21 May 2010

Multimedia Literature: Rethinking English Class

In my eighth grade science class, Mr. Rotandaro used the classroom film the "old way," as a time waster for a group of students he wasn't interested in teaching. Day after day we watched double features of anti-drug and "VD" movies, so many that we were digging deeply into the bottom of the city's health department film vault.

There was no science education going on, but we did laugh a lot. And in eighth grade, well, that ain't bad.

But the same year I experienced the worst of film in the classroom, I also experienced the best.

Lisa watching films, filmstrips, and experiencing "magazine time" (in Russian)

In my English class, regarded as "Dumb English" by the school, with kids mostly expected to hit the "Voc" programs in high school, our teacher, Alan Shapiro, had other ideas. We read the great dystopian novels in that class: Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, perhaps a typical middle school syllabus, but... It is important to remember that a number of us in the class really could not read. And many could surely not read well enough to get through any of these books on our own, but it was Mr. Shapiro's belief that we could all still be part of the conversations.

So he, and some students (volunteer only) read parts of the books in class. He used props too, lining the walls with huge posters of Stalin when we read 1984. Sometimes he'd play audiobooks. And for each book, we trooped across the corridor and sat on the floor of the huge old castle-dining-hall looking auditorium, and watch the films made from these books.


Because of the limitations of class periods, and access to the auditorium, these "film watchings" usually spread across a week, which gave us plenty of time to discuss what was going on, both in terms of literature and in terms of audio and visual manipulation - Shapiro being a huge believer in the need to develop "crap detecting" skills in students.

<--- for more on life in this school, you can read the book, now available for Kindle.

And as we watched the films, silence was neither expected nor even encouraged, and conversations did break out, sometimes requiring that we stop the film to talk about something of interest.

In simple terms, Mr. Shapiro had designed a Universal Design classroom, long before the term would be invented, long before the technologies of today would make this type of media switching easy. And in doing so, he created an English class in which everyone, yes everyone, succeeded.

Making it work...

I decided to write this post after a quick Twitter conversation: We were discussing Little Big Man which was running on Turner Classic Movies. And I asked if anyone used this film in class. @tkraz said his students read it, but, "The only film version we watch of something they have read is The Simpsons The Raven (and Whacking Day paired with The Lottery)" and, "Would be cool - I have to struggle against them turning it into nap time. Could watch 3:10 to Yuma and Old Man and the Sea. Maybe..."

So I suggested that he try TodaysMeet as a way to get kids engaged in 'active viewing,' that he break the films up into 'chapters,' that he investigate what the director was doing. A system like TodaysMeet can do amazing things in a classroom, quoting one observer: "The students were engaged in 50 minutes of this video, They were collaborating in real time with one another in a mode that did not overtly bother any other student (or teacher), The "playing field was leveled" because each student was sitting at a single computer (mixture of desktops and laptops - old and new), and finally, The teacher was able to produce a "transcript" (of 20 pages in length!), which accurately shows what each student was thinking during the experience, Oh yeah, and when asked later, the students DO want to do this activity again!"

And from another: "TodaysMeet.com is a service allowing us as teachers to enter the teen psyche and surreptitiously discover what they are talking about “behind our back” during a lecture, a discussion, a guest speaker, a viewing of a film, and so many other school activities requiring them to be a passive audience member.  TodaysMeet.com EMPOWERS you as the teacher because students are held accountable for listening; they are no longer spectators, but participants in an interactive audience requiring them to hold their own by providing comments, questions, speculations, arguments, answers, solutions, evidence, opinions, explanations, reflection, analysis, application…the list of possibilities is endless and dependent on the criteria YOU set for the “backchannel” conversations students undeniably have behind our backs."

So, start the film, enable the backchannel, pose your questions, and let your students learn that literature is not only on paper. Let them, as you advance, discuss why storytelling changes when the medium changes, or why storytelling changes when different people try to tell the same story, or the same story is told in different times and/or places.

This is vital education on so many levels, including the absolute need for our students to be able to work with audio and video literary forms via the same kind of critical thinking process we try to apply to books. Why - an example - did the film (and TV show) of the novel M*A*S*H seem more about Vietnam than Korea? Or, why do film versions of books change when they are re-made in a different decade? Or, what kinds of books translate best into movies? (Consider Stand By Me or A River Runs Through It, films made from novellas - Different Seasons and A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.)

Combine this with allowing your students to respond to literature "their way," writing, dictating, creating a podcast or a video, putting on a play, re-making a scene, and you've got a Universally Designed literature experience, and you have rebuilt your English classroom in a way the enables and empowers all of your students.

Seems worth a try, doesn't it?

- Ira Socol

19 May 2010

Ten Free UDL Tools you may not be using as much as you should

Universal Design for Learning, and Universal Design Technology, are the keys to increasing both access to learning and increasing engagement among the widest range of students. Many of the tools which allow students to shift media to meet their learning and interest needs are free, assuming you have computers available to your students, and reasonable web connections.

But as my friend Karen Janowski asked this morning on Twitter - "Can someone help me understand why educators aren't using UDL principles to help all student succeed, esp. Kids on IEPs?"

Why indeed? 

One place to go for help is Karen's UDL Toolkit Wiki, or you could 'flip' through this blog or others, but to speed up the process... a list of ten...

ONE: Firefox. If Firefox is not your school's default web browser, there's a problem. I know, yes Chrome can be sometimes faster, but it lacks Firefox's diverse tools. Yes, I know Internet Explorer or Safari came installed on your computers, but let's not begin by pleading laziness... it doesn't look good in front of the kids.

Firefox is accessible, through its add-ons, for just about everyone, and in free, easy, common practice ways which allow all kids to participate equally. For details on access add-ons you can go to Access Firefox, or just download the (right now PC/Linux-only) Firefox build we created in Michigan which installs with accessibility add-ons installed along with important bookmarks (a Mac version will be out soon).

TWO: Google Accounts. Google will give your school individualized Google Accounts en masse for free (and eliminate advertising from email) so I'm not sure why an educational institution still wastes its own money on email systems, but Google Accounts offers so much to support so many kids. From the collaboration capabilities of Google Docs (and no more lost/misplaced assignments), to the share-with-the-world possibilities of Blogger, to the ability to organize your classes with Google Sites, and the amazing ability to link and remind students via Google Calendar, plus the complete multimedia, any capability strength of G-mail with chat and Video Chat. No school should be without this.

THREE: WordTalk. The brilliant Microsoft Word template attachment WordTalk turns Word into a fully speaking word processor that enables the learning disabled to really work with both the acquisition and creation of text. It even creates mp3s to send home.

FOUR: AccessApps. AccessApps, LearnApps, TeachApps are USB-flashdrive based accessibility suites for Windows available from the Regional Support Centre/Scotland North and East. AccessApps is a perfect suite for low-vision and dexterity limitations. LearnApps for dyslexia and other learning differences. TeachApps will give you all those tools plus systems for creating accessible documents.

FIVE: Speech Recognition in Windows 7. Or in Windows Vista. Speech Recognition is an incredibly powerful tool for those who just don't interact well with paper or keyboards. Say it, and the computer writes it down. Say it, and the computer does it. And now the very best of these systems is free within your operating system. Windows 7 and Windows Vista both come with this brilliant software included.

SIX: Ghotit. The spellcheck for the rest of us. Ghotit, which works as a website, and as an add-in for Microsoft Word, is spell and grammar checking specifically for English Language Learners, dyslexics, and all those who just "can't come close enough" for traditional spellcheck to work.

SEVEN: Diigo (or Delicious, or Evernote). Your students need to learn social bookmarking. They need to learn to remember the discoveries they make. Diigo, Delicious, Evernote all make this easy, no matter how your students interacts with books, writing tools, or computers.

EIGHT: GraphCalc. GraphCalc installs a full-featured scientific, 3D-graphing, calculator onto your computers for free. And kids who struggle with writing math symbols or drawing graphs can simply copy the calculator's window into their word processing documents.

NINE: TodaysMeet. If Twitter is "a bridge too far" for your school, or you'd prefer more privacy, control, and transcript acquisition, and less sign up hassles, TodaysMeet is the way to bring 140-character backchannel communication into your classroom. You'll find the some kids who never talk have quite a lot to say.

TEN: Click-N-Type. The world's best on-screen keyboard, Click-N-Type is a life changer for switch users or those with very limited dexterity. When combined with a custom short-cut system using Microsoft Word's AutoCorrect feature (typing "mcoe" writes "Michigan State University College of Education" on my computers), and with the voice outputs possible in Click-N-Type or with WordTalk (above), you will be giving the gift of communication.

Yes, this is just ten, and there are so many more, but so many schools lack even these basics, and so many classroom teachers remain unaware of the possibilities. So, please, let's begin somewhere.

- Ira Socol

18 May 2010

The Fiction of "Teach, Don't Preach"

Dr. Stanley Fish is a famous man. To quote his New York Times bio, "Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His column appears here on Tuesdays. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 11 books, most recently “Save the World On Your Own Time,” on higher education. “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama, will be published in 2010."

And Stanley Fish is famous, in part, for his opposition to a certain form of education, which he recently re-expressed in his New York Times column.

Dr. Fish is a "traditional liberal," by which I mean a conservative who really doesn't want that label. From Benjamin Disraeli to Nelson Rockefeller to David Cameron and Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates, these are people who do indeed want to "save the world," they want to "help," but they just want to make sure that no one upsets the system which has made them rich and powerful. So Dr. Fish writes a column which, while ostensibly attacking Arizona's anti-ethnic studies law, is actually an attack on those educators who embrace Paolo Freire and the concepts of education for social justice. "It's your fault," Fish intimates about "the left" for pushing a radical agenda that demands a response.
"If the department is serious about this (and we must assume that it is), then there is something for the citizens of Arizona to be concerned about. The concern is not ethnic studies per se — a perfectly respectable topic of discussion and research involving the disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology, medicine, economics, literature, public policy and art, among others. The concern is ethnic studies as a stalking horse or Trojan horse of a political agenda, even if the agenda bears the high-sounding name of social justice. (“Teaching for Social Justice” is a pervasive and powerful mantra in the world of educational theory.)

"It is certainly possible to teach the literature and history (including the history of marginalization and discrimination) of ethnic traditions without turning students into culture warriors ready to man (and woman) the barriers. To be sure, the knowledge a student acquires in an ethnic studies course that stays clear of indoctrination may lead down the road to counter-hegemonic, even revolutionary, activity; you can’t control what students do with the ideas they are exposed to. But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction."
Following the "accepted curriculum" isn't political? (McGuffey's Readers)

Here's the problem with Dr. Fish, who promotes a theory he calls "neutrality" and which he expresses as "teach, don't preach." "But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction," Fish writes regarding Freirian educators, but, that "neutral classroom" also sets out to produce a specific political activity. It may be the activities suggested in America's favorite 19th Century textbook (see above), or it might be "good citizenship" and voting for Democrats or Republicans, or it might be following the law, or it might be a belief in capitalism, or the idea that it is more important to read Scott Fitzgerald than John Dos Passos, or that algebra is more important to understanding the world than the Marxist view of history... whatever... Dr. Fish, it is all political, and there is no "neutral."

"Matt" from Ontario, put it this way in the comments at The Times' site, "The school has historically been a standardizing force within society, and given that (a) standardized people with standardized values who have been taught respect for authority figures from an early age are easier to control and manipulate, and (b) the government controls the school system, it's hard to see the universalization of education in North America over the last century as an apolitical process. Freire and his followers are political in their educational agenda, yes, but this is not what makes them unusual. Rather, it's the fact that they're so open about it."

What was John Scopes doing in his Tennessee classroom in 1925? According to Fish he was turning his students into "culture warriors." What are all those who go out from the US and UK to teach in developing nations doing, but converting their students into "culture warriors." What are schools doing when they hold student elections according to US voting norms rather than those typical in other nations? Whatever you choose, do, or say in the classroom is a political act. There is no way around that.

Hector Amaya from Charlottesville, VA, said this, "As someone who teaches on the subject of ethnic studies regularly at University of Virginia, I can testify to the care and responsibility with which the material is treated and presented. I am aware of the values and challenges of all of my students and of the fact that my role is to teach each and every one of them with the same concern and professionalism. Yet, the material is political and it invariably will ask from the educator to take a position, even if one does not wish to. Does one proselytize? Is the educator teaching Shakespeare proselytizing? Taking a position on knowledge is always to proselytize. Taking a position on political knowledge, I am sorry Prof. Fish, is always to proselytize politically."

I'd go further. Take attendance? Enforce "tardiness rules"? Rank students according to a scale? Celebrate kids on an "Honor Roll"? Give tests? Ask kids not to interrupt? Grade grammar? Enforce methods of citation? Even object to plagiarism? These are all overt political acts, and they are choices - choosing to embrace one cultural view of the world rather than another. Whether that is "wrong" or "right" in your mind does not matter - each of these acts is both highly political and diametrically opposed to Freirian theory - and Stanley Fish adopting the Fox News fairness mantra (agree with me, you are fair - disagree, you are biased) doesn't change the facts.

So I wrote this in the comments, "Education can do one of two things - it can reinforce the world as it is, the socially reproductive system used in much of the US which seeks to maintain wealth and power as they are, or, it can help students to "work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student” and “promote and advocate for social and educational transformation." There really is no middle ground despite Mr. Fish's assertions. The "middle ground" where power is doubted but left unchanged?
   "Education is the most important thing we do (though you'd hardly know it by our commitment to it), and it is, inherently, the most political thing we do. For, in every classroom the choice is made to either train students in compliance or in doubt and questioning. Pretending there is another choice obscures the essential conflicts at play."

The essential conflicts are between social reproduction and equality of opportunity. In education, those are the choices. And you are either preaching one political outcome or another.

- Ira Socol

17 May 2010

Memory, History, Education

"In fact, [Dr. Karim Nader] says, it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Nader thinks it’s likely that some types of memory, such as a flashbulb memory, are more susceptible to change than others. Memories surrounding a major event like September 11 might be especially susceptible, he says, because we tend to replay them over and over in our minds and in conversation with others—with each repetition having the potential to alter them."*

When Alec Couros sent me the article quoted above, I had just finished the virtual performance of a presentation to the Computers in Education Society of Ireland on "Human Communication." My argument was that the "Gutenberg Era" was an aberration in human knowledge construction, with its fixed-texts locking down our information and cultural memory. More "human" I argued, was the form of constant change by all hands typical of both "pre-Gutenberg," and now.

This may be a difficult idea for many educators. Our entire education system has been constructed in the era of the book and fixed text. In the idea that "unchanged" text and "consolidated" memory is best. Adapting and changing texts and memories with each use, based on the circumstances of each recall and retell, seems sloppy and unreliable. Our best witnesses seem to be those with the most consistent memories, our best histories are those which quote exactly.

But if that is truly an impossibility with human memory, perhaps all of our notions of both history and knowledge are a "fiction" - it is the consistency and the fixed nature of text which is made up.

Chris Marker's 1962 masterpiece La Jetee on the concept and strength of memory (see NetFlix Streaming for English or here for English Subtitles)

Though you usually would not know by looking at either an American school or an American news program, history matters, and so memory matters. History is how we construct ourselves on this earth. And memory touches so much of what we do in classrooms. If the "accuracy" we seek is illusory, how does this alter pedagogy?

"People tend to have accurate memories for the basic facts of a momentous event—for example, that a total of four planes were hijacked in the September 11 attacks—but often misremember personal details such as where they were and what they were doing at the time. Hardt says this could be because these are two different types of memories that get reactivated in different situations. Television and other media coverage reinforce the central facts. But recalling the experience to other people may allow distortions to creep in. “When you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.”'

Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour tries to bring collective memories together

The same director's L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961) challenges whether any memory can truly be shared.

The tragedies of our collective world are powerful motivators. Would US elections - and thus - US society be different without any memories of September 11, 2001? Why do these memories motivate those closest to the tragedy - New Yorkers - in ways different than many others? What might Northern Ireland be like without reinforced memory? What might happen there if that collective memory was encouraged to shift rather than solidify? Iranian President Ahmadinejad is probably quite politically "right" in his Holocaust Denial, no matter how absurd it sounds. The world would view Israeli politics in a very different way if the Holocaust was forgotten. And yet, if memories were completely plastic, why wouldn't the now 60+ year-old boundaries of African nations be more accepted than they are?

All of this suggests our "writing" and "re-writing" process. When we recall a memory, can it really ever be unimpacted by the surroundings of our recall? The lost love recalled while alone on a rainy day is a different perception than that same lost love recalled as you look into the eyes of your current love on a sunny day. And when it is "refiled" - "Nader suggests that reconsolidation may be the brain’s mechanism for recasting old memories in the light of everything that has happened since" - it will be different, depending on whether the recall was in the former or latter environment.

How does that impact how we "teach" history?

And what of the other educational memory moments? The notion of reconstructing memory with every recall may further exacerbate the issues with the differing home environments of students, or even with what class comes next in the schedule. It might force us to rethink everything about how we group students.

Because we also know that memory goes with passion - if it isn't important we do not remember it (and if we do, we're usually labelled as ADHD or Aspergers) - how do we arouse that interest, that reason to remember, without twisting the recall environment?

I don't have answers here, I only have more questions. And now that we live in a world where fixed texts, and one-version histories, are disappearing, these questions seem to take on new levels of importance.

- Ira Socol

* http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/How-Our-Brains-Make-Memories.html
** Ketchum, Divided Loyalties, 262

15 May 2010

Human Communication

My presentation to the pre-conference Meet at the Computer Education Society of Ireland's Tipperary Institute Conference on 14 May 2010.

I struggled with conversion, so it seems blurry. I'll retry, but if you want the whole version, download it.

- Ira Socol

14 May 2010

John Lindsay and the Audacity of Hope

New York Mayor John V. Lindsay might be best remembered for columnist Jack Newfield's quote about him: "He gives good intentions a bad name."

As Lindsay is remembered this season, with a major exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York and with a documentary from New York public television station WNET-13, I would like to offer a counter assessment. I do this not just in a continuing attempt to set the historical record straight against what I consider the "historical fictions" of America's right ("Lindsay proved that big government doesn't work, he bankrupted the city." "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War." "The Great Society was a total failure."), but because the Lindsay Administration in New York City can tell us a lot about how we, as a society, perceive and build change. And that is very important for those of us seeking to re-imagine education.

For in the Lindsay Administration all hopes were welcomed, all changes were considered possible, all things which might promise an improved life were worth experimenting with, aesthetics mattered as much as spreadsheet numbers, feelings and empathy were more important than control and efficiency, and the general public was actually asked to "Give a damn."

This wasn't job lip service. Cars were kicked out of parks and the public was welcomed in. Museums went from stodgy palaces of the elites to welcoming institutions for everyone. College access was promised to all high school graduates - an idea almost 4 decades ahead of its time. Cleaning the air was considered important, long before the Feds began to enforce this idea. Cops were asked to influence crime through presence and community policing rather than through force. Schools were built. Subways were air conditioned so everyone might have quieter more comfortable commutes. Zoning was re-crafted to encourage public spaces. Cheap theater tickets were distributed - a system which remains a boon to tourists, the Broadway industry, and middle-class New Yorkers to this day. Historic buildings were protected. Racial integration was expected.

Did it all work? Hell no. We know that. The parks didn't have enough money to keep up with maintenance once user traffic tripled. The early air conditioners in the subway broke down and the newer-style windows didn't open much. The City University System (CUNY) lacked both the money and the faculty will to make "Open Admissions" work. Everything from clean air requirements to non-discriminatory hiring expectations to historic preservation scared businesses, which often moved away from regulations to New Jersey.

But, let me state the obvious, perhaps because of all these attempts, or - at least "obviously" - in spite of them, New York City survived 1965-1975, something many cities in the US really did not (see Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Newark, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Oakland, et al). Sure New York lost population (almost 10%), lost jobs and industries, and found itself bankrupt financially (primarily though, to be clear, because taxes levied in New York City supported the entire state and a large part of the nation - not because New York City lacked the requisite wealth). Those losses, however, were minimal compared to almost any other American city, and in 1976 that "bankrupt" New York could easily welcome the world to the completely successful American Bicentennial celebration. New York could hardly be said to have "collapsed" under Lindsay's "big government socialism."

The Urban Coalition's Give a damn campaign.

Give a damn

The heart of the Lindsay Administration was in the dual notions of equality and true opportunity. The belief system was that it was better to try and fail than to not try. The ethos was framed in the simple slogan of the Urban Coalition: "Give a damn." And so even if the immediate impact was not obvious, even if the failures mounted up, the results transformed New York City and created the possibility of future success.

For the first time the City University undergraduate population began to reflect the emerging diversity of the city, and today, CUNY's wonderfully diverse system is one of the best in the world.

For the first time since the advent of the automobile the parks system became dedicated to quiet and clean air, and the parks system was celebrated as a jewel. Without that cultural shift the volunteer efforts which have restored the parks could not have begun.

After years of "post war" neglect in favor of highways, the Subway system was again viewed as vital and essential. Giuliani's "restoration" would not have happened if Lindsay hadn't preserved what was there, and focused attention on it.

Cultural institutions became central to the life of the middle class in New York City. Museums flourished as the city embraced, first, The Museum Mile, and then other centers of culture. The TKTS booth on Times Square democratized theater audiences. Shakespeare appeared in The Park, the New York Philharmonic quickly followed.

And despite the many disasters (Ocean Hill/Brownsville and Frank Serpico being the top two), New Yorkers, for the first time, felt they had real input into their policing and education systems.

This was powerful stuff, and it remains powerful stuff.

45 years later

This matters 45 years later because we now live in an age when leaders spend more time telling us what is not possible than in trying to make our dreams into realities. We're told that Americans can't have a health care system as good as those in most similar nations. We're told that the best we can do is having a few good schools in a few states. We're told poverty is unsolvable - almost impossible to even make a dent in. We're told we can't have a real rail transport system. We have US Senators and Congressmembers who even tell us that we can not even put those who've killed Americans on trial.

On Twitter I listen daily as "educational reformers" prattle on about all we cannot do, we can only save a few kids, they say, so we'll segregate those few into Charter Life Boats while we watch the rest drown.

Everywhere in education I see people afraid to try, afraid even to run with great ideas which great teachers are proving in their classrooms. Brits can boycott dumb high stakes tests, but Americans are afraid. Few are willing to risk fighting the anti-child, anti-teacher tide flowing from Washington (and now from Westminster).  

The New York Times correctly titled their exhibition review "You Can Fight City Hall." Because that is what the Lindsay Administration meant. It was a time and a mindset that said we need to aim for the best we can be, and if that doesn't work, we'll pick ourselves up and try again.

Watch these campaign ads, visit the virtual exhibits (or the real ones if in or around New York), and remind yourself of what risk in the name of good looks like for a society.

Maybe we can recapture just a bit of that.

- Ira Socol

10 May 2010

everything we do...

Information and debates rolled across my Twitter landscape Friday night. Powerful questions and divergent answers. I was so struck by the quality of the conversation, and the fact that so many educators were up late on a Friday night worrying about how to improve on what is happening in and around their schools that, well, I could only be embarrassed for the likes of Arne Duncan, Christopher Christie, David Cameron, Wendy Kopp, even Barack Obama - those who make money or score political points demeaning teachers.

As I "listened" though, I began to think (again) about asking all the questions. Why do we do do everything we do?

Christian Long, Pam Moran and I began discussing school architecture, and the idea of classroom shape and the "teaching wall." And I asked why classrooms were rectangular, "didn't that shape," I wondered, "pulled from the architecture of the Protestant Church, create certain 'facts' in the classroom?'

Christian, a brilliant school designer, who tries to challenge everything, said, "all people/clients like "rectangles".  No example in nature.  Entirely a man-made concept. Suggests 'balance'/'focus'."

Yes, there is no example in nature. Yes, to Protestant Europeans and certain East Asians, the rectangular room does indeed suggest balance and focus. But is it a universally preferred shape for learning and gathering?

I've already written about a school which chose to switch to square classrooms with no "teaching wall." They even skipped the Interactive White Boards because they seemed to "focus" the classroom in one way. In human habitation around the world the square is much more common than the rectangle, or surely was. Squares are less "hierarchical." The point of focus is less obvious. And that may have had real advantages for human relationships and human learning.

But we can go back further. Humans really tended to start with circular spaces, from Bronze Age round thatched cottages, from North American tipis and kivas, to African village houses and Irish "beehive" monasteries.

What might a circular classroom suggest that a rectangular classroom does not?

What about a square?

What might those room shapes do to student perception, student participation, pedagogical form, student and teacher behavior?

There are, of course, other "learning environment" shapes. The Catholic Cathedral is a complex idea, filled with the kinds of "distractions" so despised by a certain (and self-admittedly completely uniformed) Protestant-trained power elite. "You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter," he told the students. "And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy." - Barack Obama

But then, the Catholic Mass has always been about teaching to the many intelligences in many ways - words and image, art and scent, movement and taste, and the mysteries of what lies behind that corner or that pillar. A style of teaching specifically rejected by America's Protestants, who built simple, hierarchical, text-centered and single "teaching wall" rectangles for both worship and education.

The rectangular room embraces one notion of focus... stair straight ahead, put down everything but that book, listen to one voice, there is only one way to learn. It was conceived - in education - for that purpose. And the rectangular classroom, like the notion that, "with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction," is a control system, and part of a method of limiting human potential.

We live, in most of our schools, with a system built on a few fatal assumptions. These assumptions are largely based in Reformation view of human development and the path to heaven. Children are, in our school design, inherently evil and ignorant - and so they must be controlled, managed, focused. Humans, in our school design, are inherently sinful and slothful - so, if their vision is not tightly controlled, they will do the wrong things. There is only one true path to salvation, in our school design, and so we must carefully lay out both the steps and the procedures - or our students will slip into perdition.

And we have lived with these assumptions for so long, we have - far too often - accepted them as "natural" instead of as the 16th Century political invention that they are. Of course. These assumptions define our educational environment, from our room shapes to our age-based grades to our grade-level-expectations and tests to our schedules, our blackboards or whiteboards, to the way - perhaps - that student seats rarely face the windows.

There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to change their management system to one based on profit. There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to stop training teachers. There are those who believe that the way to change schools is to go "back to basics." But for me, the way to change schools is to alter the assumptions which underlie them.

Because there is a counter-narrative. It is not unknown, rather it runs from Rousseau to Montessori to Dewey to Postman to Kohn. It runs from the Catholic Mass to the developing world village circle to the few field left where children play and learn on their own. This narrative understands human attention in a pre-Reformation, pre-Gutenberg way - when "multitasking" was, simply, being human. This narrative understands that we are all learners, and all instructors. This narrative understands that hierarchical spaces are not necessarily the best learning structures, and understands that human learning rarely effectively occurs "on schedule." This narrative thinks less about "molding" children into useful adults, and more about embracing human potential.

About five centuries ago Protestant leaders began building churches in simple rectangles. They stopped installing storytelling stained glass. They skipped instrumental music. They dropped the use of scent as an important sensory tool. The number of people moving in the front of the church at any time shrank from many, often to one. And they began to pass out books, as the essential learning tool. Books in which you were instructed which page to turn to.

And in our classrooms we too often live with all this still. We accept all this still. America's president is sure that information which comes from something other than a book or a teacher is "a distraction." Our architects assume classrooms must be rectangular. Our school administrators worry endlessly about students being "on time" for school and our teachers worry about assignment deadlines. We continue to expect children to sit still in far too many classes. And we rank reading and writing as more important than viewing art or creating music.

So, if you want to change schools - stop playing ball in John Calvin's court. Tinkering has gotten us nowhere. Perhaps changing assumptions will bring about change.

- Ira Socol

05 May 2010

In this month's School Library Journal

I talk about "The Unhappy Place" and the need to offer access to literacy to all students...

Libraries terrified me as a child. They were places with too many rules, with an organization system that made no sense, with intimidating counters and information stored in a form I couldn't access.

But I loved books. Despite having what would now be called a severe reading and writing disability, as well as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, I devoured everything from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to a picture book that explained how electricity was created at Niagara Falls. I loved atlases and encyclopedias with their images, charts, and graphs, and magazines, from Life to National Geographic. So I braved this unhappy place, and, secretly pulling books off the shelf, I would disappear into a hidden corner to sit on the floor for a look. I couldn't check out books on my own. To do that, the library required that I write my name and address on the application form, something I was unable to do.

Is your library prepared for a kid like me? Can it accommodate a child who struggles with print in every form or one with attention and behavioral issues, and help him or her become a successful, motivated consumer of literature and information?  keep reading at the SLJ site...

and while you are there, never miss Amy Bowllan's Blog

- Ira Socol

02 May 2010

"I run one of the worst Middle Schools in America..."

"...and I'm famous."

Tony Orsini of Ridgewood, New Jersey's Benjamin Franklin Middle School has decided to become a celebrity. When I first wrote about Mr. Orsini I simply thought him foolish and clueless (well, I said, "crazy" but I have been - quite effectively - told I should not have phrased it that way," and friends on Twitter who live in Ridgewood and have children in the schools there tried to assure me that "Tony" was not a bad guy, just desperate and out-of-ideas.

But some things have become obvious to me in the days since: First, the comments on my previous blog from parents and students in Ridgewood have shown me that Mr. Anthony Orsini has presided over the creation of an unbelievably toxic middle school environment. Despite all the benefits of a fairly wealthy community, Orsini's school is one continuous, 24-hour-a-day bullying-fest, with angry, uninformed, poorly communicating adults modelling the worst possible behaviours for their children.

Bullying, in my view of the world, is not a "kid issue," but an adult-created environmental issue. As studies have shown, schools typically make bullying worse, and more acceptable - not the opposite. So, if there is a problem in Ridgewood, and there sure seems to be a problem, it is not with Facebook, but with Orsini and the community's other adults.

Second, this, though not a crisis like many impoverished middle schools face, is an apparent disaster - a disaster built by an uncaring and disinterested suburban community. Listen to this parent:
"I'm a parent at Orsini's middle school and I can tell you -- he's not afraid that kids know more than him or whatever else your theory was...he's afraid that some kid is going to commit suicide or another violent act. He's afraid that a kid is going to be harmed emotionally and so badly that she never really recovers. He has been called-on by parents who are beside themselves with their children being targeted and nowhere to turn, no easy way to get "authorities" involved (he's the closest they have to an authority who will take it on). And I'm certain that he's afraid for how all this is impacting his students' learning. Personally, I think those are worthy things to be afraid of and I do not blame him for reacting. His tone was guaranteed to rile some up, but for god's sake people, give the guy some help! What else would you have him do, realistically, there all alone on the front line, with another kid crying in his office and unable to attend class?"
Yes, bullying at Benjamin Franklin is so bad student suicide has become a real threat, the community's authorities (I assume this means the police) are refusing to assist (despite the case in Massachusetts), the parents are no help - leaving this principal "all alone." Charming place, this Ridgewood, New Jersey. Combine that with a school so uninteresting in pedagogy that the principal declares that no homework requires research or outside learning ("Over 90% of all homework does not require the internet, or even a computer. Do not allow them to have a computer in their room, there is no need"), and there is a recipe for disaster which should have been addressed by parents and community long ago.

Third, Tony Orsini really likes attention. At first I thought he needed Google Mail Goggles - that pause before you send option on your email account. Why else would someone send out such a foolish email? But after seeing Tony's act across every media form this weekend, it becomes fairly obvious that this is a guy bored with his job, and looking for fame (and perhaps a spot at the right-wing propaganda mill, the Heritage Foundation).

This is always disappointing. When Orsini's letter first came to light, I encouraged community members to offer him help - help in understanding the research around all these issues - pedagogy, bullying, social media, help in coming up with strategies, help developing solutions. But as you listen to Tony, he's now no longer an educator, but a talking point. And that is really bad for the kids who must show up Monday morning at a school adults have allowed to turn toxic.

So now this comes down to Superintendent Daniel Fishbein (201-670-2700, ext. 10530). Dr. Fishbein, please relieve Mr. Orsini of his position, allowing him to become a regular on Fox News, CNN, and ABC. And please bring in a team of adults seeking real solutions. They are right there in your community - and many of us from other places will help, if asked.

Ridgewood, you have a serious problem, and Ridgewood, you need a serious solution. And that solution needs to be based in talking to your kids, not the media.

- Ira Socol

at least one New Jersey principal understands. He's not on TV...

01 May 2010

to be fully human

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010

I move through a lot of schools, and through a lot of public spaces, and everywhere I go I see people who are made to be less than fully human. The high school kids who can not read sitting in classrooms during "silent reading" time. The girl in the wheelchair set off to the side of the middle school choir because everyone else is on risers. The poor reader at the bank or hospital faced with piles of incomprehensible paperwork. The man or woman denied the ability to go out to eat because of too few or badly placed "handicapped" parking places. The child who struggles with writing who is denied the right to communicate in his classroom. The university students forced to spend large amounts of money and time to "prove themselves" "disabled."

Less than fully human, or, as they say, Children of a Lesser God.

We are all human, we are not all the same...

And I have my personal scenes:

In March of 2009 I struggled to walk with crutches through Kennedy Airport in New York when Delta Airlines refused to provide me with a wheelchair. When I fell, as fellow passengers ran toward me to help, my Delta flight crew literally stepped over me in their rush to get out of the terminal. Delta has acknowledged that all they did was wrong, but refuses to consider any solution.

the smug rich guy on the left is Delta Airline's CEO, give him a call 1-404-715-2600, ask him about this...

In October 2009 I could not attend an academic conference at Michigan State University when the campus's Kellogg Center gave away its disability parking spaces to football fans who set up tents for drinking. The university claimed that they would take steps to make this up to me, but has refused to do so.

Just last week a taco restaurant in Zeeland, Michigan - which already lacked any disability parking - refused my request for help with my food tray, after I had paid for the food. I left, $6.00 poorer and still hungry.

And, of course, back at my own university, students with disabilities are considered so foreign, so different, that in order to be treated with respect they must obtain a visa from the disability office. Yes, a visa. Carry your papers with you, my friends, lest you be considered an alien.

I could go on. There was the international education conference in Chicago where Columbia University's Teachers College (among others) slammed the door in my face. The numerous businesses which make entry impossible for those in wheelchairs, and restaurants which love funny fonts on the menu so dyslexics cannot use reading technology. There are faculty who cannot understand a student being unable to sit in their classrooms - their completely structured - non-universally-designed classrooms. There are toilets people cannot get to, signs which cannot be read, parking spots not designated, untrained employees from fast food spots to the greatest universities.

And each of these things make some of us less than fully human, in our minds, and everyone else's.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010

On Blogging Against Disablism Day I've been angry (Retard Theory, 2008) and I've been depressed (Suicidal Ideation, 2009), but today, perhaps I need to be committed.

 I have tried to do what I can, I suppose, but I wonder what "that" means? Have I eaten at restaurants with car parks but no "handicapped" spaces? Yes, I have, and I shouldn't. Have I spoken up at the sight of each injustice? No, and I should. Have I followed through on legal threats? Well, yes, against Delta, but generally not - it seems messy and tiring too often.

And I know the cost of constant action. I had a friend who battled everything at every moment. Every bad toilet, every bad airline experience, every narrow door, and he too often seemed miserable. He was at war with the world every minute, and that is no fun.

Sometimes, we all just need to pretend to experience the full humanness so many would deny us, and just go out and be. That is OK, right?

classic higher education accessibility

So, maybe we need to take turns. We surely need to fight more, but I suspect we need to tag team this world. You this week, me next, someone else the week after that. Maybe we need to make sure behaviors are challenged even if we can't do it. Perhaps we need to set up Wiki-Exchanges so we record it all, and let those with the energy "now" to push the battle forward.

I'm not sure. But I know that we can not continue to accept a world which demeans so many of us, while at the same time, I know we need to keep ourselves as safe and all right as possible.

And we can only do both those things if we're together - whatever the "disability" label society tags us with - if we look out for each other, cross-protest, pick up each others fights - and do it in a way that ensures that every dehumanizing action and moment is addressed - by someone.

So you call CEO Richard Anderson at Delta for me - that's 1-404-715-2600 - and I'll harass your school board, and we'll all get into this boat together and move toward being fully human.

- Ira Socol

with very special thanks to Goldfish, a friend and mentor...