27 November 2009

Crossing America: An Education

Michigan is firmly in the US Midwest, but, despite the feelings of both Midwesterners and Northeasterners, the Midwest is firmly in the "East." No, not the "Euro East" of the New York Megalopolis, but a land Europeans would recognize, did recognize, and did settle in their own self-images: Green and scaled to towns separated by a day's walk, a place in which the works of God and the works of humans are clearly differentiated in form and color.

When you leave Michigan and head west, first entering "The Prairie" in Illinois, the world begins to change, and thus, so do the ways in which people see, hear, think, and learn.

For a long, long time I have been aware of Europe's great divide (a split which has come to define the 1840s-designed US education system), that is the split between Protestant and Catholic cultures. And I have known and understood Europe's other "thought divides" - Colonized States v. Imperial States, Places once within the Holy Roman Empire and those without. Places once within the Soviet Empire and those without - but despite much previous North American travel this month's journey began to help me understand why mass education fails so often in the US in ways I had not deeply considered before.

Educational "reformers" and administrators rarely consider environment as a prime issue in learning, consigning the idea to "primitive thought," "pre-rational thought," and "pre-scientific thought." After all, Mike Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee will tell you, there's only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow."

And the inherent "truth" of that creates one of the great fallacies of our current educational debate. Yes, there is only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow," but there are hundreds or thousands of ways to perceive both "2+2" and "tomorrow," and as many different ways to learn about both.

The world looks different if you grow up observing a place with the subtle colors of a desert or a place where all houses are the same color, or where houses may not have square corners. Where you can step out of your back door and observe the curvature of the earth on dry land, where the "neighbor" is five miles away.

The world looks different and so your learning is inherently different. If you grow up with ocean outside your door you know one set of facts. If you grow up on the desert, you know another. If you grow up in a valley it is easier to perceive the world as flat - if you grow up on a seacoast the roundness of the planet is obvious. If you grow up attending Mass at your choice of times, punctuality means something different than if the whole community gathers for worship at the exact same stroke of the clock each Sunday morning, and thus, time means something different.

If you grow up watching things grow from the earth and watching animals being born and dying you will approach learning differently than if you grow up in a sanitized suburban neighborhood where Trader Joe's is your impression of "natural foods." It is not just that your knowledge base will differ in these two childhood locales, but your filtering systems will as well, as well as your interaction with media. The suburban child can not have the same sensory experiences. The rural child will likely not have the representational dependence.

These children will be fundamentally different in their learning styles long before they get to school, even without the endless individual differences which define humanity. The notion that we can educate them by some mass production script is ridiculous. And this is not just true if we compare the Northeastern and Southwestern United States, but within states - say, Boron and Palo Alto, California, or within cities, say Mott Haven and the Upper East Side [pdf download] in Mike Bloomberg's New York City.

This matters in school. It matters in all communication. A wonderful professor from my undergraduate experience once told me that Americans were completely dangerous in Central Europe because they could not understand the importance of the old eastern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. Americans were blindsided by the collapse of both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia because they didn't even know what to look for. Robert Putnam, a brilliant Harvard professor, could write Making Democracy Work and completely miss the cultural learning differences born of this ancient boundary through the center of the Italian peninsula. This lack of appreciation of cultural and physical environment on the process of education makes our teachers and our political leaders look like fools. And it results in diplomatic and schoolroom disaster.

We know that our tastes in food and even our food allergies are being determined from a a point a couple of months prior to our birth. We know that children are born able to hear all the sounds of all the world's global languages but lose most of this before they are two-years-old. Yet somehow we think that where a child "comes from" should have no impact at all on how our classrooms function. And that seems counter-factual to me.

So next time you recommend a "global" solution in education, in your nation or in your classroom, consider if your "globe" is the same one your students know. And if it is the same globe for this student, or that student, or that student...

- Ira Socol

05 November 2009

The Colonialism of Michelle Rhee or TFA v BoA

The conversation was challenging. In a Critical Studies conversation we had wandered to Michelle Rhee, the head of Washington DC's schools, TFA and Joel Klein/Mike Bloomberg graduate, Time Magazine's favorite educational leader.

I said, as I have before, that I believe her policies are racist and colonialist. That she is a "reductionist" regarding minority children, wanting (as Teach for America and KIPP do) to give them only the basics, to refuse to offer them the kinds of education offered to middle class white kids.

Rhee's own words: '"People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."'

As I've said before, when I see this stuff in Scarsdale, NY, Greenwich, CT, River Forest, IL, etc, I'll accept that it's a good educational strategy.

But Cleo Cherryholmes, an educator par excellence, as we say, challenged me with the opposite tack. Impoverished minority kids need to learn "to be white" as Rhee insists. They must learn how to speak the English, and behave in the way, that will get them hired by, as Cleo said, "Goldman Sachs." Cleo is a pragmatist, he wants actions which can prove the theory.

"Wait," I said, "still colonialism, still the powdered wigs for Nigerians and Indians so they could become Brits." And, I added, "there's a counter-narrative, an anti-colonial narrative."

Bank of America (then Bank of Italy) was founded in San Francisco so that immigrant businesspeople did not have to learn perfect English or climb the Anglo power structure.

I called this, "The Bank of America Narrative." I was going to say, "The Black Panther Narrative," but I'm working on getting better at this politics thing.

The "Bank of America Narrative" is the way the Irish and Italian immigrants "became white" in America. Italian immigrants built their communities and their economic well-being by deliberately not "being white." Whether through various "mob" enterprises or through the Bank of America - founded as a place where those speaking Italian and functioning in "non-American" ways could still do business and succeed, Italians went their own route until they could join the American economy as equals. They even followed the lead of their Irish precursors in keeping their children away from the white, Protestant public schools - sending them instead to Catholic schools where priests and nuns spoke the way the community did.

The immigrant Irish refused to send their children to "white" public schools, to learn "white" ways of speaking, acting, and praying. They organized their communities and took power on their own terms.

As the Irish had refused to become Protestant or give up their accents (see any NYPD officer circa 1945, 100 years after the great migration began), the Italians did the same. Unlike the Irish the Italians were more business oriented, while the Irish had seized control of big city politics and government jobs, Italians built a huge array of commercial enterprises, but the effect was the same. They were recognized as "white" when they could buy their way into the American society. They didn't want to be "hired by Goldman Sachs," rather they built Bank of America and became police commissioners and mayors across the nation.

This is the opposite of the African-American experience in the United States. African-Americans have always sent their children to white controlled schools. Integration just made that more so. A mass of Black children dropped into completely unchanging, non-adaptive, schools designed for and around white Protestant children - judged by white teachers and administrators, and almost always judged as inferior because they were not "white enough."

This is Gramsci's "Cultural Hegemony" at work. African-Americans can only succeed in education by becoming "as white" as possible. Of course this is also British Imperialism, Indians, Irish, Nigerians, South Africans, Malaysians trying desperately to be "white enough" for full British citizenship, but always, obviously, falling short in this impossible task. It is this very form of integration that the Irish and Italian immigrants to America refused to engage in. And, at least in one place, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, true, culturally connected African-American-controlled education has demonstrated its success as well.

Yet the prevailing wisdom today is that African-American and other troubled minorities can only climb the American success ladder by being second-class whites: by letting whites set the bar in all things - in speech, in literature, in governance-style, in social mores. Michelle Rhee believes it. Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg believe it. Paul Vallas believes it. Arne Duncan believes it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are black leaders who believe it as well. But, my Gramscian thought, is that you can only believe this if you believe that Black culture is inherently and historically inferior. And I don't believe that.

"The counter-narrative matters," I told Cleo, who smiled, as he does when he thinks we have argued well, because so many today insist there is only one way for minority groups to succeed. It is important because African-Americans, even African-American leaders, have forgotten the message of the Black Panthers, who insisted on self-help and self-defense, pride, belief in possibility, community organizing, and community intradependence.

This counter-narrative suggests that we need not force minority students to learn to march and chant (KIPP), we need not "just" give them white role models to copy (Teach for America), we need not deny them the creative education all children deserve (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan). Rather, we can help them take control of their communities and their lives within the context of their own culture.

Which is what I had to say about why I call Michelle Rhee a racist.

And then we went back to discussing Pedagogical Pleasures, which was far more entertaining.

- Ira Socol

04 November 2009

Text-To-Speech to Build Literacy from the Start

At ATIA 2009 in Chicago I presented my argument for using Text-To-Speech systems from the start of literacy education.

Sure, the favorite (most tweeted) quote was, "if phonics worked it would be spelled differently," but the focus was on strategies which work - on using Text-To-Speech to help bridge the issues of differential home/parental literacy skills, and using TTS to offer access to content before decoding can take over, on using TTS to improve sight-word recognition and new vocabulary acquisition, and perhaps most importantly, using TTS to prove to kids that there is value in books, that there is value in reading, by giving them a chance to get to what's inside the books.

Because reading should not be a school skill. It should not be a task. Reading is learning to take in information and process it for our own use - something schools rarely show students.

Anyway, thanks to the folks from WYNN who helped out (and gave away a software package as a prize!), and thanks to Karen Janowski for coming to visit!

- Ira Socol