Sunday, December 20, 2009

Credit where it's due

To the beleagured, overstretched staff of the Los Angeles Times, I must say thank you because today's paper was filled with great stories.

My favorite was Borzou Daragahi's story about a blind man who leads an all-female orchestra in Shiraz, Iran. Were he not blind, religious customs in Shiraz would never permit a male to be in the company of 30 women who he is not related to teaching them music on a weekly basis. But in this case, his blindness has become an opportunity to create something powerful. Here's the best quote I've read about music/the arts in a loooooooong time, from one of the musicians:

"We have something to say in this world of art, no matter how small," says Helen Parchami, a violinist in her 20s. "The instrument is strength. It's power. It's the freedom of my soul. When I play here I feel proud of all the women here. Only women play. We show that we can stand on our own feet."

But that's not the only reason the LAT was a great read today:

• David Zucchino's story about a recently elected city councilman in Asheville, N.C. who is an atheist. Local conservatives are threatening to sue the city because his public service is, according to them, in direct violation of the state's arcane constitution which bars those who don't believe in god from serving in public office in North Carolina. Classic case of "Is this 2010 in America?":

Six other states have provisions outlawing atheists in public office. The North Carolina clause was in the state constitution when it was drafted in 1868. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that states were prohibited under the U.S. Constitution from requiring a religious test to serve in office. The court ruled in favor of an atheist in Maryland seeking to serve as a notary public.

• A great examination into how easily teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District "earn" tenure by Jason Felch, Jessica Garrison and Jason Felch. Without the newspaper, how would we learn about this?

* The reviews are so lacking in rigor as to be meaningless, many instructors say. Before a teacher gets tenure, school administrators are required to conduct only a single, pre-announced classroom visit per year. About half the observations last 30 minutes or less. Principals are rarely held responsible for how they perform the reviews.

* The district's evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades. L.A. Unified, like other districts in California, essentially ignores a state law that since the 1970s has required districts to weigh pupil progress in assessing teachers and administrators.

The LAT's work was so important that Supt. Ramon C. Cortines announced that change was coming. After hearing The Times' findings more than a week ago, the superintendent pledged to scrutinize probationary teachers more closely so poor instructors are ousted before they become tenured.

"Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions -- the equivalent of jobs for life," he said.

• Finally, this incredibly powerful photo essay from Marissa Roth, a freelance photojournalist who documented her photos and interviews with war widows through the last 20+ years.

In her words:
While working on assignment as a Times photographer in Pakistan in 1988, I was drawn to tell the story of the Afghan war widows, who at the time numbered about 100,000 after 10 years of war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. I went into Afghan refugee camps in Thal and Peshawar and photographed women and children, for what I considered to be an underreported story of that war.

My experiences in Pakistan inspired me to continue photographing other women affected by other wars, a photo essay that has turned into a 20-year personal project dedicated to documenting the lives of women who have been directly affected by armed conflicts.

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