31 August 2010

What KIPP Academies do...

Dear President Obama,

I wanted to discuss the things you believe are "innovative in education," just so I might assure you that in this field - in the field of America's future - your administration is doing irreparable harm.

The "Welsh Not" was hung around the necks of students in Wales who did not conform to the "SLANT" policies of that imperial period.
"Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes." Yes, the first thing KIPP teaches is Calvinist church behaviour. "They all called out at once, “Nodding!"' Yes. Stare at your master. Sit still. Nod to demonstrate your compliance. Speak in unison according to the script.

Mr. President, this is not innovation. We know this formula. It drove the colonialist education systems of Wales and Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the hallmark of British Colonial Schoolsfrom Lagos to Cape Town to Delhi. It was the path followed by the U.S. government's Indian Schools.

It is the well-worn path of imperial cultures. Force those not born "like" the elite to first convert, and then run in a futile attempt to "catch up."

Mr. President, is that what you would want for your daughters?

Acting as an equal human is intolerable in empires - watch from about 4:30 in

The KIPP "SLANT" idea, shown below being introduced by a smug rich guy I cannot identify, is reductionist education which assumes that children of color are incapable of the kind of rich learning available to their wealthy, white counterparts.

White guy spreading his culture to the great "unwashed" oops "challenging"

But let us notice, white kids don't learn that way... whether very young...


or older... 

  St. Ann's Puppet Parade 2009
- Watch more Videos at Vodpod.
St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights

or older...

Wingra School in Madison, WI

or older...

Scarsdale (NY) High School

President Obama, I believe that every child in this nation deserves the kind of creative, exciting, and culturally open education your children are getting at Sidwell Friends. And I believe that forcing a traditional concept of attention on children in order to make them "white enough" to be unthreatening second-class citizens is wrong on every level.

Let me quote this from the Middle School at Sidwell: "We seek academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds. We offer these students a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders.  We encourage these students to test themselves in athletic competition and to give expression to their artistic abilities.  We draw strength from silence—and from the power of individual and collective reflection."

Now let us see how much less KIPP kids get: "KIPP Academy Lynn Charter School will create an environment where the students of Lynn will develop the academic skills, intellectual habits and character traits necessary to maximize their potential in high school, college and the world beyond." "Academic Skills - Calculate accurately - Read fluently - Write effectively - Comprehend fundamental knowledge." "KIPP Academy Lynn will relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures."

What research is it, Mr. President, that Secretary Duncan cites to indicate that the students of KIPP Academy Lynn Charter School deserve so much less - of life, of creativity, of respect, of freedom, than your daughter's classmates at Sidwell?

No Mr. President, KIPP Academies are not innovation. They are the oldest colonialist form of oppression in the school manual. They are institutions of the elite's cultural power, and their purpose is to protect the elites by ensuring that underclass children will never catch up.

But, if you really want to prove me wrong, send your daughters to a KIPP Academy. Your i3 grants mean there should be one coming to the White House neighbourhood soon.

- Ira Socol

30 August 2010

What century is it?

This would have been a good sign in 1996
Sometimes you just need to look at the calendar. No, not the day and date, but that big number near the top, you know... the year.

This is 2010, the first year of the second decade of the 21st Century, and the school district in the photo above has decided that it is time to prepare for ten years ago. With a message like that, what student wouldn't be excited?

Fourteen years ago the campaign slogan for the winning American Presidential candidate was "Building a bridge to the Twenty-First Century." Twelve years ago the U.S. became obsessed with the arrival of the millennium. Hell, 46 years ago the New York World's Fair imagined the possibilities. Or, 48 years ago in Seattle...

1962 (before you were probably born)
"Now, for the third time, a new century is upon us, and another time to choose. We began the 19th century with a choice, to spread our nation from coast to coast. We began the 20th century with a choice, to harness the Industrial Revolution to our values of free enterprise, conservation, and human decency. Those choices made all the difference. At the dawn of the 21st century a free people must now choose to shape the forces of the Information Age and the global society, to unleash the limitless potential of all our people, and, yes, to form a more perfect union.

"The knowledge and power of the Information Age will be within reach not just of the few, but of every classroom, every library, every child.

"Yes, let us build our bridge. A bridge wide enough and strong enough for every American to cross over to a blessed land of new promise." - Bill Clinton, Second Inaugural

Anyway, if you did not know this was coming, you really have no business leading a school. It means that you have not been an aggressive learner yourself. It means that you have been wandering around with your eyes closed. And that is no way to be a role model for your students.

1986 (24 years ago - before all "traditional age" university students of today were born)

A few weeks ago a school superintendent told me about a "consultant" visiting one of her schools and asking the students about "twenty-first century learning." The students were baffled. What other century's learning would they be interested in? Even the high school seniors were just 8-year-olds at the end of the last century. This may be "new" to you, but it is as much a part of the world - or a bigger part of the world - than film and telegraphs and telephones and phonographs and photos in newspapers were in 1910.

1910 (100 years ago, way before grandpa was born) one Edison communications technology explains another

So please, let's stop pretending the present is the future. Let us re-imagine our schools so that the present begins to look like the future instead.

"not of dreams, but of realities"

- Ira Socol

25 August 2010

Teaching Citizenship: We have to do better. Part II

As a follow up to my recent "Teaching Citizenship" post, I want to share a few important resources, and to repeat Mayor Michael Bloomberg's[1] remarks at the Gracie Mansion Ramadan Dinner.

I do believe that, in many ways, the argument over the Park51 Cultural Center is a struggle over the very definition of democracy. Can, as in California, the "majority" vote away the rights of a minority? This is the question, and an odd coalition, including the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, opportunistic right-wing politicians, Manhattan's Catholic Archbishop[2], and a blind African-American Governor, have joined together to say that irrational "majority" fears trump individual and small group rights.

As the Toronto Globe and Mail notes, this is a serious failure of critical thinking skills (thanks to George Couros for this piece).
"They and their ilk have behaved completely contrary to the tenets of critical thinking: Using a few selective passages from the Koran, they have incited fear, generalized and tarred every Muslim living in the U.S. and the West.

“I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion,” declared Diana Serafin, one of the protesters in Temecula, a small city between Los Angeles and San Diego. “But Islam is not about religion. It’s a political government and it’s 100 per cent against our Constitution.”

"Such a statement is tailor-made for the classroom. There are many holes in Ms. Serafin’s viewpoint, which ignores the fact that most North American Muslims are assimilated and have absolutely no intention of taking over the U.S. government in the name of their religion. They are loyal Americans and Canadians who cherish the freedoms in the countries they have adopted or been born into, no different than their non-Muslim neighbours.

"From a critical thinking perspective, Ms. Serafin has made a classic leap in logic. The media have reported (and frequently sensationalized) a handful of serious incidents in which American, British and Canadian Muslims have indeed embraced jihadism. But any Grade 11 student could argue that it is intellectually dishonest to make sweeping statements against all Muslims."
As you bring this into your classroom, you may want to prepare with Alan Shapiro's Teaching on Controversial Issues as well as his Teaching Critical Thinking. And then you may want to post this list: 
Samad Afridi
Ashraf Ahmad
Shabbir Ahmad (45 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and 3 children)
Umar Ahmad
Azam Ahsan
Ahmed Ali
Tariq Amanullah (40 years old; Fiduciary Trust Co.; ICNA website team member; leaves wife and 2 children)
Touri Bolourchi (69 years old; United Airlines #175; a retired nurse from Tehran)
Salauddin Ahmad Chaudhury
Abdul K. Chowdhury (30 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Mohammad S. Chowdhury (39 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and child born 2 days after the attack)
Jamal Legesse Desantis
Ramzi Attallah Douani (35 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
SaleemUllah Farooqi
Syed Fatha (54 years old; Pitney Bowes)
Osman Gani
Mohammad Hamdani (50 years old)
Salman Hamdani (NYPD Cadet)
Aisha Harris (21 years old; General Telecom)
Shakila Hoque (Marsh & McLennan)
Nabid Hossain
Shahzad Hussain
Talat Hussain
Mohammad Shah Jahan (Marsh & McLennan)
Yasmeen Jamal
Mohammed Jawarta (MAS security)
Arslan Khan Khakwani
Asim Khan
Ataullah Khan
Ayub Khan
Qasim Ali Khan
Sarah Khan (32 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Taimour Khan (29 years old; Karr Futures)
Yasmeen Khan
Zahida Khan
Badruddin Lakhani
Omar Malick
Nurul Hoque Miah (36 years old)
Mubarak Mohammad (23 years old)
Boyie Mohammed (Carr Futures)
Raza Mujtaba
Omar Namoos
Mujeb Qazi
Tarranum Rahim
Ehtesham U. Raja (28 years old)
Ameenia Rasool (33 years old)
Naveed Rehman
Yusuf Saad
Rahma Salie & unborn child (28 years old; American Airlines #11; wife of Michael Theodoridis; 7 months pregnant)
Shoman Samad
Asad Samir
Khalid Shahid (25 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald; engaged to be married in November)
Mohammed Shajahan (44 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
Naseema Simjee (Franklin Resources Inc.'s Fiduciary Trust)
Jamil Swaati
Sanober Syed
Robert Elias Talhami (40 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Michael Theodoridis (32 years old; American Airlines #11; husband of Rahma Salie)
W. Wahid

This is a list of the Muslim victims of the World Trade Center attacks - and one of these names belonged to an old friend of mine. So, to me, yes... this is somewhat personal. But it is an important list for your students to see, because it reminds us of how our collective memory is often constructed in exclusionary ways, where we have distinct villains and distinct heroes. Of course, humanity is more complicated than that[3], and so is democracy.

So please, do not avoid this subject when you meet your classes this year... engage it, struggle with it, contextualize it, most importantly, force your students to struggle with it. We will be a better society for your efforts.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg - 24 August 2010 (click for pdf download)
“Well, good evening, and Ramadan Kareem, and I want to welcome everyone to our annual Ramadan Iftar at Gracie Mansion.
   “We call this ‘The People’s House,’ because it belongs to all 8.4 million New Yorkers who call this city home. And people of every race and religion, every background and belief. And we celebrate that diversity here in this house with gatherings like this one.
   “And for me, whether it’s marking St. Patrick’s Day or Harlem Week or any other occasion, these gatherings are always a powerful reminder of what makes our city so strong and our country so great.
   “You know, America is a nation of immigrants, and I think it’s fair to say no place opens its doors more widely to the world than New York City. America is the land of opportunity, and I think it’s fair to say no place offers its residents more opportunity to pursue their dreams than New York City. And America is a beacon of freedom, and I think it’s fair to say no place defends those freedoms more fervently, or has been attacked for those freedoms more ferociously, than New York City.
   “In recent weeks, a debate has arisen that I believe cuts to the core of who we are as a city and a country. The proposal to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan has created a national conversation on religion in America, and since Ramadan offers a time for reflection, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on that very subject.
   “There are people of good will on both sides of the debate, and I would hope that everyone can carry on a dialogue in a civil and respectful way. In fact, I think most people now agree on two fundamental issues: First, that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan and second, that the site of the World Trade Center is hallowed ground. And the only question we face is: how do we honor that hallowed ground?
   “The wounds of 9/11 are still very much with us. And I know that is true for Talat Hamdani, who is here with us tonight, and who lost her son, Salman Hamdani, on 9/11. There will always be a hole in our hearts for the men and women who perished that day.
   “After the attacks, some argued – including some of those who lost loved ones – that the entire site should be reserved for a memorial. But we decided – together, as a city – that the best way to honor all those we lost, and to repudiate our enemies, was to build a moving memorial and to rebuild the site.
   “We wanted the site to be an inspiring reminder to the world that this city will never forget our dead and never stop living. We vowed to bring Lower Manhattan back – stronger than ever – as a symbol of our defiance and I think it’s fair to say we have. Today, it is more of a community neighborhood than ever before, with more people than ever living, working, playing and praying there.
   “But if we say that a mosque or a community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.
   “We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam.
   “Islam did not attack the World Trade Center – Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American. Today we are not at war with Islam – we are at war with Al-Qaeda and other extremists who hate freedom.
   “At this very moment, there are young Americans – some of them Muslims – standing freedoms’ watch in Iraq and Afghanistan, and around the world. A couple here tonight, Sakibeh and Asaad Mustafa, have children who have served our country overseas and after 9/11, one of them aided in the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. And I’d like to ask them to stand, so we can show our appreciation. There you go. Thank you.
   “The members of our military are men and women at arms – battling for hearts and minds. And their greatest weapon in that fight is the strength of our American values, which have already inspired people around the world. If we do not practice here at home what we preach abroad – if we do not lead by example – we undermine our soldiers. We undermine our foreign policy objectives. And we undermine our national security.
   “In a different era, with different international challenges facing the country, President Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, explained to Congress why it is so important for us to live up to our ideals here at home. Dean Rusk said, ‘The United States is widely regarded as the home of democracy and the leader of the struggle for freedom, for human rights, for human dignity. We are expected to be the model.’
   “We are expected to be the model. Nearly a half-century later, his words remain true. In battling our enemies, we cannot rely entirely on the courage of our soldiers or the competence of our diplomats. We all have to do our part.
   “Just as we fought communism by showing the world the power of free markets and free elections, so must we fight terrorism by showing the world the power of religious freedom and cultural tolerance. Freedom and tolerance will always defeat tyranny and terrorism – and that’s the great lesson of the 20th century, and we must not abandon it here in the 21st.
   “Now I understand the impulse to find another location for the mosque and community center. I understand the pain of those who are motivated by loss too terrible to contemplate. And there are people of every faith – including, perhaps, some in this room – who are hoping that a compromise will end the debate.
   “But it won’t. The question will then become, how big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ be around the World Trade Center site? There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it be moved?
   “This is a test of our commitment to American values. We have to have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.
   “Now, I know that many in this room are disturbed and dispirited by the debate. But it’s worth keeping some perspective on the matter. The first colonial settlers came to these shores seeking religious liberty and the founding fathers wrote a constitution that guaranteed it. They made sure that in this country government would not be permitted to choose between religions or favor one over another.
   “Nonetheless, it was not so long ago that Jews and Catholics had to overcome stereotypes and build bridges to those who viewed them with suspicion and less than fully American. In 1960, many Americans feared that John F. Kennedy would impose papal law on America. But through his example, he taught us that piety to a minority religion is no obstacle to patriotism. It is a lesson I think that needs updating today, and it is our responsibility to accept the challenge.
   “Before closing, let me just add one final thought: Imam Rauf, who is now overseas promoting America and American values, has been put under a media microscope. Each of us may strongly agree or strongly disagree with particular statements that he has made. And that’s how it should be – this is New York City.
   “And while a few of his statements have received a lot of attention, I would like to read you something that he said that you may not have heard. At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, quote, ‘If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind, and soul: Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad; Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one.’
   "He then continued to say, ‘If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.’
   “In that spirit, let me declare that we in New York are Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we always have been. And above all of that, we are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs of New York City that is off limits to any religion.
   “By affirming that basic idea, we will honor America’s values and we will keep New York the most open, diverse, tolerant, and free city in the world. Thank you and enjoy.”
- Ira Socol

[1] You know I'm no fan of Bloomberg, especially on all things education, but he has been the one consistent true American leader on this issue.
[2] Doesn't this prove the failure of the Catholic hierarchy during the Holocaust? If a local archbishop can sell out a minority religion's rights so easily... http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/pius.html 
[3] As the controversy over the "9/11 Gap Looting" suggests http://college.cengage.com/psychology/resources/students/shelves/shelves_20021016.html

24 August 2010

Home Changers

Following up on "five classroom changers" - here are five solutions which might change the relationship your students have with school when they are home:

(1) Google Calendar with Text-Messaging: “We were texted reminders of when assignments were due and when exams were and if the lecturer couldn’t make it. It’s always good to be reminded if assignments are due or if we have a test, just in case you forget." Don't make organization difficult, build it in. Create Google Accounts for you and your students (or use Google Apps for Education) and share a classroom calendar. I know that I wouldn't be anywhere on time if my calendar did not text message me reminders both the night before, and with enough time to actually get to the meeting or whatever (I live 90 minutes from campus). And you are expecting a kid to do better?

So share the calendar. Remind kids of where they need to be, what they need to do, what they should bring. Set the reminders. Tie it to their phones if at all possible in your school. You will lower stress, and help kids keep themselves on track.

(2) Google Docs: Ever look in a student's backpack? Ever see that pile of papers crunched in there? Ever have kids lose stuff? Ever see a kid stress out late at night or before school because he/she can't find what they need? Ever hear mom or dad or teacher yell about forgotten papers?

Just stop it. Use Google Docs instead of paper, or Google Docs combined with Email. Using Google Docs, preferably linked to a Google Site you build for your class (or for each of your classes) you can communicate with home, show off work, make sure assignments, forms, etc are always available. Using Google Docs for student work, allows you make sure nothing gets lost, while allowing you - the teacher - to see the work in progress, and while allowing kids to collaborate freely.

Paper is a bad choice for kids in school. It gets lost, it is hard to make corrections and changes with it. It must be physically moved. William Alcott knew this in 1842 when he advocated using slates instead. Now we have better technology. Lets use it.

"The only reason Token was able to do all this is because his parents are rich" - Cartman
(3) A homework free time period: If you have to give homework - and yes, in general, I am firmly against homework, it measures nothing other than student socio-economic status and belittles the real-life learning that students should be engaged in when not in school - at least allow students to choose when not to do it.

For many kids, for example, the school day is stunningly stressful. If it is, say for ADHD kids, kids struggling with behaviours, kids just uncomfortable in school, the last thing they need is "more school right after school." For these kids, a three-way contract - parents, kid, teacher(s) - should block all "school related activities" until after dinner. If, on the other hand, kids have certain passions - be it a TV show, game-playing, sports, etc - then explicitly contract "no homework" time when they will be doing that. (Adults do this all the time with any work they bring home - at least healthy, reasonably adjusted adults do).

We talk a lot about school being "the work kids do." Well, if so, make sure they have a healthy "work-life balance."

(4) Text-Conversion: Again, if you have to give homework, make sure things sent home are accessible. Using WordTalk (free, Windows Only) or the web-based vozme.com (free) you can convert any text into an mp3 file kids can take home on any mp3 player(some are incredibly cheap), or on their phones.

You can also make sure you are in touch with non-English speaking parents, or ELL students, by using the fabulous translate function in Google Docs and then using vozme.com or the slightly harder-to-use but more robust YakiToMe.com to then convert that translated text into an mp3.

And remember, as Karen Janowski suggests, you can also record important class day lessons using either Garage Band on Macs or the free Audacity on any computer, and send that home as an mp3 as well.

(5) Mobile Study: Want a fun kind of way to remind kids of what you've looked at in school? Try MobileStudy.  MobileStudy allows you create "text-message quizzes" which let kids, on the privacy of their own phones, see if they recall, and which remind them with "after the question" comprehensive answers. You don't score them, this is kids only stuff.

Best way to use it? Let kids build their own "quizzes" for themselves or their teams.

- Ira Socol

23 August 2010

Who doesn't want great school buildings?

Architecture matters in education. It mattered when Oxford and Cambridge were built. It mattered when Jefferson designed the University of Virginia. It mattered in the 1830s when William Alcott first hoped school districts would build decent classrooms for their children. It mattered in the 1850s and 1860s when Henry Barnard recreated the American school building, hoping to make it seem important to students and community.

"Academical Village" at the University of Virginia, did architect Jefferson waste money making it beautiful?
I raise this because of this quote: "New buildings are nice, but when they're run by the same people who've given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they're a big waste of taxpayer money," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. "Parents aren't fooled." about this school...
The new Los Angeles Robert F. Kennedy Community School (main entry, front, and performing arts center)
This school cost $578 million for a facility which will house 4,600 children 182 days a year for the next fifty or so years, or, as "California's Children" points out, $135,680.75 per student.

Or, as I might point out, just over than one-third the cost of the new Cowboys Stadium in Texas (used about 20 days per year) or less than one third the cost of the New Meadowlands Stadium in New York/New Jersey (used about 40 days per year). About the same cost as the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University. Or, to be completely fair, for a bit less per person than the average Los Angeles price for a one bedroom home in the poorest part of that city.

Wow: Imagine wasting that kind of cash on our children.
Just a note about "Parent Revolution" - it is an "astroturf" (fake grass roots) "educational reform" organization primarily financed and coordinated by two charter school operating companies. It solicits contributions but won't even divulge who is on their board of directors.
My argument here will surely not be that the LAUSD does not need to do many things to improve their schools - starting with the State of California admitting that their "Reagan [tax] Revolution" has inevitably moved the state from the forefront of US education to someplace near the bottom. My argument is, instead, that schools - the facilities themselves - really matter. (see this old post, and this one)

Listen, my alternative high school was located within the RFK Community School of its time. An educational "Taj Mahal." New Rochelle High School has a planetarium, multiple auditoriums and performing arts practice rooms, an accredited museum, one of the most extravagant voc ed facilities ever built. A magnificent library, almost every conceivable bell and whistle, and it is beautiful - with extravagant architecture from 1923 to 2008.
New Rochelle High School (NY) - original design, front gates, view from across Huguenot Lakes, stadium and vocational/arts wing, arts and museum center.
And I am here to tell you that architecture matters. Walk toward that front door, and you knew you were coming to someplace important, someplace the community prized. Even if your inclination was to hate school, as mine was, the act of approaching and entering beneath that main tower was ennobling. Having the space and facilities to offer kids options makes a huge difference too. You may not have loved math class, but you had your orchestra space, art studios, planetarium, nursing school, auto paint shop, pool, wrestling room, theatre lighting booth - whatever - to make your day both your own and "OK." Inspiring matters as well. You could lie on the lawn which topped the front-side library, the towers of the building behind you, the lake and park in front of you, and your brain put things together, even if you were not in class.

It was hard to feel like a prisoner there. It was hard not to have a certain true pride in your school. It was even hard to be completely bored all day. If you made even reasonably intelligent course choices, you had to have good moments..

And The City of New Rochelle spent massively on this structure. Massively and repeatedly. Including choosing to reconstruct the original architecture after a devastating 1968 fire, as well as recladding the ugly 1950s additions during this century, in order to beautify the facility.

I'm convinced that this facility has been one prime reason that NRHS, a highly diverse urban school (New Rochelle has only one public high school, about 75,000 people live in the ten square mile city, it has a very large immigrant population), has kept itself among the top of the achievement heap in New York State over the past ninety years. (of course the district also has a very strong, engaged, teachers union - so that could be part of it too)

it's not all "Rob Petrie" and Ragtimein New Rochelle

So often we send our kids to school in concrete block bunkers, or collapsing old buildings, or uninspiring copies of 1956 factories. So often we tolerate, in our learning spaces, conditions we would not accept in our homes, in our restaurants, in our stores - much less our offices. So often we apply bizarre, twisted financial mis-information to our educational systems (if "the private sector" says it costs an average of $26,273 (US) to keep a student in class 15 hours per week, 32 weeks per year, what should we be spending to keep K-12 kids in school 35 hours per week, 40 weeks per year, plus transportation and special needs costs?). And it is time to stop all of that.

If education matters to us, as a society, we will make that apparent. We will spend what we need to. We will give our children great places to learn in. We will give them the technologies of our age. We will spend money to support continuous teacher learning. And we'll stop trying to get by on the cheap.

- Ira Socol

22 August 2010

Teaching Citizenship: We have to do better.

Photo: James Estrin for The New York Times (I went to high school with "Jimmy")
I am scared.

The opposition to the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center project is a frightening step over the line for the United States, reminiscent of the days in the 1920s when the KKK marched through Washington DC proudly.

Racism on the March, America in the 1920s: Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish.
Anyone remember Al Smith running for President?
See, this is not a protest against anything that is any kind of threat - not a real one, not an emotional one. There is, rather, no difference between this mob...
Photo: James Estrin for The New York Times
and this mob...
Kristallnacht - 9/10 November 1938 - Germany
Why do I say this? I am not "Hitlering" the American Right here. I think one could oppose religious buildings in any community for a number of reasons. I, for example, might oppose the building of any church in any town which says that "business type x" cannot be located within a certain distance of a church. In this case, in my opinion, the church's religious right to build wherever they want infringes on the rights of others. Or, I might object to a synagogue built on a wetland. A gigantic mosque on a residential street? I could oppose that too.

And, well, ignorance is ignorance. It is sad, it is unfortunate. But I understand. If you know nothing about Judaism, or Catholicism, or Buddhism, or Italian food, or Haitian food, or whatever, I accept that you can be uncomfortable with being face-to-face with any of those things. You shouldn't be proud of it, but I understand that ignorance can breed discomfort.

But when pure ignorance drives hatred and masquerades as legitimate political action, you get Kristallnacht, or the kind of riots which slaughtered Italian immigrants to America at the turn of the 20th Century, or the New York City Civil War Riots. You get the toxic mix of ignorance, hatred, and citizens who are completely wrong believing that they are acting "as citizens."

And that can be the beginning of the end of civil society. And that is very scary.

In the United States today you have "legitimate" people - including candidates of major political parties - who will advise denying rights to American citizens on the basis of who they love or how they worship. But much worse than that, they will use this language of ignorance and hatred to push ignorant people into a place of such total fear, that they will burn the rules of our society - our constitution - in a desperate effort to make themselves feel safer.

As someone who considers himself an educator, I think we, educators, have an essential mission to stop this. Not because those opposed to the Park51 Project are dumb or easy to mock. They're claiming the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory as sacred, after all. But because they know so little about their own nation, their own system of government, their own national history, that they would sell all they truly have of value for a vague promise of security. If we're talking "lack of critical thinking skills" - this is evidence exhibit one.

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The Bill of Rights is the most sacred thing Americans have as a shared belief. It is the document which makes Americans Americans. It says that the majority cannot terrorize the minority - not in speech, or via the press, or with religion, or even with prosecution. Majority rule was not a new idea in 1790 - plenty of votes had occurred in humanity before that, plenty of mob decision-making had gone on. What was new was the limits on that majority. The concept that you might disagree, or live differently, or worship differently (or not at all), or even be accused of a crime, and yet remain a person and a citizen with your rights intact.

This is so fundamental, and yet it is clearly not something enough are learning in our schools. So, we have to do better.

"Civics," "Citizenship," seems a boring subject so often, but we treat it that way at our peril. We need our students engaged in rule-making and rule-applying in increasingly complex and critical ways. We need to stop making classroom or school rules, and we need to shift that job to our students. We need them to practice, and make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes before they are a mob holding signs threatening other Americans.

We must let them practice other government systems as well. We must let them compare and study in "real" situations. How many American schools elect student governments with other than "First-Past-The-Post" voting systems? How many American schools have parliamentary student governments? Do American students know how an Irish citizen votes? An Australian? A German? Are there advantages they see? Do they know how other nations protect rights? What are those disadvantages? And most importantly, perhaps, do they understand what being "in power" and "out of power" really means? No, most importantly, they need to know that if they can "vote down" a mosque here, I can vote down a church "there." And that if they can stop these two adults from marrying, I can stop those two adults from marrying - and that what I stop might be their church, or their marriage.

We have to do this because we need our students to understand democracy, understand it in a really deep way. Not lip-service democracy. Not bumper sticker democracy. And not Athenian democracy either. But real, messy, frustrating, ultimate power resides in the people democracy. The future of any democracy depends on that.

- Ira Socol

16 August 2010

"Commons Knowledge"

From the Associated Press and Education Week:
"Last year, students in an Easton Area High School entrepreneurship class were assigned to write business plans. While reviewing them, teachers quickly realized one student had copied entire portions of his from a plan posted on the Internet.

"When confronted, the student said he thought the information was free to take and did not realize copying it constituted plagiarism.

'"He seemed baffled," said Michael Koch, the high school's 11th- and 12th-grade principal.

'"There is a blurred vision by many in this digital age because there's just so much information they have access to," Koch said. "It's very difficult for them to filter what is mine and what is yours. It's all out there for you to utilize."

"Although local educators said they haven't seen any rise in plagiarism cases lately, many found students from a generation raised on the Internet have a different perspective on what constitutes plagiarism.

"Not only is it easier to lift material from websites, but when information is so readily available via sites such as Google and Wikipedia, it becomes less clear what material is free to take and what requires attribution.

'"Some students seem to think that whatever is out there is free to take," said Ed Lotto, director of first-year writing at Lehigh University. "They seem to think it's common knowledge and they can cite common knowledge without citation."'
"They seem to think it's common knowledge and they can cite common knowledge without citation."

Here's the question: Is it "common knowledge"?

OK, "Columbus discovered America in 1492." "Common Knowledge"? or a quote? Does a student writing that need to cite author, publisher, page number?
What histories and sources did Homer cite?
Think about that for a bit and then acknowledge that our conception of community knowledge, community cognition, is changing rapidly right now, though this is hardly the first time it has changed. Medieval monks, those who carried our knowledge base with them from the end of the Roman Empire till Gutenberg, rarely cited sources (and if they did it was through the wonderful explanatory structure of "glosses" to which I wish we would return). We cannot, for example, track the source tree for Le Morte Darthur. Nor can we do a good job of tracking the changes in Homerian poetry, and, yes, let's admit it. Those stories only survived the 800 years before literacy because people repeated them, I'll bet often without attribution. And Shakespeare, well, according to Shakespeare anything any playwright had written was "common knowledge."

Today, of course, there is not just more knowledge. There is far more available knowledge, and far more shared knowledge.

When is shared knowledge "shared knowledge"? When is it "common knowledge"? And is there such a thing as "commons knowledge"?

Isn't Wikipedia "commons knowledge"? It is community collected knowledge placed in a common place for people to use. That is the entire idea.

So is using Wikipedia uncited different than using, "the earth orbits the sun" uncited? Both are information freely and generally available, and placed in general circulation by generally unknown authors. So, what is the actual difference?

In school this is a huge question. After all, teachers and professors keep harping on plagiarism yet, according to the Education Week article, only 29% of students see it as "wrong." Obviously the old set of concepts is not resonating with the future. And even The New York Times is panicked, forcing Stanley Fish to wade into the battle, twice. Even I commented:
"Moral or professional evil is not the question for me, I believe that there is a strong societal value in being able to track the genesis of ideas, and I think that the current ways in which schools - secondary and post-secondary - attempt to teach encourages plagiarism, and in doing so, damages our ability to track ideas through time.

"It is easy to start with bad assignments: If instructors (at any level) ask for rote explanations or simple reports, plagiarism is encouraged - in fact, it is actually requested because the information sought must be copied in order to be accurate.

"But the bigger culprit is our arcane citation systems, which are tied to the antiquated technologies of the (now departed) Gutenberg Era. In today's world I want "live links" in student documents which connect me directly back to the sources, I'm not at all interested in APA or MLA citation systems. And I believe that if students learn that "quote = link" we will solve this issue (slowly) throughout society.

"Current citation systems are so bizarre and frustrating that many students would rather quote unattributed than risk getting their citations wrong. They are so complex that they encourage students to ignore the whole system.

"With today's technology every researcher, every author, has the ability - via diigo, delicious, evernote, and embedded links, to keep sources with quotes from beginning of study to publication. But in order to get future generations to do this we must (a) let them use the tools of today rather the rules of the past, and (b) we must express a more compelling social reason for theses practices than "you're stealing from Disney Corporation and Dr. Fish."
Which pretty much sums up my feelings here. As Dr. Fish ends his second column, “Plagiarism is Neither a Moral Nor a Philosophical Concept,” it is, instead, a structural way in which we engage with the world's knowledge. It is a structural system put in place by the elites of one strain of global culture, and it is a structure which, given today's information realities, requires a vast overhaul.

As I say above - if the rationale we give students is primarily economic, we're in the ugly territory of Disney and the RIAA, and you are not going to win many arguments with a system which guarantees mouse film profits for ten times as long as the fruits of pharmaceutical research. And if your rationale is that it is not "common knowledge," you better be able to express how you define "common knowledge" in a way better than I have heard before.

But if your rationale is the continued construction of community knowledge, and you make it simple - yes, "quote=link" is the phrase - your student audience might be receptive.

"Quote=Link" - forget about your citation systems. They are based in 15th Century printing technologies and 19th Century library catalogues - and nobody cares, but if you just teach this: "The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in  more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him." the problem has solved itself.

Which is no different than saying, "that's by The Beatles" as your mp3 players blasts out Hey Jude.

"A generation raised on the Internet have a different perspective on what constitutes plagiarism." Yes, as they should, because the information "commons" has changed. It is not only these students who need to learn the new rules, it is every teacher, professor, journal editor, and dissertation committee who holds to antique practices designed primarily to (a) limit entry into "Club Academe" and (b) turn a professional, structural mistake into a violation of God's word from Sinai. (Fish: "Hundreds of respondents to the column answered theft or fraud or lying or a wrong against God or plain evil. Not only is this inflation of an institutional no-no into the sum of the Ten Commandments a bit over the top; it is decidedly unhelpful when you want to tell students exactly what plagiarism is and why they should avoid it.")

So let's solve this. Let's create a link system for this world, that tells us all where information comes from.

- Ira Socol

11 August 2010

Classroom Changers

School (in North America and Europe) is starting soon. So I just wanted to offer five quick "classroom changing" solutions...

(1) The Backchannel: Nothing alters the learning space more dramatically than empowering communication throughout the room. The Backchannel allows peer-to-peer communication to operate on an equal, and effective level, allowing students to share resources, questions, thoughts, even if not every student wants to speak in front of the class.

My favorite, for many reasons, is TodaysMeet.com but there are other choices.

Our Experiences Backchanneling In Grade 1

(2) Text-To-Speech: If reading is a problem, if vocabulary is a problem, if "read-to" time at home is missing, offer your students support. Simple, free solutions including FoxVox and SpeakingFox for Firefox, WordTalk for Microsoft Word, and native Macintosh speech capabilities offer access to reading to all of your students, while building vocabulary and sightword recognition.

(3) Spellchecking for the rest of us: Traditional spellcheck doesn't work for kids struggling with language, they typically don't get "close enough." So bring in Ghotit - both the web-based solution and the Microsoft Word add-in (both free for schools). Ghotit pretty much helps kids correct any misspelling or word misuse.

(4) Speech Recognition: If you've got Windows7 computers you have an incredible tool waiting for your struggling writers. Let them dictate using the embedded speech recognition system. Let kids begin to communicate, focusing their energy on the "writing" and not the physical acts of writing. Plus, bonus - your students will see their spoken words appear correctly spelled. Or let the kids use their phones - iPhones have Dragon Dictate and BlackBerry and Android can add Vlingo.

(5) Do Not Disturb: A low-tech solution which allows kids to have a "bad hour" or a "bad day." Give each student a "Do Not Disturb" sign they can put in front of them when they need to retreat. Listen, we all need to retreat at times, but schools - typically - just keep pouring the pressure on. Students can't close their office door, or walk out for a cup of coffee. And as that pressure builds, learning stops.

So put up the sign and neither teacher nor other students will bother you. Obviously if a kid uses this all the time, you need to intervene, but in general, kids don't want long-term isolation, they just need time to back away and regroup.

- Ira Socol

06 August 2010

Barack Obama's Belief in the Least

On National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation on Thursday the topic was "How have discussions about race changed?"and Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald, said this:
"I actually want to go back to something that Mr. Gergen said because I think he touched on something very important. He was talking about the fact that so many people take it for granted that African-American and Latino kids are ineducable, and that this feeling persists, even in the light of empirical proof that this is wrong. I think when he says that, what he does is he hits on sort of a very fundamental truth about why we still have trouble with race in this country. We tend to make our decisions and tend to base our perceptions on caricature, which is impervious to fact.

"I've been writing in my column recently, about the drug war and about the fact that the overwhelming majority of drug users and drug dealers in this country, statistically, are white. And it is so difficult to get that past peoples filters, because in our minds and the popular imagination the, quote, unquote, drug user and drug dealer are some black kids on a corner in Baltimore.

"That's not the common - or the most common picture. But we have these caricatures, these, sort of, narratives in our head that we are absolutely stuck on and invested in. And we got to get beyond those before were going to make any kind of progress."
"so many people take it for granted that African-American and Latino kids are ineducable, and that this feeling persists, even in the light of empirical proof that this is wrong"

I listened to this the day after the Obama Administration announced its Educational Innovation ("I3") grants, and after I spent the day working - albeit remotely - with the principals of the Albemarle County Public Schools on expanding access to learning.

The winners of the "innovation" grant program: Teach for America - which provides untrained teachers for America's most vulnerable minority students while pumping up the resumes of rich kids; KIPP Schools - today's recreation of the US "Indian School" program for the "retraining" of minority children; and Success for All - a scripted reading program devoted to teaching reading as a skill, not a life function;  all have a few things in common, from campaign contributions to rich folks behind them, but especially, that they are all emblematic of the Obama Administration's belief "that African-American and Latino kids are ineducable." 

If Obama thought differently he would not be pouring education funds into reductionist programs that no middle class or wealthy parent would accept for their child. If Obama thought differently he would be pouring funding into what we were doing in Virginia yesterday - dreaming about how to give all of our kids all that they need.

We can't, of course, be surprised. After the British election American friends were stunned that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg would make a deal with the Conservatives, who after all, differed from the Lib Dems on every policy position. I had to point out that "class trumps all," and that Clegg and David Cameron went to the same schools, grew up in the same social class. There's nothing in Clegg's life experience or education to connect him to any other social class than that which he shares with the Tories.

Similarly, as Susan Ohanian notes while quoting Frank Rich of The New York Times:
"Obama suffers from a cultural class myopia. He's a patsy for "glittering institutions that signified great achievement for a certain class of ambitious Americans." In his books, he downplayed the more elite parts of his own resume—the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia, and Harvard—but he is nonetheless a true believer in "the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process" as he had. And so, Alter writes, he "surrounded himself with the best credentialed, most brilliant policy mandarins he could find, even if almost none of them knew anything about what it was like to work in small business, manufacturing, real estate, or other parts of the real economy." Especially education." [italics are from Ohanian]
I listened to candidate Barack Obama speak in "The Circle" of Michigan State University's old campus in September 2008 and he told the students there that he had been "lucky" as they had been. "Lucky" to have this opportunity to attend a great institution of learning. And I loved that. Those of us who have had the chance are lucky. We are not "better," for the most part, we've had better chances.

But deep down Obama doesn't know that. He still sees himself working incredibly hard for his chances - which, yes, is true if you compare his life story to his presidential predecessor's - but he forgets that when he was woken up very early to do schoolwork with his mother, he was being tutored by one of the most brilliant and highly educated women in America. That he was surrounded by educated family. That he was off to an elite prep school when the bell rang. Even that he was living in a place where his mixed race status was much less an impediment to success than it might have been in many other places in 1970s America.

He only remembers his own effort. And that is all he sees when he "listens" about education. He assumes that the Ivy League (or Johns Hopkins) elites have "risen to the top" because they are the "best" - when, in fact, they are often simply the "luckiest."

The inevitable - essentially unavoidable - philosophical flip side of this is that non-Ivy Leaguers, non-elites, are less intelligent, that, in America's mythic Horatio Alger belief system - if you are poor it is because you are lazy and less worthy.

So, in Obama's world, those "African-American and Latino kids are ineducable." Thus they won't get fully trained teachers. They won't get the arts and music and creativity that Michelle Rhee thinks they don't deserve. They won't get tech-supported access to literature or reading for fun or reading for the information they're interested in. They'll get the scripted drill and kill teaching methods the United States has always used for kids society has determined have no chance to move ahead. They'll get the abusive colonialism of white role models and training in how to be white - which, I'm sorry President Obama, is NOT the only way.

In Virginia yesterday we were trying something different. In a diverse - racially and economically - school district we were hunting for the best ways to give it "all" to every kid. To find ways to let "everyone into the club." We were working on how to increase the training and skills of an already highly-trained teaching staff. We were looking for ways to add flexibility and student-centered learning to all phases of education. And everyone in the room was committed, equally, to every student. Of course this district's innovation grant applications were not funded.

Listen: I campaigned for Barack Obama. I voted, with delight, for Barack Obama. I appreciate what he's done for America in many ways. And Barack Obama has me in a bind. Can I really vote the other way in America when the only other choice is a political party so right-wing extreme it would be banned in most other "NATO" nations?

But Barack Obama is hurting America's most vulnerable school children because, in his heart, he does not see them as his equal, he does not believe in their potential. And that is a terrible, terrible thing.
Way back in 1969 there was a series of television ads: "In the "Give a Damn" campaign for the New York Urban Coalition, a black narrator suggests to white viewers: "Send your kid to a ghetto for the summer. Want to see the pool? C'mon. The kids clog up the sewer with garbage, open a hydrant . . . You don't want your kids to play here this summer? Then don't expect ours to."
Well, 41 summers later, Barack Obama, if you wouldn't send your children to a KIPP Academy. If you wouldn't accept an untrained teacher for your daughters. If you wouldn't want your kids - if faced with a learning problem - to be read a script which disregards their needs. Then don't send our kids to these schools either.

All of our children, even if they are poor, are black, are latino, are "disabled," even if they have "disinterested" or incompetent parents, deserve our very best. So please, let's stop "racing" - and let's stop dividing - and let's start creating opportunity.

- Ira Socol
if you agree - send this to The White House and send it to all of your local/state Democratic candidates.