31 March 2011

Pedagogy 101

Pedagogy 101
by Alan Shapiro

Suited (I thought) and tied,
earnest as the day was very long,
I taught them when to be still,
why they needed to listen,
where Columbus was born,
how to answer textbook questions
and what the similarity was
between my decrees and their grades.

Sitting at bolted desks            
while flies rambled on tall windows
they taught me when to shut my mouth, 
why I needed to hear,
where they were coming from,
how to question textbook answers,
and what the difference is
between schooling and education.

18 April 1999

28 March 2011

Once more: On the value of teachers

USA Today wasn't interested, so I'll just get my message out the twenty-first century way...

On a day in January of this year a man named Alan Shapiro died at the age of 85. He was not particularly famous, as most people are not, but for many of us who were touched by his life, many of whom gathered on the last Saturday in March for a memorial service, a celebration of his life, he was someone who changed lives, who changed the world.

Alan was a teacher. In today’s United States that is not a beloved profession. The President’s Secretary of Education routinely disparages veteran educators. Governors and their legislative allies of states from New Jersey to Wisconsin to Idaho say that teachers are overpaid, underworked, and greedy. Billionaire Bill Gates, Jr. says they stop learning anything after a couple of years. Celebrated “educational reformers” like Michelle Rhee have built careers and fortunes attacking the classroom teachers who work with our children every day.

Alan was a teacher, a veteran teacher, and he was a union organizer. He built both a teachers’ union in New Rochelle, New York and he built an alternative education system for students in that city’s school system. He thus empowered both.

I was one of those students, my mother was one of those teachers.
This is an hour+ video, but there's some good stuff
I met Alan as a 14-year-old ready to drop out of school. Angry, bitter, completely frustrated by any connection between my life, my learning style, and a miserable urban junior high school. In that year alone I’d be thrown out of three classrooms “permanently,” including very luckily, my English class within the first week of school. I landed among the “academic losers” in Mr. Shapiro’s room, in a class grouping other teachers literally called “dumb English.”

To make that classroom work, Alan did everything today’s “reformers” refuse to do. He abandoned not just testing, but grades - allowing the room to choose a grade we’d all get for the whole year. He abandoned teacher-centric instruction, often sitting silently, waiting for us to begin. He abandoned traditional discipline, letting us sit or not sit wherever we chose. He abandoned traditional delivery - when we read novels he also showed us the films, played audio readings, or read to us as a group. He abandoned traditional student work. There was no homework, and students responded to what was going on in class any way they chose to.

At the end of that year this group of “losers” collected over 150 pages of stories and poems we had written into a book we proudly shared, and I, suddenly, wanted to write.

Immediately after that, as a result of a teachers’ strike led by Shapiro, the New Rochelle City School District allowed him to begin an Alternative High School designed in collaboration with Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner, as part of a new high school concept for the city, one based in student choice of program.

I, and many others of my generation who joined the memorial service, were in that Alternative High School - The Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study - known as “The 3Is.” In the 3Is the rest of the “form of school” disappeared. There was no required attendance. Most learning happened far away from anything which even resembled a class. There were no grades at all - it was “pass/no record,” with self and teacher evaluation of what had happened. For English I spent four months working with an overnight radio newsman, learning writing and editing without ever putting a pencil near paper, later I worked on the Program’s weekly newspaper. For social studies I worked in the City Planner’s office and interviewed the homeless in Grand Central. For science I worked on creating a heritage farm in a city park. Others worked in city greenhouses or the hospital emergency room. Took courses at Iona College or spent weeks at museums in New York. Read “great books” and discussed them on Tuesday nights in Alan’s living room, or argued theories another night in the science teacher’s home. There was folk dancing and mural projects. Efforts to work with elementary students and classes designed around student-asked questions.

And the results were stunning. From a mix of students including a huge percent likely to drop out, filled with what we’d now label learning, attention, and emotional disabilities, the 3Is got almost everyone to graduation, and got almost everyone to four-year colleges and universities, from Brown, MIT, and Cornell, to Hampshire, Kenyon, and Oberlin. For 13 years, until the conservative politics of the Reagan-era squashed such experiments, the 3Is took hundreds and hundreds of students who “did not fit” and “could not succeed” and proved the opposite. At that memorial we were educators and architects, lawyers and artists, managers and businesspeople. We are successes indeed. We are successes because he trusted us as both students and humans, because he knew we were individuals, not statistical data points, because he gave totally of himself to make our lives better.

But Alan’s actions stretched much further. My mother, an elementary school teacher, given voice by the union and enough income to take classes in the summer rather than work a second job, literally tore down walls in her school, creating a no desks/no chairs multiage open classroom. Today, via Facebook, I constantly get messages thanking her for her teaching. Other teachers at every level began experiments which challenged the system, including Alan’s 3I founding partner, who became principal of all New Rochelle High School in later years.

If New Rochelle has done better than most cities at educating a highly diverse and rapidly changing population - and the evidence says that it has - this may be largely due to the impact of Alan’s work in both unionization and true educational reform. In ways large and small, he changed the world.

And now I need to say that Alan is hardly alone. All over America, in places big and small, master teachers, protected by unions and tenure, challenge the system on behalf of their students. All over America teachers learn and grow, doubt and invent, and help turn those abandoned by our increasingly rigid systems to alternate paths. All over America great teachers are saving kids like me in public schools in every kind of place. I meet them through my work, I listen to them, I see them online, collaborating and looking for knowledge, solutions, ideas, day and night. Honestly, there is no profession in our society which should be more honored, or more highly compensated.

The memorial service for Alan Shapiro took place in a community center in a rural Connecticut town. The community center was once the extravagant home of a stunningly wealthy 19th Century governor. Not as wealthy, perhaps, as New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, but obviously a very rich man. Then, as now, as the men who become Governors begin or end in great wealth. Then, as now, teachers, at best, reach some level of middle class comfort for their decades of life changing efforts.

But I was struck by something. A hundred plus years hence, today’s politicians and their “works” will be as completely forgotten as the “Who’s that?” whose house we were gathered in, but the impact of great teachers ripples out through society and through generations. In the years to come, when the Christie and Walker mansions have crumbled, what Alan Shapiro taught will still matter.

- Ira Socol

You may read much of Alan Shapiro’s “retirement works” at teachablemoment.org You can hear Alan in his own words at http://vimeo.com/21549634 The original New Rochelle “Postman Proposal” is available at http://www.echonyc.com/~jkarpf/3i/proposal1969.html

22 March 2011

EduSolidarity: Teachers, Unions, Democracy

Let me begin simply, if you are actually "middle class" in America - if you have a decent salary, a decent place to live, vacation time, sick time, a break for lunch, you were either born to America's aristocracy or you owe all that to unions.

You may or may not belong to a union. Your union might have a strange name like, American Medical Association, or American Bar Association. You might be a freeloader, like U.S. employees of Toyota or Kia or Nissan who receive union type benefits because the company wants to keep the unions at bay. You might even consider yourself an "independent businessman" who pays dues to, and/or takes advantage of, the combined lobbying power and purchasing power of something like a "Chamber of Commerce." Whatever. You owe your advantages to unions. Unions created livable wages, vacation time, sick time, lunch breaks, minimum wages, working hour rules... yes, unions created the American middle class.

Why does this matter? Because the ability of citizens to organize themselves is essential to democracy. It is essential to human rights. The United States even said so when it ratified the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. And that right is under attack in America today.

No, no state legislators are trying to break up Chambers of Commerce. None are insisting that Ace Hardware stores stop collective purchasing and advertising. And surely, I have yet to see the Republican governor push a bill to stop capitalists from joining together in an organization designed solely to limit their liabilities for debts and wrongdoing to customers and investors (we call this "a corporation"). But for people like you and me? The goal is no labor rights.

I have written a lot on the value of teachers, the need for tenure, the importance of unions, and, yes, even how I would change teacher training. But, there's a story I will add for EduSolidarity Tuesday 2011.

My mother was first hired as a teacher when I was seven-years-old. She had struggled to go back to school, with four kids in the house, to get one of the few good jobs open to women at the time. Among jobs in America, then as now, teaching was in the top level of required education/training. Plenty of nurses back then had two-year degrees. Most jobs had no educational requirements. Teaching required a four-year degree including apprenticeship time, and continuing education once on the job.

In exchange for that she was paid a little better than $3.00 an hour for time in school, around $4,500 a year, about 2/3 of the median full-time head-of-household worker pay at the time, just below average, and about 45% of what lawyers averaged. She was on duty outside the school before and after the school day, and most days had "lunch duty" and "playground duty" as well. There were no planning hours or professional development days. She would be up late into the night creating plans for the next day, or, three times a year, writing out report cards in her magnificent "third grade teacher" handwriting. I haven't thought about the combination of her fountain pen and the carbon paper she used for that task until just now... could you press hard enough with a fountain pen?

Of course, she found jobs every summer to get the family through those unpaid months. A lot like all the non-union teachers today (from Christian schools and for-profit charters in my area) who I see working in stores in the evening and on weekends to make ends meet. Yet every August she'd spend a fortune on materials for her classroom which the school did not supply.

Americans fight for union rights, Walter Reuther attacked at the
Battle of the Overpass.
Early in her career she joined the movement to organize her school district with the American Federation of Teachers. This was incredibly controversial. Why would teachers need a union? Especially an AFL-CIO union?

You already know the union did not bring miracles. If you are a teacher today your job only looks a little different, but in the hyper-inflation of the 1960s and 1970s, the union kept teachers near that "average" wage. It created real tenure and job rights. It allowed lunch time and planning time. It created professional development days. It broke up the fourteen hour days which came when parent conferences occurred. It gave teachers a voice in curriculum development, in district policy. In her district it led directly to highly successful educational innovations - open classroom elementary schools, aggressive desegregation policies, inventive high school solutions. More than anything, the union protected the cutting edge teachers - the ones who challenged the system on behalf of their students. I witnessed numerous situations in my secondary school experience where the best teachers in a building would have been fired as "troublemakers" were it not for the New Rochelle Federation of Teachers.

The power of unions. Polish workers begin the destruction of the Soviet Empire, August 1980.
In other words, the union lifted my mother from an abused female worker into a middle class professional. It gave her decent working conditions, time to use the toilet, time to eat, a survivable salary, the ability to retire (eventually), and a voice.

Those politicians today, from Scott Walker to Rick Snyder, to Andrew Cuomo, to Chris Christie, to Rush Limbaugh, and John Boehner? Their goal is to rollback all of that progress. To a time when teachers were fired because they riled their superintendents. To when cops had to take "tips" to earn enough to live. To when jobs in government were given out in return for campaign contributions.

Today on EduSolidarity Tuesday we must stand as one. We must understand that globally, for the past 150 years, unions have been the guarantor of human rights, of labor rights, of professional rights - from Homestead, Pennsylvania to Gdansk, Poland. From Memphis, Tennessee to today in Wisconsin, Idaho, Ohio, and New Jersey.

Do not let a bunch of villains straight out of Dickens destroy America. Join and fight.

- Ira Socol

20 March 2011

A "universal" VoiceThread? Not quite. And, Google and Prezi

I love VoiceThread. I do think of it as a universal design tool - that is - students can comment with text, with voice, with video, by drawing. Those are good choices which bring many students in, but not quite all.

Because for all of its charms, VoiceThread has failed to work with any kind of screen reader, leaving those with sight issues, and reading issues, disconnected... from totally to partially.

Now VoiceThread has begun working to solve this. In a trial centered at Pennsylvania State University, VoiceThread is introducing VoiceThread Universal and is soliciting comment on this beta software.

Here's my quick review. VoiceThread Universal lets full-scale screen readers, software like JAWS and ORCA, read the text comments left on a VoiceThread and allow navigation. The navigation allows you to add comments as well, and that's great. But as the developers point out, the current system won't help you with, "creating and adding content to VoiceThreads," won't allow searches, doesn't allow phone integration, though they say all these things are being "worked on." Which is good and bad. Bad because its not ready, but good because it is coming.

A bigger issue for me is that neither VoiceThread nor VoiceThread Universal works with the kind of "light" screen readers used by those with dyslexia. The readers in Firefox (FoxVox, Speaking Fox) and Opera cannot read the text. The text cannot be copied to Microsoft Word and used with WordTalk, or copied to Balabolka, or higher end Text-To-Speech systems like WYNN.

That's a problem, and its a problem I'm hoping the developers at VoiceThread take seriously.

Yet, I want to thank those developers for trying. And I'll note that last week the National Federation for the Blind sued Northwestern University over ongoing accessibility issues in Google Apps. The details of the complaint are complex, but here's my Google Apps complaint.

Those same "light" screen readers, the ones which make browsers accessible? they don't work with Google Docs. Actually, they did with earlier html Google Docs, but the spring 2010 upgrade eliminated that functionality.

This causes deep conflicts for me. VoiceThread, Google Apps, and - to bring in another issue - Prezi, all contribute to universal design in significant ways. They help a wide range of students I work with. But all three, because accessibility has been an afterthought to their programmers, fail many students as well. I, for example, much prefer Prezi to PowerPoint, but I can make Microsoft's PowerPoint accessible with PowerTalk. There's nothing I can do to make Prezi accessible.

So, is it OK for us to use these tools in schools? I am conflicted. I tend to think "yes" assuming that we always - automatically - provide alternative access capability which is, essentially, equal. After all, we still use those inaccessible books in our rooms, we still let teachers write, in handwriting no less, on the "board." But I'm bothered by it because use may tend to remove the pressure on these organizations to move toward accessibility. These companies want access to our students, should we offer that if they don't really want access to all of our kids?

- Ira Socol

19 March 2011

Funding What Works: The National Writing Project

Despite all the nonsense you hear and read on television, in mainstream newspapers and magazines, even in "research," there are not many things in education "proven" to make a difference.

Charter school management doesn't. KIPP doesn't. Teach for America doesn't. Most reading programs (Success for All, Reading Recovery, etc) don't. Being non-union doesn't. Merit Pay doesn't. Broad trained administrators don't. Gates financed principals don't. "Better" testing doesn't. If you honestly look at every bit of research you'll see that even the best arguments for any of these make no difference at all for 95% of kids.

But a few things do work. And, despite all the talk, we know these work. Smaller class sizes. Co-teaching. Multiage programs. Individualizable technology. Great pre-school experiences which offer playtime and stories rather than explicit academics. Reducing poverty. Better family health care. Improved teacher education. Despite Daniel Willingham's essentially irrelevant research, catering to children's learning styles and preferences.

And something else... one of the few federal initiatives of the past two decades to demonstrate real success in making schools better learning environments and improving children's live: The National Writing Project. This is the project President Obama wants to "zero out" in next year's federal budget.

Unlike many who will blog this weekend in an attempt to get President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to continue funding for this project, I have never been involved with NWP in any way. I've never helped build the project, or worked with the teacher support programs, or implemented NWP strategies as a K-12 teacher... All I've done is see the results.

The National Writing Project is much larger, and much more effective, than its title suggests. And in any given year its impact is 100 times, 1,000 times the positive effect on children of all Arne Duncan's highly funded, political-donor connected initiatives in Race-to-the-Top and I3 grants combined.

Because what the National Writing Project does is help teachers re-think practices in ways which turn children into better communicators - better writers, better readers, better storytellers, better information shares, better information consumers. And those skills are the heart of advancing achievement and opportunity. And study after study has documented the real differences this little program makes.

Photo from Education Week. All NWP blogs are available at Cooperative Catalyst.
Why does a writing program have this kind of impact? Because, in order to write well, you must build all the component skills, from "reading" (text intake and comprehension), to listening (aural intake and comprehension), to careful and creative seeing, to vocabulary and descriptive skills, to research capabilities, to crap detecting, to empathic skills, to performance ability. Writing is all that, and learning to work well with writing inspires and motivates, and perhaps most importantly, gives voice to students across the widest range of diversities.

I don't need to say much more. Read the blogs from teachers who have watched their students benefit. Read the research. Do a quick look at the NWP site. Understand the absurd budgeting decisions the U.S. President and his congressional pals are making - " It costs $25.6 million and it reaches 130,000 teachers and more than 1.4 million students in over 3,000 districts." (Teach for America this year will spend $189 million this year - not including teacher salaries and benefits which are paid for by the involved school districts - on 4,500 untrained teachers, in comparison, reaching - but not improving the lives of, perhaps 115,000 students. Federal contribution to that exceeds $45 million - direct grants, Americorps, I3.)

And understand this: If the President and Congress choose to destroy this program by "zeroing out" its funding, they are admitting, fully, that they are liars. It will be obvious that they do not care "what works." That they do not care about improving literacy. That they do not choose "the best programs" for our children. And that they really are not interested in closing the achievement gap.

So, call your congressional members. Call the White House. Email them. Jam their Twitter accounts. Go stand outside their homes.

Saving the National Writing Project is a tiny thing in a massive budget battle which will re-define America, probably much for the worse. But if we can win this tiny battle, we might save a bit of hope for the future.

- Ira Socol

15 March 2011

Constructing Empathy

Among the many, many videos of the tragedies in Japan, one stood out for me:

the wave arrives in Kesennuma
There are a few reasons why the video above "describes" the tsunami in more effective ways than others, even the "more dramatic" helicopter perspectives of the wave engulfing vast areas, and those reasons suggest some important things about teaching and learning, especially about teaching and learning about people and events far removed by time, space, or culture.

the view from above is not human experience
The video does many things we rarely do in schools: It is un-narrated, unexplained. The only sounds are the sounds of the event. What is missing, through that lack of narration, is the shield we usually construct with our explanations - the remove that comes from being assured that "this" is not "us." It is also street level - human level. So often great events are presented via maps, or satellite views, or those helicopter scenes. Those kinds of views present "the sweep of history" but they are also 'counter-human.' No person experienced the Nazi push through Europe as Disney presented it in America's World War II propaganda films. But this scene is completely human, filmed from eye-level, and an eye-level which must scramble to stay above the rising waters. And it is 'long enough.' Only six minutes, but six minutes is an eternity in the way news is now presented. It is not clipped, or highlighted. The real time allows the event to occur in a way which forces attention.

We so often present history, or different places, as "big ideas" - even if we try to escape "the famous dead white guy" trap - but "big ideas" rarely make sense unless we have human context - and human context happens in human scale and human time.

Why would 18th Century British colonists in America rebel against their government? Because they knew nothing about democratic government? Because their lives were completely miserable in comparison with others in the world at the time?

Why would early 20th Century Russians put their faith in men like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky? I've had a number of people argue on Twitter that life under Lenin was far worse than life under the Czar, is that true? How might we measure?

Why would contemporary people in Northern Ireland join the Provisional Irish Republican Army, or, if not join, conspire with money or silence to support that terrorist movement?

the moment when a civil rights march turns into Bloody Sunday (Domhnach na Fola)
and launches three decades of violence
Like the tsunami video, the scene above, from the film Bloody Sunday, is confusing and largely unexplained by dialogue, yet, like the tsunami video, the viewer is plunged into a moment in time, a place filled with emotion, and experienced from a human perspective.

So, this week of St. Patrick's Day, a class might read "history"...
"When the Republic of Ireland gained sovereignty in 1922, relations improved between North and South, although the Irish Republican Army (IRA), outlawed in recent years, continued the struggle to end the partition of Ireland. In 1966–1969, rioting and street fighting between Protestants and Catholics occurred in Londonderry, fomented by extremist nationalist Protestants, who feared the Catholics might attain a local majority, and by Catholics demonstrating for civil rights. These confrontations became known as “the Troubles.”

"The religious communities, Catholic and Protestant, became hostile armed camps. British troops were brought in to separate them but themselves became a target of Catholics, particularly by the IRA, which by this time had turned into a full-fledged terrorist movement. The goal of the IRA was to eject the British and unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south. The Protestants remained tenaciously loyal to the United Kingdom, and various Protestant terrorist organizations pursued the Unionist cause through violence. Various attempts at representational government and power-sharing foundered during the 1970s, and both sides were further polarized. Direct rule from London and the presence of British troops failed to stop the violence."
Or you might watch Bloody Sunday, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Odd Man Out, and In the Name of the Father, and allow your students "in" to the fear, the questions, the complexities. If they watch Bloody Sunday, would they join PIRA? If they watch Odd Man Out, would they turn him in? In Shake Hands with the Devil, who is right? Why, in this scene from The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is language so important to both sides? And what might that suggest about everything from English Language Learning to "Black English"?

In In the Name of the Father, what choices might your students make? Can we think about President Bush's "enhanced interrogation" policies in light of this film?

Dan Spock, in his paper on historical museums, In Defense of Nostalgia, notes:
"The past, such as [people] experience it, is a deeply personal and resonant place, a great well of feeling. It exists within the brittle framework of living memory and nourished by the tributaries of storytelling, bits of reading and the mass media. It is charged with nostalgia, not merely because people inherently desire a gloss on the past, but because the past exists as a stark reminder of the relentless passage of time, of losses, and grieving, of homesickness. As humans, time reminds us of our mortality as we reflect on the changes it brings. Time forever changes our loved ones, the places we call home, the things, the narratives, the spirit that defines who we sense ourselves to be in relationship to everybody around us. Nostalgia is bittersweet, neither entirely happy nor sad, but nearly everyone experiences it; indeed it humanizes us. If you think of the old historical society as a rickety source of comfort, a levee against the sense of things slipping away, then you can understand how that hoary emblem of history might hold some value to someone who never intends to visit it.

"Though you might be glad there a place for old stuff, the presentation of it at the historical society strikes a person as arbitrary, almost indiscriminate. As Bob Dylan put it archly, “museums are cemeteries,” in this sense, cluttered memorials to the fading past. If you saw Night at the Museum 2, you no doubt were struck by the absurdity of the idea that retired exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History should go to their final resting place in storage at the Smithsonian. Tied up in this depiction, though it may be wildly inaccurate, is a real sentiment that museums exist in order to hang on to everything, whether the public sees it or not. Like it or not, this is our brand."
Similarly, the "brand" of our history, geography, and cultural lessons is a collection of disconnected, and meaningless, facts - large and small. None particularly more important than any other. Timbuktu was a great center of learning. George Washington was America's first President. Cecil Rhodes explored Africa and was (a) bad or (b) important. Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and this was (a) good or (b) bad. The Chinese invented paper and fireworks. Mexico is in North America. Tsunamis are large destructive waves created by earthquakes. People are hungry in parts of Sudan. Greeks gave us democracy and Romans built an empire. And on and on, without one reason for the childhood or adolescent mind to care at all.

"The past...is a deeply personal and resonant place, a great well of feeling. It exists within the brittle framework of living memory and nourished by the tributaries of storytelling, bits of reading and the mass media," Spock says, or it is if it is to come alive in any way which will be remembered with meaning. The same, I am arguing, is true for places distant in space or concept. Without the "great well of feeling" empathy - an understanding of people and their decisions - is impossible for most, and really impossible for the egocentric brains of the young. That is truly not the fault of your students, it is the fault of our teaching. Their brains are forming, if we don't help, what exactly are we doing with our days?

So I recently came across a historical presentation, via Nina K. Simon, the most advanced 'museum thinker' we have around these days. Nina thinks constantly about engagement, and analyzes how engagement works in ways essential for everyone involved in education. The presentation Nina linked to, Welcome to Pine Point, is a very different kind of history. It involves no explicit descriptions of great men or market forces or political rights, and yet, in its look at one very unusual (for most of us) type of community - the "company town" - it creates a window both to a specific past and, perhaps a way of looking at unknown places.

A different way of showing history, begin with the very small and personal
Despite what I might call "a frustrating linearity," Welcome to Pine Point is many things our textbooks and our lessons are not: It is personal, and emotional, and interactive, and ultimately, very non-judgmental of both people and events. If it pulls you in, it is not because it declares the place or events described as important, but because it creates an empathetic connection which makes you feel the import. If it leads to a discussion of bigger issues - extraction of minerals, community, environment, western Canada, it is not because that is the lesson plan, but because the ideas are engaged through human narrative.

The challenge in our classrooms is to do this - to make history, geography, culture something more than a list of dates and facts and a set of maps. No, it won't necessarily improve our students' performance on ridiculous multiple choice exams, but it will build more empathetic human beings who are much more capable of working and living in a diverse and complex world.

- Ira Socol

13 March 2011

Is the medium still the message?

On Twitter yesterday I said:
"@ @ @ all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable "
and Dr. Troy Hicks responded:
"#mra11 "all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable" Form AND function matter.  http://bit.ly/dKwx3K"

The link is to one of the "information age"s most famous phrases, and to the study of media by the University of Toronto's brilliant Marshall McLuhan. And, yes, I deeply respect both McLuhan's and Hicks' work, so I began to read (that is, to listen to audio conversions of text), and I began to think.

When Marshall McLuhan began writing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the book famous for the phrase "the medium is the message," the world of "media" looked a bit different than it does now. The book was published in 1964, a culmination of ten years of research and papers. And so, as McLuhan worked toward publication...

If you read a daily newspaper the ink, still applied by letterpress printing presses in a process pre-dating Gutenberg, smeared off on your hands. And every letter in that newspaper had been set there mechanically via Otto Mergenthaler's Linotype machines.

Television was a black and white medium, shown on screens no larger than 19 inches (diagonal), with programming choice never exceeding New York City's nine stations. News was delivered at specific moments in the day. Only the most momentous events moved television news away from 7:00 am - 8:00 am and 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm time slots.

"Book" was undeniably a physical form. Though paperbacks - "Pocketbooks" in one widely used corporate name - had lowered costs, books were heavy, expensive, slowly-produced items, smelling of wood pulp and the alcohol-dried inks. Door-to-door salesmen moved through North America selling extraordinarily expensive sets of The World Book and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. You could pay more and get yearly hard-bound updates. The World Book even had plastic overlay pages in certain articles which allowed you to see maps and other things "transform."

Radio stations had moved away from storytelling, mostly to specific music formats. A
Top 40" station like New York's WABC - 77 could pull a third of the New York radio audience along with millions more through a "clear channel" signal. The very first "All-News" radio station in the United States, New York's WINS - 1010, would not switch from Murray-The-K rock-and-roll until a year after McLuhan's book came out.

"Records" - those spinning, newly vinyl, discs, held a maximum of three minutes per side (7" 45 rpm) or 17 minutes per side (12" 33-1/3 rpm). Automatic changers which could move you through one side each of up to five records were now common, "stereo" was just becoming available. Consumer grade audiotape players did not exist, though, by 1964, researchers at both RCA and Philips/Norelco were playing with the concept of "cassette audio."

Phone calls over "long distance" could still not be directly dialed in most places in the United States until after McLuhan's book sat on bookstore shelves. The "push button" phone, introduced at the World's Fairs in Seattle in 1963 and New York in 1964, wouldn't be "mainstream" until well into the 1970s.

And film was presented in huge auditoriums in the dark, on newly wide screens, sometimes incredibly wide. Film was uniquely uninterrupted storytelling, and was, in the aftermath of Hitchcock's Psycho and other "spectaculars," switching from a "sit all day, come in when you want, double-feature" format to a "see the show once, then leave" model of ticket sales.

In other words, when McLuhan looked at media forms, and saw the forms constructing as much meaning as the content, he was living in a world of fixed and separated media. Books were books - yes, for the price of a small car you could convert one to Braille but audiobooks were still a thing for the future - and television was television and radio was radio. A "reader" could not pick the films he/she wanted to watch at home (except for those with 16mm projectors and access to "adult" or "educational" films), or pick an audiobook for in-car listening, or time-shift a television program or convert a phone message to print or a printed message to sound. Nor was the concept of these kinds of media-shifting really in the public mind. For McLuhan "media-shifting" meant the difference between Gone with the Windand Gone With The Wind, or, far worse, reading Shakespeare.

1910 France imagining the school of 2000
Not everyone was disconnected from future possibility. The 1910 French illustration above, demonstrating "re-processing" books into audio, seems stunningly prescient, as does the selection of music in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, or the reading Frankenstein I blogged about a little while ago. Though really, the events at technological change moments, say, the writing down of Homer's poetry after 400 or 700 years, or the conversion of language into dots-and-dashes in the 1840s, surely hinted at a media conversion different from the adaptation of a myth into sculpture.

Thus the question, for me, becomes this: Is McLuhan still really valid? Does television truly link you to a story today in a form very different than "film" (which is really just another high-definition digital image)? Is an audiobook truly cognitively different than decoding inked alphabetic text? Is reading a newspaper on your tablet a fully different experience than reading it on paper? Is taking in the news from the BBC World Service intellectually different than reading The Guardian?

And my answers are, "yes," and "no," but really, "it depends." And it is in the "it depends" that the learning issues for education lie. Suppose listening to a dramatic reading of The Great Gatsbyby a fine actor is different than reading it on paper, is the same true if you pull the Project Gutenberg text and let Balabolka read it to you? What if you hear, but do not see, the local news? Is that different than watching the BBC vs. listening to their radio feed? How so? And how do you teach - how do you help students learn - that difference?

Which all brings me back to what I said at the start, "all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable," and let me agree and disagree with myself. I truly believe that, "all information handling is literacy," but I also acknowledge that Troy Hicks and McLuhan are sometimes right, sometimes the form does matter - as when the picture, for example, overwhelms the words - but also, sometimes, the cognitive processes are not truly possible to differentiate, as in letting Text-To-Speech read Gatsby to you. But either way, our students need to learn what is happening, how to adapt media in these times when that is infinitely possible, and how to operate within these different effects.

Media is not the same, which means that literacy is not the same. If literacy, in your school, looks like the literacy Scott Fitzgerald knew as a Minnesota school boy, then your students will have serious problems negotiating the world they live in. And your school is failing - not faux Arne Duncan failing, but really failing.

- Ira Socol

10 March 2011

Writing without the Blocks

I am dictating this blog post using a Jawbone bluetooth headset and Windows Seven Speech Recognition. This is a very easy way for your students to begin the writing process, eliminating the struggles with holding a pen, or keyboarding, or spelling, or just the mechanical transfer from brain to hand. 

One of the biggest issues I see in student writing is all the things which block students from effectively telling their stories, all the things which burn up cognitive effort and leave nothing left over for communication.

Holding a "writing implement" is very hard for many children, especially left-handers and, of course, boys in general. Keyboarding can also be quite difficult - especially on the anti-ergonomic full-size QWERTY keyboards, whether "real" on laptops or desktops, or "virtual" on touchscreens (keyboards injure more people each year than any other workplace tool, the awful stress placed on the wrists and blood vessels in the wrists by the "touch typing" hand position is a massive issue). Troubles with spelling - typically caused by a lack of phonological awareness - makes the writing of every word, via keyboard, pen, or pencil, a deeply troubling task. And any or all of this robs students of their voice, and their active participation in the world.

Solving this was once difficult and expensive. Now, however, it is free and easy. Every Windows computer running Windows 7 or Windows Vista comes equipped with a top performing Speech Recognition/Voice-To-Text system, free, included.

You may not have seen it yet. You need to look in your Programs menu, under "Accessories" and then "Ease of Access." Right click on "Speech Recognition" and pin that shortcut to your start menu, and send it your desktop.

People with iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads can install Dragon Naturally Speaking free from the App Store.

Both software packages do the same thing. They listen to you, and write down what you say. Both require some patience and training (though Dragon likes to deny this), but the more you use either program the more accurate they become, especially if you actively correct mistakes within the program, as the software learns to match your pronunciations with correct words.
Setting up Windows Speech Recognition
Getting best results from Dragon
Speech recognition will never misspell a word, but it will get the words wrong, so students should use a grammar checker, with appropriate settings, whenever writing with SR.  But there's a touch of magic in the "no misspellings," when kids consistently see their spoken words turn into correctly spelled words, their sightword recognition grows and their spelling often improves.

Why the Jawbone headset? For two reasons. The bluetooth connection allows students to move as they want without being tethered, and bluetooth digital transmission is far more accurate than using audio plug-connected headsets (USB headsets are the best wired solution). But most importantly because Jawbone's technology relies primarily on the vibration of the jaw, and combined with remarkable noise and wind suppression (originally a defense department solution for tank command), allows the lowest volume speaking with the least environmental (classroom noise) interference.

My Jawbone headset came free about 18 months ago with a phone, but you can buy basic models for under $50. You'll want to use the ear loop for kids, the earbud will not stay in small ears by itself.

Try this in your classrooms. Liberate students from the cognitive waste going to mechanical issues which have nothing to do with effective communication. Help them to become communicators and storytellers, and let your teaching focus on construction of effective writing, and what separates "writing" from "talking" in our culture.

Rememver: Pens, pencils, typewriters, keyboards... these are all tools for getting words from your brain to "paper." These tools have no particular value in and of themselves, they are simply a means to an end. If there is a better tool for many of your students - and now there is - you are doing nothing but holding your students back by not using it.

- Ira Socol

09 March 2011

The Big Lies (Part Four)

Just about everything I see or hear in the "Main Stream Media" about education seems to be a lie to me. All of the political rhetoric around education, seems the same, deliberate falsehoods and words designed to hide real intentions. After Part One  Part Two  Part Three here is part four...

Parents are the customers in education

Parents are the customers for schools. That's the charter school argument. Parents are the customers and get to make the choices.

Business is the customer for schools. That's the Andrew Carnegie/Bill Gates argument. Business is the customer and it is the job of schools to create the kind of employees businesses want.

Society is the customer for schools. That's the social conservatives' argument. The purpose of education is to uncritically reproduce the society we have.

The State of Utah is deeply concerned with schools teaching "democracy."
Who is the customer in education? How you answer this question pretty much determines what kinds of schools you will create, and how you will judge and treat students.

Parents will not like this, but if you believe that parents are the customer you embrace the idea the children are parental property, to be pushed forward or held back at the whim of the adults who "own" them.

I think about this every time a KIPP school opens, or a charter, requiring specific knowledge and actions on the part of parents. I think of this every time a teacher tells me, "his parents won't let him use the internet." I think of this every time I see the difference in IEP meetings when parents are wealthy and powerful vs. poor and uneducated.

Parents are, and can be, an incredibly effective advocate system for kids, but parental resources vary so greatly, that any "parent-based" system inevitably becomes socially reproductive - that is, parents with power and knowledge get what their kids needs, and their kids succeed. Parents without don't get what their kids need, and their kids fail.

So parent-based systems reward the haves. They have choices because they have funds, knowledge, transportation, the ability to even home school. And the have-nots are punished. Those children have parents without access to information, without access to transportation (and thus charter choice), without access to their own successful educations as a support system.

What about business? Bill Gates wants trained employees. That, I suppose, is reasonable. But Gates is part of a long line of American industrialists who view the purpose of education as being to provide the American industry of the moment, prepared, compliant laborers. The problem with this, in a rapidly changing world, is that even if we thought it was our societal goal to enrich Microsoft, if we prepare workers for Microsoft now (a fine place to work from all that I understand, by the way), who will be preparing people to work on what's coming next?

The reason I ask is that we've spent the past 100 years preparing people to work for Andrew Carnegie's steel company, and perhaps in the offices of the New York Life Insurance Company on Madison Square. And now we're all kind of pissed about that, with Barack Obama insisting that if we don't train Microsoft employees, China will beat America to the moon.

The first question to be asked is, why do corporations, which do everything they can do to avoid paying taxes to support schools, get to make the decisions for our children?

We still run schools designed to prepare workers for
the best jobs of 1910
The second question to be asked is, do businesses have any idea of what their future needs will be? Punch card operators? Typists? Mainframe computer maintenance? This is not a knock on vocational education, which I think is an excellent option when done well - see, say, Automotive and Aviation High Schools in New York City (let us not dwell on the absurdity of Automotive High being concerned with SAT prep - that is the idiocy of NCLB, the Obama Administration, and Mike Bloomberg).  But it is a challenge as to the effectiveness of our business leaders at judging what is coming next. Not to mention the third question...

If our schools are designed to produce workers, how is this different from a feudal society?

As for society, well, society pays for education. Society has a compelling interest in education, but if we want to avoid becoming Brave New World, society cannot be the "customer" in education either. If it is we guarantee social reproduction, and we limit personal freedom.
'"My good boy!" The Director wheeled sharply round on him. "Can't you see? Can't you see?" He raised a hand; his expression was solemn. "Bokanovsky's Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!"
"Major instruments of social stability.
"Standard men and women; in uniform batches. The whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg.
'"Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!" The voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. "You really know where you are. For the first time in history." He quoted the planetary motto. "Community, Identity, Stability." Grand words. "If we could bokanovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved."
"Solved by standard Gammas, unvarying Deltas, uniform Epsilons. Millions of identical twins. The principle of mass production at last applied to biology.
'"But, alas," the Director shook his head, "we can't bokanovskify indefinitely.'- Aldous Huxley

So, to me, the customer in education will always be the student. The student who has an individuality separate from his or her parents. The student whose future should not be dependent on his or her parents wealth or resources. The student who has rights as an individual human, to make decisions on their own - to learn to make decisions on their own. The students whose future doesn't belong to Microsoft or Google or Toyota.

This is why I believe in neighborhood public schools, accessible to all, with student-centered choice.

Education will solve poverty

If you are hungry, you are focusing on being hungry, not on learning. If you are worried about being evicted from your home, you are focused on fear, not on learning. If your parent is worried about feeding you, they are probably not helping you learn about the world. If your parent is exhausted by working two full time jobs, they are probably not helping you learn about the world.

In order to take the intellectual risks necessary for real learning, humans need to be comfortable. Yes, you can teach a few rote skills through fear and intimidation, but you will never create understanding and new possibilities that way.

So poverty is the enemy of learning in every way. Poverty is fear. Poverty is discomfort. Poverty is pain. And all those emotions take over the brain, and prevent higher level thinking.

We know this.

So education cannot solve poverty. Solving poverty, however, can do much to fix education.

That is not to say that schools cannot help. Schools - at their best - provide safe places for kids at risk, they provide food for kids who are hungry - they work really hard to give kids the things they need. And all that makes a big difference...

But it cannot equalize opportunity.

So we, in education do everything that we can, but until our societies, particularly American society, decides that children matter, we'll be fighting an uphill battle.

And deciding that children matter means having Universal Health Insurance focused on preventative care. It means having a true living wage, not a minimum wage, so that forty hours of work makes a family economically safe. It means having mandatory paid vacation time so parents have time with children, and mandatory paid parental leave for when schools need parent involvement or kids are sick. It means having reasonable housing support, unemployment insurance, and welfare programs so that children due not become unsafe when bankers screw up. And it means funding community safety programs and law enforcement so that children do not die because a foolish schools superintendent forces them to walk between gang neighborhoods.

City College of New York, diverse, and completely free
We might add in strong, massive, support for public libraries, community centers, and other neighborhood resources. Because it is absolutely true that the moment and place of America's greatest social mobility - New York City from 1900 to 1960 - combined a vast public health system with a vast public housing system, strong minimum wage laws, free university tuitions (1847-1976), great libraries in every neighborhood, and a highly affordable 24-hour transit system which made expenses such as car ownership unnecessary.

It is these systems which, in European nations, have shifted societies toward equity, and made their educational systems much more effective at equalizing opportunity.

And until America stops being anti-child and anti-family, our problems in education remain tough to solve.

You can change educational results without fundamentally changing the system

This is the biggest lie of all. Without undoing the structure which is designed to fail most students, we won't get the change in results we want.

Age-based grades ensure that students who are "different" in any way fall behind and cannot catch up. Age-based grades also create disability - if you are not "on grade level" you are, first "behind," and then, "retarded."

The competitive educational environment created by the giving of grades divides students into winners and losers, preserving failure as our number one result.

Dividing content into discrete classes, separated by bells, assures that Passion-Based Learning cannot take hold, leaving most students bored.

All the nonsense bandied about by the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee-Kopp crowd - changing managers, changing teachers, changing standards, changing examinations - leave the system exactly as it is. A system which we all know doesn't work because it attempts to manufacture human beings.

Perhaps you don't agree with me that this group of reformers wants education to fail, but you have to admit that they are doing nothing to stop it from failing.

- Ira Socol