Sunday, March 28, 2010

Groupthink is Bad: Part 1

In case you haven't noticed, I'm one to think for myself, and events this past week did nothing to stop reinforcing this for me. No, not the fact we had a gun incident at school, but something else. I'm using it as an excuse to begin a semi-series on Groupthink and how it's a bad thing.

This first installment involves Groupthink and the Church. Now, I know the fact I just mentioned the C-word is about to send away about 90% of the six people who read this blog, but I'd think of all of the posts in which I've shared my faith, this should be one you should hang around for. After all, I'm probably going to say things that you agree with 100% and will be shocked an Evangelical is actually is saying these things. But enough about that.

Just to lay out what I think Groupthink is, I think a good definition is the tendency of a group to have a common set of ideas and opinions that are accepted without criticism, and the group's tendency to enforce this line of thought within the group. Apparently the term dates back to 1952, when journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte said in Fortune that it was "...a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well." Since then, it's been well-researched and accepted that groups of people who group together based on a set of same beliefs will extend the conformity to as many sectors of life as possible and those who choose to not conform in all areas will be ostracized if not outright rejected by the group.

I observe this in my school all the time, but I'm going to play with that in another post. What I am going to talk about is Groupthink in American Evangelical churches. The Groupthink that I am discussing is not regarding the theology itself, but rather the culture and worldview that has been constructed around the theology. Growing up, I always found the Evangelical subculture to be a bit odd. Even though I could barely watch TV, movies were pretty much verboten, and if my family had any semblence of music appreciation, surely no secular music would be appreciated, I always felt like something was amiss with all of this.

I never rebelled against my parents (Apart from that box of Cookie Crisps, that is.), but in my high school years, there were plenty of instances where I butted heads with the administration at my Christian school over ideological issues. Everything had to have a Biblical support, no matter how little the issue had to do with morality, much less the Bible. When I had the temerity to suggest a particular issue could be resolved without theological debate, I had to have a counseling session with the pastor because apparently I wasn't being a good little Christian. As you can probably guess, that didn't go too well when I started quoting Edmund Burke, Abraham Kuyper, Konrad Adenauer, and Benjamin Disraeli as planks of my political beliefs that came about not through the method that was preached to be the way to do politics, rather completely through my own reading and thinking. The fact they were close to what they themselves believed was superfluous. I was thinking on my own, and that was no good.

According to psychologist Irving Janis, who did a series of research efforts into the 1970s on Groupthink, my behaviour ran afoul of five of his eight symptoms of Groupthink. Those are:  

  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group. (Whatever we say is right, 'cause we believe in what the Bible says!)
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group. (If you don't agree with X because of Y, you're a liberal/commie/atheist/etc.)
  • Anyone who questions the facts held by the group is branded as disloyal (or, more appropriately, secular, or worse, liberal).
  • Ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus are censored by either banning their viewing, or disassociating with people who have anything to do with it (No kids, you can't play with Johnny; he doesn't go to our church!)
  • Self-appointed members of the group who shield the group from dissenting information (We're protecting you from the evil that's out there--whatever it is!)
What was odd about all of this was that I did it, not out of any sort of rejection of religious tenets, which is what often happens when one runs afoul of Evanglelical Groupthink, but rather a realization that just saying that I believed something "'cause the Bible said so" wasn't going to fly with people who didn't believe in the Bible. So, in order to entrench my beliefs, I sought out alternative sources that I could use if my beliefs were challenged. I found them, and in the process found wiggle room which I could change some things I found to not exactly compute within the conventional wisdom. What ended up happening was that I broke free of that conventional wisdom and became someone who thought for themselves.

Since high school, I've had various scrapes with the Groupthink, mainly in the realm of politics. I've never associated myself with any American political party, and if you put a gun to my head, I'd admit to being a socially conservative Christian Democrat in the mold of the Bavarian Christian Social Union or the Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal. So, for someone who doesn't even consider themselves to fit within the traditional American political framework, any comment of any sort on American politics is asking for trouble when dealing with fellow members of their church, who are convinced that the GOP stands for God's Own Party.

Last Sunday, during our church service, our pastor launched an attack on the Health Care Bill from the pulpit, without a lot of scripture to back up opinions. I felt extremely uncomfortable sitting there, and when I had had enough political punditry, I got up an walked out of church. The subsequent firestorm on Facebook (via Private Messaging) I received was surprising, even after all this time. Essentially, walking out made me a godless Obama supporter, and one to grab the Red Banner of Socialism. Never mind the fact that no one bothered to ask me what my opinion was (If you really want to know, peek around on the Internet. It's out there.), my rejection of what I thought to be an improper use of the pulpit was seen as proof that I had rejected the gospel and was backslidden into dirty liberal secularism. To top it off, when I plopped into my place this morning, the annoying old lady behind me who hates the fact I use my phone to post comments on our church service on Twitter tapped me on the shoulder and bluntly asked if I was a Democrat since I walked out of the service. I looked at her, rolled my eyes, and told her that I didn't know voter registration cards were required to attend the church, but to quench her curiosity, I was a member of the Christen Democratisch Appel. That sufficiently confused her.

That doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what goes on within Evangelical Groupthink. I've been burned over the years by people shoving the latest fad in Christian living books in my face, and telling me that because I didn't read and do what they said, it was proof I was a lukewarm Christian, or worse, backslidden. When I retorted with questions to the tune of if they had checked out the contents of their fellowship's theology, much less, you know, the Bible, I usually received cold glares and statements that I was proving my hard-heartedness.

This annoys me to no end because, to me, when I became a Christian and decided to live according to Christ's precepts in the Bible, He promised freedom to me. Freedom from sin, guilt, and most of all, the freedom to be the person God created me to be. Now, I'm no theologian, but after doing a lot of reading, praying, and thinking, 1 Corinthians 10 is, to me, a systematic declaration of thought-independence for the Christian. After all, Paul was telling the Corinthians that being a Christian did not require them to adhere to the old Jewish covenant with God, which consisted of strict rules that covered all facets of life, for it was taken care of through Christ's death and resurrection, so as long as it didn't contradict Jesus' teaching and what God was laying on your heart, you were free to partake in it. To me, the key verse is verse 29:
It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person. Now, why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? (New Living Translation)
Best of all, The Message says it this way:

...I'm not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I'm going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. (Emphasis mine)
Needless to say, if we say that we believe in the divine inerrancy of the entire Bible, and that it is all inspired by Him (2 Timothy 3:16), then it sure sounds like that when we become Christians, God gives us the freedom to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions to things, and not rely on others to tell us what to think and reject us if we are not in 100% agreement with them. So you know what? Think for yourself. Be free to disagree with the culture of American Evangelicalism. Sure, stick to what the Bible says and stand on that when you need to, because that's what it tells us to do, but otherwise, put that brain He gave you to some use. Christian (and for my purposes Protestant) history was shaped by people who thought for themselves and rejected the Christian Groupthink to find the freedom God has for them. Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, E. N. Bell, and so many others who led the way for people like me to find that freedom for myself.

Phew. That was a lot of stuff percolating in my brain all of this time needing to get out. Until next time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Silence and I have a funny relationship.

On one hand, there are times where I crave silence, especially when I'm trying to teach my critters something. You see, my students like to talk. The problem is, they haven't the foggiest as to what they're talking about. To listen to them speak is an exercise in attempting to decode gibberish. What they need is to be silent so they can listen and actually learn something for a change. Once they know something, then I can let them talk to their heart's content. I keep on telling them that I would let them talk and discuss things freely, but I won't let them until what comes out of their mouth is something worth talking about. They may not like it, but the normal middle school drama is not worth talking about.

I was observed in my lowest class yesterday, where I have six students who deliberately come into my class looking to disrupt proceedings. Considering there were a gaggle of administrators in the classroom, everyone was on their best behaviour. The class went fantastically, and at the end of class I let them talk to their neighbour about what they learned in class. The class was full of noise, but it was the good kind of noise--the noise of learning. Today, with no one but me trying to teach them, normal service was resumed. One of the students commented that they had more fun talking about the lesson yesterday than all of the nonsense that took place today. I just looked at them and said that sometimes, silence is a good thing, since that was what was needed for them to learn what they talked about.

That's all warm and fuzzy, I know, but as much as I like silence at times in my classroom, there are other times in which I completely loathe it. For example, any time in which I am not in my classroom. And lately, it's getting worse. I live alone in a very small house. It's rather quaint, and to be honest, it suits me just fine. If I had my way, I wouldn't even half a fourth of the furniture that I own, but my family says I need something other than a milk crate for guests to sit on, so I have some to appease their complaining (even though they're the only ones to ever visit me).

But in the past six to seven weeks, I've found myself spending a lot of my evenings with silence as my only companion. I sit at my desk in my comfy old desk chair, and stare at nothing in general listening to the silence. One night I know I spent over an hour sitting there, with just the computer screen providing ambient light, contemplating whether the silence says a lot about my life or not. In the end, I came to the conclusion that it does. To me, it's a rather interesting symbol of my personal life at the moment... which means that there is none.

Since the beginning of the year, I've had to struggle with a lot of things in my personal life, not to mention a crisis that really kicked me in the stomach about a month ago. In that time, I've pretty much seen the things I previously enjoyed in life just completely fall apart and become nothing to me. Saturday evening I just sat in my chair, and contemplated the fact that my life feels like it is turning into a rice cake--completely bland and tasteless. No matter what I've tried to ameliorate it, it just hasn't worked out. I feel a lot like Don Draper in the opening credits to the AMC series Mad Men...without alcohol or cigarettes, of course.

 I find this to be a rather perfect visual of what I've just described. I come home from work, everything falls apart, and I drift on down to a place where I'm just staring off into space wondering what's happened. The worst part of this is perhaps how I feel. I'm not terribly depressed or anything, just monotonous. Bland. Boring. You get the idea. I've tried to break out of it by trying things that I thought would interest me, but never tried before, but that didn't work. I even took the advice of a good friend and simply told some acquaintences that I was in a bit of a rut and wanted to hang out with them to get me out of it. Their response left me sitting in my house Saturday night contemplating my relationship to the Styrofoam of the culinary world. I don't want to give up, but geez, what else do I need to try to get someone to do something with, or God forbid, a date? That's something I just can't answer at the moment--and no one's really helping me to answer either.

So I sit here at my PC, listening, and hoping that I might hear and learn something that will get my life back to the noise I'm craving to hear.
Until next time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Moment We all Dread

I've had about four or five blog posts percolating in my head over the past several weeks, and now's a great time to let one loose upon an unsuspecting public (Read: The the dozen or so readers I have. You're all the greatest! [Yes, even you!])

Growing up, we all have things which we swear over any number of books of varying levels of holiness that we will never be like our parents. Inevitably, we end up doing those things and kick ourselves and say they can't believe it happened to us. Sometimes it's something which just happens because we're adults, and that's what adults do. There's other things that our parents do that we shouldn't emulate, yet we do them anyway.

The first reminds me of my greatest rebellion against my parents. I had just started college and was on my first shopping trip. I was a big breakfast person (Not so much now. I'll explain that one of these days.), and was in search of cereal to eat. My mom was always adamant that sugary kids' cereals were out, apart from the odd box of Cap'n Crunch or Frosted Flakes. Instead, I was raised on a steady diet of Frosted Mini Wheats and Honey Nut Cheerios. Since I was away from home, and my mom wasn't over my shoulder, I decided to indulge in some decadence.

I bought a box of Cookie Crisp. (Just as an aside, it's things like this that cause people to think I can't relate to them very well. Yes, it's the most rebellious thing I've done to my parents in my entire life. *sigh*)

Anyway, I got back to the dorm, and the next morning, before church I poured a bowl of my cereal and took a bite. It was disgusting. It tasted nothing like cookies, and in no time it was inedible because it was so soggy. I opened the dorm room window, and tossed the contents out. I sat down and realized that my parents were right--kids' cereal is pretty much pants. When I did that, I winced because I realized I was thinking just like my parents. I sulked in Sunday School, and the teacher wanted to know why. When I told him, he just laughed and said as long as I didn't emulate them in bad ways it wouldn't be so bad.

Lately, I fear I've had some incidences where the latter has occurred.

Growing up, my mom would on occasion just get fed up with myself, my dad, or most often life itself, and completely lose the plot. We'd all duck and cover and hope it would blow over, but it usually didn't for a good day or so. I was always scared that I would make her more upset, so I would hide from her and do my chores out of her sight. I would be infuriated when the phone would ring or someone would come to the door, and that person would get treated to my mom acting completely normally. On one occasion, I tried to see if the coast was clear immediately after she got off the phone, and learned that apparently those moods could be turned on with a simple switch. I always told myself that I would never act like that. It hurt so much because it felt like it was either a show, or the simple fact that it was all my fault.

I have a rather odd dichotomy in that my honours class immediately preceeds my worst class: a class full of several repeaters of seventh grade (four of them are repeat repeaters), chronically lazy individuals, and a couple of poor kids caught in the crossfire by the the vagaries of the scheduling gods. My honours class is a bit draining, but in a great way because I spend the whole class chasing them about and having a blast. The other four teachers on my team bitterly complain because it's essentially a class full of kids who attempt to outdo each other in their attempt to be the teacher's pet, and they annoy the snot out of the other teachers, but I love them dearly and give them the attention that they frankly deserve. So, to go from that to my toughest class takes a toll on my emotions and my stamina, and as a result I don't always have the patience and grace that I should have with them.

Several weeks ago, I lost it with the class on more than one occasion. I'm just tired of their ingrained sense of learned helplessness, complete lack of personal resolve to take on adversity, and a complete inability to take responsibility for anything. Most of my students are at least on the bandwagon for taking some responsibility for their actions, and are learning that their helplessness in some things are actually reversible, but that class refuses to budge.

As I was chewing on them for the above, I came to a completely despairing realization: I was chewing these kids out whilst on the inside I was perfectly calm. It was as though I was able to step back and see myself chewing on these kids whilst at the same time I was my perfectly calm and rational self. In fact, when one of the few good souls asked a question, I instantly flipped off the switch and answered them politely. Even though I said nothing that they could take as being hurtful (I always choose my words carefully with my students for obvious reasons), I was gutted because I was acting just like my mom--when I said I would never do that.

I just don't know what to do or how to feel other than disappointed with myself and sad. The dichotomy in education is that even though some students are truly lost causes, and you have to realize you won't reach them no matter what, you still have to deal with them on a daily basis. Sometimes I wish I could just ship those lost causes off to some place where either someone can touch them, or where circumstances force them to wake up and make something with their life. Unfortunately, I can't really do that, so I have to deal with reality, as I always do. I just hope that I can deal with reality without being my parents.

Until next time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Have I Made a Difference?

In my previous post, I mentioned the sheer volume of things that I have been doing in the previous couple of weeks, but there is one thing that I failed to mention, mainly the fact that I received the results of my final parishwide assessments that my students took last week. Here in St. Mary Parish, we give tests across the parish every six weeks to prepare them for the iLEAP tests in April. Everyone takes the same test on the same two days, and we can compare our individual scores to the other classes and schools across the parish.

Needless to say, my school is behind the parish average, and it showed at the beginning of the year with the first Parish Assessment. We scored sixteen points off the parish average, which was understandable, but disconcerting for someone like me who is not a reading teacher by trade. We have a consultant to help us improve our scores, and I felt like I'm in over my head. I fought with that over a long period of time this school year, even though there were some tenative steps that looked like we were bridging the gap, but assessment results seemed to be not quite showing it.

With this past assessment, however, I finally got the assessment data that I was looking for. The scores came in and my students as a whole scored at a  62% average. The rest of the parish? 70%. That's right, over the course of the school year my students have managed to cut the scores gap in half, down to eight points. As you can see in this chart I made (before all of the parish scores were in), the test scores show a remarkable jump even though the rest of the parish have flatlined.

Well look at that!

I ranted and raved about these scores to my students and my bosses, and I've really been pushing my kids that with the iLEAP tests coming up, if they continue this trend, they're going to go down in school history for doing something very special, much less the impact that this is going to have on their own lives and potential careers. It feels very strange to be appealing to the students on these terms, but it's worked so far, and here's to them actually pulling this off.

The strangest thing of all, of course, is the fact that I can see that my teaching has actually done something to help these students. I've always seen how I help students at the high end of the scale, and my honors class continues to grow by leaps and bounds as I'm used to seeing, but it's the growth in the average and even below average students that I can't believe that I'm seeing happen. I've always struggled with the fact that someone with a true talent for helping struggling reading students would be doing a far better job than I am this year, because they would have some fantasticly fun activities that would keep the kids' attention and enable them to learn, which would be in stark contrast to my endless tables that I have had the students fill out all school year long. For all I know, they could bomb the iLEAP and it all unravels, but for now I'm going to savour this. If you would have asked me in August if I thought this would happen, I have to say I wouldn't have thought so. It's good to be wrong for once.

Until next time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Perhaps I Should Plan for Fun

It's been a long two weeks since I last blogged, and as much as I really, really, really (Really!) wanted to make a couple of blog posts, time just hasn't opened up for me to blog. I've been really under the gun with all sorts of things coming from all sorts of directions all the time. Just a sampler of what I've been up to:
  • Interviewed my brother and a senior citizen, then wrote a 5-page paper for my Adolescent Psychology class
  • Had a formal observation from the School Board as a part of a school-wide walk-through
  • Gave our final Parishwide Assessment before the iLEAP standardized tests
  • Wrote a Unit Assessment Plan for my Assessment class
  • Taught a unit on mythology to classes full of disinterested students
  • Gave essay tests on said mythology unit
  • Became our school's pointman for our Promethean board installation
  • Completed a unit of my Educational Technology course
  • Wrote a model test for my Assessment class
  • Began History Bee practice for the St. Mary Parish History Bee in May
  • Finally (!!!) completed the installation of a wired FM modulator for my car
Yeah, my life is completely mad at the moment. We're headed for the stretch run of the school year, and I am really getting stressed out, and to be completely honest, I think I'm getting to the breaking point. This past week I did nothing after coming home from work/class but shower and collapse into my bed for ten-plus hours of sleep. I wake up the next day dead tired only to trudge through the day for a long period of time before I was really awake and running. Part of it was that I was trying to overcome a nasty head cold, but still, this past week felt like a giant red flag was raised for me to see and say "You know, I may just need to take a breather and catch my breath."

The problem is, how the heck am I supposed to do that?

This is one of those times where I can hear my mom standing behind me telling me to stop being dumb because I know how to have fun and enjoy myself, but right now everything I normally find to be fun and enjoyable involves me being at home alone. I really enjoy watching the English Premier League soccer, but it isn't as though I can put on my Arsenal shirt and scarf, hop in my car and drive to the local British-themed pub, order a non-alcoholic drink (I am a proper Evangelical, you know), and taunt Liverpool FC supporters for several hours. There's virtually zero interest in the game around here, and on the occasions I went to Lafayette and tried to get a TV screen at the sport-themed restaurants, I got laughed at. I will credit two of my colleagues, the affable Mr. Schmidt and Mrs. Smith, for dragging me out of my dungeon and letting me spend time with them and their respective families. It feels really weird to go to someone's place and be entertained because my family never did any of that growing up, and it is definitely a growing process for me.

Even as great as it is, I feel like I need to break out of a very deep rut I've found myself in. I'm at a point where I just can't find anything to blow off steam. I used to be very good at managing large amounts of stress, and just less the pressure diffuse over time, but I'm now at a point in my life where that just isn't acceptable. I need some stress-relieving activities that I can fit into life and I need get going on them. I'm kind of stumped. Any ideas?

Until next time.