29 September 2008

Learning Styles

What is "rain"?

Is it a word? an idea? a bit of science? something to drink? the thought of being cold? food for crops?

For me, first and foremost, it is a sound. It is a specific sound on an uninsulated roof as I lay in an attic, a Hudson's Bay Blanket pulled over my head.

Oh sure, I've learned the other concepts over the years, but at the core of my understanding "rain" is a sound, and a particular kind of moment surrounded by that sound, and every other idea of "rain" has to first go through my original way of comprehending it.

I don't know if I'm a "visual learner" or an "auditory learner." Maybe I am an "atmospheric learner" - ideas, if I am to efficiently take them in and process them, must form into a "vision" that includes many, if not all, of the senses. I am not "sensorally confused" - I do not "smell green" rather than see it - but I do picture the operations of mathematics. It makes arithmetic very hard for me but mathematical concepts much easier. And even in arithmetic I do far better without paper in front of me, those numeric symbols confuse, they are not the images I need.

On Sunday Paul Hamilton asked me to react to a YouTube presentation by Dr. Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia.

Dr. Willingham is many things I am not. He is a distinguished faculty member at one of America's most prestigious universities. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (from Harvard). And he seems to be a conservative educational theorist as one of his primary activities, based on a quick look through some of his publications. One of his ideas is "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise." By "conservative" I suggest that he might be a modernist, rationalist, believer in scientism.

For Dr. Willingham might suspect me of being not only "not sufficiently credentialed," but also a dreaded "post modernist" who doubts all reality. And he might be right. But, let's first look at Dr. Willingham's assault on the notion of "Learning Styles."

Dr. Willingham does not claim any new or original research. He describes this as "summarizing about 50 years of research conducted by 100's [sic] of other investigators." And he acknowledges that very few people agree with him. Although, in truth, almost the entire educational establishment behaves as if it agrees with him.

I am not saying that Dr. Willingham is wrong in his analysis of others' work (though I commented that he didn't know what he was talking about). Within the very narrow definitions he creates of "knowledge," "comprehension," "understanding," and "learning" - all definitions unconsciously developed to match his own personal understandings of these "ideas" - he might be completely right. Of course he has chosen the studies to analyze. He has chosen how to read those studies. He has chosen the definitions of the concepts that he will study. If I say I am studying "the value of currencies over the past year," and I choose to study only the Euro and Euro-linked currencies, I will demonstrate that "the value of currencies has increased."

Where I think he runs off the rails is his attempt to use this analysis educationally. "Good teaching is good teaching," he says, providing the ultimate comfort to the unchanging lecturer or the AP classroom teacher whose students all get "4" or above after reading the book straight through. How wonderful to discover - to scientifically prove! - that a teacher need not respond to student difference in teaching.

And this is the pure colonialism of his argument. It reminds me of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "One City" policing strategy. From a "pure" viewpoint, why would anyone imagine that public safety needs in Crown Heights might differ from public safety needs in Greenwich Village? That is, from 5,000 feet up and looking down, as modernist scientist is trained to, humans look very similar and so do communities. Down on the ground, of course, it looks very different. Scientific Imperialism designs conceptions of humanity in ways that make a certain type of white Protestant male "the norm" - and that norm's understandings the norms.

That said, even science - hard science - can see things in other ways.

Functional MRIs (fMRIs) suggest great learning differences among humans. Since at least the Eden-NIMH study of 1996 fMRIs have shown the different people process learning in radically different ways in terms of which regions of the brain are utilized. fMRIs also indicate that learning, and ways of learning, alter the brain in definitive ways (Maguire, Woollett, and Spiers, 2006). So even if Dr. Willingham were completely correct, and all humans began with the exact same brain processing system, the evidence is very strong that that equipment is significantly varied by the time children enter school - a point in time which follows life's most rapid period of learning.

Dr. Willingham has argued with me that the brain scans prove nothing. He suggests that though different brain regions are activated differently by similar stimuli applied to different people, there is no proof that this means that "learning styles" exist. And from this negative assumption he seeks to assure teachers they may continue their industrial processing of students, as long as their processing is "good."

Which should make bad teachers everywhere happy. If a student doesn't learn, Dr. Willingham infers, it is not a mismatch of instructional strategy and learning style, it is simple the student's fault.

A long time ago there was a joke about a Microsoft engineer who joined the army. On the rifle range his target remained untouched no matter how many shots he fired. When approached by the instructor, he held his finger over the barrel and pulled the trigger, blowing his finger off.

"It's working here," he told the instructor, "the problem must be at the other end."

When I heard Dr. Willingham pronounce that "Good teaching is good teaching," that's the joke I immediately thought of.

I hope it rains tonight. I really need the sound.

- Ira Socol

26 September 2008

What is Childhood Anyway?

Mickybo and Me, Wendy and Dorothy, Rousseau and Wesley

a slightly re-written version of a response I wrote this week to a series of readings regarding how we understand childhood.

In the 2004 film Mickybo and Me1 two children, trapped by the violence and corruption of the adult world beyond them, flee mid-1970s Belfast for a fling of adventure and delinquency across County Down in the southeast corner of Northern Ireland.

As in J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (Peter Pan), the return to the adult world proves to be a negative experience. In this case, disastrous for the “Peter” character (Mickybo), while for the “Wendy” character (JonJo, the “me”) it is, as expected, simply sad and disappointing.

These visions of childhood are, obviously, deeply at odds with the more familiar vision, represented by everything from The Wizard of Oz, to television programs like Rugrats, to Home Alone. Though all of these also present children out on their own having unforgettable adventures, there is no doubt that safety and happiness lie in the return of the children to their families.

Do adults train/save/create children or do adults corrupt children?

When I began my graduate program in education I firmly believed that, for most children in the United States, not going to school would be better for them than going to school, so I probably find myself firmly on Rousseau’s side in the 17th Century's “Natural Child” debate. That debate, which has truly continued right through today, pitted those like John Wesley - "break the will of your child," "bring his will into subjection to yours that it may be afterward subject to the will of God" - against Jean Jacques Rousseau who "captured the imagination of Europe with his validation of nature, which espoused the natural goodness of children and the corrupting effects of certains kinds of education."2

Reading the "histories of childhood," and I suppose viewing them as I probably view everything, through lenses which analyze power relationships, I find myself struck by the formalization of an adult structure which, at least over the past 400 years, has been committed to “saying anything” that will ensure both the powerlessness of all children and strict definition of children not comfortably willing to accept complete social reproduction as “evil.”

This is even true when society deals with the counter-archetype. Peter Pan Syndrome suggests social immaturity and dependence, despite Barrie’s Peter Pan character being exceedingly competent and functionally independent. The play Peter Pan is most commonly presented with a woman performing the lead role of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees," a role which might otherwise evoke significant power, including a pre-adolescent sexuality. Is the strength of this young male character diminished when that part is filled by Sandy Duncan or Cathy Rigby?

I am forced to ask, are children powerful? They must be, if, for example, they require the levels of discipline and punishment that are part of family life, school life, and religious life in so much of American society. Without strength and power the molding process would be easy, and seemingly far more universally successful.

But if children are powerful, why do they need such elaborate protections? Especially from their own actions? In Mickybo and Me, in Peter Pan, though the children put themselves into stunningly risky situations, they survive every one. They do not need magic (The Wizard of Oz), or accident (Rugrats), or the police (Home Alone) to provide the critical rescue. But a parent or a school embracing the Peter Pan myth would likely be accused of child neglect, at the least.

Are children born evil? The thrust of Oz and Home Alone is that children get into trouble, head off into these adventures, because they are problematic children in the first place. Misunderstood, yes, but problematic at the core. Dorothy is unable to reasonably control her dog (or her ambitions), then runs away from home. Kevin is a terror. Both are subjected to trials which teach them the error of their ways. These tales seem driven by the Christian orthodoxy of original sin, and are very different from both Peter Pan and Mickybo, where parental actions push the children to discover paths outside the prescribed norms. (The problem begins for Mickybo in the sectarian hatred of Northern Ireland, for Wendy, it begins with the father’s vanity, “He had his position in the city to consider. Nana also troubled him in another way. He had sometimes a feeling that she did not admire him.”)

But if children are not born evil, why is school seen as a conversion process? Why do children need so many rules, schedules, controls?

On the other side, if Peter Pan and Mickybo are right, if the adult world corrupts a somewhat perfect natural state, what does that imply for society, for us as parents, for us as educators?

Because if we argue that children are innocent and vulnerable, then would not schools look radically different? Would discipline and coercion really be the dominant themes? And if we argue that children are both powerful and evil, then we surely need to re-imagine our roles as liberal parents. But if we argue, as we often seem to, that children are innocent (please protect them from sexualized thoughts), vulnerable (do not let them out of our sight), evil (they will get away with anything if you allow it), and powerful (you have no idea how much trouble they can create), we are simply mimicking the absurd arguments of colonialists – which, of course, may have been spun from early concepts of childhood itself. That is, you make whatever argument you must, at this moment, to defend your control over another human.

That seems wrong to me, though I wouldn't suggest that I know of any obvious solution to all this.

- Ira Socol

1 which is based on Owen McCafferty’s play Mojo Mickybo http://www.backstage.com/bso/news_reviews/nyc/review_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003850925

2 Hendrick, Harry. (1997) Constructions and Reconstructions of British Childhood: An Interpretative Survey, 1800 to the Present. In James and Prout (eds), Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. Falmer, New York and London. p. 36

20 September 2008


OK, John McCain, who has, according to his own words, "spent 26 years working on US Foreign Policy," may or may not know who the Prime Minister of Spain is. If he does know, as his spokesman insists, he can probably kiss Spanish support for his pet projects, NATO expansion and more troops for Afghanistan goodbye. If he doesn't, well, he's a product of American schools. I doubt he knew who the Governor of Alaska was before mid August either.

But what is more troubling is that McCain "foreign policy adviser/spokesman," Randy Scheunemann, does not know what kind of government this large NATO ally has. "Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," Scheunemann said in an email to the Washington Post.

Amazing. Spain, hmmm, let me check Wikipedia. It has a King, and it has a Prime Minister. It is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. I don't think Spain actually has a President. But what do I know? I haven't been working on Foreign Policy for 26 years.

Oh, that's right. Unlike John McCain and his staff I do know how to "do a Google." So maybe I'm right and the guy running for President based on his knowledge and experience is wrong.

Could be.

But I know more than how to "do a Google."I have enough basic knowledge of the world and its people, from my schools, from my family, from my friends, that I can use the technology available to me effectively. So honestly, if you had asked me to name the Prime Minister of Spain, I would have had to look it up, and I would have, from my computer or my phone. If you had asked, "Is Zapatero the Prime Minister of Spain?" I would probably have said, "sounds right, but let me check." But if you had said, "Who is the President of Spain?" I would have known that there is no such thing. Even if I wasn't sure of the Spanish parliamentary system, I'd be pretty sure that Spain had a King, and I'd be pretty sure that very few nations have people titled both "King" and "President."

So what's the point? You know I wouldn't vote for John McCain for anything.

The point is that I think there is some basic level of knowledge that even Americans need to have when they leave school. No, I don't expect them to be able to pass a GCSE (really folks, if you're an American educator, check that link out), education just is not that important in the United States. But I would hope they could function as adults in the world. I would hope that, in addition to being able to add 12+3, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they could not look like fools whenever they came into contact with the other 95% of the planet's population. This would help us all, because (a) it isn't good if 95% of humanity thinks we're idiots, and (b) we need all those people to keep lending us money, or our dollar will look like Brasilian currency in 1999.

Anyway, we build this knowledge slowly, and in steps. If you don't know, say around eight-years-old, that human governments are choices which vary, that people speak different languages, that there are different religions, different kinds of story-telling, different kinds of cultures, you probably can't coherently assemble the kinds of differences when you are twelve. And if you can't do that at twelve, at sixteen you are simply not going to have the knowledge framework necessary to build a working understanding of the earth. No, the specifics of age are not that important, but the path is. And honestly, these can be more difficult concepts to assemble than simple maths or even English grammar.

And this is especially true for "Special Ed" students. Students getting "special help" are almost always getting that help in what Americans call "the basics" or the bizarrely named "three Rs." And they get this help at the expense of time spent with content and culture. Leaving them far behind even the typical American student in their ability to engage with, and succeed in, this increasingly interconnected and complex world.

Which, to get to my point (finally), is why effective, interactive technology in education is so vital. Students need access to content (and the cultural components of that) even if they cannot yet access that content "the traditional way." Even if they need the computer to read their books to them, or a foreign newspaper to them. Even if they need to see a YouTube clip, or listen to a distant radio station on line rather than dealing in text at all. Even if a Skype call to a classroom in another nation is the only way to really engage their thinking. Even if sharing mobile phone videos with kids in other places is the best way.

Even, yes, if that pulls a few hours a week away from phonics and drill and kill arithmetic.

And while they are engaged in this way they will be learning the technology tools which will support them all of their lives. They will know how to search out information before the interview (on the subject and the interviewer), they will know how to ask for help from an always on network. They will know how to "do a Google" even from their mobile phone. They might learn about the value of Wikipedia ("What type of government does Spain have?"), or the definition and translation tools built into Firefox, or that Merriam-Webster's online dictionary speaks all words, or how to best use Google Maps or Google Earth.

Because the problem with John McCain (and his team) is not simply that he does not know the who and how of our closest allies' governments, or the difference between Shi'as and Sunnis, or even cause and effect. The problem is also that he (they) do not know how to get answers to these questions in real time, in a way which might prevent small problems from exploding.

Don't let that happen to any of our kids. Make sure they have the knowledge they need, especially about the tools which will let them access the knowledge they need, when they need it.

- Ira Socol

15 September 2008

"and we love him anyway"

I don't want Sarah Palin as an advocate in the White House for "special needs" children.

OK, I don't want a right-wing politician who thinks war is fun, and that Alaska should secede from the US, and who lies every time she speaks, to be anywhere near the White House for all sorts of obvious reasons, but that's not what I'm saying here.

I am saying that I do not want someone with her view of "disability" advocating for anyone who is perceived as "different." Because Sarah Palin pities people who are different. And because Sarah Palin thinks she deserves special thanks for treating people with "disabilities" as if they are human.

Governor Palin has chosen to make this an issue. She not only prominently displayed her "special needs" infant when her candidacy was announced, she dragged the child (along with an adolescent daughter and her "redneck" boyfriend, both of whom might have preferred a bit of privacy as they deal with an "unexpected"1 pregnancy) to her acceptance speech and made a big point of her role as a "special needs mother" in that speech.

She hasn't really spoken of it much since, which is logical, since Governor Palin opposes all the things which might "normalize" life for "special needs" children - universal health insurance, increased K-12 education funding, requiring school voucher accepting schools to accept all applicants on an equal basis, mass transit funding improvements which would improve mobility, and public housing assistance. But she still wants credit for it.

But she wants credit for her status with voters. She wants special credit indeed for choosing not to abort her child, and she wants special credit for loving her child even though he is different.

Well, Governor - lots of Americans have chosen to have children who might be different, and lots of us think of them not as "special needs" but simply as "children." You don't get special credit simply because you gave birth to a child, you get credit for what you do for children. And perhaps the very first thing a parent should not do, is to literally hold their child up in front of the world and declare, "there's something wrong with him!"

Sarah Palin claims she will be an "advocate" - so the question is, an advocate for what?

Will she advocate for free or extremely affordable universal health insurance that would guarantee equal access to pre-natal, post-natal, well-baby- and preventative child care?

Will she advocate for free or extremely affordable universal health insurance that would keep parents healthy, and thus able to properly care for their children?

Will she advocate for parental leave for all employees which would allow every parent to care for a child's needs without fear of losing their job, health insurance, and/or home?

Will she advocate for the massive increase in K-12 education funding needed to allow every public school in America to fully embrace universal design?

Will she advocate for dramatically improved teacher salaries so our best and brightest students might tend to choose education as their field rather than Wall Street?

Will she advocate for a requirement that any school receiving any public money whatsoever accept all students on an equal basis and provide transportation?

Will she advocate for massive mass transit funding increases which might allow those not blessed with physical and economic driving capabilities to live and work where they want?

Will she advocate for public universities doing more than the absolute minimum for "disabled" students? (I'm sorry, but the disabilities "guide" from the University of Alaska isn't even an accessible PDF)

Will she advocate for universally enforced accessible housing standards?

Will she advocate for improved housing affordability for those in poverty (who, of course, include many disabled adults)?

These are the things which will change things for children who are different. Really, these are the only things that will truly offer access to success, equality, and independence. Unfortunately, every one of these things is opposed by the platform and policies of the US Republican Party.

So my assumption is that Sarah Palin's advocacy will be photo-op advocacy. Just as she thinks she knows Russia because she has looked across the Bering Strait, and just as she thinks she knows Iraq because she held a rifle in Kuwait, she will "support" the disability community by appearing at sympathy evoking events, and by talking about how she "understands."

But Governor, we don't want your sympathy. We want your action. You claim to be "independent." Good, demonstrate that. Embrace at least Obama's health care plan and his education plan, or, preferably, go further. Say that John McCain was wrong to vote against taxing extremely rich people a bit more to fund education which works for all children. Declare that any school which does not provide full equal educational opportunity for all children will not just lose any public funding, but will lose their tax-free status.

And please Governor Palin, please - stop announcing to the world all that is wrong with your child. It demeans your child, it demeans you, and it merely reminds us of how far America has to go before it truly stands for equality of opportunity.

- Ira Socol

1 - If Barack Obama had brought a pregnant teenage daughter and her child's father - say a black high school senior who had described himself as a "f---in n-----" on his Facebook page - onto the Democratic Convention stage I imagine Fox News folks might have used other words to describe the situation.

10 September 2008

Back to the Future

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said [Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County]. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”

In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine an article by Clive Thompson on The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy explored the experience of Facebook and Twitter et al and came to this interesting conclusion - the change in social connections brought on by new media technologies may not be "de-normalising" anything, rather, we may be experiencing a "re-normalisation" after a couple of centuries of a very strange social experiment.

"This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business. Young people at college are the ones to experience this most viscerally, because, with more than 90 percent of their peers using Facebook, it is especially difficult for them to opt out." Thompson writes. And whether this is "good" or "bad" is really not a question we can answer. Instead it is a fact of life we will deal with, as surely as the denizens of Peyton Place were controlled by the stories which spread through that semi-fictional town, as certainly as all the people of Artigat truly knew who was who when "Martin Guerre" returned.

“You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! [Tufekci said] If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”

Thompson's article is part of a growing re-learning which is taking place everywhere except within US academia. People are starting to see the last 300 years as - perhaps - an aberration, and not as the end all, be all of human progress. Linear thinking, linear literacy, individual literacy, formalized, industrialized schooling, urban isolation and privacy, absolute communication rules, the primacy of print as the medium of information exchange, the classroom, the novel, the system of credentials itself - all the standards of "educated culture," all the inventions of the past half millennia which so many now accept as historical inevitabilities, are threatened by new technologies and by the "new" human information and communication modes - modes which bear a striking similarity the systems which existed before Luther, before Calvin, before Gutenberg.

Think about this - before this "modern age" most communication was both multimedia and flexible. Images and text, voice and gesture all combined, and all was adapted as it passed user to user (that "nightmare" of Wikipedia style knowledge). Information was altered for the audience at hand (no one ever performed the entire Iliad, the components were chosen which connected the tale to the place of performance), and adjusted for the needs of the "learner." No book created by a scribe was ever exactly the same as the book he had copied, and a "reader" looking at The Arch of Titus or the Temple of Dendur or the Cathedral in Rheims would begin their engagement in the story at the point of their choosing.

Self education was accepted. Nobody asked Alexander Hamilton why he dropped out of Kings College. Gutenberg, of course, lacked any sort of "communications engineering" credential. And information was spread by many sources who established their authority through repeated reliability. Literacy had value, so did memory, so did the ability to judge the quality of sources, so did the ability to discriminate among many fragments of data coming at you - from the shape of approaching clouds to the rumours spread by your neighbor.

I'm not going to deny the limitations of this world of human communication, but maybe there's something inherently "natural" in the rhythms and systems of communications both "pre" and "post" Gutenberg. And maybe the ways in which learning takes place outside of "the modern era" have some real value, at least for the mass of children who have never succeeded in the isolated, linear, rationalist, constructed environment which has defined learning these past two centuries.

It's at least worth considering, right? Even if it threatens the sense of self we have built within that constructed environment.

- Ira Socol

05 September 2008

Learning to give up...


I gave my class a group activity. Part of the assigned reading for the week had been a very small segment of Mark Haddon's brilliant book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. In the segment the narrator Christopher had mentioned his tutor, Siobhan.

So I put "Siobhan" up on the screen. "How is this pronounced?" I asked. "See-oh-ban" one student said. A number of others agreed. "Anyone disagree?" One woman raised her hand, "I think it's 'Shee-vahn,'" she offered. "That it is," I said. And now I turned back to those who had "sounded it out" incorrectly. "Imagine that I had come into class, pointed to you, and asked, "Tell us your view of Shee-vahn's attitude toward education?" You would have thought, "Who?" You would have been embarrassed. You would feel that the class was unfair."

Then I pointed out the obvious. Teachers do this to their students every day.

I continued. I gave them
a series of Irish names (place and person) to sound out:
Baile Atha Cliath




Dun Laoghaire

performing a simplified version of a simulation used by Florida State's Joseph Torgeson (who uses Hebrew).

Most of the students tried Baile Atha Cliath, none found their way to the pronunciation. One woman got Cobh by applying the lessons learned from Siobhan, but instead of encouraging the others this seemed to frustrate almost everyone else - they just could not see it. By the time we got to Comhghall, the entire class had given up, though one student, having been to Ireland, knew Dun Laoghaire, which brought looks of contempt from others not blessed with prior knowledge.

An unfair test? It's a different language after all, with different rules, the students couldn't be expected to be familiar, it's very hard.

Which, of course, was my point. It is very hard. And if we do not use every means possible to help students build their sight-word vocabulary, if we do not help level the field for those lacking certain resources (parents with knowledge, parents who can afford to supply resources, native skills for learning these tasks, etc), we make the teaching of reading not just something extremely difficult, but incredibly unfair.

This is why text-to-speech operating in a fully interactive, web-linked environment, is so essential from the very start of the reading process. It is incredibly important to connect spelling and the visualization of the word to the sound, and the sound to the meaning, because if we don't, reading becomes a worthless activity of assembling nonsense. And people do not put much effort into worthless activities. Instead, they give up.

So, stop asking, "When is it appropriate to 'give up' and give a student text-to-speech software?" Text-to-Speech software is an essential tool at every level of building reading skills. It is an essential tool for almost every student, making new vocabulary accessible, and helping students through the bizarre maze that is English language spelling.

- Ira Socol

03 September 2008

The Lives of Others

I spent the last three weeks trying to come back from my "blogging - and blog reading - break" with some huge, seemingly essential, post, but I don't think I needed the pressure. So I return, as schools restart, with a small issue, but one that helps to defeat many students... Sorry for being gone, glad to be back...

A long time ago, in one of my undergraduate university experiences (and there were many attempts before success), I took a Creative Writing course. For the most part the course was wonderful - it put me on the path that led to The Drool Room and more, and I still have friends I met there (hey Joe), but the first day of that course remains fixed in my mind in a special way.

"Everyone come up to the board," the instructor announced, "and write a good title for a short story." I stayed in my seat. I would rather, among people I'm meeting for the first time, be naked than have my handwriting be observed and analysed. And that's not because I'm an exhibitionist.

It's because of the assumptions which people immediately make: "Oh, I have a three-year old brother who writes just like that." "Are you trying to be funny? What language is that?" "What's wrong with you?" "What are you, dyslexic or something?"

That class instructor pointed to me where I sat. "Come on, everybody up," he said. Now I had a choice: sullen weirdo or retard. So I went up to the board, I wrote an "X" (X is a "good letter" - like O) and sat back down. I claimed I wanted to write about someone unknowable. I think I momentarily pulled it off, but I was angry, frustrated, and ready to leave and drop the course.

As this semester began I assigned some brief excerpts as reading for my course in "Special Education Students in the Regular Education Classroom." One of those excerpts was from Learning Disabilities and Life Stories (Pano Rodis, Andrew Garrod, Mary Lynn Boscardin - 2001), and part of that excerpt included this former LD student discussing taking a "high-stakes test":

"It felt like an eternity before I heard the word Stop! What a great relief! I would relax into my chair and start to feel better. As I brought my head up, my red-rimmed eyes met Chrissy Watson's. She sat at her desk, upright and proper, with her hands on her lap, her pencil positioned approximately four inches from the top of her desk. Her test booklet centered on the desk top just two inches below her pencil. Her answers right there in perfect sight, displayed so that the whole class could see. Her little black circles looked as if they had been printed with a laser printer. My test booklet was wrinkled and worn looking, except for the pages that I never got to. Big black smudges streaked my answer sheet and some spots I had erased so much that the print was coming off. I had to turn my booklet over so that no one could see. My pencil was worn to a dull point, and during the test, l had bitten down on the other end to maximize my erasing ability. I would put my head down on my desk pre­tending to be bored so that I could cover my booklet until the teacher collected them. As l lay there trying to give the other kids the impression that the test had simply bored me to death, panic was beginning to build. Who would be collecting the tests? Would it be the teacher or one of her pets? Probably Chrissy."

Consider all the things routinely done in classrooms that threaten students who are less than perfect: "Trading papers" with the student next to you. Passing tests, homework, or in-class assignments "forward." Having one student collect the work of other students. Putting grades on the front of papers. Letting students pick through a pile of graded work to find their own. Required writing on the board. Requiring students to read outloud. Demanding answers from students who are struggling. Is public humiliation a goal? Or is it just that no thought at all has gone into it?

What is funny about this is that the very same teachers who might be extremely sensitive to humiliations in physical education or on the playground ("just because I'm not good at sport shouldn't be a reason to be humiliated by being picked last, or laughed at") seem most oblivious to the everyday humiliations of struggling students in school. But those humiliations push students away from school, away from learning, and away from opportunity - and they are often pushed away long before they reach the age of eight.

So next time you look at the students in your room, and ask for an activity, consider this: Think about being in front of a room full of your peers, people you must see everyday, and being forced to do whatever you are absolutely worst at - singing opera, painting with oils, dancing ballet, doing gymnastics - in front of everyone. Now imagine them all laughing at you, and judging you worthless.

Then re-think your classroom environment. Please.

- Ira Socol