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The students and the educational system Left Behind

28 Feb

When I first imagined a Masters in International Education I thought I was going to compare and analyze different educational systems across the world. I had it all planned out in my mind, I wanted to write my thesis about how U.S. educational system is designed to fail its students through their absurd obsession with standardized testing. Nothing happened like expected and there was no thesis to be written.

A couple of weeks ago two friends brought to my attention two similar articles about the realities and consequences of standardize testing – the unpreparedness of students going to College and how standardize testing hurts children with disabilities. I strongly recommend you to read them.

As a former special education teacher I can confidently say that I was one of those teachers getting low evaluations because my students wouldn’t show a “significant” progress. A certain percent of the entire school special education population had to get above certain score in order for the school- and for us the teachers- to make it to safe heavens. My students were often treated more like numbers and labels rather than capable students. Every progress (personal or academic) they made was often diminished by those absurd standards set up by standardize testing. Subsequently, most of my students, just like the girl from the article, felt incompetent and stupid when taking such tests. Those two weeks of testing were the worst two weeks of the year for them. Their self-confidence was at its lowest and this kind of testing was a perfect trigger for anxiety and panic attacks.

I knew my students well, I knew what they learned and what not, the way they learned better and I know that the ways in which they grew personally and academically could not be measured by a standardized test. Parents, general ed teachers, and students themselves knew and noticed such progress, but the pressure is such that before their eyes the “real deal” was their standardized test score. It was very painful and heartbreaking to see my students go through the entire process. I ended up spending my time teaching to the test (not by choice…) – a set of “skills” that students will actually never use in real life. After teaching for only two years I became bitter and helpless and I left the system disappointed.

I honestly believe that the inclusive education model (and perhaps the entire system) needs to be revised and reformed to better and truly serve our kids. The day our education system stops being so politicized MAYBE that will be the day when we will stop failing our students with disabilities and we might then treat them more as capable human beings rather than just as a label with a price tag. And that absurd obsession with foolish standardize testing and their guidelines and modified tests for kids with disabilities means nothing to them or to their families. It’s a mere bureaucracy and a misuse of time.

I have very strong feelings against standardized testing in general, but when it comes to students with disabilities, I think it’s the most absurd thing!! It’s just a political thing and a huge waste of students’ and teachers’ time. If we look into it, I am pretty sure we can find other ways to measure and assess student achievement and teacher accountability. But then again I guess standardized testing is a multi-million industry…

Indonesia’s mentally ill and its “banned ‘pasung’ practice”

14 Feb

In Ghana’s rural communities they have rituals to kill the “spirit child” while in Indonesia they shackle them and confine them to small places to prevent them from attacking other-  like a wild animal. IRIN (humanitarian news and analysis) published an article today called Tackling shackling of the mentally ill in Indonesia.

The Indonesia Health Ministry estimates 19 million people nationwide have various mental health disorders, of which18 million live in rural areas. Currently, Indonesia counts with 33 specialized mental health hospitals and 600 psychiatrists to attend 19 million people.

The ‘pasung’ practice (shackling) was banned since 1977 and in 2011 the Health Ministry launched the campaign “Menuju Indonesia Bebas Pasung” or in English “Towards a Shackle-free Indonesia”, but hasn’t made much progress due to the lack of trained health professionals and the lack of funding. Despite those efforts by the government people are still embracing the pasung practice it in both rural and urban communities. People with mental disorders are being shackled behind their homes and/or inside their homes in small rooms to avoid stigma.

Mental health institutions (long-term) have become the solution to mental health prevalence among many developing countries. Such institutions are understaffed, under resourced, and highly costly to sustain for the kind of services they inevitably fail to provide. What is considered a “severe” disability justifying institutionalization in these countries may be a minor disability in other countries that would require limited family and professionals support to integrate disabled people back into society. In countries such Indonesia, where their health care system is decentralized, is very easy to ‘allocate’ or not allocate funds to some regions and the federal government does not have a final registry on how many adults, youth and children are placed in public mental health institutions throughout the country. Needless to say, reports on abuses and maltreatment are nonexistent. Placement of children with disabilities these institutions increases their vulnerability to violence making children easy prey. By funding long- term mental care institutions, instead of funding people, governments are hampering the social, economic, and educational development of the country

While people all over the world try to escape stigma and prejudice by others, they much rather kill, ignore, maltreat, and fear their own family members. Why are we so scared of disabilities? I insist the more we don’t talk about it, the more we contribute to the stigma.

We can’t change what others will say, think or feel towards people with disabilities, but we sure can change the way we make feel our loved ones suffering from a mental health disorder.

Mali’s First Suicide Bomber

11 Feb

On Friday the BBC ran a headline that reads Mali conflict: ‘First suicide bombing’ in Gao (note the inverted commas: they’re important).

The article went on to explain that this was actually the first known suicide attack since the French intervention in Mali began last month. Further into article came news that there had also been fighting between factions of the Malian army (red berets vs. green berets).

What galls me is the focus on a ‘historic’, histrionic suicide attack as the most important, and highly symbolic development in Mali. The description of the attack contains all of the usual tropes evoked by the ‘western media’: the sudden, furious strike of a lone assailant (in this case on a motorbike, with a belt of explosives); the reference to a mysterious, Orientalish extremist group (The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – note that J-bomb) with a genealogy to a familiar, reviled group (“an offshoot of al-Qaeda”); a quote from the extremist group, demonstrating the depth of their irrational, West-exploding hatred, and their determination to inflict more harm (“against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam”); and of course, the connection somewhere in there between the bomber, the irrational violence, and Islam.

The suicide bomber, in this article and in other accounts, is a deranged lunatic, indoctrinated by shrewder lunatics who exist in the shadows of underdeveloped places plotting and preaching the downfall of the West in the burniest, bloodiest ways possible. In these accounts, the suicide bomber is inevitably a product of Islam. Only Islam, it is implied, can produce this degree of fanaticism and violence, this desire to kill, even to the point of destroying the self.

Prof. Banu Bargu (at the New School) offers a very different account of the suicide attack. Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of a larger phenomenon that she calls the weaponisation of life, or perhaps more simply human weapons, a category that covers kamikaze attacks, hunger strikes, suicide bombings, self-immolations, and a range of other forms of sacrificial violence. Beyond this, Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of the standard repertoire of modern warfare and violence. The suicide attack is the product not of rabid ideology, but of a calculation, the same calculation that every act of violence involves: how to achieve a suitable effect given the resources available and the factors in play. For some groups such calculations lead to the conclusion that drone strikes are the most efficient form of violence, giving the most bang for your buck. For other groups – state and non-state, religious and secular – the suicide bombing or other human weapon is the most effective, efficient option. Religious indoctrination is thus one variable among many within the calculus of violence.

Casting the Malian suicide bomber as exceptional, as the first (and by implication the vanguard of a wave of such attacks) suggests that there is a difference between this violence and all others. It also conveniently keeps the focus on the extremist threat (whether real or imagined) while sidelining what to me seems a far more urgent issue: infighting and bloodshed within Mali’s military.

Treating the ‘Mali conflict’ as the product of outside insurgents trying to topple a state plays into some very convenient rhetoric about this intervention. It also overlooks the fact that there are deeper fractures in the Malian state. A coup in capital precipitated the conflict that followed. Intervening against the outsiders, and chasing them to the borders of the state may make for a rapid victory, but it does nothing to address one of the root issues of the conflict, nor to acknowledge the full range of violence at work.

Mentally awake and morally straight: Discrimination in the Boy Scouts

8 Feb

As The League gains increasing momentum, increasing dialogue, and increasing topical diversity, I must admit it is growing increasingly difficult to hold my tongue on my sentiments and opinions regarding what I consider to be the very root of more global and domestic issues than anyone can even keep track of. The unyielding influence of religion* in the world are at the core of nearly every debate we have held on The League, from rebellion in Mali, to the venomous tongue of Ann Coulter, to ritual killings of disabled youth. I am a firm believer in the power of religious institutions to bring loving and caring individuals together to help others on a grand scale. I also believe that the power of faith itself can motivate and inspire human beings to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. However, I also believe that we are faced with yet another cause that is being stymied by the abuse of faith by the religious right, and this time it is one that merits some personal reflection: the vote to end the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.

This week the Boy Scouts executive board decided to put off a vote that would determine whether the ban on homosexuals in the Boy Scouts would finally be lifted. The decision comes at a pivotal time in the ongoing struggle for equal rights for the LGBTQ community – in a year when the re-elected President of the United States declared in his inaugural address that gay and lesbian individuals should be afforded the same rights as everyone else, a year when the first ever openly gay man was selected to read the Inaugural Poem, and in a year when the preceding election added 4 new states to the list of states allowing same-sex marriages. The tides are changing in America, and here we have an institution (which turns 103 years old today) committed to rearing America’s male youth according to “Christian values and the Biblical truth” that is further delaying a decision which in this former Boy Scout’s opinion is long overdue.

Growing up in a largely-Mormon hub outside of Sacramento, California, I was a member of the Boy Scouts, and before that Cub Scouts and W.E.B.E.L.O.S (a painfully awkward shorthand for ‘we’ll be loyal Scouts’ – I assumed the Boy Scouts valued Biblical truth over even minimal creativity). I loved it for the most part – earning my merit badges, weekend retreats to the California wilderness, the uniforms that were so cool that hipsters can be seen wearing them all over Brooklyn today. But I did not make it far. I rose to the meager rank of Second Class and dropped out, frankly because I ceased to feel like I fit in with the boys around me and felt myself becoming increasingly alienated as I became decreasingly associated with the stereotypical characteristics of my gender. Masculinity began to not only not make sense to my developing mind, but it began to anger me a great deal. The only thing that angered my angst-ridden mind more at the time was the idea of organized religion. I had no desire to conform to gender stereotypes and no desire to be judged for my dwindling belief in Christian values, so before my period of adolescent-gender-barrier-exploration began, I stopped going to church, and I quit the Scouts.

All this took place before I had the mental and intellectual capacity to realize what the Boy Scouts of America had truly come to be – a training camp for good Christian boys. Flash forward to the present, I am outraged that the ban on gays in the Scouts is even in question, but I am in no way surprised. Like Catholic schools, many boarding schools and other institutions of religious education, the Boy Scouts of America espouses an informal education that perpetuates the ideals and values of the Christian right in the US, ideals and values that I believe encapsulate the forces that hinder this great nation from social progress on many fronts.


Just because I do not endorse the outdated ideology of those who run the Boy Scouts of America, does not mean that they do not provide a great deal of value for America’s youth. Even though I forgot all my knots, my time in the Scouts taught me how to work as part of a team, how to be a leader, how to take pride in helping other people, how to multitask and manage my time, how to eat healthy, how to live healthy, and how to be confident in my decisions and my choices in life. It taught me skills I still use today when I exercise, hike, camp, travel, explore, learn, and yes, even talk to other men. To keep youth from the opportunity to experience all of these life-enriching activities and skills just because they live in a REALITY where sexuality is fluid and sexual identity is for every person to decide for themselves is, in my opinion, criminal, and violates the principles upon which this country was founded.

The world is becoming a more open and accepting place where individuals all over the planet are becoming increasingly free to live their lives as they choose to live them, expressing aspects of their identity that were previously forced to be hidden. Today, when Family Research Council president Tony Perkins says that “for over 100 years the Boy Scouts have been helping boys make this journey into manhood,” he is referring to an obsolete, constricting and narrow interpretation of what manhood is, the very interpretation that boys like me reject when it is force-fed to them. The Boy Scouts of America wonder why it is hurting for participation these days – perhaps it is because parents across this country are increasingly put off by the idea of subjecting their sons to a mode of socialization that perpetuates archaic values that have less and less of a place in contemporary society (not for fear that a gay scout leader will be sexually attracted to their children, as Perkins seems to suggest).

I am rarely patriotic, but I do believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth, because it is here that every citizen should be able to live free of persecution and discrimination. While the struggle for the LGBTQ community is far from over, I am confident that any formal and/or institutional discrimination against LGBTs in the US will soon come to an end. A new level of equality will soon be realized in this country as it is in a growing number of countries around the world every day. I hope with every part of me that Lucky 2013 will be the year the Boy Scouts of America as an organization end this ridiculous ban and start waking up with the rest of us.

If you’re interested, you can also watch Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s thoughts on the matter as a former Eagle scout and a political figure who recognizes how ridiculous it is that this gay ban is still in place.

*Let it be known that my opinions on religion, which are likely to become more prevalent throughout my blog posts, do not reflect those of The League as a whole or any individual author, to the best of my knowledge.

2013 Winter Special Olympics: Apathy adds to more stigma.

4 Feb

The games started on January 29 in Pyeongchang, South Korea with the participation of 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from all over the world pledging their Olympic oath- “let me win but if I cannot, let me be brave in the attempt”. The games have the support of prominent political leaders and Olympian athletes, but somehow that’s not enough to get the media’s attention.

The games are aimed at helping people with intellectual disabilities find new strengths and abilities through sports, and to inspire communities to “open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential”, organizers said. The Special Olympics have been held every two years since 1968, with summer and winter games alternating since 1977. Anyone over the age of eight with intellectual disabilities can participate in the Special Olympics.

I found out about the Winter Special Olympics via twitter. The only reason why I have a twitter account is to follow news and updates by INGOs and news portals. I don’t tweet. I don’t even know how to do it. I read it. Twitter and the Special Olympics website are the two places where I was able to follow the games. Sadly, the coverage of the 2013 Special Olympics has been minimal to nonexistent. I’ve done a little research in the mainstream media over the past seven days, and I found the media to be disinterested and indifferent towards such event. Only four news outlets, often disseminating the same information from the Associated Press, published one article during the event. The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Bangkok Post mentioned the games in some section of their news. However, the Huffington post published more than one article in their blog during the games, as a part of a series produced in collaboration with the Special Olympics.

Even more disappointing is the fact that two of those articles (except the Huffington Post and the Bangkok Post) focused their stories on South Korea’s long-criticized treatment of the disabled, who for decades were kept out of the mainstream. I understand the critics and the degradation and dehumanization ways with their classification of disabilities. It is something that needs to be addressed, but (today) why not emphasize and celebrate these athletes and their amazing achievements. The Olympian athletes have come very far, have sacrificed a lot and have undergone an intense routine of self-discipline, resilience and self-discovery. They have endured hard training sessions and they have learned to go on despite all the obstacles they have encountered along the way. It all sounds familiar, right? It does because every athlete goes through that. The only difference between these athletes and you and me is that most live in poverty, most are denied education, most are unemployed, most are lonely and most are stigmatized. And yet, they have followed their dreams, they have fought social stigma and for the past seven days they have braved the slopes, the half pipe, and the ice rink. Therefore, yes it’s TIME to CELEBRATE and ACKNOWLEDGE them! It’s about them, not politics, not the 2018 Winter Olympics, it’s about THEM!

I don’t expect a front page in the NYTimes, but I would love to see more inclusive media coverage that promotes awareness and that celebrates differences. If we want things to change, Dr. Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma and Nobel Prize, said during the games, “we must face reality in order to address it”. For now, the 2013 Winter Special Games have come and go and the media is still talking about Beyonce’s lip-sync… go figure. There’s a long road ahead for the 2015 Special Olympics in Los Angeles.

“When we empower people with disabilities we strengthen dignity for all” Ban-Ki Moon UN Secretary General at the opening ceremony via video conference.

Congratulations to all the participating athletes!

Don’t worry everyone, it’s a success (according to France)

1 Feb

I wanted to keep our conversation over the French intervention in Mali going as we head into the weekend. My colleague and co-blogger Phil recently posted a great blog post on what a successful intervention in Mali should look like. Well, as of this week, it appears France’s answer is: ‘What we just did for the past three weeks’. This Aljazeera article reports how Jean-Yves le Drian, France’s defense minister, declared the intervention to be a success following the recapturing of key posts in northern Mali, essentially returning the North to Malian hands. Phil’s post and subsequent comments raised questions of the success of a military intervention, as well as the rhetoric surrounding the crisis in Mali. My comment got too long, so here we are.

I think that a successful intervention was always going to be the point at which the rebels no longer held any legitimate posts in Mali, after which security of these locations would be passed into the hands of the Malian army or perhaps ECOWAS. And as we know, interventions can still be deemed as “successful” without consideration for the aftermath, whether that aftermath is confined to post-conflict reconstruction, DDR of armed forces, development or restoration of electoral processes, etc. (“‘We’ll see’ said the Zen master…”). The 1994 US intervention in Haiti was seen as a success at the time, due to a swift execution of military goals. The subsequent failure of Haiti to recover from the electoral conflict that merited the intervention lingers to this day. So it appears ‘success’ is a difficult label to place on an intervention like this.

I have spoken with colleagues who have friends and family in and around Mali, and it seems that life is slowly looking like it may return to normal. But I think “What now?” is the question on everyone’s minds. In order to prevent an armed rebellion from recurring in Mali’s future, the root causes of the conflict must be addressed. These causes are grounded in flawed political representation that seems all too common in African nations, where you have the core of state power at one geographical end of the country and millions of people failing to garner sufficient representation (many are outright neglected) at the periphery of the nation (look at strife in Sudan, Uganda, DRC, etc.). Karen Jacobsen (2002)* discusses how governments can extend the reach of their legitimacy by serving those in the periphery, but how often is this the case?

The Aljazeera piece posted above illustrates how just because the armed groups have been defeated, does not mean that the northern territory dubbed Azawad by its recently fallen captors will be represented in Malian politics any more than it was prior to the past year. Political solutions are required that bridge the divide between North and South. So what if this fails to happen? Will anyone outside of Northern Mali notice? Yoweri Museveni’s seizure of power from an Acholi-led government in Uganda led to the formation of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the north, who have claimed to fight for the entire northern region of the country ever since (note to rebel groups: if you want regional support, don’t kidnap everyone’s children). Those in Northern Uganda still feel underrepresented by the government in the south. If this remains the case in Mali, what comes next?

The rhetoric behind the intervention has also been debated around The League. I’ll quote our colleague Evan, who brought up an interesting point:

Does anyone else think its odd, hilarious, or devastating that no news media, not even the Huffington Post (from as far as I can tell), is even questioning why the French are intervening in Mali? Its just taken as a given that France was a colonial power of the region, and sure they still have strong economic ties to the area, but that has nothing to do with it, its because the Islamic radicals must be stopped and its France’s turn this time around. Every news source just says, “violent Islamic extremists,” and we are all programmed to think, “oh okay their the bad guys from Mordor, lets get em!” But seriously I want to ban the phrase “Islamic extremists” because it eliminates all debate or discussion around the causes of an event and we are lead to believe that “these people” are crazy fanatics who can not be understood through rationality. I really don’t know who to be more angry at, governments who use the military as an instrument to protect the economic interests of their corporations, the media for completely giving up trying to inform the public of whats going on, or us, the public, who allow this to happen because no one has invented a convenient app on our iphones to “change things.”

I think Western media outlets certainly relish the use of “Islamic extremists” as a means of summing up the nature of armed groups in northern Mali. It is a quick, newly-unambiguous term that resonates in the minds of media consumers. Start talking about Ansar Dine or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Tuareg people or the MNLA and readers will tune out (though the ‘Al Qaeda’ bit has certainly seemed to have some effect); say “Islamic extremists” and you’ve got their attention. It is a deplorable exploitation of short attention spans and limited curiosity in the 21st Century, but it’s also nothing new. The term “communist” could have carried just as much vehemence amongst Western media consumers in the second half of the 20th Century. Different day, different common enemy.

Evan brings up a good point regarding mankind’s separation of ourselves from the proverbial ‘Other.’ This sort of rhetoric is exactly what will prevent foreign powers from taking a more serious and concerted role in sustainable political solutions between the North and South in Mali. As Phil points out, the mentality behind these interventions always seems to be one of “We must do something; we will worry about the consequences of our actions later.” When France went in to Mali, Hollande was able to wave the flag of anti-extremism that essentially served as a free pass to intervene. I personally am not well versed in French politics, but I gather that this move was partly a political play in order for Hollande to establish himself as a firm leader who is not afraid to act when interests may be at stake. Or perhaps it truly was a moral imperative to end the abuses of human rights in Mali and stop the rebel groups before their reach extended too far. Or perhaps it was to fulfill some neo-colonial sense of responsibility to protect Mali that is embedded in the French political conscience. Regardless, the intervention was carried out, and is winding down.

But moving forward, without internationally recognized efforts to reconcile the differences between North and South, this intervention may prove to have further bifurcated the political, cultural and religious differences in Mali that led to the advance of rebels in the first place – alienating the ‘Other’ even more without heeding their needs and their right to pursue their own lives the way they wish to live them. What we seem to be faced with today is a global narrative that dictates that Islamic rule is toxic to modernity, and that the two are irreconcilable. I thought this narrative would dissipate post-Bush administration, but it seems to be alive and well today, and has certainly fueled the support for this intervention. I think this is a foolish narrative that must be reconsidered. So, with the right support and the appropriate attention paid, could Mali prove to be the breeding ground for a new understanding across political, cultural and religious divides?

In this blogger’s humble opinion, probably not. But wouldn’t that be nice?

*Jacobsen, K. (2002). Can refugees benefit the state? Refugee resources and African statebuilding. Journal of Modern African Studies. 40(4). 577-596.

What does a successful intervention look like?

28 Jan

For the past ten days or so I’ve been reading the BBC’s updates on the French military intervention in Mali. Day by day I watch the colours on the BBC’s map of Mali change, the red points of air strikes dispersing further to the north and west while the blue points of towns recaptured by French and Malian troops multiply and surge towards Timbuktu.

Timbuktu – a longstanding metaphor for the mythic, mystic end of the earth. A distant point that has become the pivot of BBC’s Mali map. In the context of this conflict, Timbuktu has shifted from the exotic to the familiar, but it remains a distant grail. When (if) Timbuktu is recaptured, it will feel (to me, to us) as though Mali has been retaken.

After initially finding surprisingly few deployed friends and surprisingly well-organised enemies, France’s intervention appears to be going well. The rebel forces are being pushed out of the lower half of the country, and back into the northern wilds. There may be hope of a swift, decisive intervention. Not the bloody quagmire of other recent interventions.

What exactly would a successful intervention look like, though? The word itself suggests only that France and friends will turn up, will get involved. Pacification could be measurable in terms of peace achieved or claimed. Neutralisation might be measured in terms of opposition thwarted or incapacitated. An intervention seems a far more logistical concept: the BBC reports on the number of troops intervening, while offering few details about what they’ve actually done (and to whom).

Intervention seems a pretty vague term, especially if it is being arrayed again an opponent willing to embrace a more aggressive mission: occupation, decimation, purification (I’m not claiming that these are actually the ideas espoused by the rebels in Mali).

France’s intervention is being conceptualised as an urgent response to the southward push of the rebels ahead of the arrival of troops from other African nations. It is being articulated as a mission of salvation, preventing Mali and West Africa (and maybe even Europe) from falling into darkness. In that sense the BBC map offers another vision of a successful intervention. When all of the known points on the map are the blue of ‘recaptured by French and Malian forces’, when there is no need to hatch parts of the map as ‘rebel controlled’ and nothing left to mark red with ‘French air strikes’, maybe the intervention can be called successful. When Timbuktu, the only known point on the map, is reclaimed, perhaps the intervention will have achieved the only endpoint it could possibly have had in mind. And all those other Malian unknowns – the children pressed into military service and bodies dumped down wells; the human element which is conspicuously absent from a static political map – will be overlooked in the interests of wiping all those clashing colours off of the map.

This seems to be the peculiar logic of intervention. It is always born of emergency, of exceptional circumstances, always demands the putting aside of other considerations in order to pursue the imperative of action. We must do something; we will worry about the consequences of our actions later.