31 May 2008

Must Read

When I need to, I go back to Peter Høeg’s novel Borderliners. When I first discovered this book a decade ago I knew I had found something essential, but like many other first-time readers, including my son who read it in a high school class, I was somewhat thrown by the complexity of the construction of Høeg’s of story and his language. Now, I've listened to it perhaps a dozen times. I own it both in print and on cassette - yes - cassette, and need to run the proper conversions.

And now I think that no one should teach children, and no one should run a school, without reading this book.

That doesn't suggest that I think your first reading will be easy. Høeg is a brilliant and brilliantly complex writer. Reading (or hearing) his work takes time and patience. Borderliners is much easier than one of my absolute favourites, A History of Danish Dreams, but it is far more difficult than his most popular book in English, Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Nonetheless, I think you must read it.

I need to return to Borderliners periodically to remind me of how school operates. Of how even the best intentioned schools often operate - if those schools believe in what Høeg summarizes as the concepts of linear time and human progress. It is important to be reminded of the damage done to children by the unquestioned assumptions which lie behind "school-as-we-know-it." For we cannot really begin to change the system of education until we understand the philosophies behind the decisions that make education as it is.

Borderliners is the story of inclusion in Danish schools in the 1960s, and is far more than that. It is a deep exploration of the idea of, of the intent of, education in "western democracies." Borderliners is the rare book which understands the purpose of school and what drives educators. As I listened to it this past week I realised that this is the writing which explains why people like Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton support laws like No Child Left Behind, and why Britain's "New Labour" too often falls into those same traps.

But at its heart Borderliners is the story of children. Of children and western culture. Of children and the idea of progress. And if you read this book, you will never see your students in the same way again.

On my last post Brian Wojcik asked about how far inclusion might go. He specifically asked about "students with moderate to severe behavior and emotional disabilities." And I responded that inclusion could only go as far as the structure of the school could be altered to accept. If the entire structure of the school is not altered it is not "inclusion" - it is "integration." And when most schools talk about "inclusion" they are really speaking of "integration." Differing students are accepted into a school as long as they can conform to the way the school has always been. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in America black kids were allowed in to white schools, but the expectation was (and is) that the white schools held all the correct behaviors, rules, and learning styles. Today, "special needs" students are allowed into "regular" classrooms, with those same "normalising" expectations - now literally encoded into law by the US government.

Borderliners will let you see why that does not work.

A few quotes:

On Assessment:

"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."

On Cultural Bias in Intelligence Testing:

"A letter came from her. It was not in her own words, it was a quote straight out of Binet-Simon. She must have learned it by heart, just by reading it. "There was once a grasshopper, who had sung merrily all summer long. Now it was winter and he was starving. So he went to see some ants who lived nearby and asked them to lend him some of the stores they had laid up for the winter. `What have you been doing all summer?' they asked. `I have sung day and night,' replied the grasshopper. 'Ah, so you have sung,' said the ants. `Well, now you can dance.'

"Beneath this she had written: "What is the moral?"

"It was so deep. It showed how she had figured out that this was a problem from the "fourteen years" level and that I must have had it. She had, therefore, used what I had written to her and discovered the system behind Binet-Simon.

"At the time when I had been given this story, I had come close to answering that the moral was ants were not helpful. But this would not have fitted in very well with the other problems. Instead I had sensed Hessen, and then I had said the moral was that one must seize the moment."

On Progress in School:

"Of course, it was only from the outside that the days seemed the same. Deep down they were meant to be different. It only seemed as though the same subjects and the same classrooms and the same teachers and the same pupils came around again and again. In re­ality, the requirement was that you should, with every day, be trans­formed. Every day you should be better, you should have developed, all the repetition in the life of the school was there only so that, against an unchanging background, you could show that you had improved."

On the Classroom:

"At Biehl's you had to sit down for five to six hours every day ­not including the study period-five days a week plus Sunday for the boarders, more than forty weeks a year, for ten years. While constantly having to strive to be precise and accurate, in order to improve.

"I believe that this went against the nature of children."

On "No Child Left Behind":

"Of course, there were schools elsewhere, too, this I know. But surely no place with a vision such as Biehl's.

"Elsewhere, in other countries, they have held children in the grip of time, for a while they have held them. But, in time, those children who could not cope, or whose parents did not have the where­withal, were given up, dropped.

"But Biehl would not give up on anyone, that was the exceptional thing-maybe the exceptional thing about Denmark. They would not entertain the thought that some pupils were down there, in darkness. They did not want to know anything about the darkness, everything in the universe had to be light. With the knife of light they would scrape the darkness clean.

"It is as though that thought was almost insane."

On the Cosmology necessary for "No Child Left Behind":

"Fredhoj and Biehl never said it straight out, but I know now, with certainty, what they were thinking. Or maybe not thinking, but sensing. What the cosmology was, upon which all of their actions rested. They were thinking that in the beginning God created heaven and earth as raw material, like a group of pupils entering Primary One, designated and earmarked for processing and ennoblement. As the straight path along which the process of evolution should progress, he created linear time. And as an instrument for measuring how far the process of evolution had advanced, he created mathematics and physics.

"I have had the following thought: What if God were not a math­ematician? What if he had been working, like Katarina and August and me, without actually having defined either questions or answers? And what if his result had not been exact but approximate? An approximate balance perhaps. Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium."

Anyway, I'd love you to read The Drool Room this summer. But if I could get teachers to read one thing, it would be Borderliners. There are no easy answers in this book. The children you will meet in these pages would, perhaps, make any teacher insane. And yet, they are all kinds of students we might most cherish, if we knew how to break down walls instead of how to build them.

And when you've read it, send me an email, and I'll let you know how the Danish title of the book actually translates into English. It's important.

- Ira Socol

Three blogs that relate: At Coffee-on-the-Keyboard we are asked, "What kind of classroom do you run?" Whether that classroom is a classroom, or even a blog. At Grad Student Madness we are asked to consider the value of liberal arts education, and that western canon. At History and Education - the same question is asked but with a slightly different focus - why do we have liberal education?

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

29 May 2008

How Inclusion Works

This past weekend Lisa Parisi put up a remarkable post...
The Successful Inclusion Program
which you should go and read on her site.

But I wanted to lead you through some of what this teacher is describing, as she has found a path to student success in a Universally Designed Classroom.

Let's begin with teacher training, Lisa and her co-teacher have been lucky enough to be trained in working with every student, not just "regular" students or "special students:" "Although I teach regular education," she says, "I do have my Masters' in Special Ed and have always believed in differentiating instruction to help all students succeed."

This is so vital - the false distinction most teacher preparation programs make between "Teacher Education" and "Special Education" is incredibly destructive to student success. It encourages the worst mass-teaching practices of "regular ed," and the isolation of "special education." You can not say that you believe in either universal design or in the idea that "every student is gifted, every student has special needs" and operate of college of education which proclaims that these programs are separate.

We can see the impact of these flawed teacher training programs in what Lisa says next about co-teaching. "I truly believe that a perfect classroom is one in which two teachers work toward a common goal. So I have had many co-teaching situations. Two have been quite successful, most have been very unsuccessful." "Some co-teachers (both regular and special ed)," she continues, "believe that "you have your students and I have mine." I have worked with a teacher like this. She would come to the room and say, "Ok, my students come with me." I would then watch as the children, with mortified looks in their eyes, would slink out of the room."

Yes, these teachers are at fault for being inhumane. But surely the fault lies with the university that trained them, and the state which licensed them. If a teacher thinks like that it is evidence of systemic failure. A failure to believe in educational equity. So Lisa states, "Rule #1: Do not separate the children. They should not stand out for being classified. Remember: inclusion means to be included, not separated."

But the fact is, we can only include everyone if we accept the idea that we are all different and embrace the technologies which allow all of us to be different.

Lisa puts it this way: "There's also that belief that we should be so private as to not speak about the needs of the children. Don't embarrass Johnny by telling him to put on his glasses, hearing aids, etc." This is essential because we do not try to hide the fact that, for example, we use a ladder because we are not good enough at leaping to make it to the roof unassisted, and we do not try to hide the fact that we take a car to get to the next town because we can't run fast enough to get there on time via foot. And if we treat any particular student assistive need differently than we treat our own assistive needs, we are separating, humiliating, and diminishing. "In our classroom," Lisa says, "fidget toys are in a box for all the children, glasses are mentioned frequently, students are encouraged to move to the front of the room, grab a spell checker, use the computer or alphasmart, pull out the E.Z.C. Readers, etc. The difference? These tools are demonstrated to and available for everyone. So when a lesson begins, up jumps the classified student along with the gifted student. They both gather tools they need to be successful. So... Rule #2: Don't hide special needs. Point out that we all need assistance at times. Make it available to everyone." This, of course, is the heart of both Universal Design and Toolbelt Theory.

And the most important tool we can train our students to choose is the combination of learning style and learning environment which works best for them. This is wildly counter to school tradition which assumes that the teacher always makes these decisions. And Lisa points out that it is also counter to how most "special educators" operate in co-teaching situations: "[T]here's the idea that a special educator is only there to work with the special ed children. This leaves a lot of other children behind and makes the classified children really stand out. We believe that we both are there to teach all of the students. We group children for various subjects and rotate who teaches the groups. When class tests are given, volunteers leave the room with one of us to go to a more quiet setting or to have tests read to them. Amazingly, the children, all of them, really do choose what they need. Some leave the room for the novelty but most choose the setting in which they work best."

Student choice, what a remarkable idea. Lisa's "Rule #3: Mix the teachers up and allow students to choose their style of learning."

Which goes directly to her next point. "This year," she says, "we also eliminated reading pull-outs. Students remained in class during reading and ended up receiving much more reading service time than they would have in the pull-out program. And keeping students in the classroom as much as possible is helpful for having them not miss content. Next year, we are going to do the same for math pull-outs. Note: This was not an easy goal to achieve. Reading and resource room teachers may feel it threatens their jobs. If necessary, try to make your pull-outs push-ins instead." I remember my sister - a long time teacher - saying how she never used ability grouping for reading. There were four or five books to read, kids picked the book they were interested in. That, of course, gives a student an actual reason to read. And it encourages students to reach beyond their limitations. And if encourages peer tutoring. And with technology, it is easy. Even if "Student A" can not possibly decode "Book C" we can offer it to him or her via iPod or CD, or via text reader with a dictionary built in.

This is great for reading instruction, it is even better for eliminating the humiliations we visit on children. Lisa's "Rule #4: Keep students in the classroom as much as possible. Eliminate as many pull-outs as you can."

Lisa goes on to mention Project-Based Learning and truly Differentiating Instruction, two hallmarks of education which actually educates rather than divides and trains compliance. There's a lot to discover on her blog. It is worth your time.

But what is most important here is this. When "we" attack "education as we know it" we are attacking it because we know that something better exists. Everyone with minimally "open eyes" knows that what really works is flexible, universally designed education which responds to student needs, and encourages student independence and self-determination. When we see the success of a classroom like Lisa's what are we to say about teachers, administrators, school systems, universities, and legislatures which refuse to embrace - which often actively resist - these methods?

True inclusion is a decision we can make. Not choosing true inclusion is another decision.

- Ira Socol

"So I had my ranking, which was pretty good, cause I could climb really well and was OK at baseball and good at hockey; plus, I had slot cars and a dad who played sports. But once the teacher made the reading groups there was a different kind of ranking. Once the teacher made reading groups, I was officially a “dumb kid.” This started as a small thing, but school gets more and more important as you get older. And the more important school gets, the more important the school’s ranking system gets. Eventually, the very first thing people know about you is that you’re a “dumb kid.”' - The Drool Room - page 29

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

23 May 2008

Toolbelt Theory for Everyone

How will your students communicate when they leave school? How will they gather information? How will they say what they need to say?

How will they make phone calls? Leave messages? Read books? Do research? Tell their boss they are stuck in traffic coming back from that meeting? How will they get their news? Check their bank records? Pay their mortgage? Arrange their vacation? Sell their services? Sell possessions they no longer want? How will they learn the things they need to learn? How will they tell the stories that they need - or want - to tell?

Schools - in the old days - were interested in these kinds of skills. Schools taught things like how to read books, how to read newspapers, how to read stock tables. They taught how to find books in the library and how to write business letters. Even (sometimes) how to write cheques, read classified advertisements, compare prices in display ads, address envelopes, read maps, type, write legibly. Yes, maybe some of this training came to me because I wasn't always in those "top" classes, but I think most students received significant trainings in the communications technology of the age. At least the "apparent" technologies of the age.

But in the time when most of our teachers, school administrators, government officials, and legislators went to school, little changed on the "apparent" side of ICT. Newspapers and phone calls may have been produced in radically different ways in 1990 as opposed to 1960, but the end-user did not see much difference. So these people have been trained in complacence. They grew up in a world of little technological change (as it touched them) and they now resent change. They're often still angry that we want them to be able to program their VCRs, and VCRs are almost history.

So they don't want to teach about tools. The tools they know are gone, chucked to the curb with the card catalogues and 8-track players. The tools which are essential now - the tools which are essential everywhere outside of a school building - are outside of their realm of knowledge. This is why school today is so divorced from any reality.

Tools matter though. They are the most basic thing about being human.

We are many things - human beings - but above all we are tool users. Unlike most other species, and far more than any other species, we have defined ourselves by crafting tools which allow us to control our environment and overcome our limitations. Can't run as fast as a horse? Climb on the horse. Can't fight one-on-one with a Mammoth? Invent the spear. Can't remember everything you need? Create writing.

So tools matter. They matter most for those who lack the highest capabilities - a very old person and a very young person needs a car more often than a 20-year-old might - a short person needs a ladder more often than a tall person - a weak swimmer needs a boat when a great swimmer might not - but still, tools matter for everyone.

And everyone needs a properly equipped Toolbelt to get through life.

Toolbelt Theory

The thing about toolbelts though, is that no two people ever really need the same one. When I worked at one university and part of my job was being a cable stringing "tech monkey," three of us all began with the same toolbelt. Scissors, wire strippers, pliers, wire cutters, punch-down tool, screwdrivers. Within a week all three toolbelts were different. Within a month, very different. Screwdriver choices varied. Pliers were added and subtracted. I added a fish tool for dragging cables through walls, another added a device from Fluke that read network connections, and then I grabbed a quick-check tool that confirmed my wiring order because, you know, I'm not great with order. The belts changed as well. One was worn as a belt, mine was almost always slung across my shoulder. When I was a police officer, I watched a similar process operate on the gunbelts of cops coming out of the academy. They began all the same, and ended up as radically different collections of tools. Of course those tools changed as the world and technology changed. Drop pouches for revolver ammunition vanished and clip holders for automatics appeared, as one example. Then we needed to carry latex gloves. Flashlights changed. Radios changed. Mace came and went. Etc.

So the trick to tool use is to learn to evaluate tasks and environments and your skills and the tools themselves as they change and determine what works best for you. I call this the "TEST" - Task - Environment - Skills - Tools, a specifically ordered reframing of Joy Zabala's "SETT" protocol. A specifically ordered reframing designed for self-determination.

"Disability" has little or nothing to do with this. Everybody needs this skill set. Imagine your eyes getting weaker as you are faced with graduate school reading or long-distance truck driving - and you've never heard of eyeglasses and have no idea where to go for help. Imagine needing to rip up an old driveway and having never heard of a jackhammer, nor had any idea of how to get one. Imagine needing to get to your home's roof with nothing but a step ladder. Imagine needing a book but being unable to use a map in order to find the library.

In every case you need the TEST idea. Whether you are choosing the right saw to cut that piece of wood in that location or whether you are trying to find the map that will get you to the hospital you need in Paris or whether you are trying to find the academic article you need.

You need to know what you need to do (the specific task: cut 20 sheets of plywood or cut down a Christmas tree, find a book to buy or find a book to borrow). You need to know where you will be doing this (the specific environment: in a forest, in a workshop, in a town with a university library and four bookstores, in a place with neither). You need to know your own capabilities (your skill set: I am strong enough to cut down a tree with a hand saw, I am experienced enough that I can cut a straight line with a hand-held circular saw, I can walk to the bookstore, I know the Dewey Decimal System). And you need to know what is available to you to help you, and how to use those devices (your toolbelt: My neighbor has a chain saw, I can rent a table saw, a bus will get me to the bookstore, if I go online and reserve that library book it will be waiting for me at the counter).

This all sounds logical, but it is hardly automatic.

Choosing the right tool takes knowledge of yourself and the tools which are available. It takes practice in assessing the task and the environment. And in school we don't help students toward any of that. In school we prescribe methods and we require specific tools (the dreaded middle school planner, just as one particularly stupid example - the teacher-determined notebook style as another). In school we tell students what they can and can't do and we get very nervous when they really try to analyse their environment.

And on top of this, the tools most schools are devoted to are antiques which serve few functions anywhere outside of school. It is as if you were learning to build homes but were allowed to use only tools invented before 1940. You'd be close to unemployable when you finished that training.

Letting the world in

The only way to allow students to assemble this essential toolbelt for information and communication is to to throw open your classroom and let the world in. How will your students know which calendar works for them - the one on their phone, Google Calendar with SMS appointment texting, Microsoft Outlook, or any of a dozen paper systems unless you allow them to try them out? How will your students know whether they 'get' a novel better by listening to an audiobook, or reading it on paper, or using text-to-speech, if you don't let them experience all repeatedly and help them decide? Will their choice be the same when they are reading history texts? Math texts? Again, how will they know? How will they know which is the best way for them to write, by hand (either on paper or on a tablet system), by keyboard (and which keyboard), or by voice, if they do not get to try out all the kinds of writing they need to do with all these tools?

They won't know. And you - the school, the teacher, the education system - will have deprived them of these essential skills.

It matters for all students, of course, but- as always - if you are "rich, white, and normal" it matters a bit less. You will have fewer needs, your parents will buy you more supports, you will be surrounded in your daily life by sophisticated tool users. So not bringing Toolbelt Theory into your classroom just exacerbates inequity - yes, of course - as school does in most things.

Real differences in survival

This is not a matter of success in school. This is a matter of human survival. A couple of years ago I sat in a resource room in a suburban American high school and watched an 18-year-old high school senior try to fill out a job application. His writing was "not good." You might be able to make out most of the capital letters, but the small letters were just meaningless squiggles. I asked him, "Why don't you just print that all-caps?" But before he could answer the teacher interrupted. "We've been working on his small letters for four years now," she said, "we want him to keep trying."

Four years my friends. Well, surely longer. I bet they've been torturing this child since he was five-years-old.

I started to ask whether the teacher thought he'd get a job with an application that looked this way, but there was no real point. School is about school. It is hardly ever about anything else. So instead I grabbed a blank copy of the same application, I pulled my laptop and my Canon LiDE scanner out of my backpack. I scanned the application in, converted it to a "form fillable" Adobe Acrobat document, and told him to type his information in.

He was a slow typist. A painfully slow typist. And yet, his typing was about three times as fast as his handwriting, and, in the end there was a perfectly completed job application.

Might speech recognition help? Or typing on a smartphone keyboard with iTap word prediction? That would have been too much to suggest. The school district had just built a massive brand new high school. All the bells and whistles, yet, number of accessible computers in the district? Zero. Zero, despite three meeting I'd had with the school superintendent, two days spent with district's large tech staff, and meetings with special education teachers and school psychologists and social workers. Zero. They simply do not care.

So their students graduate not knowing how to fill out a job application. They graduate not knowing how to access library resources online. They graduate not knowing how to stay on schedule, or how to listen to their own writing if no one is around to help them edit, or how to send an appropriate text from their phone to an employer or professor if they are running late, or how to collaborate with other writers on a Google Document, or how to most effectively use spellcheck and auto-correct in Microsoft Word, or even - and I see this every day - how to search online for a job or a university course.

They simply do not know how to function in the 21st Century. They will not understand the tools that they need to function. And unless they are lucky, they will be doomed to a life on the margins.

When I wrote "Not Getting to Universal Design" a number of people objected to my thought that encouraging students to fail was a deliberate thing. I don't think that I really suggested that individual teachers deliberately sought student failure. It happens - I can think of a number of university faculty I have known - but that is rare. It is the system - the system which includes the training of teachers and the design of schools - which has, in my opinion, made the decision to encourage the failure of the majority of students. If they have not done that consciously, my only other thought is that they are unbelievably stupid, because they do the "wrong" things continuously. But, I don't think they are stupid because, well, somehow, their kids seem to do OK. Of course their kids have their laptops and iPhones and Blackberries and Wii. Their parents listen to audiobooks and dictate messages for others to type, and get emails on their phones all day long. They see Google Maps and GPS in use every day. Hell, daddy can even talk to their new Lincoln and tell it what to do.

Now all those education leaders can probably quote that old saying, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life." So I wonder, why won't we teach our students how to fish? And why won't we help them to learn the best way for each of them to fish?

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

21 May 2008

Enabling Voice

Last week Melinda Pongrey at LD Live! asked me about my communication skills. "Could you always tell people what you needed?" I told her, "No." Like most students who fall outside the "norms" created by school, I spent a lot of time mute, especially when it came to asking for things which might help me.

Then, over the weekend I watched a film that a friend lent me, Taare Zameen Par. And I cried because, well, in part because of the familiarity.

The child in the film hides and draws. I used to do that. I had this chalkboard in my tiny bedroom and I would disappear into worlds that I drew for myself there. Safe worlds. World where I could be whatever I wanted to be.

Those worlds, those drawings on the chalkboard, like the art of the child in this film from India, were my voice. Even if that voice only reached as far as myself.

But then, as adult after adult tells you that your way of expressing yourself does not matter, and that, in the ways that matter you are incapable of expressing yourself, eventually you might even give up that voice you have. Every answer you give is deemed wrong, or even laughed at. Every thought you have is outside of what people expect - and they tell you that. Everything you write comes back covered in "corrections." When you do things that seem right to you - from the music you hum or drum with your fingers to the pictures you draw in the margins of papers, to the daydreams you dwell in which let your imagination run - the humiliation and denigration just get worse.

So you find yourself sitting in silence. In the back corners of classrooms. In "resource rooms." In school corridors and offices. In car parks and city parks. Hidden in your own room. Wherever. It does not matter. You have learned that you are worthless, and your communication is worthless. Maybe you'll still yell from time to time, or fight, because that's all that's left and you're human after all, but silence will have descended.

Taarein Zamein Par Mummy - For more of the funniest videos, click here

This is why the most important thing you can do for students is to enable their voices, and to value their voices. Whatever their voices are, however they want to speak.

There is no reason that writing is prized more highly than art in schools, or even than speech. No reason that the making of music is not seen as valid a use of school time as writing. No reason to tell a student that SMS texting isn't writing, or twittering, or blogging, or IMing. The only thing that matters is to get them communicating, and to get them understanding how valued, how important, that communication is.

If you can get them communicating, in whatever form, you can get them interested in reaching out to the communications of others. If you can get them expressing themselves they will find in the expressions of others - if nothing else at first - techniques which they can imitate and eventually expand upon. And if they do that, they will begin to want to tap into the knowledge sources which surround them. Which is what you, as schools, and teachers, want them to learn to do. But if you have proven to them that communication is not good for them, they will not be open to communication.

A huge part of the solution is instructional tolerance - the willingness of teachers to accept real differences in learning and communication styles within a single classroom - the willingness of teachers to give up control over what students are doing every minute (an essential concept behind the effective use of personal Information and Communication Technologies - which cannot be used or personalized if too tightly controlled). That's not just a teacher thing, of course, although it takes a great teacher to really do this effectively. School administrators must encourage this and support it. If they don't, few teachers will be brave enough to truly try it.

And another huge part of the solution are those personal Information and Communication Technologies which can not only enable the voice, but project it, and can make that voice seem valid and strong. A mobile phone camera and some free computer software1 can turn a student into a film-maker whose work can be shared across the room and across the globe. Free online and downloadable animation and drawing software is everywhere, ranging from paint.net to Google SketchUp. Audacity can make every computer a recording studio for music, or simply the telling of stories - which can be edited and shared. Jott.com can turn a simple mobile into a speech recognition tool.

All can be edited and shared through the social networking tools which surround us. Blogs and wikis, Flickr and YouTube, or how about a site where the longest story - in Twitter-like fashion - is 140 characters? Because it is not just creation that makes communication valuable, it is discovering that you have something to say that others might pay attention to.

I found fabulous teachers in my life who helped me get to that point. They were (and are) the teachers who prize the idea at least as much as the method, the interesting solution at least as much as the expected answer, the originality at least as much as the "correct," the different at least as much as the "norm." Yes, they were always surrounded by other teachers with gags at the ready. Honestly, those who prefer to silence are still all around. But while research sure does prove out the destructive power of bad teachers, it also proves the stunning power of a great mentor to change a life.

Giving students voice is the most important thing we can do in our classrooms. We need to turn off the mute button which silences them. And that is not easy. Students who struggle with school and language learn all-too-quickly the high costs of trying to speak. The older your muted student, the more powerfully they have learned those costs, and the harder it it will be to convince them that their voice is worth hearing. And thus, the need to start to enable those voices is so very urgent.

Watch Taare Zameen Par if you can find it. [spoiler alert!] I will warn you that it may suggest that solutions come quickly - a Bollywood fantasy - but I've never seen a film capture the silencing with more intensity.

- Ira Socol

1 - also http://www.dvdvideosoft.com/products/dvd/Free-Video-Dub.htm and http://tv.isg.si/site/?q=node/873 for more options.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

19 May 2008

Doctors for America

Many of those in poverty in America really need better access to medical care.

"At Doctors For America, we are working with a great sense of urgency to build the movement to eliminate medical inequity by enlisting our nation's most promising future leaders in the effort. We recruit aggressively to attract outstanding recent college graduates of all majors and career interests to commit two years to serve as doctors in urban and rural communities, and we invest in the training and professional development necessary to ensure their success as doctors in our highest-poverty communities. Our doctors, also called corps members, go above and beyond traditional expectations to lead their patients to significant health improvement, overcoming the challenges of poverty despite the current capacity of the health care system."1

"We have found that the most successful doctors in our communities are those who operate as a successful leader would in any context. They set big goals for where patients will be physically at the end of the year, invest patients and others in working hard to realize that vision, plan purposefully and work relentlessly with a sense of urgency to maximize medical services in pursuit of the vision, and continuously increase effectiveness to reach the vision in spite of the multiple challenges and obstacles along the way. Knowing this, we carefully select those individuals who we believe have demonstrated strong leadership and therefore have potential for success in the examination room and the operating room."2

In order to create these new doctor/leaders: "We operate rigorous five-week summer preparation institutes in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Through opportunities for practice, observation, coaching, and study — as well as careful planning and thoughtful reflection — corps members develop the foundational knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be highly effective beginning doctors."3

"Corps members (during that five week summer program) provide medical services to patients for approximately two hours each day, under the supervision of experienced doctors. For the first hour, most corps members work directly with four to five patients with significant health issues, which also builds the doctor's skills for patient interaction. For the second hour, corps members take charge of an operating theater, which also builds the doctor's skills in delivering the highest levels of medical care."4

Are you excited now? Your child just got sick, are you ready to rush them to your nearest Doctors for America hospital?

Well, you might be, assuming that your choice is no medical care for your child. Assuming that the real doctors in your community won't take patients on Medicaid or won't take uninsured patients. When your choice is bad or nothing, people will often choose bad. But imagine that you run a hospital in the kind of neighborhood where people like this live and work:

Stephen Bollenbach Retired Co-Chairman & CEO Hilton Hotels Corporation Don Fisher Founder & Chair Emeritus Gap Inc. Lew Frankfort Chairman & CEO Coach, Inc. David Gergen Professor of Public Service Director of the Center for Public Leadership Harvard University Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies Princeton University Leo J. Hindery, Jr. Managing Partner InterMedia Partners Walter Isaacson (Chair) President & CEO The Aspen Institute David W. Kenny Chairman & CEO Digitas Inc. Wendy Kopp Chief Executive Officer & Founder Teach For America Sherry Lansing CEO Sherry Lansing Foundation Sue Lehmann Management Consultant Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D. President & CEO United Negro College Fund Stephen F. Mandel, Jr. Managing Director Lone Pine Capital Anthony W. Marx President Amherst College James M. McCormick Founder, CEO & President First Manhattan Consulting Group Richard S. Pechter Alumnus, Teach For America Maxine Clark Retired Chairman, DLJ Financial Services Nancy Peretsman Managing Director Allen & Company, LLC Alma J. Powell Chair, America's Promise Alliance Paula A. Sneed (Vice Chair) Retired Executive Vice President Kraft Foods, Inc. Sir Howard Stringer Chairman & Group CEO Sony Corporation Lawrence H. Summers Charles W. Eliot University Professor Harvard University G. Kennedy (Ken) Thompson Chairman, President & CEO Wachovia Corporation John Thompson Chairman & CEO Symantec Corporation Gregory W. Wendt Retired Partner Goldman Sachs & Co. Lawrence J. Stupski Chairman Stupski Foundation Senior Vice President Capital Research Jide Zeitlin (Treasurer) Company Founder and Chief Executive Bear Build-A-Bear Workshop [the Teach for America Board] 5

In that case, your hospital probably hires people who have actually been to medical school, who actually have more than five weeks of training. (In World War II US Navy corpsman went through four months of training.6) In your neighborhood's hospital you probably wouldn't imagine that because, say, a person ran the Sony Corporation or was the grandchild of someone who ran the Sony Corporation and could thus get into a prestigious US university, that she or he could instantly be a great doctor due to leadership skills. You would expect more. You would demand more.

The value of great teachers

Who does more damage? The bad doctor or the bad teacher? Well, I'm not sure. I'm not sure in terms of individuals and I'm not sure in terms of society. I have seen great teachers save the lives of students, including, perhaps, mine. I have seen bad teachers destroy the lives of students - lots and lots of students.

But because I am not sure I am demonstrating how much I value the role of teacher. How much I respect that as a profession. I know that being a great teacher, even a good teacher, is incredibly difficult. It takes massive commitment, a tremendous knowledge base regarding how humans learn and develop, significant content knowledge, a lot of observation, and, in almost every case, substantial experience. (I've had a number of jobs in my life. In every case I might have thought I was doing a great job in my first year, but by my third year I realized that had not actually been true.)

There is the fact that in Cuba teachers are among the highest paid people in society. That suggests something about the value that nation puts on education. In the US we value bookies above all others. No profession earns more than those who place bets on the stock markets and other exchanges for others. Those in charge of preparing the next generation for our collective future? Even when we pay then decently, we complain about it, and whine about their amount of "time off."

We don't value teachers. And Teach for America's people - well, they despise teachers. Hell, anyone born rich can be a teacher the way they see it, or at least anyone who can get through Harvard or the University of Michigan. Teaching requires no particular skill set, at least no more of one than it might take to learn a hobby. It is easier (and faster) according to TFA, to learn to teach than to drive, or become the grill person at McDonald's.

This hatred of teaching is rooted in a belief in American education as missionary work. Skills, individual capabilities built from experiences, knowledge base, none of that matters. The best missionaries are the truest believers, and TFA people? They are true believers. "Just behold us, for God loves us, and we are blessed," they say, followed by, "Just act like us, and you too might be eligible for (at least a tiny bit of) God's love." An understanding of who they are teaching? Not important. An understanding of pedagogy? Equally ridiculous. Attention to special needs? Who cares. We believe and we offer them the word. And when we measure them our way we find that they are "improved" above the jungle condition we have otherwise consigned them to.

While poor kids in America's poorest communities get Teach for America, these leaders of society have something different in mind for their own children. the same weekend that The New York Times praised Teach for America, the paper's Real Estate section said this about Scarsdale, New York's schools, "The school system remains tough to beat and is clearly doing all it can to stay that way. SAT averages run more than 100 points higher than the nation’s, and the level of the high school curriculum is such that this year the faculty has begun phasing out Advanced Placement classes and replacing them with a more demanding homegrown version."7

I wondered if the students of TFA teachers outperformed the students of Scarsdale teachers - where teacher pay averages six figures, or 40% higher than even the communities which surround it in Westchester County. The Times called teacher preparation programs "diploma mills," but I guess somehow those "mills" are working - according to the same newspaper - for the children of the Times's editors and their friends and anyone else who can afford a school district with an average house price around $1.4 million (US).

Of course, as you'd expect with the medical analogy I began with, the higher the needs of the students involved, the worse Teach for America hurts: Linda Darling-Hammond: "It is common for these teachers to create a setting in which the kids are under very, very tight control. Special education students and non-native English speakers had the lowest academic growth rates when taught by under-qualified teachers."8

Maybe every 22 or 23-year-old university graduate I've met is a moron compared to the geniuses chosen for TFA, but perhaps, just perhaps, five weeks isn't enough for anyone to learn everything one might need to know about second language acquisition, about the range of cultures in American classrooms (a range not likely to be encountered on the campuses most TFA recruits come from), plus Aspergers, plus ADHD, plus dyslexia, plus dyscalculia, plus CAPD, plus Autism, plus EBD, plus the spectrums of all of these "issues" and the deep variety within each... well, we can't really expect these five-week wonders to do positive things for every student. I think it is a crime that many teacher preparation programs devote only one or two semester courses to the kinds of special needs students who will make up between 25% and 50% of many classrooms. And TFA with just five weeks for the entire study of education? I'm guessing those "teachers" might be missing a few facts about human difference and how those differences mesh with learning needs.

Lowering that bar

I had an email debate about 18 months ago with a dean at an Ivy League university. He's a big TFA fan. Many of the Ivy League elite are. He's not a fan of teacher preparation programs. But then, his university doesn't offer one. They don't really want to think about what teachers need as they enter the classroom, or about how students learn. They don't want to do the work of preparing better, or better equipped teachers. They, like Teach for America, want to create "leaders." Oh good.

I said to the dean, "It seems to me that an MSU teacher ed student spends almost as much time in high needs schools before certification - before beginning to teach - than TFA teachers spend in total." And he told me that was, "probably true," but MSU wasn't 'the norm.' "Wouldn't that make them at least somewhat better prepared?" I asked. He said, "TFA teachers do better than other badly trained or unqualified teachers." Yup. You can't possibly set the bar much lower than that.

Outside of the Republican Party ("You can't expect government to work!" "You can't expect leadership to be competent!") and the TFA-related KIPP Foundation, no one in America sets the bar for success lower than Teach for America.

Here is the key phrase in Teach for America's Mission Statement: "...the training and professional development necessary to ensure their success as teachers in our highest-poverty communities."9 Obviously that is not the "the training and professional development necessary to ensure their success as teachers" in the schools of those who run Teach for America. Those schools, those students, require something more. Of course those schools are filled with wealthy white kids.

Because here's the other key phrase: "The most rigorous study on Teach For America shows that corps members are having a greater impact on students than typically would be expected in a year."10 Than typically would be expected. Yes, they're doing better than a bunch of rich white elitists might expect from a bunch of stupid minority kids. Not - of course - what they'd expect from their kids, but, remember, we're devoted to the idea of "good enough for these types of children."

Let's go back to the hometowns of that TFA Board. Want to become a teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts? "Teachers are required to have a Bachelor’s degree and to hold appropriate Massachusetts teacher licensure/certification."11 Stamford, Connecticut has certification requirements and approved course lists. Tom's River, New Jersey says, "All applicants must possess a NJ LDTC Certification."12 Funny, rich white kids deserve trained, certified teachers. Of course, because rich white districts want to compare their student successes with those of the best districts in the nation. TFA and KIPP don't need trained, certified teachers. Of course they only compare themselves to the worst schools they can find.

This is colonialism at its worst. Imperial reductionism. Just as Iraqis should shut up about conditions created there by American idiocy because, "Saddam was worse!" and Black Rhodesians in the old British Empire were told to shut up because life was, "worse in the Belgian Congo," the students (and parents) offered TFA and KIPP are told to shut up because, "otherwise you get nothing at all."

Social Reproduction

TFA and KIPP embrace these very low expectations because those behind these organizations believe in elite divinity. As inheritors of wealth and privilege in America's Protestant mindset they believe that they must colonize and convert America's poor communities. Scratch the surface of the TFA and KIPP argument and you'll find these assumptions: (1) In order to become truly useful in America minority groups must become as much like white Protestant Americans as possible. (2) There are two ways to speed this conversion, through the forced compliance of repeated ritual (the KIPP school), and through appearing before these poor folks as magnificent white leaders who the poor can emulate (Teach for America).

We shouldn't be surprised. Both these efforts are standard colonial liberalism. Yes, the kind of liberalism associated with Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton and Lawrence Summers. Those born rich and powerful who will come down from their summer places to toil and sweat on behalf of the poor, who will give them the gifts of white culture, who will teach them to dress and speak and act in ways unthreatening to those in power. These people could put their efforts into the struggle to alter the circumstances of poverty - re-writing the tax code or equalizing education funding or eliminating the affirmative-action-for-the-rich which dominates Ivy League admissions and corporate hiring - but those are tough things to sell. It is so much easier to givet charity to the poor than to grant them rights.


None of this is to imply that I think America's teacher preparation programs are good. In most cases, they are not. Nor is it to imply that I do not believe in alternative certification programs, I do.

Teacher preparation programs must get much better. They must begin by revolting against the tyranny of a political system that destroys their ability to individually support learners. They must also revolt against a research funding system which defines success by measurements of industrial processing. Then they must help their future teachers to understand the vast, individually-variable world of cognition and child development. They must help them know the fullest range of possible learning routes. And they must help them to know how to fight against the ways in which schools demean and limit children.

And then they must demonstrate it. Every teacher preparation course needs to operate via universal design and differentiated instruction techniques. You can't not model these structures in every course and think that you'll ever change perceptions and practice. And every teacher preparation institution should be running at least one school which demonstrates what is possible, and must stop relying on student teaching apprenticeships which reproduce the system that we know does not work.

And every teacher preparation program must also reach out. If Teach for America actually wanted to improve the schools it is involved in, it would offer alternative routes to certification via community-located teacher training to those from those communities who have proved their commitment, but because of opportunity limitations are now working in the schools driving busses, or serving lunches, or working as classroom para-pros. Yes, I know, if they did that, Gregory's grandson wouldn't have this great line on his resume that proved how much he cared about the poor. But then, the school might have a twenty or twenty-five year teacher, a teacher who would get better and better with support and experience. And a teacher who would actually prove possibility to the children of that community.

It might also be important to note that if 5% of the endowments of the universities at the top of the contributors to the TFA corps was spent annually on actually trained, certified teachers, about 25,000 teachers costing about $150,000 per year could be added to America's schools (in other words, they could do it with a bit of their investment income). And they might be able to pay off the student loans of those teachers as well. In other words, the same people most in love with the TFA idea could solve the problem instantly, if they were willing to make a sacrifice. But that would be, a sacrifice. Instead, they choose the minimalism of charity.

So, the kind of people who now think Teach for America is "good enough for those kids," could be giving all kids the same things they want for their own rich kids. They could. But if you try to point that out they will scream at you, "This is all that's possible right now! And you want to take it away and leave the kids with nothing!" They will never actually start to discuss other ways of using the money which they control. This is important: Teach for America builds dependence - as all charity does. Re-directing resources can, on the other hand, alter the social order, and that has damn little appeal for those who currently sit at the top.

If it is a problem, it demands an actual solution

Teacher training in the United States is not good. It is almost universally conducted in ways that reinforce traditional practice - the kind that doesn't work. In-service teacher education in the United States is not good. There is not the time allotted, nor the money, nor is it situated in place and adapted for each teacher. Teacher pay - and thus teacher recruitment - in the United States is not good. If you want to attract and hold the best you must combine great pay (at least in capitalism-worshiping America) and good working conditions and a bit of status, and we rarely offer any of that. School funding in the United States is awful. The schools with the highest needs consistently have the least money, a system which guarantees a lack of social mobility.

With all those problems, Teach for America and its cheerleaders will tell you that the best solution all of their money and power can deliver is a bunch of untrained bright college graduates sent to be teachers of poor kids for two or three years.

"They" could do different things. "They" - those who fund and run TFA - could fight for real change, or they could use their own wealth and the wealth of the endowments of their favorite universities to fund real change. "They" - those young academic stars who join TFA - could volunteer or accept VISTA-like positions in schools across America, working in classrooms with small student groups, serving as one-to-one student support, providing curriculum extensions in schools which do not have a variety of extra programs, painting and repairing the buildings, driving students without dependable parental transportation to charter schools which might be better individual fits, watching playgrounds, supporting teacher and classroom technology use. But none of that would fit the political or social needs of those involved in TFA. Those actions might not be proof of their inherent superiority, and those actions might not look the same on a resume.

But I think there are better solutions. Just as I know that KIPP is "just good enough for the poor" because Greenwich, Connecticut's schools don't operate that way, I know that TFA is "just good enough for the poor" because Scarsdale, New York doesn't pick teachers that way. And I just don't believe anything that actually encourages the gap between rich and poor in America to be any sort of solution at all.

I think that Teach for America hurts the most vulnerable students in America, not just because it asserts that untrained short-term teachers are "good enough," but because it pretends the easy solution. A solution without sacrifice for the haves in the United States.

But if you feel differently, I'll happily sign you up for the nearest Doctors for America hospital. Trust us. We're bright, we're committed, we've got a bachelors degree in economics - I'm sure your operation will go just fine. Or if not that, perhaps you'd like to drive across the bridge built by our new Engineers for America. You could get there by flying with Pilots for America.

If it's good enough for you to recommend it, shouldn't you risk your life, our your child's life, to prove your point?

- Ira Socol

1 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/mission/mission_and_approach.htm with a few words changed.
2 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/teaching/becoming_exceptional_teacher.htm with a few words changed.
3 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/training.htm#institute_overview with a few words changed.
4 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/training.htm#institute_overview with a few words changed.
5 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/about/our_boards.htm
6 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospital_Corpsman
7 - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/realestate/18livi.html
8 - http://daily.stanford.edu/article/2005/4/15/studyRaisesQuestionsAboutTeachForAmerica
9 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/mission/mission_and_approach.htm without changes.
10 - http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/teaching/becoming_exceptional_teacher.htm without changes.
11 - http://www.cpsd.us/HR/Emp_Overview.cfm
12 - http://www.trschools.com/administration/employmentops.asp

Blog Alert! On BBC-Ouch! Goldfish sums up this year's Blogging Against Disabilism Day.
at Schooling Inequality there's a look at some of the recent blogosphere Social Justice debates.
Paul Hamilton on Flypaper. Lon Thornburg on the new text-to-speech phone from Kurzweil.
Karen Janowski's essential Thought for the Day. James Hollis has a great new IWB application.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

16 May 2008

An inability to understand

powered by ODEO
interview with Melinda Pongrey of LDLive - 16 May 2008

[warning, the following might be less than fully coherently written]

When I present I sometimes tell the story of the star.

A long time ago I met with a special education teacher about a student we were providing technology for. As we were talking I was doodling, and I drew a star.

"If he saw that," the teacher asked, pointing to the star, "could he copy it?" I said that I was sure he could, in fact, that given his art skills, he could copy almost any picture. "Then why," she asked, leaning over, writing the word "star" in lower case print letters, "if I write this, he can't type it for me."

And in that moment I discovered something. I discovered why "this" - with "this" being special education or education itself - so rarely "works." It rarely works, I realized, because the two 'sides' - teacher and student - often have such radically different views of the universe that communication becomes impossible. In the decade since this revelation has been reinforced a thousand times.

"Well," I said to the teacher, "first, I don't think he sees words as individual letters, just as pictographs. Little images which might mean something. So he doesn't separate that out automatically into letters, and the keyboard doesn't have a "star" key." She looked at me puzzled, and I knew why. Teachers spent so much time being beaten with reading strategies that they have forgotten the obvious. Almost none of us "read letters." we read "word shapes" - pictographs - logograms - sinographs - whatever - every bit as much in alphabetic languages as in a language like Chinese. But we lie to students about it every day.

This is why you can read those emails you get where the interior letters of the words are all scrambled, but you can still read all the words because nobody actually reads using phonics or by sounding things out, you read by knowing - the better a reader you are the more automatic this is - that this picture - teacher (you'd recognize it even if looked like "taecher") - means something different than this picture - student. Just as you do not sound out the letters when you see a McDonald's or a BP sign. But, as I just said, we lie to students about this every day. We lie to them so much we actually convince ourselves of what we are saying.

So, no "star" key on the computer, but I had to point something else out. "Even if he could break that picture apart into letters," I told the teacher, "those letters aren't on the keyboard - well, only one of them is." She looked at me like I was crazy. I still do this, I ask teachers all the time, "What letters aren't on the keyboard?" On a very good day one out of thirty will figure it out.

I had to pick up a keyboard to demonstrate. "That 's" is there," I said, "but I don't see anything like the t, a, or r. And he doesn't know that those lower case letters match up."

That's something else we lie to students about. We tell them that there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Just about every struggling students know what a massive lie that is. There are lots of different symbols which represent the same thing and we have to memorize all these pictures - surely if we're trying to "sound things out." And that can be very difficult, because alphabetic language is a code system, just as musical notation and Morse Code are. The only difference is that those follow some logical structure, and the alphabet, especially as used in English, is just random nonsense with various sounds assigned randomly to various letters, depending on the word. As I sometimes say, it is as if the numeral "1" meant "one" if presented by itself, but meant "thirty-four" if it followed a "3" or "six" if it came before a "5."

Which is why most of us, almost every one of us, reads by word shape, or what educators call "sight word recognition."

But teachers live in a world constructed one way. A world in which phonics matters (if phonics worked in English, it would obviously be spelled differently), in which the alphabet contains 26 symbols, in which reading means decoding a series of letters printed in ink on paper, in which drawing a picture of a star is a less valid method of saying "star" than typing the word "star" on a keyboard.

And students live in a world constructed entirely differently. A world in which, though we say they can't read, they have no problem distinguishing McDonald's from Burger King simply by the sign. A world in which, outside of the classroom, they seem quite capable of communicating. A world in which they can gather a ton of information and knowledge every day without ever looking at letters in ink on paper. A world in which - to be quite honest - they are far better equipped to do everything from learn how their mobile works to following Ikea assembly instructions than most of their teachers are.

So teachers look at students and see an inability to succeed in things that have always - obviously - been important, even essential. And students look at teachers and see people lying - and not just lying - lying about things which seem obviously irrelevant.

This starts at the beginning of school with the alphabet. Because the kids know that they really don't need to sound out letters to recognize words - they've already been recognizing words for years. And it ends at university where students get knocked for "bad" citations even though every student knows that the only valuable citation is the hyperlink to where the source material lies.

To illustrate: On my last post an anonymous commenter said, "The idea of an illiterate pilot or paramedic is absolutely frightening. How, for example, can an illiterate person give the right dosage of the right medicine in an injection ("Quick, inject 30 ccs of morphine!" "Uhhhh....which one of these is morphine and how can I tell what 30 ccs is?")."

I have no way of knowing, of course, but this sure sounds like "an educator." An educator who lives in that bizarre self-constructed world of academics. Few otherwise might make the kinds of mistakes he or she makes.

Having worked, once upon a time, in emergency medicine, I can tell you that the last thing you want a paramedic doing is stopping to read the vial - perhaps sounding "mmmm-or-puh-hee-n" out phonetically. What you want is someone who knows what that vial looks like and feels like, and where it is, and can grab it every single time in, just as an example, a barely lighted corridor or a dark street corner with their eyes fixed on the patient. You even want someone who can eyeball 30 cc rather than taking the time to read the gradations. And you want the information flowing among the professionals in the clearest, easiest to understand communications system - which is whatever communications system the receiver prefers. Speak it to me, text it to him.

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous (or who knows? maybe Dr. Anonymous) actually thinks that we all operate daily in "book reading" form. But few of us do. We gather information multiple ways, we create meaning out of many things. We remember in many ways. And if people were really helping to help us learn, they would help us to find the paths we need to walk to know what we need to know.

But instead schools lie about how people learn and communicate, or, as the Anonymous commenter does (see, again, the post below), we insult. We say, "he's illiterate" and we limit his or her possibilities. We make things hard when we could be making them - if not easy - much easier. But we don't make the efforts because we're really, really bad at understanding each other. Instead, we're constantly trying to force our students to do it our way.

Could we do it other ways? Consider just a couple of ways of seeing things from the struggling end-users point of view:

Last week a student told me that when he is at home on line he copies the text of websites, pastes it into Word, and makes the letters big enough so that there are only a few words on a line. "then I don't get lost," he told me. "Wow," I said, "did they teach you that in school?" "No," he told me. "Do they let you do that in class?" I asked. "No," he said, "we don't use computers in class."

"I recognize a lot more words on paper since I've been using WYNN," a college student told me recently, echoing something I hear a great deal. "It really helps because I used to just freeze when I got to new words, but now I hear them and see them and it kind of goes all together."

"I made the keyboard labels with both upper and lower case letters on them," a teacher told me last year, "the kids love them. It has made a big difference."

"He's just been dictating to that computer for a week now," another teacher said about a fourth grader we'd armed with speech recognition. "He used to just sit there and throw things at the other kids, now he's completely engaged."

"Thanks for the Reading Pen," a nurse emailed me. "I don't run across stuff I struggle with often, but knowing that I can pull this out of my pocket and make sure I'm right makes a giant difference."

"You type faster on your phone," a friend told me. "Yeah," I said, "I love the word prediction, I don't worry about spelling." "Someone needs to develop a free iTap system for regular computers," he said.

"Thanks for turning me onto Jott," a social worker told me, "No one could ever read my handwriting before and so I'd have to come back from these field visits and type everything up. Now I just drive speaking into my headset, and I send the notes right to the secretary."

"I can't believe how much I've come to depend on audiobooks," a friend says, "My reading was getting limited because my eyes hurt at the end of the day. I never thought I'd be the one sitting with an iPod all evening, but that's what I do now."

Next time, when faced with a student who is struggling to do it "your way," think about this. Is "your way" really the only way? Can this student even see "your way"? Or is there a different way that's needed because the world looks different from "over there"?

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

14 May 2008

Seven Simple Solutions - but first - a story

It's nice out, and I'm tired of being inside and being angry. The philosophy of education can make my head hurt. And so can the low expectations of supposed liberals with limited agendas for change. So let me tell a short story first, and then repeat a few simple ways to begin changing possibilities.

in a city in Michigan

They come up to me, afterwards, and begin to ask all the questions they will not ask in front of others - not in front of their friends, surely not in front of their teachers. "I want to be..." they begin, or, "I want to go..." or, "I want to do..." and then, "How can I?" or, "Is there a way?" or, "Is there anything that can help me?"

These children have been in school in America - that most powerful nation on earth - that wealthiest of societies - that preacher of equality of opportunity - they have been in school in America for over ten or eleven or even twelve years, and they have received nothing but a list of their limitations. Every day they are measured by the ways that they cannot be exactly like their teachers or those who rule the nation. They cannot hear the same way. they cannot see the same way. They cannot walk the same way, or read the same way, or understand the same way. They might simply not be able to sit still the same way, or they may have been born into a culture that does not see the universe exactly in the same terms that Protestant White people do. And so, in ten, or eleven, or even twelve years they have received nothing but a list of their limitations.

"I want to be a pilot," a boy named Saddam says. "I have been getting flight time with the father of a friend, I am getting very good, I have landed the plane myself already, but I cannot read the Ground School books." I tell him we can get him software that can read these technical books to him. I give him the name of the software. I give him copies of my card and tell him to have both his school teacher and the Ground School to get in touch with me. And I work hard not to say the other things - that this software has been easily available for a dozen years, longer than he has been in school, but those in charge of his education have been too lazy and careless to get it for him. And I do not say that sadly, this third generation American from the heartland of American industrial democracy will have a hard time getting a pilot's job no matter what because probably half of Americans are too stupid to separate this boy's name and religion from their prejudices.

"I have this phone," another boys asks, through a Sign Language interpretor. He holds up a smartphone, the basic lifetool for the deaf in the 21st Century. "Can I get the school to let me use it in school and to unblock their computers so teachers can text message stuff to me?" And I suggest how he and his parents might argue for this. I send him links to the law, my computer to his phone. We talk by text for twenty minutes. I do not say that American institutions of secondary education - like the prisons they most closely resemble - are far more concerned with control and security than anyone's learning - especially his.

"The electric door on the cafeteria broke last year and they say they're still trying to fix it, and I can't get to the bathroom without announcing it and asking friends for help." Again, I bring up the law, and I quickly look up a local advocacy group and recommend it. But I don't say that I am quite sure that if the football stadium's scoreboard broke, it would be fixed immediately, and so would the superintendent of school's laptop, and it is
simply that this young women counts for less than others in her community.

"They told me that I couldn't become a paramedic because they wouldn't let me have a reader on the certification test." And all I can say is that, unless things change where he lives, that he may have to cross state lines to a "higher rights" state, or cross the border, which really is not far, and go to a more progressive nation. "Don't let being born here," I tell him, "stop you."

But I know that being born here can stop kids. It can stop them cold. It can stop them dead. America since the e
lection of Ronald Reagan has fallen completely out of the top twenty major nations in social mobility. If you are born poor you will be poor. If you are born with a disability you will be uneducated and you will be poor. If your parents have not been to college you will not finish college. If you are born to the wrong zip code there is a 95% chance that you will never succeed, if you even manage to live to age eighteen.

And while the United States has become a place of inherited wealth and privilege it has ratcheted up the myths of opportunity, thus blaming the poor, the disabled, and those whom prejudice traps for the results of cruel government policy that robs from the poor to enrich those who already have so much.

But I cannot say any of that right here. The people who have invited me are lovely. They are all on the right side. Thi
s is not the place to begin a revolution. Those who make the rules that have crushed these children - they are not here. They are not listening. They are too busy handing their money to politicians who will guarantee the future of their tax breaks, too busy buying huge televisions and expensive cars, too busy making sure that neither their kitchen nor their bathrooms look anything but up-to-date. With all that to take care of, they have nothing to share with kids in need.

story copyright 2007-2008 by Ira Socol

Seven Simple Solutions (we have to start somewhere)

Not to make the whole day depressing. Let me repeat a few simple solutions to the most common struggles I see among all kids in schools. Free solutions, and - yes, just so you can start a fight at your local school by quoting me - if your school does not have all these installed and/or linked on every computer - they are guilty of educational malpractice. They are guilty of deciding that access is not important. They are guilty of intentionally leaving children behind.

No school official should ever be allowed to complain about the cost of accommodations until all the free stuff is installed everywhere in the school. If they start to complain, just tell them to shut up and start downloading.


The Firefox Add-On from Charles L. Chen that makes text on-line accessible to almost every LD student and supports sight-word development. The brilliant simplicity of the three button toolbar, which can fit write into the Firefox bookmark bar or be presented larger separately, allows it to work for students with a very wide range of skills. When combined with Google Docs this system can even allow students to hear their own writing read back to them.


A wonderful new tool offering free text-to-speech within Microsoft Word. Stunningly simple to use. Again, not just a reading support, but a writing support as well. (Thanks to the CALL Centre)


The spellcheck system that most of us need, ghotit.com actually helps to fix the types of spelling and word errors most students - especially dyslexics and English Language Learners - make. It indicates misspelled words and misused words and links corrections to definitions. All you need is a link in your bookmark bar to give your students a real chance at spelling and correct word use.


Full Measure's PowerTalk is a brilliant solution for the visually impaired and the dyslexic. It reads the PowerPoint slides to you.

AutoCorrect in Microsoft Word

Someone at the Szentannai Samuel Mezogazdasagi Szakkozepiskola Gimnazium Es Kollegium in Hungary was reading my post about mobiles in classrooms the other day. I thought, "I wouldn't want to write or type that every day." Nor, of course, do I want to type the name of my university every time. So I use what's built into Microsoft Word - the AutoCorrect feature. I've created four to six letter "quick key" combos which result in commonly used names and phrases appearing in my Word docs. It is as easy as going into the "Tools" Menu, going to "AutoCorrect Options," putting your quick key combination in the left box and the result you want in the right box. Instructions are here and here. And instructions for duplicating, transferring, or copying those lists are here.


Right click translations for anything highlighted in Firefox. Hard to beat for Language Learners or anyone trying to globalize a curriculum.


A complete graphing calculator for free, but that isn't what's great. What's great is that students who struggle to get maths written properly can simply grab the screen from Graph-Calc and paste it - calculations and/or graphs - right into a word processing document for homework, classwork, or tests.

- Ira Socol

a post worth reading from Unlocking The Classroom - The Surge Against First Graders - this goes well with the debate at Ms. Mercer's Blog on colonialism, and the link between how neo-conservatives treat the world, and treat children other than their own.
(original Huffington Post article)

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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