28 December 2010

The King's Speech

There is a certain collection of literature I feel is important for people seeking to understand "disability" in a deep way. This includes books like Borderlinersand The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, films including Edward Scissorhandsand Rory O'Shea Was Hereand plays like The Elephant Man... Anyway, there are not many. Most suggest either "cure" or evoke the notion of "supercrip" and I despise both of those tropes.

But I watched The King's Speech this week and immediately added it to the list. Yes, the context... the British Royal Family... is far from most of our experience, but only one level of the film is "royal/historical" (though that is a very fine level indeed, with some fascinating attempts at insight into both the Queen Elizabeths of our age). The other level is a much more common tale. A tale of disability and bullying, powerlessness and power, perseverance and the high costs of being seen as a success.

"Bertie Windsor" is mocked and abused because he cannot do "the expected" easily. This occurs at the hands of the father who loves him and desperately wants him to succeed, and at the hands of those - including his older brother - who simply enjoy feeling superior. He is mistreated by quack "healers" - wait for the marbles scene - and made to feel as if he is somehow less than human, royal birthright or not.

This film is not a tale of triumph. Yes, George VI becomes a beloved monarch who did much for his nation at its time of greatest peril, but that is not the point of the film, or of this man's life. Rather it is a story of fear, of loneliness, of desperation, of effort, and yes, of cost. Becoming what others want/need him to be is a mountain which "Bertie" must scale, and it is a climb which injures him in permanent ways. As the film The Queen puts it, [Tony Blair on Elizabeth II] "That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job SHE never wanted! A job she watched kill her father."

And it is not a tale of "cure" either, though Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue uses that term. Bertie needs "accommodations" his whole life - in the form of the personal and constant efforts of Logue at every speech. He needs - in the media of the time - to be seen much more than heard.  It never gets easy, it never gets solved, and Bertie battles his "issues" his whole life.

When you watch the film, when you watch Colin Firth's face as he struggles, as he is humiliated, see the faces of all the children in our schools who find themselves struggling, with speech, with reading, with writing. And stop telling them to "try harder" and reach out with the individual helps they need. And accept that they are fully human, even if they never will quite do things as you do.

- Ira Socol

21 December 2010

"God bless us, everyone"

What was Charles Dickens modeling when he gave us "Tiny Tim"?

"'As good as gold,' said Bob, 'and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"

1870s illustration
It is Christmas, and so our television screens will be filled with one of literature's most enduring portraits of disability, Tim Cratchit in Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol.

Tim has a small part in the book, but it is a powerful one, even before the pity inducing film performances of the 20th century. But, after debating with a friend on Twitter over whether Tim was a "positive" or "negative" for the disability community, I wanted to separate Dickens' Tim from Hollywood's Tim, because they are somewhat different characters - different in crucial ways.

The first difference stems from both time and intent. The book Dickens wrote at the start of the second industrial revolution was an indictment of early capitalism, barely less "radical" politically than the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which would appear just five years later.

In Dickens' story Scrooge's capitalism runs over everyone and everything in its path, it is as malevolent to the well-born as it is to Tim and his family. Tim might be there to heighten sympathy a bit, but really, he is just another voice protesting for a more humane world. When Hollywood, or the British film industry, retold the tale before and after the World War, it became more Christian than political, and more sympathetic than angry, and Tim's position within the story changed.

1951 Tim
"The image of the Tiny Tim gained popularity in the 1940's and 50's when charities focused on finding cures for disabilities such as polio. They realized that pity opens wallets, so they began poster child campaigns. These campaigns played on society's fear that this thing, this disability, this horrible tragedy, could very easily invade their homes. Unless, of course, they sent in money to find a cure. The undertone of these campaigns was clear: G-d forbid you end up with a disability like the child on the poster. You're life will no longer be worth living; you'll be less then human (Shapiro, 1994)."

Tim gets prettier in these films, cuter. Of course everyone does. In the 1938 Hollywood version Bob Cratchit is fat. Capitalism has no longer run amok, rather, we are telling a story of charity, and charity needs the 'poster child.'

So the film Tiny Tim is sweet, high-voiced, pretty, and pathetic. But is that the character Dickens described?

To me, the literary Tiny Tim is something very powerful - especially in the context of his time. Whatever Tiny Tim's "affliction" - kidney disease is the most speculated - Tim was a fully embraced human in this story, when all across Britain, northern Europe, and the United States society was beginning to dehumanize those who could not 'compete.' The first "school" (asylum) for "idiots" was opened in Paris in 1841, with various other separated facilities appearing along with industrialization over the next 30 years. Tim was not separated. He fully participates in the life of his family. He even participates "as a male" - going to church with his father and brothers, not staying home with the females as they prepare the Christmas dinner.

And unlike so many "defectives" of the period developing as Dickens wrote, Tim has a voice. A clear, respected voice. This may not sound like much today... unless you've ever attended an American IEP conference or its equivalent in other nations... but in 1843 it was perhaps as radical as Dickens' call for redistribution of wealth.

Dickens is also decidedly less "romantic" about the ending. Though films often end with a "cured" and robust Tim, all Dickens will say is, "Tiny Tim, who did not die." There are no promises of "normality" here, only promises of humanity.

The visions of disability matter, and they need to be brought out into the open, and discussed. I like to use Edward Scissorhands as the classic example of trying to drag "the disabled" into "normality" by making them "heroic servants." I'd love high schools to do The Elephant Man - the play- rather than hold "carnival game"-type disability awareness weeks. (Compare it to the very different film as well). I saw a fabulous college version of Richard III a few years ago with Richard as a "contemporary" disabled man. In a wheelchair, constantly stared at by an unblinking video camera.

But we can begin this Christmas, in our homes, to explore those visions, and the divides between sympathy and empathy, and between victim and human. I see Tiny Tim as a great step forward for 1843, and sadly, in many ways, a great step forward today. But it is not a big enough step either way.

- Ira Socol

17 December 2010

What do you do with history?

Two New York Times efforts ran in parallel this past week, and emphasized all that we might do in schools if we move away from the bizarre subject divisions imposed on us in the late 19th Century.

One, running for some time now, has been an effort to watch the build up to the United States Civil War 150 years ago. I cannot recall the Civil War Centennial, but I'm old enough to have grown up with the aftermath - that is textbooks and lessons which often emphasised a "morally neutral" vision of that war. "In these sensitive times [the 1960s] we need not offend the South," I came to presume before I knew of the bizarre power of the Texas State School Board over American curricular content.

The view the Times is offering this year is much deeper, much more conflicted, much more interdisciplinary, and much darker.

Slavery Visualized: from The New York Times
The county-by-county demographic mapping of slave possession, a map-making work of 1860 census workers, tells us much about the times, and even the sciences of the times, if we embrace this opportunity. But so does this tale of "Jim Crow on West Broadway" regarding race relations in the "free" states. For a nation which actually believes that slavery ended in the United States on "Juneteenth" it is important to discover what really happened [actually: "Legally, the last 40,000 or so slaves were freed in Kentucky by the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Slaves still held in New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also became legally free on this date."].

In this series you will find ways to lead your students into history, literature, geography, map-making, statistics, music, art, political theories, calculus if you wish (can't discuss artillery without calculus), all based in fantastic stories.

This week that series has been joined by a story from a hundred years later, December 16, 1960, when two airliners, a DC-8 and a Lockheed Constellation, collided in fog-bound skies above New York Harbor.

This was a traumatic moment for New Yorkers, even those of us too young to really recall it...

Years later "older kids" would scare us with stories about planes "falling from the sky" - or worse - "boys falling from the sky." The event was a critical marker - where jet travel became something other than simply glamorous - a little taste of the loss of RMS Titanic48 years before. More than that, for those raised after World War II, but with the constant threat of 'death from above,' this was a frightening manifestation of that.

You can start here and follow this story. One of inexact sciences, yes, and mathematical equations, but also a depiction, in words, sights, sounds, of another time. A depiction of both the apparent simplicity of the 1950s and the complexities our nostalgia hides.

Stephen Baltz
Especially with the link to a child's story, you could build a fascinatingly complex set of projects around this bit of history, from glide paths and gravity to the march of technologies ["As hard as it may be to imagine today, it was standard practice then for a jet hurtling over the metropolitan area at more than 350 miles an hour to be left to find its own way for minutes at a time. When the controllers on the ground were tracking planes on their radar scopes, using grease pencils to identify them on plastic strips called “shrimp boats,” they could not judge altitudes."] and the patterns of racism, classism, and urban decay patterns.

Now, take a minute and imagine how boring any of these topics - James Buchanan, the speed of a falling object, block-busting in Brooklyn - might be if separated from other stories which give them context, which create avenues for student interest. You know, like the classes we've all attended.

- Ira Socol

15 December 2010

A week without technology?

Just about every "education reporter" in the United States - from small market local media to The Today Show - has written this story at least once by now. Students are asked to spend a few days or a week without "technology" so they can - well, get smarter? be less distracted? become better at human interaction? become better humans?

OK. Yes, by "technology" these people mean, "tools their teacher is uncomfortable with." By becoming "better" at something, these people mean, "becoming more like the teacher." Though those tidbits are never reported.

So students are asked to turn off computers and mobile phones, but not clocks or pens. They are asked to not use email and SMS, but school busses seem fine. They are asked not to use digital signals, but paper is actually recommended.

We need to understand this a whole lot better. Technology is the tools with which we manipulate the world, or even the art of manipulating the world, and it is time to stop pretending that it is "anything invented after [I] was born.

A small paper making machine. This is NOT technology.
The book, and the paper it is printed on, even the ink used to form those letters, are gigantic technologies. Expensive, polluting, highly-evolved technologies typically controlled by a few major capitalists - from Bertelsmann to Barnes+Noble to Amazon. Pens and pencils are also invented technologies. Sort of complicated and dangerous too. Kids cheat with them. Bully with them. And there's still a chunk of graphite in my hand from when I was nine and got stabbed for - I'm sure - "no reason at all."

But there are technologies I'd like schools to go without, for a week - or much longer... Technology "abandonments" that would truly demonstrate important things to kids...

Let's try a week without clocks and bells. Few technologies interrupt the learning process more, and limit learning to "the shallows" more, than the school timetable. And few things belittle students more - or expose our hypocrisies more - than bells. They are not just Pavlovian, they are unfairly so. Kids are "late" when the bell rings, but teachers often insist that they get dismissal power, meaning bells are only significant when they can punish students.

So take a week. Cancel the start time and the finish time. Abandon the class schedule. Let students pick which of their classrooms they want to be in - and when. Let kids spend a day working on one thing, or five minutes, whichever they need and want. Let them eat when they want, use the toilet when they want, debate Shakespeare when they want. See what happens.

Our school schedule was invented by Henry Barnard to train kids for industrial shift work. Is that what are schools are still designed to do?

Let's try a week without desks and chairs. Pile them all up in the corner and ignore them. Let kids bring what they need to make themselves comfortable. As I asked one school district: "Do any of you have furniture like this at home?"

The chair and desk, that contribution of William Alcott in the 1830s, might have made sense them. But we have central heating now, and carpets are available everywhere. And pillows are cheap at Ikea - so are lapdesks. And kids would rather be comfortable.

And... teachers might find themselves worrying a whole lot less about controlling how kids sit in their chairs.

Let's try a week without books and paper. We know how many of our kids struggle with reading and writing - the physical acts. The word decoding, the holding of the pen, the traditional keyboarding - these things are our primary creators of disability.

So let's get "Socratic" for a week. Lets get fully digital (adaptable text, speech recognition) or simply verbal/audio. Let's talk and listen. Let's think out loud and work on auditory memory.

We might see a whole new set of student skills rise to the top with those "Gutenberg technologies" stripped from our kids' lives. We might see a whole new kind of learning.

- Ira Socol

13 December 2010

Comfort and Joy

At a certain point in my childhood I would spend a lot of time sitting on the shoreline rocks at Davenport Park in New Rochelle, looking across the water at the ruins of Fort Slocum. I could have been at school, or I could have been with the others not in school at the Park's car park, or down at Hudson Park, or up at The Mall, or wherever. But sometimes it is better to be alone.

Fort Slocum (now fully demolished) from the Structural Descent Blog
There are a lot of places you go as an adolescent or pre-teen when you need to be away, when you need to work on seeking yourself. I've written "some" about this...

The Drool Room(2007) River Foyle Press

We so rarely acknowledge this need in schools. In fact, we fight daily against this. Our students - especially secondary students, go through the day without any personal space or time. It is an abusive, continually challenging environment which forces students to adopt the worst of self-defense mechanisms - from bullying, to gang membership, to surly disassociation from all those around. It robs students of the psychological space in which to think, to add knowledge to a framework in a personally effective way. Our students end up acting exactly as caged rats - with lizard brains locked in survival mode - they simply fight or please their captors, rather than having time or opportunity for higher learning.

This is why, when I ask people to "re-think learning spaces" I rarely suggest that they think about "schools" at all. Our notion of "school" is a trap. It presupposes a certain concept of spatial and societal organization which interferes profoundly with our expressed desires for education.

The Long Meadow, by Frederick Law Olmsted, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
I ask instead that we look at parks, and bookstores, street corners and coffee shops. Places where people voluntarily go to learn and commune. Places where people can make themselves comfortable, join groups or not, and let their defenses down.

Outside the Brooklyn Public Library, Main Branch [photo cc: Ira Socol]
Because defenses and discomfort block the possibility of learning. If I'm uncomfortable, fearful, hungry, thirsty, worried about time - those emotions dominate the brain. There is no room for higher order thinking.

JP's coffee, prime hangout, Holland, MI
So, space design, like the "Do Not Disturb" sign, the classroom hiding place, creating a more "ADHD-sensitive" set of school rules, corridor open spaces with comfortable furniture, even increasing "passing times" to allow kids "safe times" and, of course, personal technology devices which allow momentary escapes and personally directed learning, will all allow students to make space and time their own.

Make sure your classroom has various kinds of furniture, various kinds of lighting, various kinds of noise control. Make sure your school offers kids options in terms of space wherever they are. Booths, high tables, benches, in the cafeteria. Carpeted floor areas to hang out on. Umbrella tables outside and in offering a tiny sense of enclosure. Make sure those spaces offer choices - calm, interactive, private, voyeuristic, loud, quiet, and make sure creation tools - from wireless access to drawing spaces are available. We want students to have the option of personal learning time or an environment with contagious creativity.

This means being less paranoid. It means less pretending that somehow your school security systems will see all.  They won't. They don't. Right now they miss the bullying going on by the lockers - hall or gym. They miss the sex acts in the back stairwell too. They miss the casual cruelty of the crowded corridors during your 4 minute time between classes. But your attempts at security do make your students' lives miserable. So just calm down.

Seattle Public Library
"Instructional Tolerance" is a key phrase. It implies accepting that your students are individual humans who will shift between on-task and off-task, between engaged and unengaged, between interested and bored, just as you do. It implies that your students need space just as you do. And "planning time," and - sometimes - they need the right to be alone - physically or just mentally.

When I sat in that park - in a place as comfortable for me as any I have ever known - I was breaking all "the rules," but I was not away from education. There, certain parts of my brain relaxed in important ways, and the world came into a certain kind of focus. I sat on fossil-pocked boulders hacked up and flipped by the movement of great glaciers. Tidal pools with life's beginnings glistened at my feet. The inexorable reach of salt water stretched to the east and west. Airplanes began their descent toward LaGuardia. Wind pulled some boats along while others moved with throbbing motors. A Civil War-era fort marked one horizon, speaking of a time when distances were much greater and, perhaps, war much closer.

All kinds of things I had heard in disconnected trivial segments from "teachers" came together in a place I might both learn, and find questions.

Why couldn't school offer me that?

- Ira Socol

07 December 2010

Teach (Know) Your Children Well

This was the last night of the undergraduate course I co-taught with Sara Beauchamp-Hicks this semester. It was a class in Special Needs Students in Regular Ed - inclusion - and in the technologies which make that easier. But while we used lots of technology, exposed these future teachers to lots of technology, our goals were more personal, and more human...

So we began the last class session with this clip of a Japanese classroom...

There's so much here, about everything from creating a classroom environment which allows dissent and values every child to the way that project-based learning re-orients the learning process, and the students were struck by how different that class - and the student-to-student attitudes therein - were from what they see every day in their "pre-internship" placements. That difference became even more obvious when we watched the next video...

"I've spent a lot of time focusing on autism," one woman said, "on giving them voice, but after watching this I realized how many kids need to be given their voice." We talked about a lot of things after that, and then, just before the end, I showed the beginning of Mickybo and Me. Before I started this I asked the class to focus on the boy they'd "meet," to assess his strengths, to consider what issues he might have in school, to think about how a school might make these strengths work to help him overcome some of the socio-economic issues he might struggle with.

Because I'm very sure that this isn't "rocket science." This isn't about "common cores" or standardized tests or more time in the school day or private school operators or any superman. Helping kids find their path to learning lies in knowing the kids, and in getting the learning environment to meet their needs.

In the end we want these future teachers to know that we really do not want them producing any "product." Humans are not raw materials ready to have "value added." They are individuals who deserve to be treated as such. Individuals who will learn differently, have different interests, and who will grow up to lead different lives.

If we got any of that across this semester, it was a good semester indeed.

- Ira Socol

01 December 2010

Learning Space

Above is the best educational space in the College of Education at Michigan State University. Just off the building's entrance, in a heavily trafficked zone, there is this space overlooking the Red Cedar River. Behind "the photographer" is a coffee shop, and in this area there are booths and big tables and small tables, high tables and desk height tables. Regular chairs and bar height chairs. Bar stools. Benches, couches, and soft chairs. And a broad window sill to sit on. At the far end of the picture are quieter rooms with similar furniture mixes, including a couple of tables separated from other spaces by a level change. To the left, out of the picture above, is a small maze like zone of screens creating places for one to four people to gather quietly, and next to that, is an open zone filled with creation equipment - powerful computers and tools for video production, interactive white boards, giant monitors, etc.

This arrangement allows people to find their comfort zone, whether individually or as groups. It affords them "what they need" - whether that be fast wireless or "decent" coffee or a pita wrap or a doughnut or, yeah, a flip camera or a powerful scanner. You can have quiet and (a certain level of) privacy, or you can be loud and very public.

But most importantly, this space is an intersection. It is where people from every different part of the college bump into each other, meet, discover, talk, share. It is where silos break down and communities mingle and overheard conversations become opportunities for intellectual cross-pollination.

It is our "commons."

How different that is from our classrooms, our formal conference rooms. How different this is from the K-12 classrooms our students work in.

In 1832, when William A. Alcott wrote his "Essay on the Construction of Schoolhouses" and introduced the classroom-as-we-know-it, with desks and chairs all the same in rectangular rooms, he was advancing a certain idea of education, and a certain conception of society. He was trying to both make students more comfortable, protect female dignity, and support teachers. Alcott is no villain here, but we might think that (a) times have changed, (b) student needs have changed, and (c) our knowledge of the young brain and the learning process has grown in the 178 years since. Alcott, a keen observer, would - I think - be shocked to find his designs still central.

Alcott's classroom, 1832
This notion of "the commons" really matters, on so many levels. If your school is broken into little dis-connected rooms for discrete age-groups and subjects, if your classrooms are filled with one kind of desk and one kind of chair, you have created extreme limits on your pedagogical opportunities.

You have prevented much "peer" tutoring, you have prevented kids from joining ideas together, you have forced yourself into disciplining uncomfortable children, and you have blocked "natural" learning paths.

Remember, when Alcott created his rows of desks, at least his classroom already included all ages, dealt in all subjects, had no set time-schedule, and offered big windows looking outside on two-sides, specifically arranged to the natural sequence of the day would be obvious. Your classroom probably lacks many of those benefits.

Those are not the only ways in which we actually offer our students a "worse" experience than what Alcott was recommending:
"Again—no provision has been made for the pupils standing at higher desks a part of the time, because it is believed they may sit without injury for about half an hour at a time, and then, instead of standing, they ought to walk into the garden, or exercise in the play-ground a few moments, either with or without attendants or monitors. Sitting too long, at all events, is extremely pernicious...

"The relative position of each pupil should occasionally be changed from right to left, otherwise the body may acquire a change of shape by constantly turning or twisting so as to accommodate itself to the light, always coming from a particular window, or in the same general direction.

"If a portion of the play-ground is furnished with a roof, the pupils may sometimes be detached by classes, or otherwise, either with or without monitors, to study a short time in the open air, especially in the pleasant season. This is usually as agreeable to them, as it is favorable to health. A few plain seats should be placed there. A flower garden, trees, and shrubs, would furnish many important lessons of instruction. Indeed, I cannot help regarding all these things as indispensable, and as consistent with the strictest economy of space, material, and furniture, as a judicious arrangement of the school-room itself.

"Sensible objects, and every species of visible apparatus, including, of course, maps, charts, and a globe, are also regarded as indispensably necessary in illustrating the sciences. They not only save books, time, and money, as has been abundantly proved by infant schools, but ideas are in this way more firmly fixed, and longer retained. In the use of books, each child must have his own ; but in the use of sensible objects and apparatus, one thing, in the hands of the instructer, will answer the purposes of a large school, and frequently outlast half a dozen books."
In other words, we don't even afford our students today the best ideas of 1832, but a pale reflection of that design science.

So today we must do better. Today our students are much more isolated from society than they were in 1832. Today our students are not parts of big, multi-generational households with numerous siblings around them. Today our students do not play in village squares or farm-yards where all the news and sciences of the world are on display.

So we need not simply dispose of Alcott's rows, we must create Jeffersonian "Academical Villages" with the kinds of urban intersections and parks and coffee shops where people gather, get comfortable, and share human knowledge. We must allow - encourage - our kids to interact, to learn with each other, to collaborate and grow together.

Please, lets stop teaching in a bad replica of an 1832 learning space. We can do better.

- Ira Socol