28 May 2009

Great Schools: 1. Changing Everything

People ask this all the time, “What would a great school look like?” They do exist you know. All over the place there are isolated schools doing fabulous things. This is why listening to fake reformers like Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and the KIPP/TFA folks is so maddening. We actually do know what works, we just have to be brave enough to embrace real, systemic, change.

This is a story about one great school, one I was lucky enough to attend.

“The Program for Inquiry, In
volvement, and Independent Study,” the “3Is” sprung from the minds of three brilliant educators: Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Alan Shapiro. Postman and Weingartner were the authors of the book on radical educational reconceptualization, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Shapiro was a frustrated junior high school English teacher and leader of the local American Federation of Teachers. They came together in a struggling old “inner suburb” of New York City called New Rochelle.

New Rochelle, about 75,000 people in 10 square miles, might be best known as Rob Petrie’s home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it was (and is) a complex old east coast city, with vast wealth disparities, a troubled core, and an extremely diverse population. It had, in the mid-1960s, been the first northern US city to experience court ordered school desegregation.

It did have some unique advantages at the time. It did not, for example, have an elected school board and it did not have public votes on taxation. Schools were a part of the city government, the board was appointed
by the mayor (the state legislature later changed this). It also fed all students, rich, poor, black, white, etc., into one enormous public high school, meaning the school had much of the full diversity of the city, despite the existence of four Catholic High Schools and two private high schools within the city’s borders. And it had a brilliantly enlightened union.

So, when the schools seemed in crisis, the union fought for educational change – briefly went on strike for educational change – and the board, not having to face voters, decided to go along with teacher demands. This meant a vast increase in open classroom and multi-age efforts in elementary schools. In the high school it meant the creation of separate schools-of-choice (or, yes, perhaps recommended choice would be a better description, this was somewhat European in strategy) within the building – including nursing, cosmetology, construction trades, performing arts, and, the “3Is.”

The 3Is was designed as the alternative school, the place for the kids who were not functioning within the standard school environment. But the first brilliance lay in the idea that "not fitting in" could be described as almost anything. There were geniuses. There were crazy dyslexics. There were those with "behavioral issues." There were those who'd been suspended, etc. There were those who had simply been bored. this was true inclusion. There was no special ed at all, or rather, it was special ed for everyone.

The second brilliance was in the overall rejection of standard educational assumptions:

"Most school curricula are based on a set of assumptions which the experimental program rejects. For example, most school programs assume (1) that knowledge is best presented and comprehended when organized into "subjects," (2) that there are "major" subjects and "minor" ones, (3) that subjects are things you "take," and that once you have "had" them, you need not take them again, (4) that most subjects have a specific "content," (5) that the content of these subjects is more or less stable, (6) that a major function of the teacher is to "transmit" this content (7), that the practical place to do this is in a room within a centrally located building, (8) that students learn best in 45-minute periods which are held five times a week, (9) that students are functioning well (i.e., learning) when they are listening to their teacher, reading their texts, doing their assignments, and otherwise "paying attention" to the content being transmi
tted, and (10) that all of this must go on as a preparation for life. "This memorandum is not the forum for a serious and thorough critique of these assumptions. Hopefully, it is sufficient to say that contemporary educational philosophy disputes most of them, in part or whole, and that few teachers would deny the merit of experimenting with programs based on an entirely different set of beliefs."

A quote from Thoreau and the authors are off...

"we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."

Let me describe the school they created. Most students were rarely there. If you were studying science you were probably at the City's greenhouses or the local hospital or at the heritage farm we created in a City Park. If you were studying journalism you were creating the school's weekly newspaper or maybe, spending nights chasing news with a local radio station's overnight news guy. If you were studying urban design you might be in the planning department at City Hall. Psychology? How about interviewing Grand Central's homeless population after midnight. Great literature? Sitting around a teacher's living room one night a week sharing tea and ideas. There were, of course, classes - but they were different kinds of classes.

UP THE HIGH SCHOOL AND DOWN THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL An analysis of current responses to recent problems in education.
ENCOUNTER Survey of group technique with particular reference to methods of small-group ther
SCAPEGOAT: STUDY OF THE NATURE OF PREDJUDICE Psychological study of causes and impact of racial prejudice.

LANGUAGE AND REALITY To study how language influences our perception of the world and to determine the language "environments" of politics, black-white relationship, science, (etc.)
MATH SEMINAR Advanced math curriculum, including theory of functions, logic, calculus, non-Euclidean geometry, set theory, probability.

There was no required schedule, no required classes, no sense that you were in one "grade" or another. There were no grades, and there were no "failures." The grading system was "pass/no-record." You either got credit or the "course" or project did no exist anymore. At the end of each course or project the student wrote an evaluation of their own work, then a teacher wrote their comments.

There were no real administrators. Decisions were made in "Big Meetings" or by a student steering committee. Students interviewed potential teachers and voted on hiring. Students called teachers by their first names, argued with them, ate with them, played with them, helped them.

Yes, this was New York State, so your credits had to somehow (often quite creatively) match up with the required high school curriculum. You had to take the Regents Exams. Which we did, and which we passed, if not always with flying colors.

But the key thing was, students were known, in every way, by what they were good at. There was no deficit model at work. Not that most of us didn't really struggle with some things, but in this environment you led from your strengths. Everyone pretty much helped everyone in one direction or another.

Despite that we didn't just focus on our own stuff. You couldn't. You were around other influences. Did I, for example, read a book in high school? Well, part of Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's, for a history seminar remembered mostly for our field trip to see The Last Picture Show- which had something to do with a conversation about the 1950s.

Despite that, I played basketball with guys in Great Books and listened to conversations about Siddharthaand other masterpieces. I hung out at breakfast with musicians and learned both music and math. I got lectures about history and art in evening "social situations." We were told to engage in the world, and we did, and thus the world came at us at full speed.

The school changed "everything," and in doing so liberated us to learn. Stripped away our excuses. And turned us loose to make the world our classroom.

How did this school do by traditional measures? Very, very well. A 99% graduation rate with a wildly diverse population. Most went to four year colleges, including every SUNY campus, but also places like MIT, Brown, University of Michigan, Kenyon, Hampshire (of course). Years later we are lawyers and teachers, museum administrators and scientists, diplomats and artists. All from a group which might have seen a stunning drop out rate without this program.

It lasted over 15 years, and fell to conservative trends in education and budget cutting. Where once schools like this filled cities from Philadelphia to, at least, Ann Arbor, few now exist. Of our "Alternative School Basketball League" only one survives, the Village School in Great Neck, NY.

What made it work? First, choice. New Rochelle High School offered students real choices at the time. Vocational programs, traditional academic programs, arts programs, and this. Sure, paths were strongly suggested, but ultimately there were options. Students began each day knowing they had some level of control, they had put themselves into their situation. Second, a real belief in students. No 3I teacher ever looked at a student and saw "failure." They might have seen problems, but they also saw opportunities. Third, a belief in the power of adolescence. These adults knew kids would screw up, but they also knew that failure is how people learn - and that teenagers want to learn. So they dropped the cost of failure to almost zero. And people tried just about everything. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But things were always learned along the way. Fourth, they embraced universal design before the idea had been described. "Do it the way that works for you," was the idea. If I sat in a chair and talked while my friend John typed newspaper articles for me, that was fine. If I didn't function well in the morning, I didn't do much until after lunch.

So, did I actually "cut" school every morning from ten to noon to have breakfast with my friend Bob? No, because no one cared that I wasn't "there," so we weren't really cutting. Did Glenn and I really design a massive idea for downtown reconstruction? Yes, we did, and now he's one of the world's leading experts in architectural restoration. Did we really spend all night in Grand Central interviewing the homeless? Yes, and while I became a cop others became psychologists. Did I really take a course called "Monday Morning Quarterback" and bet on football games? I did. I think I called it "Math." Debbie though, took it and became a sportswriter.

- Ira Socol

27 May 2009

Merit Pay?

A decade and so ago I was a member of a sports club. We had a lot of football (soccer) teams. I coached youth teams for years and years. And I was thinking about this experience as I listened to one more sad attempt by one more US Secretary of Education to insist that merit pay for teachers is the most critical change we need in our education system.

When I was coaching we usually had enough kids to create two, three, or four teams at any given age class. Unlike many other clubs we did not try to create A, B, and C teams. Rather, we tried to create somewhat even teams where the "better" players might demonstrate their leadership.

Each year we'd split up these boys, and each year we'd end up with one team that seemed, ummm, "challenging." These kids were in special education services at school, or had families in trouble, or somehow just didn't fit in. We ended up with that team because every year I'd just say, when others complained about trying to coach "kids like that," I'd say, "put him on my team."

You know, usually, the other teams would do better in the league than we did. Sure we kept getting better, yes, we had a lot of fun, but problems perpetually struck, and we lost many, many games.

Now, none of us got paid, but in Arne Duncan's world, if we had been paid, I would have been paid less. This is because Duncan combines a terrible assessment system (the standardized test) with a terrible assessment period (a school year) to come up with a terrible way to assess. As if I would have been paid based on games won in a U-12 season.

See, in Duncan's world it would not matter that when they got to high school it was "my" kids who led the team to a conference championship. Nor that they stayed in school. Nor that they learned to work with other kids around them. Just as Lehman Brothers brokers walked away with massive bonuses without a thought regarding long-term results, my fellow coaches would have been rewarded, and I punished, based on short term nonsense.

And maybe I would have chosen not to coach "those" kids. Maybe "those" kids would have gotten scattered among other teams and forgotten. Maybe "those" kids would have gotten the least experienced coach every year. Maybe... because that is what is being incentivized if you create merit pay for teachers without completely re-thinking educational assessment.

We can laugh at Arne Duncan. Yes, he is the only person in Obama's cabinet who thinks that bonuses based on short-term results are a desirable "reform." But it is not funny. Merit pay creates all the wrong incentives. It will ensure that the kids who need the most help get the least.

I supported Barack Obama, and continue to. But he never indicated any real sense of what education in America needs, and his choice of a Secretary of Education has proven disastrous. Please email the White House and ask that Arne Duncan be fired. Please. Or we will remake our schools in the image of George W. Bush's Wall Street. And that is something America can not afford.

- Ira Socol

24 May 2009

The Width of the World

Do new forms of social networking help us or hurt us as humans?

Larry Sanger wrote a blog on this, and sent out the link on Twitter. Larry notes his disillusionment with "web 2.0," with his concerns being (a) "Facelessness. Frequently, we find ourselves in conversation with people we don’t know. We have nothing invested with them socially", (b) "Groupthink. The second reason Web 2.0 is becoming obnoxious to me is that I really, really hate groupthink," and (c) "Such a godawful waste of time. The first time we see a shiny new Internet toy, we are all oohs and aahs. But, OK…isn’t it time to stop it with the “Which Star Trek character are you?” quizzes on Facebook? ... Seriously, to my way of thinking, there are worthwhile Web 2.0 projects — like, of course, the Citizendium and WatchKnow (not launched yet) — but it seems like the vast majority of the websites, and many attractive and popular features within more worthwhile sites, are a waste of time."

Larry sees the creep of technology as the essential problem. When I challenged him on this, suggesting a much longer term historical arc, he said he was dating his concerns back to the early 1990s.

Now Larry, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is no Luddite, but I suspect that Larry misunderstands the role of communications technology in humanity. He told me to answer him in a blog post, and so here I go...

Socrates was right

Socrates was right. When you start to write things down, when humans embraced literacy, they moved away from the natural forms of human connection. Literacy not only limited the need for memory, as Socrates suggested, it debased human learning by separating the content from the person transmitting that content, as he also suggested. [Orality and Literacy. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. The Consequences of Literacy.]

In Socrates' world human communication was directly humane. You knew the speaker and you knew the listener. You had known them, most likely, forever. You looked in their eyes, you smelled their breath and their sweat. Your informational (and social) trust was built on a very complex, and very ancient, system of clues. Think of it this way, you know a lover is lying in ways very different than you know an author is lying. Socrates opposed writing and literacy because he didn't want to lose that intimacy.

This is a crucial human question, going back to the very beginning. The first time humans drew on cave walls, and thus created the possibility that some might see this description of the hunt who had not heard the first hand account, technology began to both support, and intrude on, human communication. Is looking at the description of an unknown person's hunting party a waste of time? Is it disconnected trivia or a way of understanding yourself as part of the world?

Today in History

165 years ago today Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first public telegram. And today when I woke up I sent this Twitter message, "Something remarkable, almost tidal, watching the flow of tweets from my friends around the world, as some wake while others sleep."

Morse's invention appeared at one of those moments in time when technologies were radically reshaping human communication. His telegraph, for example, combined with the new technology of the steam-powered rotary press and machine-made wood-pulp-based paper, to completely alter how humans received information.

Suddenly news of the world, and eventually - via Steam Ships and less expensive telegrams and trans-Oceanic cables - personal news, could move rapidly around the globe unfiltered by the elites who had controlled this since the end of the 15th Century. Other things happened as well: photography began to appear. The railroads began to enable travel. The world, or, as Socrates might have suggested, a disconnected, unreliable, undefined sense of the world, was now available whenever people walked out of their doors, or opened their mail.

Something else was happening as well. People were flocking to cities. Suddenly people were surrounded by others they had not known all of their lives, by people they might never know. This altered social networks dramatically, and people began to organize themselves along somewhat superficial lines. The sports club and football club began to arise in England, for example, fraternal and service clubs in the United States. And social information thus began to spread differently, with a new communication level created between "back fence" and pub communication (on one hand) and news from the pulpit (on the other). People began to desire crime news and odd tales of strangers, things which would never have been deemed worthy of publication when publication was expensive. The first version of "blogging" began as writers penned serial stories or experiences which masses of people could waste time on, day after day.

All of these activities - all of these things - separated humans from the most "natural" communications experiences. Yet all of them also created new forms of human connectivity.

The Bookworm

When I was a child "the bookworm" was a commonly derided child. Why waste your whole day with your nose in a book? "they'd" ask, instead of going out into the world and living? Yes, parents - back then - told kids to put down their books and go out and play. Yes, they did.

This was one end of the spectrum. The other, as an historic echo of Larry's complaint about Star Trek quizzes (which I have actually never participated in), was the concern that students were wasting their time and their minds on inappropriate reading. "A closer look demonstrates that the concern was not so much to interest children in reading as to interest children in reading the books that parents, teachers, and librarians wanted them to read, books that would provide class- and gender-appropriate role models and instill socially acceptable values in both boys and girls," Suzanne Stauffer writes of the 1880s-1920s period when "sensational fiction" was seen as a critical danger.

The wrong reading could cause groupthink, apparently, "then" as now. In the 1940s Comic Books were blamed for juvenile delinquency. Stauffer again, "Again, librarians and others proclaimed that this type of reading was not only inferior to reading “good books” but was a corrupting and degrading influence."

So the media forms which arose between 1840 and 1950 were (a) disconnecting people from actual human touch experience, (b) creating groupthink in dangerous ways (think about the United States and the Spanish-American War), and (c) creating massive wastes of time - reading comics, watching movies, listening to crappy radio shows, reading true crime stories and trashy novels, sitting around playing records.

Of course that was also true of the media forms which arose before 1840, and those which came after 1950. As soon as Gutenberg created movable type it was being used to provide sensational stories of strangersto the public. And speeches in ancient Rome may have created groupthink on occasion.

The Flip Side

I don't really need to go all Clay Shirkyon Larry to make my point. Each revolution in communication technologies moves humans in two directions - away from the tactile human, yes, but also towards a global understanding, a global connection, a global knowledge.

So, no, I will not tell Larry about the people I've met online who've become close, personal friends in person. I don't really think this has happened for me. Most of my closest friends I knew as a teenager - in person. Yes, we connect constantly via online tools, yes, our relationships are stronger now than they have been in decades because of those tools, but that's not the point.

But I will tell Larry that my blog, Twitter, and list-serve relationships are not faceless, they do not create groupthink, and they do not waste my time.

"Something remarkable, almost tidal, watching the flow of tweets from my friends around the world, as some wake while others sleep."

These are real people. We agree and disagree. We share and we argue. I may learn their "group identities" first - teacher, technologist, politico - but then I discover more, be it their poetry, their children, their eating habits, their fears. It is a fully human thing that I help @jonbecker find a parking spot in Park Slope at 1230 one morning, and that I worry about his car parked in the dark alongside Prospect Park. It is fully human frustration when I can not get @chadratliff to understand my argument. It is fully human fun I have with @damian613 over the plight of Newcastle United. And it is fully human friendship which I feel for bloggers from Karen Janowski to Enda Guinan. Bill Genereux has become an important "classmate" though we've never physically met, and I worry about Goldfish's health. They are only "faceless" if we think it is impossible for, say, a blind person to know faces.


More critically, we are a group - or groups. We have powers that humans have not had before. And we've been waiting for these technologies to offer us these powers for a long time. Humans have been trying to lower the costs of collaboration and knowledge transfer since time began. And now we can do that. Sure we waste time. Humans always "waste time." Sure we become "gangs." Humans always have. But we now have social choices - powerful social choices, which are shifting power in dramatic ways. Democracy could not have spread as it did in the past two centuries without the communications technologies of those times. And neither could knowledge. Both will spread further, faster - are spreading further, faster, even in the United States - because of Web 2.0.


But technologies take learning. It isn't easy. Early adopters look kind of crazy. "Really, you strung wire from Washington to Baltimore to send a Bible quote faster?"

So we need to learn these communication tools, and make them our own. And we need to help others, especially our children, find their own paths within these structures. Because it is indeed human, and is indeed humane.

I woke up this morning to birdsong outside the window and the smell of encroaching summer. And that tells me about the the preciousness of the planet. And I woke up with the Tweets of Aussies saying good night and Brits eating lunch and getting ready for the last day of the Premier League season. And that tells me about the width of the world.

I'm not wasting time. I'm as fully human as the people who came to read the cave paintings at Lascaux 20 years after they were drawn. I am engaged in humanity.

-Ira Socol

17 May 2009

Solution Sunday

On Twitter this morning, I just started reacting to "overnight posts" and found myself making ten statements about truly changing schools. Please, add your own, agree, disagree...

I've linked these to SpeEdChange posts.

Solution Sunday: (1) Grade level expectations fail all who develop at different rates (almost everyone) Multiage is way to go.

Solution Sunday: (2) Subject divisions kill natural learning instincts. All subjects need to be integrated.

Solution Sunday: (3) School time schedules prevent education. Flex time according to student needs.

Solution Sunday: (4) Individualized Education for all. All Students are gifted, all have special needs.

Solution Sunday: (5) All students need to start learning contemporary technology from the start. Especially those from less rich communities.

Solution Sunday: (6) Treat your students equitably and bullying will drop. It's a fact - schools encourage bullying through of adult actions.

Solution Sunday: (7) Text-To-Speech systems help all readers, should be in use right from the start (build sightword recognition, teach the value of what reading offers by providing access to content).

Solution Sunday: (8) Teacher training needs to change. Probably via interning in University Lab Schools. Learning better ways, not old ways. (and unlearning the systems of social reproduction)

Solution Sunday: (9) As long as there are high-stakes Standardized Tests, differentiated instruction is a fraud.

Solution Sunday: (10) More learning opportunities, less explicit instruction before age 8. Don't make young kids hate books and math. Stay flexible and tolerant, and natural curiousity will lead to learning.

- Ira Socol

15 May 2009

The "People First" Conundrum

That old question of language - who it empowers, who it injures, who makes the decisions: Amy Bowllan, school librarian in New York City, Twitter-pal, and blogger for School Library Journal did an e-interview with me recently for her blog.

Is people first language a positive step? Should we continue to encourage it? Read the interview, and for a balanced view read Goldfish (a favorite/favourite blogger) on The Language of Disability.

All your thoughts are welcomed. At Amy's blog or here.

- Ira Socol

12 May 2009

Information Literacy

A couple of Twitter conversations merged. With @gippopippo I was discussing ink-on-paper v. digital. With @derrallg I was discussing teaching kids the media skills they will need to survive.

@gippopippo bemoaned the loss of the ability of students to read books and newspapers. @derrallg noted how colleges search FaceBook as part of the admissions process, but schools rarely teach this (see @willrich45).

Another issue from that day, if you teach students that they can not blindly "trust" the internet, must you not also teach them that they can not blindly trust textbooks, libraries, books of any kind, newspapers, teachers?

A bit of history: In the lead up to America's invasion of Iraq, The New York Times unleashed a torrent of false information. Fiction spun from the mouth of Dick Cheney as effortlessly as if his wife was writing her soft-core porn. Now, many blogs were telling the truth. But if, thirty years from now, a historian were to go back to "the newspaper of record" from that time, they would find almost nothing true.

Other things The New York Times has gotten wrong? A couple of years ago they repeated a joke from a cartoon on The New Yorker's cover as a front page news story. Just this week they declared a big difference between "practicing" and "non-practicing" Catholics on the issue of President Obama addressing the commencement at the University of Notre Dame. 46% of "practicing Catholics," The Times said, opposed Mr. Obama speaking. 55% of "non-practicing" Catholics favored his giving the address. Now, I'm no math major, but...

In other words, The New York Times can be wrong. Yes. Print can be wrong, despite John Calvin's firm belief in the societal value of fixed text. We all know that information on the "internet" can be wrong, and we warn our students about this. If we are good, we tell them to check authorship, credentials, the source of the website, the motivations, and we ask them to find corroboration and/or dissent. But do we do this as actively when a student pulls a book or newspaper off our school library shelf? What about when a student reads a textbook? What about when a student listens to a teacher?

The technology of communications and the forms of communication are symbiotic. Without the development of charcoal and ink writing would never have taken off. Stone carving being very slow and difficult and writing in the sand is, well, writing in the sand. Without various paper technologies (be it papyrus, sheepskin, or paper), reading would not have taken off, since only so many people can crowd around a single temple reading hieroglyphics.

Similarly, the novel is a development which could only have followed the technology of Gutenberg. Prior to this easing of publication problems, stories had to be in memorable form for oral transmission - thus poetry or song or drama. And without the popularity of the novel, press technology and paper technology would not have advanced to a point where journalism could begin. No Ben Franklin or Thomas Paine without Thomas Malory and Daniel Defoe. And without the growing popularity of journalism there might never have been the call for steam-powered rotary presses and machine-made wood-pulp paper which allowed the "penny newspaper" to become both popular and highly profitable, and thus allow journalism to reach the masses.

In each case, an emerging communication form creates a demand for a new medium or method of publication. The new medium or method of publication, in turn, creates an opportunity for new communication forms. When Samuel Morse introduced the telegraph with "What hath God wrought?" he was using new technology to send an old phrase. But his technology, and the way in which it was paid for, quickly created, "Meet in Phila Tue Noon at Sta Stop" - and how far away are we then from "C U 2nite"

Still, at every point, old forms adapted. When literacy was introduced to Greece Homer's tales were written down. Yes, this changed them. They no longer flexed with the time and place, the armaments described became set at the moment of writing - they are completely inaccurate for the time of the Trojan War - and the vast library of locally associated characters - what my son describes as the 8th Century BC's equivalent of the "How you doing Pittsburgh?" in today's concerts or political speeches - also became locked in. But the stories spread more widely than the original poets ever might have imagined.

All these technologies give and take. Gutenberg's destroyed many European languages, and enforced all sort of evils. But it also spread knowledge and literacy and allowed thought to flow in remarkable ways. We can imagine that post-Gutenberg technologies will do the same.

What has not changed is the key question of cognitive authority. What allows us to begin to trust a source? This is essential for every level of education. But we are handicapped here, especially in northern Europe and the United States. As Protestant societies we have inherited a belief in "the book." Not just the Bible, but "the book" in general. Because Calvinists and Lutherans controlled the printing and distribution of books, it was logical that they would promote the notion of the truth of ink-on-paper. Catholic culture, of course, did something similar where they "reigned," but with a critical difference. Texts in Catholicism were not intended for the masses, and were always considered open to interpretation through localized debate and retelling.

So it is indeed, in the U.S., in Protestant Europe, an "article of faith" that text is true, "If we agree with this premise, (that the Bible is divinely inspired) we must then consider the fact that ‘these writers themselves, with considerable unanimity, agree in ascribing their religious insight to the grace of God’."

Over the half millennia since Gutenberg the imprimatur of authority has expanded from the church to the crown, and then to "crown authorities" - authorized publishers - and then to publishers which carried various forms of perceived authority - whether academic - Cambridge University Press - economic - think Pearson or Bertlesmann AG - or, and here we see the beginnings of our present world - those who have won their authority by being reliable - think The New York Times. The Times did indeed win its authority in a chaotic environment. Turn of the 20th Century print journalism was as wild as the internet seems now, but the giants fell because because they were not very good - consider The New York World and The Journal competing over fabricated Spanish threat stories - and The Times was better (there are those who will argue that the turning point was the sinking of RMS Titanic - only the NYT, of New York dailies - got the story right).

In other words, The Times built its reputation, its authority, as bloggers do today, as members of social networks do. They gave accurate, useful information when more "important" rivals did not. Then they re-inforced that authority, through years and years of "being better than..." But then, because of the nature of that Protestant culture, "we" began to think of them as right not because they were right, but because they were The New York Times. They had that imprimatur.

But now we have other choices. We need to know, for example, that when the government speaks, we still should have doubts. When our most "authoritative" newspapers speak, we still should have doubts. Say, the London Metropolitan Police declare that a man has died of a heart-attack during a G20 protest. Say, that is reported as true by The Times of London, The Telegraph, even The Guardian. Now, line that up against the word of one anonymous American businessman. Yes, an American businessman who decides to communicate through the left-wing newspaper.

According to all our traditional understandings of cognitive authority, Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack. Except, of course, he did not. He was killed in a random, unprovoked, police assault.

And non-traditional "citizen-journalists," and less authoritative sources, proved that. This is vital. If you fully subscribed to the traditional, the taught-in-school" understanding of cognitive authority - that is that reputations are won through approval of those who already hold authority (the PhD system, as an example), Ian Tomlinson would have died of a heart attack and The New York Post of Alexander Hamilton would be New York City's dominant information source - no matter who might manage to own that brand.

So what do students need to know? They need to know that cognitive authority does not come with a job title, or a publisher's mark. Just as they need to know that the actor wearing the white coat in a TV commercial may not be a medical authority. They need to be able to discover, in the non-linear form of real life (and the web) how to assess information - no matter the source. You can start in your classroom. If you aren't lying to your students, give them laptops or mobiles and let them look up what you tell them. True? Sometimes true? Debatable? Biased? Help them make the arguments.

You can do this with books, even novels. What can they discover about the world in which Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby? Why would he have described himself as "a member of the lost generation"? Why did he write a novel proving both the allure, and the fallacy, of what we call "The American Dream"? What did other writers of the time say? Was Fitzgerald particularly popular? A best selling author? Were English teachers requiring this novel in 1927 classrooms? Why not?

Need to build Fitzgerald's authority? Perhaps do this via his short stories. Build up his "street cred" for your students, just as he built it up with America's literati of the 1920s. No, let your students build up his reputation, by giving different stories to different students and letting them recommend them around the room. Don't think of this as "chaos." It is not. It is how humans construct both knowledge and society outside of imposed hierarchies.

You can do this with newspapers. Why would a story about the same thing read differently in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Post, The Daily Mail? Why might a search with Google's blog search produce differing things? How might they decide what's accurate? Listen, if you are not training this kind of information literacy, all your talk of an "educated citizenry" rings hollow. Without these skills, your students are in trouble.

Along the way, of course, you get to introduce your students to the wide world of literary forms. Every one has its purposes, its truths, its fictions, its powers, and its flaws. Why did Homer create the poetry he did? Who was he serving? Why? What counter narratives might exist? Aeschylus? Virgil? Ovid? Scott? Dickens? (Dickens, of course, was a blogger when it comes down to it). Who publishes Toni Morrison? And why? Why would that same company sell you Tom Clancy's books? Why would they hide that fact from you by using a different name?

And certainly, who is writing right now? And how? Can they find new fiction on line that they love? Can they share it? Why do they like it? Is it being "sold" to them in a variety of ways? Or are they discovering it? Novel, history, textbook, newspaper, blog... what motivates the author, the publisher? And what does that mean to them as readers, as consumers?

What this all means is that we're honest with our students, and that by being honest we create better readers, more engaged readers, more critical readers, and readers more appreciative of the best work of the writer's art. They'll know why, faced with same series of events, one writes poetry, another a novel, a third a news story, and how those all contribute to our knowing.

And I think they just might learn to love them all.

- Ira Socol

10 May 2009

Adult Communities and School Bullies

A few years ago while I was the soccer coach at one American high school I was doing a technology project at another. The two districts were next to each other. One was a fairly wealthy and very small district with a reputation for great results on state achievement tests. The other was a much more diverse and much larger district with a middling reputation.

What I noticed, walking the corridors of both, was something very different. I noticed a radical difference in social and especially bullying behaviors.

Twitter can often get me thinking, and @nsharoff did this recently posting thoughts on her readings on school bullying. I responded to her thoughts by suggesting that perhaps the biggest impact on bullying behavior is created by the environment built by the adults who work in and surround the school. That is, the teachers, administrators, and parents.

And I said this because of what I saw in these two schools.

The bigger, poorer, less acclaimed high school was the far safer environment for kids perceived as "different." And this has no connection to size, or wealth, or academic achievement in my observed world. I've been in terrible big schools, and great small ones. Great diverse schools and awful diverse schools.

So, what makes the difference?

First, yes, environmental control. Better schools control stress environments better. Schools that are "safe" always have faculty in the corridors when kids are. Not just there, but "actively there," engaging the kids around them. Schools that are "safe" often also control noise, carpeted corridors seem really important, so that the din does not build its own chaos. They also often have natural light, and fewer student traffic "choke points" - those narrow doorways and stairwells which create chaotic physical places. In this case the big school had something else wonderful - a full 10 minutes between classes - which made the whole class changing experience a "safe time," rather than a desperate rush. And one more thing, the big school had its cafeteria at its core. Rather than being "off somewhere" everyone moved through this space, which was bordered by the office (the principal's office actually looked down on the cafeteria from the second floor), and the library. All of this meant that adults were far more engaged with students at leisure, and that students were far less stressed.

The small school had none of this. No carpets in the hallways which were lighted with buzzing and flashing old fluorescents, no teachers in the corridors either. A cafeteria hidden at the far end, far from everything, and many tight choke points that produced insanity on the stairs.

Still, none of that mattered most - at least in what I observed.

Now, this being the American Midwest, both schools had enormous football stadiums and very large gymnasiums, and both strongly celebrated their varsity athletics. But there were huge differences. The school which was "safe" also had a dramatic "performing arts center" and a huge library, these features held equal status architecturally with the sports facilities. The "unsafe" school had a small hidden library and no space at all for its acclaimed music and drama programs to perform (they usually did so off campus).

In the "unsafe" school only three of the district's many sports were celebrated - Boy's football and basketball and girl's volleyball. Before every one of those games parents would come into school and decorate lockers and there were frequent school time pep rallies. In the "safe" school every athlete pretty much got the same treatment, wrestling, soccer, the golf team. And there were also pep events (usually in the cafeteria during lunch periods) for the band, the Odyssey of the Mind team, Science Olympiad, etc.

I can't tell you that equal crowds watched boy's football and girl's soccer at either school, but I will tell you that at the "safe" school the principal and many teachers attended almost every sports event, and came to the OM competition as well.

In four years of coaching boy's soccer the principal at the "unsafe" school was at one half of one game. No one came to the Odyssey of the Mind event (I coached a team there as well). Teachers avoided "minor sports" events as well.

These might seem like small things, but they are not. Adolescents pick up their social clues not just from their peers, but heavily from the adult environment which surrounds them. In one school the adult message was all about social hierarchy: the district began this in Kindergarten when photos of those boys on the youth football teams and those girls on the youth cheerleading squads were put up in the primary school's entrance. And it reinforced the message constantly that some students were more prized than others. In the other school a very wide range of accomplishment was celebrated at every age level, and this was made very clear at the high school level.

Adults, when speaking of bullying, love to discuss peer pressure and child and adolescent communities. In my view this is much like those running America's educational system choosing to blame teachers, students, and parents - it is blame shifting - away from those who create the matrix - to those who must live within it.

Bullying behavior among those of school age is based on children reading - accurately - the adult world around them. If the President of the U.S. gets to bully smaller nations which he dislikes, if adult bosses are allowed to bully employees, if people on adult reality shows are celebrated for their role as bullies, kids imitate those behaviors.

And if the community of adults surrounding a school declares that certain students are more valued, more prized, than others, a template for bullying has been formed.

It is a fascinating observation that in a survey of bullying in Toronto students noted that they were twice as likely to be bullied in a supervised school situation as they were in unsupervised locales. That survey also noted that the further into the school year the students traveled, the less likely either other students or adults were to intervene. In other words, school seems to encourage bullying, and to develop an acceptance of bullying.

Of course. Education-as-we-know-it is about building hierarchies - among athletes, with grading, via teacher preferences, according to inherited wealth and parental power. When schools rank students, schools create unbalanced power relationships among students, and unbalanced power relationships are the cornerstone of bullying.

Making safe schools for all is not the work of children. It is the work of adults. And the most effective way to limit bullying among students is for adults to build a world which does not model that behavior.

- Ira Socol

07 May 2009

Margaret Soltan and Jim Crow

I need to begin this by saying that Dr. Margaret Soltan of George Washington University is probably a brilliant teacher and a lovely woman. A perusal of her page on RateMyProfessor and her circle of friends suggest both. I also think that she is a fairly strong and effective writer.

But I stopped reading her blog and her column long ago, and I would never take a class with her, despite the fact that we share many similar passions in the literature of the English language. I consider her a person who actively discriminates against people based on immutable characteristics of their humanity, a person who divides the world into first and second class citizens based on their similarity to herself. And I find that repugnant.

Dr. Soltan is hardly the only member of a university faculty I place in this category, but by making herself a spokesperson for her position she has effectively become a George Wallace standing in the doorway.

This is not an attack. It is an explanation. And I bring it up now because of a blog conversation inspired by Dr. Soltan at Easily Distracted. The blog at Easily Distracted starts with a typical Soltan hit-and-run against technology in the classroom. In this case quoting another prof who was incensed because a student in his class used a mobile to look up a word the prof had used in a lecture (yeah, really). Now, I'm historian and ethnographer enough to fully understand why a conservative Protestant theologian would object to any variation in the carefully linked structures of Calvinist Religion, Capitalism, and Gutenberg Technology. That's a received faith in authority and the unquestioned role of immutable text. And I understand that Dr. Soltan also teaches at a "private" university (though it is a "public university" by definition of Section 504 in terms of discrimination against students with disabilities because it receives - substantial - federal funds) and students have choices both within and without GWU...

But I'm not speaking of the legal complexities here, I'm speaking of morality...

I came to the Easily Distracted conversation because Carl Dyke at Dead Voles brought me in by referencing a blog post of mine on Technology and Equity in the conversation.

Now, 18 months or so ago I challenged Dr. Soltan on this. I told her how allowing technology into the classroom as universal design made people with "disabilities" far more equal. How it eliminated the humiliation of unwanted and inappropriate disclosure (all said in detail in my post Humiliation and the Modern Professor). And how her anti-technology stance bordered on illegal re: the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504. She responded that, "of course," she would offer accommodation to "documented" students.

Sew on that yellow Star of David

That is not an acceptable response. When we adopt Dr. Soltan's attitude we make it very hard for a lot of students. Students are forced to choose between disclosure and using the tools they need, and I can tell you, from much evidence both 'scholarly' and personal, that many, many students will choose to avoid the tools which come with disclosure. And that many of those students fail.

So, here's the impact of Dr. Soltan's opposition to the general use of technology in her classroom: (1) The further students are from being 'just like her' in abilities, learning styles, and learning preferences, the less likely they are to succeed in her class, because she requires that only her own technological tools be used. (2) Students with "disabilities" or significant learning differences are forced in to perhaps unwanted disclosure by her rules, which may have important consequences for their futures. (3) All students will be prevented from learning how their preferred toolbelt intersects with the world of English literature. Bad for all, disastrous for a specific class of students. Just as racial segregation was at the University of Alabama.

And I am done with this - Dr. Soltan might be horrified if, in order to use 'the facilities' at a meeting, everyone had to get up and declare their gender and sexual preference. She'd possibly be offended if, in order to enter a restaurant, she was forced to declare her medical record. Perhaps she'd be bothered if we did not let her drive to campus without publicly declaring that she was too unfit to walk. In all these cases, we assume that people in society can make personal and tool choices without needing to announce personal information or beg permission from authorities.

But Dr. Soltan is willing to do the equivalent to her students - not only that - she's willing to encourage others to do the same - in other words, she is willing to stand in the schoolhouse door and call the TV camera in to watch her block access.

That's shameful.

- Ira Socol

A blog commenter asked why it was wtong to make all these issues public: I replied -

"What I don’t want is anyone forced into unwanted disclosure in this society, especially in the US, where disclosure of disability can limit job opportunities and even access to health care. So, it is not important to me whether you take notes on a laptop because you have dexterity issues or problems forming letters, or issues with attention. I don’t need to know if you have digital books because you are dyslexic or have MS and can’t carry physical books, or even if you just prefer those.

"We can talk preferences and diversity, absolutely. But I do not insist that students proclaim their disabilities, their sexual preferences, their gender, their racial make up, or even their birth socio-economic status. That information is welcomed and greeted without judgment when offered, but I do not teach - or live - in a world so perfect that I am sure no harm will come from these revelations.

"Listen. I’m a doc student in a “Top Ten” School of Education’s Special Ed program (not a Prof -sorry), and there are still situations where I would rather appear insolent than disabled. So if asked why there is an earbud stretching from my laptop to my ear I might say, “I’m listening to music instead of you,” rather than, “the computer is reading to me.” Because I know that with certain university faculty, the former is sadly preferable to the latter."

01 May 2009

Suicidal Ideation

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009

At a recent presentation I did for instructors in my college I told the story of being an undergraduate student in a creative writing course. First I said that the course was really good, and that one of the stories written for that course eventually became a 'chapter' in my novel. But I told my assembled colleagues that what I most remembered was my first day in the class.

"Everyone come up to the board and write the title of a short story you'd like to write," the professor said. One of those innocuous ice-breaker activities creative instructors are so fond of. I stayed in my seat. "C'mon," he said, looking at me, "everybody." I still stayed. I do not like to introduce myself to people through my hand-writing. It creates an immediate impression that is often impossible to recover from ("I have a four year old nephew, he makes letters just like you." "What are you, dyslexic or something?") He looked at me again, "I really need everyone to do this." I groaned, got out of my seat, walked to the board, picked up a piece of chalk, and drew an "X." And then I sat down.

I told this story, at the end of a presentation on making online courses accessible, to illustrate a key point about making all courses accessible. I referred to this as "humiliation from the start," doing things which, on first meeting someone, humiliate by forcing undesired, unplanned disclosure of differences which impact how someone might be seen by the group. Later, in the elevator, a prof said, "I really learned something about those ice-breaker exercises, I never thought," he paused, "and I should, I teach our diversity course."

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

If you're a regular reader here you've heard this before, and you've heard the story which follows as well.

Recently, flying Delta Air Lines back from London, walking (badly) with a cane, I fell at US Passport Control. Other travelers, not the US Officer, ran to my assistance. A bit later, at the luggage area (with no seating) I fell again. This time my Delta flight crew literally stepped over me in their rush to get out of the airport.

What makes one feel a part of the world, a part of a community, a part of a school, a part of a place?

Since I wrote for BADD last year I have a lot of things I feel very positive about. I'm in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful woman. My kid is doing great.My family in general is doing great. I've made some big progress in my PhD program. I've presented internationally, and successfully. I've taught pretty decently. My Toolbelt Theory gets used more and more.

But still, I rarely am comfortable in any way. I rarely feel a part of what has become my world. Often, too often, I am uncomfortable enough that the thought of leaving creeps into the corners of my mind. Why is that? And, if I feel that way - and I'm pretty damn lucky - what about others?

This isn't about the anger I expressed when I wrote of "Retard Theory." And it is not about getting even with anyone. It is, instead, about all the ways we choose to divide ourselves, and to hurt each other.

When I sat in that class above, or in many others - including some in my Special Education PhD program - or as I lay on that floor at JFK airport, I was being separated from humanity. And when you are separated from humanity, life looks pretty grim.

In my education I read too slowly, even with literacy software, and I struggle staying on task, sticking with schedules, meeting the artificial deadlines of semesters. This makes me "a problem" for the school. Got to finish in a certain number of years, you know - the rules. Now I walk too slowly too. It takes me too long to get from here to there. If I wanted to get food during a 15 minute break in a three hour class I probably couldn't make it there and back. Outside of school, the guy in the DIY store races away from me trying to lead me to the door hardware section. Half the area's restaurant's have no handicapped parking spots. Other car park spots are too narrow to allow me to fully open my door, which is the only way I can get out. "We're too small," I'm told, "It would be a burden."

And with each of these I am diminished as a human, I am separated from the herd.

The instructor for a required course runs her classroom like a frenetic TV game show, setting off both panic and a migraine in me, driving a woman with a visual impairment to despair. I flee after session two, but the gap on my transcript remains an issue. The airline offers me a choice of a wheelchair or being accompanied through the airport by my companion, I choose to walk, and I fall, requiring numerous new medical experiences.

about 7 minutes in, you begin to see the classic school experience for struggling children

With every step then, the labels descend: dyslexic, ADHD, handicapped. I'm not against labels. Labels can confer interesting information. But when labels are used primarily as a method of discrimination...

I look around. I have been preaching the word of assistive technology in schools for a dozen years now. During that time the technology has gotten better and better as well as cheaper and cheaper, and yet, if I walk into a school I will not see it. I will instead see "special" students begging for handouts from schools which seem committed to the prevention of independence.

I look around. I see counters too high. I see elevators far away from traffic patterns. I see clueless clerks in banks. I see police and legal personnel untrained in human diversity. I see non-readers virtually unable to apply for aid. I see "standardized tests" and a "commitment to accountability" being used as an excuse for acts of terror against children. I see governments doing 'the legal minimum.' I see no enforcement.

I see a normalist culture, an ableist culture. A culture which wants faux diversity - where people might look different, and eat different foods, but really all do things the same way.

Do I see a future? I don't know. On my good days I imagine employers who will welcome me for what I can offer. On my bad days I see people looking at me and seeing nothing but problems. I have wandered among jobs, among places, among nations, among interests, searching for the place where I did not feel "stuck outside." A place where success would not come with the qualifier, be that, "Super Retard," "Super Gimp," or the only slightly crueler, "that's great for you."

What would that place really look like? I remember, as a kid, walking down streets, looking in the lighted windows of homes in the night. Wondering, is that family normal? What does normal feel like? What's it like to be like 'everyone else'?

What would that place look like? I don't know. But I'm guessing it would be the place where the "Exit" sign no longer lit a corner of my brain. Where it's red light no longer interrupted my sleep.

- Ira Socol