Thursday, November 18, 2021

Improv at RISD Board Meeting

At the November 15, 2021, Richardson ISD school board meeting, roughly thirty people spoke during the public comment section of the meeting. By my rough estimate, the speakers were evenly divided. Call it what you will. Left vs Right. Liberal vs Conservative. Masked vs Unmasked. Vaxed vs Unvaxed. Pro-DEI vs Anti-CRT. I became increasingly annoyed at something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then it struck me. It was like watching improv at a comedy club when the actors don't know the first rule of improv.

Tina Fey explains what I mean.

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, "Freeze, I have a gun," and you say, "That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me," our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, "Freeze, I have a gun!" and you say, "The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!" then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to "respect what your partner has created" and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

Source: Tina Fey.

I began to see just how much less frustrating the public comments were to me by trying to listen to them with the Rule of Agreement in mind. What follows is how I imagine it would have gone. Here is a series of quotes from the public comments, with each paired with a reply from me following the Rule of Agreement.

"Our world is in great hands with these beautiful children leading our world!!! Such kind, compassionate minds."

"Leave the kids alone you fucking creep."

No, hold up. That's not it. That was a tweet by Superintendent Jeannie Stone followed by a reply from an anonymous tweeter. Consider that an example of how not to have a productive dialog. Let's start over with quotes from Monday night instead.

"I don't believe the masks for even one more second should be encouraged because our expressions help us to understand each other."

I agree. Children (or anyone for that matter) being unable to see facial expressions is a hindrance to good communication. On the other hand, to deal with an ongoing pandemic that has already taken the lives of 750,000 Americans, the infectious disease experts at CDC recommend that "Everyone 2 years of age or older who is not fully vaccinated should wear a mask in indoor public places." How can we follow expert advice about the benefits of kids being able to see facial expressions without flouting expert advice about minimizing the spread of infectious disease?

"You literally segregated our previous school board meetings between those wearing masks and those that are not. How does that bring people together respecting the differences in our community?"

I agree. That's divisive. Years ago, we had smoking and non-smoking sections on airplanes and in restaurants. Eventually, we resolved that divisive approach by outlawing the unhealthful smoking sections altogether. That was extreme. I know unmasked people don't mind sittng next to masked people. But it doesn't work the other way around. How can meetings like this accommodate visitors who feel their health is jeopardized by sitting next to someone who isn't wearing a face mask without identifying masks-required sections?

"I'd like to tell you about the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. I was there last Tuesday for a checkup. At the entrance was a table with a box of new masks and a sign recommending masks but they are not required."

I agree. Consistency and enforcement of rules is important. Presbyterian Hospital's website says its rules for visitors are: "Must be 16 years or older. Must pass the visitor COVID-19 screening, including symptoms, international travel, and exposure risk before entering the care facility. Must wear the hospital-provided wristband and hospital-approved face mask at all times, including patient rooms and public areas. Bandanas, gaiters, or masks with valves are not allowed." How can we get Presbyterian Hospital to have consistent messaging about its own rules?

"An ugly trend is happening to students who might not be vaccinated. Specifically my daughter was addressed by a group of peers and quizzed if she was vaccinated or planning to be vaccinated. She's in fifth grade. As she said, she had no idea the trap she walked into. She faced serious ridicule."

I agree. Bullying is wrong. When polio or smallpox or measles are taught in history class or health class, should we suppress talking about the benefits of vaccinations, because kids being kids, it's inevitable they'll ask each other about their own COVID-19 vaccination status? Maybe we should go ahead and teach the science of vaccinations and if instances of bullying happen, we use them as teachable moments to stop bullying. Does that work for you?

"I've gotten several quotes from parents stating that their students are being harassed because of their race, with students calling them rich, racist, and privileged."

I agree. Children should be taught not to call others "rich, racist, and privileged." How can we teach our children to instead focus on the behavior that they find objectionable and not certain traits like skin color or family wealth?

"We have riots and school fights in the building, bringing pornography in the libraries and now we're called racist because we don't agree with our administrators."

I agree. We should not tolerate riots. We should not tolerate fights. We should not tolerate pornography. Whose opinion should determine what constitutes "pornography"? How can we eliminate protests without eliminating personal freedom? How can we stop fights before they erupt? These are tough questions for me. Are they for you?

"Sexist. Anti-science. Domestic terrorist. That's the label we've been given by those who claim the moral high ground on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion simply because we don't agree with your view on how it should be taught."

I agree. Those labels should not be used simply because of a difference of opinion on how diversity, equity, and inclusion should be taught. I'm seriously perplexed how to teach that racism is bad without talking about race. Case in point: this Saturday, the City of Dallas is finally going to memorialize Allen Brooks’ 1910 lynching with a downtown marker. It's history from right here in Dallas. Should this lynching be taught without mentioning that Allen Brooks was Black?

"What did you expect would happen when you pit one group against the other until all your problems fall to the white Christian?"

I agree. We should never pit one group against the other, not in school, not in society at large. My mind is stuck on that lynching of Allen Brooks in downtown Dallas in 1910. It was whites doing the lynching and a Black man who was lynched. How can we explain to our children the motive behind the horrible act without specifying those details? How can we mention those details without "pitting one group against the other"? Serious question.

"The district's EDI director poses a question, 'What relationship both personal and professional am I willing to strain and or lose to move towards true racial justice?' Under the guise of racial reconciliation, our EDI department is encouraging our teachers and students to end personal relationships with people that do not agree with your ideology."

I agree. We should strive to build personal and professional relationships, not strain or lose them. How can we teach our children how to do that without compromising their own principles? If something has to give, relationship or principle, which should it be?

"I'm calling on our district's leadership to publicly disavow this racist indoctrination and stop allowing our media department to brainwash our kids with this hateful divisive ideology."

I agree. Racist indoctrination is bad. Brainwashing is bad. Hateful divisive ideologies are bad. How can we teach kids the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion without being accused of indoctrination into hateful divisive ideologies?

"There's a Google forum to report micro-aggressions at Pearce High School. An example of a micro-aggression in case you don't know is if you say everyone succeeds if they work hard. That's a micro-aggression."

I agree. That's not a micro-aggression. It's familiar advice, even if it's not always true. How can we keep the lines of communication open so children feel free to report aggression, micro or otherwise, without risking an occasional mistaken understanding of what's a micro-aggression? Can we just use each reported instance as a teachable moment of what aggression is and isn't?

"The nearly 30 minutes each day that my kindergartener is spending on DEI would be better used on learning something else like a foreign language or improving in reading and math as educational attainment."

I agree. 30 minutes of uninterrupted time on DEI topics is too much at that age. Besides, in kindergarten, how to play fair and don't hit people is taught every minute of every day. "Don't call your friend the n-word" is probably in there, too. What other lessons of DEI can be incorporated into daily life at that age so we don't have to pack it all into one 30 minute period a day?

"Please put the focus of the school district back on academics so our kids can learn to think, not to be taught what to think."

I agree. Learning to think is what I've always thought is the most important skill our schools can impart. It involves analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, open-mindedness, and problem-solving. I've always thought that when kids learn critical thinking skills, they tend to learn to appreciate equity, diversity, and inclusion as well. But I could be assuming too much there.

"In the Virginia gubernatorial debate Democrat[ic] candidate Terry McAuliffe said I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach. Of course, parents should control what our kids are taught."

I agree. Parents should control what their kids are taught. I'm just stumped on how to deal with conflicts. Say I have a school of 500 students. That's a lot of parents who might have conflicting ideas of what their kids should be taught. How do we deal with that? Is there any place for reliance on educational experts or subject matter experts in resolving such conflicts?

"I talked about a couple of weeks back that I sent multiple emails, voicemails to the full school board. Did anyone get back? Not an email, not even a voicemail. Is that the inclusion we go for?"

I agree. It is common courtesy to respond to inquiries. If a person's inquiries are frequent and repetitive, your answers can be brief, but silence is bad form. What I don't know how to handle is when people want more of your time than you feel you can afford to give them. Do you have suggestions for how to keep them from feeling offended?

"It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. — Luke 17."

I agree. I think the sentiment is good, if a little extreme. Is there a secular source for this sentiment? I'm a little squeamish using religious texts in a secular school setting. Some parents might see it as part of a religious indoctrination program and we know indoctrination is bad.

"We support Equity Diversity Inclusion. We are for a positive approach to cultural diversity and equity. We are for a curriculum that recognizes the strengths and benefits of diversity and looks to develop more unified classrooms, campuses and overall district, inclusion of all races, ethnicities, gender, socio-economic status, physical abilities, and ideologies without exclusion."

I agree. Let me stop you before you say "but", which I sense is coming. Let me just say, I agree.

That was a little long for an improv sketch and definitely not funny like good improv is. But I feel better. I feel like we really connected, instead of just talking past each other. I hope you feel a little of that, too.


Mauri Long said...

Thank you Mark for this commentary.

ginnylaugh said...


plg said...

I'm just seeing this post. Agree with Ginny, it is brilliant. It should be required reading for blockwalkers as well as public commentators.

Bryan holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.