, we could see the Air Force Memorial. In that moment, I remembered how I used to stand with my grandfather on his front porch in Smackover. It was a quiet time and I enjoyed just being with him as we watched steam rise from a lumber mill in the distance.

As a child, I had no idea what people and forces were at work to give me that feeling of security. While standing at the State Department looking at the Washington DC skyline, everything seemed connected. The freedom I felt as a child in small town Arkansas was provided for and protected by lives invested and sometimes sacrificed in this great city.

On Wednesday, January 6, I felt sadness as I watched our nation’s capitol stormed violently by our nation’s citizens. I didn’t feel anger as much as hurt and a sense of violation. I remembered these halls as secure. Approaching the sacred buildings in Washington DC felt like entering iron citadels, places that were secure and heavily defended.

January 6 Washington Post photo from the US Capital

The next day, I could finally feel anger. Do not come in and disgrace sacred spaces at the seat of our country’s power and authority. Our founders were flawed, as are we. They argued, debated, and wrote words beyond what they could fulfill during their lifetimes, but these words continue to challenge us today. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Like the dates below, January 6 will be a day I remember where I was when I witnessed this crime.

11/22/1963 John F. Kennedy assassinated (sitting at my desk in elementary school in El Dorado) 

4/4/1968 Martin Luther King assassinated (playing music at a friend’s house in El Dorado

9/11/2001 Twin Towers and Pentagon attacked (greeting students in front of my school in Alma)

1/6/2021 Insurgents took possession of the US Capitol (watching presidential delegate counting on television)

Little Acts of Kindness

Jimmy Warnock seeing his new great-grandson, Sam

A friend lost his mother today. While thinking of her kindness and love for family, I began to think about the many acts of kindness that characterized my parents.

In the late 1980s, we moved to El Dorado so I could take a teaching job that would allow our new daughter, Christen, to be closer to grandparents. My father had a little empty rent house, so we rented it at a fair price.

I loved my new job as band director at Rogers Junior High and found a passion for teaching. We paid our bills promptly and felt pride in knowing we were making our way. When we found a place to buy out on the Strong Hwy, my father wrote me a check for all the rent I had paid him for that little rent house.

He and my mother took great pleasure in doing that. They also enjoyed working on our new “fixer-upper” house to make it livable. I used to marvel at the satisfaction they showed while working to make something better for others.

I had a very good father and mother. I miss them very much.

My parents holding me and totally clueless about the challenges I would bring.

The Blessings of Snail Mail

I need to write more letters! Emails and positive social media posts are good, but there’s still a need for words written on paper.

When the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated in-person visits, I wrote a few letters. One was to Wendell Evanson, who had been my teacher through college and beyond. I knew his health was declining and did not expect him to be in any condition to respond. What I didn’t anticipate was the satisfaction I felt in knowing that I’d said to him very clearly how much his influence meant to me, musically and personally. Mr. Evanson died on November 3, so I’m thankful I shared my thoughts in June.

Mr. Wendell Evanson, retired band director at Henderson State University. One of those lasting relationships built around music. I treasure this photo taken with him a few years ago when he was judging region contest in Alma.

Another person I wrote to was Dr. Wes Branstine, who taught low brass and jazz band at Henderson State University. These guys, and others, invested themselves in their students and the relationships they built didn’t end at graduation. In the letter to Dr. Branstine, I shared one example of the continued learning I experienced through his generous giving of time. He wouldn’t accept payment for the extra instruction that made a big difference in my teaching.

Some might know that I think of blogging as an online scrapbook. So, what follows is my letter to Dr. Branstine and a portion of his response. It was a thrill to reconnect with someone who made a positive difference in my teaching and my overall approach to life.

A few years ago, I posted about the influence of several music teachers on my learning. We can probably all point to teachers who made a difference. Is there someone you need to thank? I definitely need to write more snail mail!

A Doorway to Learning

My Teacher, Wendell Evanson

Wendell Evanson next to his wife, Lydia, at an awards banquet in his honor

My teacher, Wendell O. Evanson, died this morning. My eyes teared up when I typed that sentence because of the weight of the words “my teacher.” He was my teacher from 1974 to the present, and his influence continues.

Like most great musicians, Wendell O. Evanson was passionate, committed to the art, complex in his thinking, and driven to do great work. As his student, I learned he also had a soft and compassionate side that revealed itself when you were down or disappointed. I was the recipient of his encouragement several times while in college and later as a music teacher. 

The first time I saw his compassionate and encouraging side was while playing in the pit orchestra at HSU for a musical that included community members. I noticed the delight on his face as a young child, who had struggled earlier, was singing his part. You could read Mr. Evanson’s lips as he said, “That-a-boy! You’ve got it!,” and several times he laughed with joy because he was so proud of that young man’s singing.

I’m thankful for Mr. Evanson’s life and his immeasurable influence on his students.

What follows is just one small example of Mr. Evanson’s conducting. Lawrence Hamilton, a wonderful singer, invited Mr. Evanson to conduct one of his performances.

Just in Case

As a recently retired school principal, these thoughts came to mind while listening to people opine on how our schools should operate with the current pandemic that is affecting many nations right now.

We do fire and tornado drills, not because we expect fires and tornados to strike our school. We want children to be prepared, and have a sense of safety, essential for learning. We do intruder drills, not because we expect intruders, but we want students to know what to do…just in case.

As a principal, I sometimes walked the school halls trying to mentally rehearse my actions if there were an intruder…just in case. After hours, I regularly tested my phone’s PA all-call function while monitoring our campus cameras…just in case. I sometimes walked the campus to rehearse our evacuation routes and be sure there were no obstacles…just in case. All staff, including bus drivers, custodians, maintenance, and cafeteria workers, completed emergency training…just in case. In cooperation with the Alma Police Department, our district made a huge investment to have a school resource officer on every campus…just in case.

Coronavirus requires these same levels of preparation and I’m pleased to say my school of the last nineteen years has made great efforts to prepare. Sadly, the very act of preparing is seen by some through a political lens. Our schools are preparing based on the best info they can get. Schools prepare with no helpful input from Betsy DeVos (National Sec. of Education) since she doesn’t know schools. Schools lack the necessary quick turn-around testing, and some don’t have disinfecting equipment. Fortunately, our schools have disinfecting equipment. I’m sure they’ll acquire faster testing when it becomes available.

Coronavirus doesn’t seem like a “just in case” problem. It’s a “probably and when” problem,” but true to tradition in America, political leaders and self-proclaimed “experts” stand at a distance to make decisions for our schools. Educators are strong and committed. What they need are lots of resources (money, supplies, tools, personnel) and real health experts’ advice.

face masks copy

Small note adds value to a book

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I used this little book by Francis McBeth when I directed bands and found it helpful, especially for balancing and tuning the band.

Going through books yesterday, I started to put this in the give-away stack but paused to leaf through and noticed a note in the margin. I used brackets to mark spots but rarely underlined. The same pen that wrote the note underlined the text in ink. Dr. Kramer was rather large at the time, so this was a friendly jab at his good friend, Dr. McBeth, who was lacking in hair.

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Dr. Kramer’s response to Dr. McBeth

I thought it was perfect that Dr. Don Kramer, who added so much humor to our time at HSU was still making me laugh over 40 years later. I’ll never forget how he and actor/comedian Red Buttons sparred during shows in Hot Springs. We all roared with laughter every night of that show.

Don Kramer was a remarkable trumpet player and musician. When I graduated, he said, “Warnock, when you become a teacher, you don’t become someone else. Be yourself. The kids will respond to that.”

I’ll be keeping this book with Dr. Kramer’s handwritten note.

A few years ago, while driving through Hot Springs, I remembered another funny time with Dr. Kramer. It’s shared in the post.  Memorable Burger at Bailey’s

Schools are important? Who’d a thought it!

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We’re hearing a lot about the importance of schools from politicians and the media lately. Evidently, schools have an impact on the economics of a community, state, and country. Who’d a thought it!

I’m proud of the district I worked in and its focus on student safety. The district spent some big bucks on sanitizing equipment and involved our staff in making schools as safe as possible when the Corona Virus became an issue. Every school in Arkansas should have this type of equipment, and the supplies needed to combat viruses and bacteria now and in the future. Our schools need national and state coordinated testing with quick results to ensure students and staff are safe, with adjustments happening quickly when needed.

All students should have access to the internet and devices to access live face-to-face learning remotely when needed. I’m talking about hotspots in our most remote areas and high-speed signals that allow clear communication. In March, when we didn’t return from spring break, teachers did their best with the available technology for distance learning. They were amazing and parents were supportive, but every district in the state should have state-of-the-art distance learning technology fully funded so that we’re ready for any interruption in education, whether related to pandemics, weather, or student health. 

Schools need a small army of social workers to visit homes quickly when students become disengaged or at-risk. Social workers could help set up positive learning environments for students and deliver food or resources where needed when students are unable to attend school.

I don’t have the space here to discuss the professional development and training teachers are trying to squeeze in this summer due to the current pandemic. Much more training than usual is necessary to prepare for new ways of instruction for an unknown future. Additional training means added expenses for districts and a sacrifice of time for teachers.

Right now, I personally know teachers who are sewing or hiring someone to sew masks so their students will have fashionable masks and no one will be uncomfortable with an ugly mask. As a principal, I witnessed teachers spending their own money for the extras they wanted for their students. Before 2018, teachers could deduct these teaching expenses, but they’re now limited to $250 which is a joke. Most spend much more. 

As a country, we’ve scraped by on the cheap for years in the area of public education. If airlines, banks, auto plants, or other essential businesses need funds to stay open, we spend lavishly. I use the word “lavishly” because it’s so alien to our thinking about education. It’s now time to spend lavishly and without apologies on public schools. Schools impact on our economy and quality of life. As an added benefit, investing in schools will give us healthier citizens with good judgment and hopeful futures. These are the types of people I want in my community.

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