31 May 2011

Survival and Persistence and 100 years since that day in Belfast

On this 100th anniversary of the launching of the RMS Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast (still the world's largest drydock), I wanted to offer this rerun from my oft-neglected fiction site. I love the story included here, and think it says a lot about what it takes to live and learn...

For an essential read on education today, which I somehow think goes along with this, read Harold Shaw Jr.'s post
Did Progressive Education do Too Good a Job?
There's the story of this woman. You've probably heard something about her. She survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. She survived the sinking of the Britannic in 1916. I thought she had survived the sinking of the Olympic whenever the Olympic had sunk, but she didn't because the Olympic never sank, it was cut into bits in 1935 just a couple of years after being modernized and rebuilt – one more victim of the Great Depression. But this woman, who was a nurse and a stewardess, was on the Olympic in 1911 when it collided with a Royal Navy cruiser that left its shaft twisted and two watertight compartments flooded. I don't think that collision killed anyone, but it was still a pretty big deal. Among other things they had to grab the propeller shaft off the still-in-dry-dock, yet-to-be-completed Titanic to fix the Olympic. This delayed the Titanic's launch and thus maiden voyage from March 1912 to April 1912. Not a long time, but long enough, in that cold year, to create the difference between clear winter sea lanes across the North Atlantic and spring lanes filled with floating ice. Maybe the Titanic still would have struck an April iceberg, but if it had done so on its third or fourth crossing the story might have been, perhaps, a touch less compelling, and maybe, just maybe, that damn movie would've been shorter. I swear that Titanic was filmed in real time and when it first came out I was stuck in that theater for four days, and being on a second date I could barely even complain, but maybe, if I let false memory run away with me, I can remember that the food on-board was quite good.

All things touch all things, more or les

The Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic were all built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, in the world's largest dry-dock, on a peninsula called Queens Island, in what is now called Northern Ireland but, of course, back then was just Ireland, part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a political entity that lasted, quite uncomfortably, from 1801 until 1922. Whether this union was created to insure proper mental health care for the insane British monarch of the time (theory
one: the English not trusting the Irish Protestants who made up the Irish Parliament to go along with their plans for a regent) or to punish the Irish for the rebellion of 1798 (theory two), does not really matter. Over the nineteenth century, Scot/Protestant dominated Belfast industrialized, led by the Harland & Wolff Shipyards whose massive cranes ruled the skyline. The rest of Ireland stayed rural and agricultural and the tallest things in the other three big cities, Dublin, Cork, and Derry, remained the towers of the churches.

If you stand today on the edge of the River Lagan, looking across and east, there is still a working waterfront there. Still a dry-dock, still ship repair, or most
ly either repainting or fixing offshore oil drilling platforms. It's a long way from the glory of building the world's largest, most luxurious means of transportation, but then, hell, that part of the city is now called, for tourist purposes, "The Titanic Quarter" – which may not be the best advertisement., all things considered. Though I have always wanted to attend a football game featuring the team from Harland & Wolff, The Welders, so that I could lead a chant of "Iceberg Ahead." But I do not go to Irish League games, even first division games where the Welders play, my club having been, hmmm, "dismissed" from the league because it was unsafe for them to play anywhere after Bloody Sunday. So they now play across the border in the League of Ireland, though the "all-Ireland" Setanta Cup had Derry City playing at Belfast's Windsor Park last winter for the first time in over 30 years.

Things can change, if given the chance.

Belfast was once
Béal Feirste which means something like "Mouth of the Farset." The River Farset flows into the Lagan someplace north of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge which is way south of those Harland & Wolff shipyards, or where, at least, you'd see them across the river. But you cannot see it. I think it runs underground now through pipes under High Street, and people have told me that Bridge Street is where people once crossed. The kind of victory of man over God's water that the Titanic failed to be.

Violet Constance Jessop died on the Fifth of
May in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred
and Seventy-One. She was alive, this amazing survivor of Belfast's repetitive contribution to disaster legends, while I was alive. We were on the planet at the same time. I thought about her as I listened to something on the radio about Americans wanting to go back to the moon. How these "do anything" countrymen seemed to have lost both their nerve and their belief in the cooperative citizenship we call government during the Challenger/Reagan era, but now there was a new generation that could not quite understand the thought that you could go to the moon, but would choose not to. Space exploration - real exploration - is a big waste of money, surely, but it is also absolutely magical, and absolutely human. When humans can try something big, something huge, something that will reach toward heaven, I think that they should, I think that they must.

Violet Jessop kept drying off and heading back to the sea. We should all do that.
The cranes of Harland and Wolff tower over Belfast still.
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol - photograph: Titanic Releasing the Last Rope, 1912.

28 May 2011

The Madness of Bradley Manning - or - Where Does Responsibility Lie?

Whatever damage the whole WikiLeaks fiasco did or did not do to US Foreign Policy or Global Security, we can now be absolutely sure that the fault lies with neither PFC Bradley Manning nor Julian Assange. If there is "treason" (a charge leveled by, among others, the diseased mind of Bush U.N. ambassador John Bolton) involved, the crime is surely on the hands of a group of US Army officers.

We can watch the video below with deep sadness and deep regret (and we can be thankful that this century allows the global press to investigate the American government, meaning we are not limited in our information to whatever is decided in secret meetings between New York Times reporters and government officials), but I think that we, in education, need to take more away from this case than frustration with the government and the military...


Let us forget the Arizona Principal (in the above video) handing out private and protected information from Bradley Manning's school records, and focus instead on what we, as "the adults in the room," need to do to protect those in our charge. A lot of "adults" touched Bradley Manning's life. Parents, teachers, school administrators, neighbors, Army officers and NCOs, psychologists and psychiatrists, and government officials up to and including the United States' Secretary of Defense and President (as both Commander in Chief and political leader) - A lot of adults who either saw a kid in trouble or created and/or oversaw policies which created or exacerbated those troubles.

Did they all do the right things? Did they all do what they needed to do? Did they do what they could do? Did they all act in the best interests of Bradley Manning? Or in the best interests of their organizations and institutions?

Were there toxic school environments? Was there a toxic acceptance of homophobia in America's military? Was there an insufficient commitment to counseling and psychiatry in many places?  Did leaders set up an information security system designed to allow a "catastrophic" failure with private information?

"He was being picked on – that was one part of it. Because you know Bradley – everybody said he was crazy or he was faking and the biggest part of it all was when rumours were getting around that he was chapter 15 – you know, homosexual. They'd call him a faggot or call him a chapter 15 – in the military world, being called a chapter 15 is like a civilian being called a faggot to their face on the street."
"The kid was barely 5ft – he was a runt. And by military standards and compared with everyone who was around there – he was a runt. By military standards, "he's a runt so pick on him", or "he's crazy – pick on him", or "he's a faggot – pick on him." The guy took it from every side. He couldn't please anyone. And he tried. He really did. You know what little interaction I had with him personally – it was like he was seeking approval. And he was really good with me but … there were three guys cornering him up front and calling him a chapter 15 – calling him a faggot. There were guys refusing to go in the showers when he was even in the damn latrine. I mean, it was childish and it was hateful and this guy wasn't big enough to just stand up in your face and say: "Knock it off – quit picking on me", and I'll be damned but he tried. You know, there were several times which everyone called "emotional outbursts and tantrums", but what it was was him saying, "Leave me alone."' (Guardian Transcript of interview with soldiers who were with Manning)

"He was small, he was gay and he was a gay in hiding. You don't get into the military if you are gay. If you are gay and in the military, you lied to the military to get in. The recruiter told you, "Oh, don't say that," or someone coerced you and you ended up hiding that part of yourself. He was already a mess of a child to start with. Then you get him in there and expose him to sleep deprivation. When you are already unstable. When you are already incapable of having that mindset of suck it up and adapt and overcome. A soldier in basic training doesn't know that they are a soldier – they just know they have seen one too many war movies, played one too many war video games or listened to Toby Keith too much.

"Here's the reality: basic training is, we build you down then we break you up – or we break you down and we build you up. Manning was not coming back up." (Guardian Transcript of interview with soldiers who were with Manning)
I'm sorry, but I hear these types of stories all the time - from the military and from schools. People know, but people ignore. People know, but supposed leaders think they know better. It is the Elephant in the room when things go wrong.

Gus Van Sant's Elephant

And it is an elephant created by people from the top down and the bottom up. In Manning's case political leadership responding to - or embracing - a psychotic national minority so terrified of their own sexual longings that they build a homophobic nation (if you think homosexuality is a choice, or that people can be "converted" you obviously are struggling not to make that "choice" yourself). And a military and political leadership dedicated to bizarre outmoded visions of masculinity rather than creating an efficient and effective military. And a leadership devoted to knee jerk responses to technological challenges ("we're hiding too much from each other, so we'll share information with everyone"). And a leadership willing to ignore the obvious at every turn ("According to eyewitnesses, the security was so lax that many of the 300 soldiers on the base had access to the computer room where Manning worked, and passwords to access the intelligence computers were stuck on "sticky notes" on the laptop screens").

"Physical doctors and mental health professionals failed on him. Then you have the cadres, the drill sergeants in the DU [Discharge Unit]: they failed on on him. The first sergeant and the company captain at the DU failed him. The judge advocate group that everyone in discharge had to go through, they failed him. That is a lot of people in a lot of offices and this is for a boy who is pissing his pants and curled up in a foetal position on his bunk and constantly screaming or in terror. There are a lot of people and a lot of steps that got missed. That's what I am talking about with the system, or my frustration with the system and how all this happened.
"And yet he was in a DU and the army almost got rid of him. You know, they have no one to blame for everything that's going on except themselves. That's the only reason I'm saying anything. I can't help Bradley out. I tried to help him out then. A few others of us did but I can't do anything to help him. I'm not doing anything to attack the army or the government or the system or anything. I'm just saying a lot of people let him down. He is not the first one they let down and he is not the last one. That shit is going on right now at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It is going on at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and it is going on everywhere there is a training facility. I appreciate you guys taking the time.

"You can't get mad at the bull for wrecking the china shop when you have trapped the bull inside it. Bradley should never have been there. They had the opportunity to get rid of him and they didn't. That was October and November 2007. It is now 2011 and all we are hearing about is Bradley, Wikileaks, and he is the bad guy.

"But the reality is that he should have never have been there. There are a lot of steps and a lot of people who let him down. Me and a few others in the DU tried to help him wherever we could. I'm not doing this because I am lashing out or I'm angry with the government or the system or anything else. I'm disappointed about the fact that no one has said anything to this day about how he was in a DU and that the army was going to fire him, they were going to get rid of him." (Guardian Transcript of interview with soldiers who were with Manning)
When I look at school disciplinary reports I often think of administrators and politicians who begin school too early for adolescents, or subject students to absurdly long bus rides, or who don't give kids time to adjust once they arrive at school. I think of leadership which creates "seat time" rules which force short passing periods in secondary school, which turn the time between classes into cesspools of tension and bullying. I think of teachers who don't let kids stand or move or sit on the floor. I think of national leaders who impose the pressures of standardized tests and the limitations of "common core curricula." I think of classrooms where "my way of doing things" becomes the rule. I think of those who force absurd texts onto kids, of those who strip kids' childhood away via homework. I think of of those adults throughout our community, from parents to Governors, who behave like bullies and think kids won't imitate them. I think of educational leaders who sit back and do "research" while generations of children are destroyed. I think of those who'd rather get rich or get famous than do the right thing for kids.

But mostly I think that we overlook too much. That we ignore our human instincts to often. That we allow things to happen to children despite knowing exactly how wrong it all is.

So when I read the tale of Bradley Manning, I felt sad, but I also felt disappointed in "us." And I think we all need to think about that.

- Ira Socol

27 May 2011

Fifty Students, One Question

Thanks to Catherine Cronin, NUI-Galway, for bringing this beautiful film to my attention

Whenever I talk to teachers and administrators about their schools, I try to ask them to find out what their students are seeing. Give your kids Flip Cams or Phones, I suggest, and let them show you how they see their spaces, what they like and what they don't like. Schools, I believe, should exist for their students (I know that this is not actually true, schools exist for all sorts of other purposes, and people 'in charge' tend to suggest that just about everybody except kids are the "customers" in education), and so, for me, understanding how students see and understand their school environment, along with what they'd like to do differently, is vitally important.

So before your school year ends, I have this suggestion. Hand some kids video cameras (of whatever type) and have them create their own version of the new big YouTube idea, Fifty People, One Question. Call it, Fifty Students, One Question, and make the only rule that the question be about the school environment.

A Brooklyn version

"What's your favorite place in the school?" "What's the one thing you'd change about this school?" "What's the one thing about your school which makes you most uncomfortable?" "Which is your favorite classroom?" "What do you think about as you come into the school each day?" Whatever. But don't give your students a checklist of questions to pick from. That will limit them. Let each group struggle to find their own question, and then have them go out into the corridors, the playgrounds, the cafeterias, and ask. Let every age, every grade, every type of student participate, both in creating and responding.

I guarantee that you will learn important things about your school. I'll guarantee that after this you won't approach your school environment in quite the same way.

a high school project

Once done, put the video online, and come back here and post the link in the comments section, and I'll assemble a site collecting these together, and we'll all learn from each other.

and Perth, Western Australia

- Ira Socol

17 May 2011

The Freedom Stick and "Massive Resistance"

In 1994 the United States government added the requirement to "Section 504"1 that all schools (primary, secondary, post-secondary) which receive "any federal funds" ($1.00 or more per year, in any form, including student university loans), have accessible computers available, and a system of in place for information and communications technology which would offer students with "disabilities" real time access "equivalently."

In 1996 the United States Department of Education sent the following in a letter to all U.S. schools:
    "Schools should remain cognizant of their responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity for individuals with disabilities when procuring technology systems for the use of students and staff, particularly multimedia, graphics and graphical interface (such as Windows) applications. Obviously, every computer or piece of technology equipment need not be equipped for use by persons who have disabilities. But overall, technology devices and systems of technology used by students, teachers, or other school employees should be capable of being used, or adapted for use, by individuals with disabilities. It is quite possible to unintentionally construct new barriers when acquiring educational technology systems if schools do not consider accessibility features. In many cases, decisions now being made about the selection of systems configurations, and computer hardware and software will provide the technological infrastructure to be used in schools for years to come. If every school adds consideration of accessibility to its decision-making process when acquiring technology, it will greatly increase the ability of students, teachers, and other individuals with disabilities to participate equally in the information age with their nondisabled peers.

    "Students with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from a school district's programs and activities. If computer technology is part of a public school's education program, Section 504 and Title II of the ADA require a school to provide students with disabilities with accessible computer hardware and software so that they are not excluded from the education program. In addition, the computer hardware must be placed in a location that is accessible to students with disabilities. If technology is purchased that cannot be made accessible, it will have to be retrofitted, replaced, or some other adaptation will have to be made so that students with disabilities can have an equal opportunity to participate in the education program. If equal access to an education program can be provided through other means, a particular technology may not need to be fully accessible to every student. However, technology should be readily available that can provide access for individuals with all types of disabilities. Where technology is the "sole provider" of information or services, for example, an electronic library system or a single station that provides Internet access, it must either be accessible or be able to be made accessible in order to provide students with disabilities with an equal opportunity to participate in the education program.

    "In addition, the ADA requires public elementary and a secondary school to take appropriate steps to ensure that communication with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communication with others. Communication in the context of information technology means the transfer of information through computers, including the resources of the Internet."
    - Assistant Secretary Judy Heumann, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Education, Mary E. Switzer Building, 330 C Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 202022
Why quote all this? Because it is now 15 years later, and in most schools I visit, despite the ability to do the above becoming infinitely easier and less expensive than it was when I first read this letter in 1996, there is little compliance with either the spirit or the letter of the law.

Back "in the last century" we spent a fortune equipping computers at GrandValley State University with these access technologies.3 (Really, scroll down and read the list, you'll be entertained) We did this for two reasons (not because we were wonderful people): First, it was the law, and in 1999, the law was already five years old and we realized that just about every bit of computer equipment the university owned had been purchased after the law went into effect. Second, our "disabled" students were our students. They had every right to the same educational experience as everyone else.

But GVSU was a real "outlier." In 2011 the response to these laws (Sections 504 and 508, the Americans with Disabilities Act) from most American schools has been akin to the "Massive Resistance" to racial integration in some American states during the 1960s. Schools have - by and large - "just said "no"' to disability access. 

So, over the past half decade people around the world have tried to develop ways for students to circumvent this obstructionism to inclusion and civil rights. The RSC-Scotland North+East developed the Access Apps project. Alec Couros of the University of Regina may have invented the term "Freedom Sticks" in 2007 to describe his efforts (I'm giving him credit, not lexigraphical historian being close at hand). And here in Michigan, we took Scotland's brilliant work, Americanized some of it, built a highly-accessible version of Firefox Portable to run on it, grabbed Alec's name, and put together the "MITS Freedom Stick" which you can download in zip form by clicking here (it goes on to a 4gb USB Flash Drive).

Plugging this stick into "most any" USB port on a Windows (or Linux) computer will give a student accessible browsing, a full-featured text-to-speech system, links to a wide variety of free digital text sources, a scientific calculator, open source equivalents to Inspiration, Photoshop, Camtasia, Zip, writing supports, games, simulations, and a full version of Open Office - among other things.

In other words, it makes using these computers, accessing the curriculum, communicating, possible for many students who, 17 years later, remain locked out of educational opportunity.

So I encourage you to download our Freedom Stick or one from RSC-Scotland N+E and give your students the freedom to learn, the freedom to be independent, despite your school's intent to prevent that.

But I have to give a warning... we used to say "any Windows computer," but recently we have discovered that some schools have teamed up with McAfee software to create a system which vandalizes (destroys) these drives when they are plugged into a computer. Now why any school would want to install malware designed to damage the property of others is beyond me, but I have to warm you that this stuff is out there. So before you give this tool to your students you may want to check with both your system administrators and your school district's/division/LEA administration, to make sure McAfee "virus protection" is either removed or adjusted.

And one more note: Easiest way to dupe these drive (that I have found) is by using this little free tool from Germany - USB Image Tool. It allows you to create an image of your flash drive and reproduce it quickly and accurately.

- Ira Socol

1 - Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended.
2 - This letter was included in the "Assistive Technology/Accessible Workstation Campus Plan: Grand Valley State University" of March 31, 1999, which I wrote.
3 - Grand Valley State University "Basic" Accessibility Stations 1999.
333 mhz desktops                                           $1,050.00 each
128 mb RAM                                                  $   210.00 each
8.4 gb hard drives (basic)                                $   175.00 each
18 gb hard drives (advanced)                         $   420.00 each
64 bit sound cards                                           $     95.00 each
32x CD-ROMs                                               $     80.00 each
17 inch monitors                                             $   226.00 each
cable extensions for mouse, keyboard, mic, and headphones to allow easy front access
both trackball and mouse available
Logitech marble fx trackball         $     70.00 each
Ergonomic Scroll-Mouse              $     20.00 each
alternate keyboards available
BigKeysPlus “abc” keyboard       $   169.00 each
BigKeysPlus “qw” keyboard        $   169.00 each
BigKeysMac “ABC” keyboard    available summer 99  
2 keyboard adapter                       $     35.00 each
BigKeys keyguard                                    $     95.00 each
ORCCA keyguard/keyboard        $   140.00 each
noise reduction headsets
CyberAcoustics Headsets             $     20.00 each
noise reduction headsets               $     26.00 each
Spec. Noise reduction headsets    $     90.00 each
CyberAcoustics “CyberHat”        $     20.00 each
Netscape Communicator
Norton Anti-Virus
TN 3270
Zoom-Text Xtra Level 2 screen magnifier/reader (site license)
Site License for 39 stations
Unlimited License                    $7,750.00
recommended so program could be installed on instructor stations campus wide, allowing screen magnification                              
WYNN Reader (site license)
Site License for 24 basic stations
25 user WYNN reader                  $7,000.00
IBM ViaVoice98 (site license)
Single User
ViaVoice Executive                      $   149.00
39 users @ single price                 $4,291.00
Triangle Accessible Calculator Software (shareware)
Texas Instruments Graph-Link Software
With cables                                   $     40.00 each                      
Mathematica for Students                              $   140.00 each

04 May 2011

Can our President multitask?

In the 1990s there was a joke going around that President Clinton was "one Ritalin pill a day away from being a great President," and maybe that was true.

And in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter seemed to be keeping track of a million things at once...

And I thought of this while fighting with Justin Hamilton who tweets as @EDPressSec about the Department of Education's plan to strip away alternative testing from Special Education students.

The guess is that President Obama neither knows about this nor is interested
This is a huge issue, one which the Department of Education's Press Secretary refused to discuss.* It is huge because forcing special needs students to take inappropriate tests is abusive. And because the goal would seem to be - based on other actions of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan - to be to force ever more public schools into being listed as "failures" by the national government. That, in turn, seems a political move designed to enrich certain Obama fundraisers who have invested heavily in privatized education.

But one of my Twitter pals noted something quite important: "likelihood of this issue having risen to Obama's attention? Probably zero, though...."

And yes, President Obama, for all his brilliance, for all his education, is a highly traditional learner and thinker. A straight-line, one issue at a time guy. And this week, for clear reasons, he is focused on Osama bin Laden and Pakistan and Al Qaeda. Just as in his first two years in office he focused first on the economy, then on health care.

Is that the kind of leadership this century needs? Or should "ADHD" and that much-questioned "multitasking" be a required part of 21st Century leadership descriptions?

This question, unlike the two things at the top of this post, is not a joke. It is a vital query into both leadership and education. For President Obama, the child of two very brilliant, but two very traditionally trained learners (one via US system, one via British system), seems the quintessential "industrial age" learner and leader. And we need to consider that, and wonder if that is working for us.

This is not to suggest that leaders should not delegate authority or utilize the incredible power of community cognition and collective intelligence, but in order to harness the power of those things a leader must see as much as possible, all the time - what David Packard called, "management by walking around."
"Why should you bother to get up off your ass and regularly tour the building, the warehouse, the delivery and shipping area? Aren’t you too busy? But that’s the danger: not knowing what is going on in all areas of your business can see you too busy managing the wrong things: you become a “Busy Fool”. You should, as often as you can and without indulging in irritating micro-management-style techniques, step over the filters and barriers that stand between you and the people on the ground. Your direct reports will often not want to tell you certain things at certain times. They will often deliver news in a certain way. Go and find out for yourself: see reality without the sugar-coating." - Colm McCormack
HP Video Explaining, "Management By Walking Around"
This isn't just a post-war Silicon Valley idea, this is classic "natural" human learning, and "natural" human leadership, rooted in human evolution.

As Peter Gray of Boston College recently wrote, early human hunter-gatherer learning fed a non-linear, widely-focused, very open learning structure, which created leaders who probably saw the world in much more connected terms than any "scientifically-trained" scholar of today:
"Hunter-gatherer children were the freest human children ever to have walked the earth. Hunter-gathers believed that children learn through their own, self-directed, self-initiated play and exploration, so they allowed their children unlimited time for such activities. In a survey of hunter-gatherer researchers that I helped to conduct some years ago, all said that the children in the group that they had studied were free to explore on their own, without adult guidance, essentially from dawn to dusk every day. They were allowed such freedom beginning at about age 4 (the age at which, according to hunter-gathers, children "have sense" and do not need to be watched regularly by adults) on into their mid to late teenage years, when they began to take on adult responsibilities. By providing children with food and other subsistence needs, and by not burdening them with many chores, hunter-gatherer adults allowed their children ample time to educate themselves."
This kind of open education form, which when you think of it, might closely parallel what a rebellious Bill Clinton or a farm-raised Jimmy Carter experienced growing up, seems to produce a very different learning and leadership style than the highly formalized educations of young George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
"What kind of mother was she? At least where her son was concerned, she was never without a workbook. She placed a great emphasis on manners; from an early age, Barack Obama was exquisitely polite. Into him Ann [Dunham Obama] Soetoro drilled a sense of duty to the world, the importance of hard work, the need to give back." "Most of all she stressed—by example as much as anything else—the value of education. It determined the geography of Obama’s early years. His mother typed and corrected his homework. From his memoir, we know about the 5 a.m. study sessions."
This is formalized, linear, "education as work," training, and it sunk in, creating in the current US President an extremely formalized, careful, single-focused learning and leading strategy. It is thus not, as I have sometimes charged, that "Obama doesn't care about children or education," rather, as my friend suggested, it is that the needs of children in America and the education system simply do not reach him - he has handed them off to a basketball-buddy-subordinate, and these issues are not in his current curriculum. Even when he goes to a school, he usually sees nothing because his "5 a.m. study sessions" have been about something else, and even when he answers an honest school question honestly, his current curriculum has not trained him to compare his human thoughts with his scientific policies. 

It is as if Henry V wouldn't bother to observe the winds at Agincourt because that was someone else's job. It is as if Henry V didn't bother to worry about the morale of his soldiers at Agincourt because they "know their jobs."

This does not mean that President Obama makes bad decisions, clearly, deeply focused choices such as the stimulus plan and the raid on Osama demonstrate a high-quality of decision-making. Rather, it is that President Obama makes too few decisions. His mother never let him learn to choose to study or not, or where, or how. His very traditional private schools never allowed him to choose where to sit, or whether to go to class. He learned that learning came from books or carefully constructed experiences. One suspects that he never really learned to look around in wonder.

Though yes, unlike his presidential predecessor, he did learn to ask questions, he learned to ask academic questions, the kinds of questions which have answers, not the big open questions of childhood - the kind of questions which only create more questions.

David Russell wrote a piece on how American Neo-Liberalism was the cause of America's viciously anti-child "education reform" movement, and I cannot argue with that, but perhaps the bigger issue is why this nonsense is so accepted... and I'm here to suggest that it is suggested because it offers a 'certainty of answers' to our 'rationally trained scientific managers' such as America's President. If you never actually see or hear students or teachers, if you never actually gaze around yourself without preconception, then you turn to a subordinate like Arne Duncan and want one sentence assurances that you are doing the right things.

But I'm not really writing about global educational policy here, or about Barack Obama. I'm writing a question: what kind of learning, what kind of leadership, is your school, is your classroom, training your students for?
"The most important and general way by which hunter-gatherer adults helped their children learn was by providing an always supportive, always trustful environment. To educate themselves, children need to feel emotionally secure and confident. By trusting children to know what is best for themselves and by making that trust apparent, adult hunter-gatherers provided the conditions that all children need, if they are to feel confident about taking control of their own lives and learning. Because all adult members of the band cared about and provided for the emotional and physical needs of all of the children, and because it was a cultural taboo ever to deliberately hurt a child, the children grew up feeling that others were trustworthy, which is a prerequisite for becoming trustworthy oneself. In such an environment, children's instincts for self-education flourish. That is as true today as it ever was.

"The secure child, raised in a setting where others are loving, trusting, and nonjudgmental, and where the tools and examples needed for education are available but not forced upon anyone, vigorously and joyfully undertakes the natural childhood task of self-education. Unfortunately, in our schools, we replace security with anxiety as the foundation for learning, and we keep children so busy doing what they are told to do that self-education becomes essentially impossible. In schools we "teach" in ways that subvert children's natural instincts to learn and that replace trust and security with distrust and anxiety." - Peter Gray
- Ira Socol

*Justin Hamilton graduated from Houston's public schools when former Bush, Jr, Secretary of Education Rod Paige was in charge. Paige, it turns out, lied about all of his districts graduation and academic statistics, so what education Mr. Hamilton actually received might be up for debate.

02 May 2011

Should Americans vote like it is the 21st Century?

A bit of a citizenship challenge for students in the United States in a week where Canada and the United Kingdom vote.

America likes to perceive itself as a leader in global democracy (except in Utah, where state Republican leaders object to the word "democracy"), but leadership often conveys a sense of "staying ahead of the game," and the United States has a peculiarly antique electoral and government system, one really inherited - almost in entirety - from the national parent, 18th Century Britain.

American students have probably never heard terms such as "first past the post," or "single-member constituency," but perhaps, during a week in which that parent decides whether to take a tentative step toward contemporary democracy and embrace the "Alternative Vote" process.

Ireland's Taoiseach nominates his cabinet at the opening of the 31st Dáil Éireann.
Ireland's legislature is elected by proportional vote from multi-member constituencies,
over 90% of Irish voters have someone they voted for representing them in Dublin 

So let us bring the question of how we vote and how we govern to our American students. Is it really best to keep an electoral system designed to sustain the power of landed gentry in the Britain of Queen Anne? As Ireland considers dumping its Seanad, should the US dump its Senate? And Presidential government systems around the world, from Russia on down, seem prone to abuse of power... is this the best way to run a government? Should American leaders really only have two years to attempt to implement change? Or are national elections too far apart in other nations?

These are real questions which citizens of a democracy must confront. After all, if it is a democracy, the ability to change the way that government is defined is an essential part. The US has the third oldest extent government and voting system on the planet, behind The Vatican and The Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Is it time to change?

So, at every grade level, get your discussion going...

First Past the Post
Canada's last election, 38% of votes for Conservatives
beats 62% of votes for leftist parties, a common
First Past the Post result
used in the United States, for some British elections, and in Canada, but in the UK and Canada the ruling party often "wins" with 35% of the vote, and in the United States, many feel completely disconnected from their representatives in Congress...
How Alternative Voting would have changed the 2010 British Election
surely this result would have been a Labour-LibDem coalition
Comparing Election Systems

Single Transferrable Vote, Proportional Representation, Multi-Member Constituencies
does this system keep more voters involved? does it lead to more consensus? it tends to force coalitions... is that good?
Proportional Representation and How it Works
British 2010 results
How Proportional Representation Works
No to Proportional Representation
Counting Votes in Ireland (STV-PR)
Fair Vote in Canada (pro-PR)

Alternative Vote
a light version of STV-PR
How Alternative Vote works...

Ireland's Seanad, should it remain?
Reform the Seanad?
Eliminate the Seanad
House of Lords?
US Senate is anti-democratic

Scholastic on Presidential v Parliamentary
PowerPoint comparing systems
Presidential System
Parliamentary System

Let students build their research, try different voting systems in your classroom or school, consider history in various ways.

Irish election results 20111, through Proportional Representation
For example, the French Fourth Republic is often brought up as an example of the instability of parliamentary government, yet, in little more than a decade those "unstable" French coalitions developed a national health care system, developed a free university system, rebuilt France after World War II, and began the development of the peaceful, contemporary continent we now call the European Union. During that same time Britain could only create a national health care system, but, largely due to its electoral system, could not even join the European peace system. And the United States accomplished none of that, and even managed to get mired in the same kind of colonial conflict (Vietnam) which wrecked the Fourth Republic.

Likewise, we call coalitions unstable but witness the results of the US elections in 2008 and 2010 regarding health care and jobs creation: In Britain or Ireland the government would have had up to five years to craft a plan and make it work. Do elections every two years help or hurt?

What do we know? What do we think?

- Ira Socol

01 May 2011

Whose identity is it?

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011
What if I don't want to be disabled? What if I don't want to be disabled today? or right this minute? What if I don't want to be "special"? What if I don't want to be any more "different" than you are?

I have tried to describe my sense of "disability" - with great debt to Tom Shakespeare - as "Transactional." That is, disability is the place where who I am, physically, mentally, emotionally, attentionally, dexterity-wise, sensorally, conflicts with how the world is constructed (in every sense of that word).

Thus, we are all "disabled" in some situations, but not in others. If I say you have to communicate via trumpet, or classical ballet, I might "disable" many people. If I said you couldn't graduate from secondary school without swimming 100 meters in under 60 seconds, or without sight-reading a Mozart piece, or without building a rocket which would reach 1500 meters, many "honor roll" students would be left without diplomas. But, as we know, our world is not "constructed" in that fashion.

But that is the reality of disability, and the reality is different than how those who are "disabled" become identified.

Whose identity is it?

The first time I participated in Blogging Against Disablism Day I wrote a post title "Retard Theory." The use of that term upset a number of people, and, of course, I understand that - I had used the term to provoke. In part, I used it/use it, in protest against North America's embrace of "People First Language," a form of description I reject in terms of who I am (see Goldfish's brilliant post On the Language of Disability).

The "Welsh Not" was literally hung around the necks of
students who persisted in speaking Welsh in British
19th Century Schools.
And I'm coming back to the topic because "identity" - how one knows oneself and describes oneself to others, should be a personal decision, something owned by the individual, but for those with "disabilities" - like all oppressed groups - identity is typically something hung around our necks by others.

I meet children every day, children of the most "involved" and "well-meaning" parents, who know that every day their parents are "advocating" for them with their schools because "something is wrong with them."

I see children every day described as "special" and "different" by the adults around them because their "transactional needs" take one form, and not others.

Michigan State University sees those with "disabilities" as so foreign
that they are literally forced to carry "Visas" with them.
I see university students forced to carry identity papers with them in order to use basic tools which support their human needs.

I see adult workers forced to prove they are "sick" in order to change their computers so that they'll work better for them. (I see this especially with the State of Michigan, but that's another post...)

All of this is exactly the same as racial profiling, exactly the same as the idea of fixed identification of race, nationality, religion which certain national regimes engage in. Whatever the intent, which stretches from the furthest left (reverse discrimination opportunities/"affirmative action") to the furthest right (separation laws), it is identity forced on people from above.

What if I don't want to be disabled? or what if I want to describe my own disability?

But what if "I," or "you," or any of us wants to control our own identity? What if I want see myself in terms different than the way the constructed community sees me? What if I want to project a different identity to the world at large?

Are we allowed to do that?

For example, I kind of like "retard," because "retard" is a direct description of how schools create disability. You are "retarded" because you are not keeping up - on an arbitrary list of "achievements" - with your age group. So, to me, if that is why kids are labelled, why not embrace the word?

Or, maybe I prefer just using an ethnic, or religious, or political identity, and would rather not be known first for problems I might have with reading, or sitting still for a long time, or walking.

Or maybe I just want to be who I want to be?

Am I allowed? In schools? On transit? At work?

Universal Design

I'm only allowed to choose my identity, to control my identity, to self-identify, if the society constructed around me is universally designed. Only if we all get to make the decision - by preference - about how to read or how to write, about how to get from one level of a building to another, about whether to watch television with captions or descriptive video, about how our computers work, about whether we can use mass transit or not, about access to health services, do I get left with the right to declare who I am, rather than having a label forced on me.

Every choice you eliminate, every "standardized way of doing things" you adopt, in your classroom, at your university, in your community, in your nation, hangs "disability" labels - specific, unchosen labels - around the necks of one group or another.

And this May Day, this Blogging Against Disablism Day, I ask you to stop doing that.

- Ira Socol