30 August 2011

"Remembering" September 11, 2001

"Space may be the final frontier
But it's made in a Hollywood basement"
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication

The events of September 11, 2001 happened. They happened in lower Manhattan, they happened in Arlington, Virginia, the happened over Western Pennsylvania, they happened in the air outside of Logan and Newark airports. They happened everywhere that people watched, or heard, or reacted.

But September 11, 2001, like all events, then became history. And history is not what happened. History is what we believe happened. History is what we understand happened. Truly, history is what "we" say happened.

In a blog on The New York Times Learning Network site Monday, Pam Moran and I discussed the essentials of why and how we need to teach about "9/11." We have much to say - we had more before editing for space restrictions - but perhaps the essence is summarized in this paragraph:

"Today’s students will enter a world of adulthood in which information does not come curated by editors in large, downtown buildings. Rather, they are direct information consumers, creators and distributors, interpreting current events and building history."

Forgotten massacre: The British
killed over 11,500 American prisoners
of war during the Revolution
on Prison Ships in Brooklyn's
Wallabout Bay. Do your students
know about that?

What ultimately is vital, is essential, is that we help our students to become much better at being, "consumers, creators and distributors [of history, and] interpreting current events and building history." Because history and its implications are far too important to be left to "Hollywood" or those who control Hollywood, or to politicians with narrow self-serving agendas.

If we allow only those with power interests or financial interests to tell and preserve the stories of the past, the stories of our past will be limited to those which "sell" an agenda.

This might explain why very, very few Americans know about the Philippine-American War, or why, while "Juneteenth" (June 19th, 1865) is celebrated as the end of slavery in the United States, American students don't learn that in December 1865 there were still over 40,000 slaves in Kentucky, and thousands more in  Tennessee, Kansas, New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Washington, D.C., and Louisiana. Those states, under "Union" control, waited for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution to take effect before freeing their "African" slaves. It might explain why the Soviet Union, America's great ally of the 1940s, could be nothing but an "evil empire" from 1949 to 1989. Or why Woodrow Wilson was considered a failed President from 1919 to 1935, before he was "resurrected" via the FDR administration's contacts in the publishing and film industry. It might be why Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is so different from our K-12 American history textbooks, or why many more Japanese planes are shot down in a film like Pearl Harbor than actually were.

Was Woodrow Wilson a progressive hero? Or a racist
meddler who guaranteed a second war in Europe?
The fight over the history of September 11, 2001 began on September 12, 2001, if not before. In New York's Union Square Park, which lay just outside the excluded zone of the city, peace vigils sprung up even as other voices across the nation demanded vengeance. That fight continued through the decisions to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (with massive protests in New York City against the Iraq invasion) and continue today in debates about the presence of an Islamic Cultural Center near the World Trade Center.

In each case, people on both sides of an issue create, adapt, and deliver their own histories of that bright late summer morning. And in each case, those histories suggest paths into the future which very well might impact our students' lives.

So, our suggestion is to use this event, and the history constructed within the lifetime of our students, as a way to begin investigating how history is created, and why history is created.

One history of "9/11"... but not everyone's
Over the rest of the week lesson ideas will appear both at The Times Learning Network and here. The Times site, as always, is open to conversation, as is Edutopia. Please join in, and help make this "9/11" anniversary an important beginning to get students thinking deeply and critically about history.

"I am a student, and to be honest I really thought history was boring because all of the dates you had to remember for tests. But now by reading this learning network article I started to think about how you really need to deeply understand the history of something. And by understanding it you will realize that it is essential to human life.

"I think 9/11 should be taught in schools across the world, and we shouldn’t neglect it, we should understand and remember the event."   — Rachel commenting in The New York Times.

- Ira Socol

fascinating view of the construction of "9/11" history by Frank Rich in New York Magazine.

23 August 2011

Five things to do, Five not to do

As the school year begins in many nations, I thought I'd connect to a few things I think are important from day one... both things to do, and things not to do.

Alternate information forms have value
in many situations.
Do... offer multiple media versions of information you offer to students. If you have a syllabus, or just a note home to parents, plug it into Balabolka or into a website like VozMe and create an mp3 audio file. Link it to translation software. For certain student or parental populations, consider creating a picture story. Offering multiple paths to information access will make everything run better in your classroom, in your school - for students, parents, and visitors.

Do Not... assign seating or expect all students to sit on the same type of chair, or in the same way, or even to sit at all. I might have nothing good to say about former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but somehow he rose to some fairly high positions without ever accepting a standard desk or an office chair. We really never were in a "one size fits all" time period, though we pretended to be. But now the time for pretending is over. Let your students sit in chairs, on balls, on the floor, on the windowsills, or stand and lean. Why would you possibly care?


Do... offer a wide range of places and ways for students to be comfortable. All kids become behaviour problems when they feel trapped and uncomfortable. If they need to control their auditory environment, pop those earbuds in. If they need to leave for a few minutes, what are you accomplishing by keeping them in? If they need to eat or drink, they are hungry or thirsty, and if your classroom can't be cleaned, that's the problem.

Do Not... ban mobile phones. You're not winning this battle anyway. Instead use these in class, for research, for communication. Have the students keep them on their desktops, find information for the class, photograph experiments, UStream projects home to parents.

Do... offer a Tool Crib for your students. Rather than have the same device for everyone, switch it up. Handhelds, Tablets, TabletPCs, Macs - desktops and laptops. And offer software choices as well, Microsoft Office, Open Office, Google Docs - Balabolka, FoxVox, NaturalReader, WordTalk - Safari, Chrome, Firefox -  anywhere you can offer choices, offer choices. This is how kids will build their toolbelts.

Windows speech recognition...
it really works, and its free
Do Not... insist on handwriting, let kids enter text and data any way that works for them. First, outside of school, and perhaps toilet graffiti, handwriting is pretty much dead as a part of daily life. Though, surely, some kids really like it, and for them the physical act of writing is tightly linked to memory. For others it was, is, will be a nightmarish test of coordination. So let them keyboard - on whatever keyboard they like. Or let them dictate. And if they need to get the hand-eye skill, let them draw instead.

Do... have a classroom Twitter account, a classroom Skype account, a classroom UStream account, a classroom Google account. You want to link your learning community broadly to the world. Using these social media tools classes have roamed Scottish castles from Virginia, met astronauts from Edinburgh, linked to Australian kids from Michigan. They have shared knowledge with scientists and poets. The future of your students will be global, get them started now.

"T minus 3 hours and holding," deadlines
slide, they just do.
Do Not... sweat "due dates." Despite our "real world" myths, "due dates" except in show business and daily news, really aren't hard and fast rules. How many Space Shuttles lifted off on time? How many car models come to market on the day planned the year before? How many office projects see completion dates "slide"? What's important is to work on a plan to get it done so it - whatever "it" may be - is a project, work, assignment of "real value." And if it is not of "real value," why are our students doing it in the first place?

Do... let kids declare "time outs." Use a "do not disturb" sign, or some method of allowing a student to "back away" from the room for a time - even if they don't physically leave. We all need this. We close our office doors. We go hide for lunch. We sit in our car with the music blasting. Why would we imagine that kids don't? That they can go all day in the unbelievably "social" environment of school without the need to hide for a bit?

Do Not... give kids a "second shift" of work when they leave school. They are in there all day, that should be the bulk of their work time. They all have other - honestly better - things to do out of school. It is their life learning out of school which should be given context and clarity through your classroom work. Extending their world, rather than extending yours. Besides, we know that homework primarily measure parental socio-economics, and never more so than with the "flipped" classroom of Salman Khan which puts the essential learning into a completely variable context. Thinking homework? Think again.

South Park kids know the score on homework...

- Ira Socol

17 August 2011

Intolerant Justice. The London Riots Part Three

part one     part two   

If we think back just a month, the most common phrase coming from the lips of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was "second chance."

"...but I believe in giving people a second chance..."
"I decided to give him a second chance," David Cameron said about his former close advisor and press officer Andy Coulson on July 8, 2011, explaining his judicial philosophy, "with a single, often repeated phrase" (in the words of the Guardian).

Wanted? Looting of £7,000 from House of
Commons expenses fund. You might look for
him around No. 10 Downing Street.
And there is no reason to doubt the Prime Minister's sincerity. He himself had chosen to give himself "a second chance" rather than resigning when he was caught pocketing £20,000 he had no right to take in the "expenses scandal" of 2009 (as a young man Mr. Cameron escaped punishment for smashing a shop window... apparently no one drove a truck around with his photos on it... so this might be Cameron's "third chance"). And in Cameron's cabinet, his Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove is in his "second chance" after taking £7,000 he was not entitled to, and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport, also in his "second chance" after stealing £22,000 and then agreeing to give back half of that.

Even Cameron's favourite cop, Bill Bratton, late of the LAPD, is on - at least - his "second chance," having resigned after just two years as New York's Police Commissioner in 1996 for accepting outside income, and trips and gifts from corporations, which public employees are not permitted to accept. (This makes him perfect, in many ways, for this Tory cabinet.)

But, oh, times change... or maybe, lawbreakers get less wealthy and even less white, and just 36 days letter, in an interview with the Telegraph, Mr. Cameron sounds quite different:
"He pledges to support “zero tolerance” — a tough system of policing first popularised in the US which sees even minor offences prosecuted vigorously to send out the message that no form of law-breaking will be tolerated.
'“I will be saying much more about that because I think it is true,” Mr Cameron says. “We haven’t talked the language of zero tolerance enough but the message is getting through."' 
"Zero Tolerance." It is truly hard to imagine that any reasonably raised human would utter this phrase when not speaking of, say, rape, murder, child molestation - behaviors of that kind of extreme immorality. And yet, it has been a favorite term, this month, of the British Prime Minister, and over a lot of years, that ex-Los Angeles Police Chief, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and way too many school administrators. Which is odd, because we are supposed to be tolerant societies.

"Constitutionally," in quotes because it is notoriously tough to pin down British constitutional law, the Anglo world believes in tolerant justice. Courtrooms have been filled, forever, with "guilty with an explanation," "affirmative defenses," "jury nullification," and people set free because of government/police misconduct in criminal investigations and prosecutions. We often let juries pick between higher and lesser charges, say, burglary and trespassing, or murder and manslaughter. And there is a centuries long tradition of judges sentencing those convicted based on a whole range of information about the defendant, the crime, the victims, the circumstances.

We developed these strategies because almost nothing about human behavior is 'black and white.' It makes a difference if you murder your abusive husband or kill your spouse for money. It makes a difference if you bring a knife to school because you are terrified, or if you bring a knife to school to terrify others.

Yet, this week, the Prime Minister continues to see intolerant justice as the model. "David Cameron," noted the Guardian, "who last week promised severe punishments for rioters, saying he hoped courts would use "exemplary" sentences to deter future riots, praised the sentencing decisions, which have included two jailed for four years each for inciting riots on Facebook – riots that never took place – and one person sent to prison for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water. Asked about the Facebook case, the prime minister said: "They decided in that court to send a tough message and I think it's very good that courts are able to do that."'

And this echoes the pathetic "we're too stupid to make rational decisions" arguments from right-wing think tanks a decade ago. "More zero-tolerance policies run amok?" asked Manhattan Institute scholar Kay S. Hymowitz in 2001, when many schools were rushing to adopt "zero tolerance discipline," "It doesn't seem like it. Jeanne Milstein, child advocate for the State of Connecticut, says that her office had received many reports about "out of control" tots hitting, biting and throwing things in inner-city and suburban schools. Though there's little solid data, Kristie Kauerz, an official at the Education Commission of the States, claims that there's enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that a growing number of unmanageable babes is now a nationwide trend. In the end, zero tolerance may be more symptom than cure for the uneasy disciplinary climate of our schools. Certainly it's no final answer to out-of-control 5-year-olds or revenge-crazed teenagers. But as the threats continue and the bombs and guns appear, it's all we've got."

"Anecdotal evidence," "out-of-control 5-year-olds," "revenge-crazed teenagers," "slow-motion moral collapse," "Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control." It sure does sound might dangerous out there. If we don't have "zero tolerance" "the bombs and [the] guns appear," or the riots will come to your street next.

But, of course, here is the problem. "Zero Tolerance" does not work. Policing based on it does not work. Schools which use it as a discipline system do not solve their problems. If you enter '"Zero Tolerance" education" into Google Scholar you will find scores of pages of studies detailing these facts. If you dig into Bill Bratton's short tenure at the NYPD you will probably find that the introduction of more than 5,000 extra police officers - paid for by the Clinton Administration - during Bratton's tenure (plus another 5,000 additional cops in the next three years), and an improving New York City economy, surely had more impact on crime rates than the Giuliani/Bratton system of arresting black kids for loitering and violating their constitutional rights with illegal searches.

What intolerant justice does is teach people that there is no justice at all. Students learn that justice systems are unfair and cannot be trusted. Their own schools teach them that government and those in power aren't smart enough to figure things out logically.

What intolerant justice does is teach those at the bottom of society's hierarchy that they have no stake in that society, that they are not apart of it in any way. You think people didn't respect the British government and its traditions back in July? Wait till they see the way this kid was treated for steal a £3.50 case of water while Cameron's friend Andy Coulson got his "second chance."

One of our jobs, in education or in political leadership, is to bring people in, to let them understand why it benefits all of us if they join our society, if they share our community with us. "Zero Tolerance," intolerance, tells kids, tells everyone, just the opposite.

If anyone is sending that message, they should stop now.

- Ira Socol

15 August 2011

Writing the Riots with Your Students... The London Riots Part Two

How do we deal with this in school?

After all, the riots in the UK this August are all about education and citizenship, learning networks and communities, technologies and responsibilities. These are things we deal with in our schools, right?

So can we deal with these riots? How do we bring them into our classrooms in ways which move our students forward?

I'll start with an immediate split, those whose students have been impacted, and those whose students have not. And in the "not" range, there is a vast gap. There will be a difference between those in West London, those in Wales, and those in North America, some of whom will not have any idea of what "England" or "the UK," or "London" means.

Yet the split is not as large as it might appear. The questions posed by these riots and the responses to these riots are global questions these days, touching on all that our students' lives will consist of.

Here are a couple of "pause, think, write" exercises for your students. You might consider creating groups writing within one big Google Doc so students can watch the thoughts of others. You should also absolutely write on these issues yourself, allowing your students to see you involved in the process. And don't forget, "writing" means many things. Allow students to dictate via Microsoft Speech Recognition or Dragon Dictate. Allow them to record themselves with Audacity, or video themselves. Allow them to interview others.

We can learn together when we write together.

One: Thinking about society, thinking about moral equivalency...

Societies are usually based in the idea that the basic rules and responsibilities apply to all. Everybody is supposed to - outside of certain kinds of emergencies - stop for red lights. Nobody - again, with a few exceptions - is supposed to kill another person.

Students everywhere might compare British Prime Minister David Cameron's Thursday speech, "In too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing,” he said. "The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.” 

with one of his critics columns from two days earlier... "
"Dear Mr & Mrs Cameron,
"Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?
    "As a young man, he was in a gang that regularly smashed up private property. We know that you were absent parents who left your child to be brought up by a school rather than taking responsibility for his behaviour yourselves. Even worse, your neglect led him to fall in with a bad crowd. He became best friends with a young man who set fire to buildings for fun. And others:
    "There’s Michael Gove, whose wet-lipped rage was palpable on Newsnight last night. This is the Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another of his houses in order to avail himself of £7,000 of the taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which).

  "Or Hazel Blears, who was interviewed in full bristling peahen mode for almost all of last night. She once forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. At the time she said it would take her reputation years to recover. Unfortunately not."

Might they then compare this prison sentence, with this one?

Here is a comment on the previous post about the riots in the UK:
"As someone who lives in Liverpool, It is interesting to see a view from afar. Today Mr. Cameron will outline his plans to sort out society, and deal with the absent fathers who he sees as being a reason behind the broken society. I heard two comments at the week-end that had more relevance than any of the rhetoric spouted by so called experts. Firstly "if politicians can 'give back' the expenses that they fraudulently obtained without punishment - would looters be let off if they gave back the trainers they took?" Secondly, "Cameron falsely claimed a grand in expenses - that's like two flatscreen TVs..."

"Both these comments were from teenagers who are from the sort of background extolled by Cameron and other politicians; they have good parents who have instilled morals, discipline and a work ethic. Those very morals that Cameron, Gove, the Press etc. are demanding, are distinctly lacking in those who lead society, and unfortunately our children can see all too clearly see this."
Your students need to be able to express themselves on these issues in ways their community will hear. And they need to extend the questions down into their own world. Might they find differential justice in their schools? In their communities? Do they believe that rights and responsibilities are given and shared equally?

What might they make of this story and video? The tale of the difference between the school Michigan's Governor sends his daughter to, and the schools he provides for the rest of Michigan's students.

Have any students gotten away with this line? I only did the illegal stuff within the law?

Students may want to write about this, or they might want to take their mobiles and do video interviews with their schoolmates.

Two: Going along...

When would you tell your friends to "stop"? When might you try to tell a crowd to "stop"?

 How would you react if you were here?
We all get carried away sometimes, and big groups doing things together often do things, good and bad, which "we" would never do on our own. Groups can be more heroic, more inventive, more accepting, but they can also be more destructive, more careless, meaner, and angrier than individuals often get.

Let's look at this story...
The Guardian LiveBlog 12.50pm: A mother of two has been jailed for five months for accepting a pair of shorts looted during the disorder in Manchester.
Ursula Nevin, who slept through the riots, took the shorts from a £629 haul of clothing and accessories stolen from the Vans store in the city centre by her housemate Gemma Corbett. Nevin picked out the shorts from the goods, which Corbett had brought back to their flat, the morning after and decided to keep them.
Nevin was arrested for handling stolen goods after police raided the flat in Stretford.
She was jailed for five months after pleading guilty at Manchester magistrates' court.
The court heard how Corbett, a call centre worker, had gone into the city centre after watching the riots unfold on TV. She then helped herself to stock from the ransacked Vans shop in the Northern Quarter. Corbett, 24, who admitted theft was remanded in custody and will be sentenced at Manchester Crown Court.
The judge told Nevin, also 24, that she was supposed to be a role model to her children, aged one and five. Khalid Qureshi, sentencing, said: "The first reaction you would expect some to have is 'get that stuff out of my house, I have two children that I'm responsible for'. You would expect decent people to speak up and say 'no, this is wrong, get that out of my house.' You are a role model to your sons, yet you decided to have a look at the goods and keep some for yourself."
The judge said, "You would expect decent people to speak up and say 'no, this is wrong.'" Is the judge right? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that what a friend or friends, or even a family member, was doing something wrong? What did you do?

Might it be scary, or even dangerous to oppose a crowd, even if you were sure that what they were doing was wrong? What strategies might you use?

This isn't just something which happens to kids, or poor people. Why didn't anyone who worked for NewsCorp (which owns Fox, FoxNews, the Times of London, the Sun, the New York Post) say "no" when they were repeatedly getting their stories from "hacked" voice mail and email accounts? Why didn't anyone at the US energy firm Enron say "no" when they were lying about the company's finances?

Enron. No one at this giant corporation seemed to be willing to say "no" to theft and fraud.

The Ox Bow Incident (1943), even the good guys let innocent people get hanged

You might create an online conversation about this in TodaysMeet, and then let your students use that to build their own writings on the subject.

Three: Frustration, and what to do about it

If society is inherently unfair and unequal, if your chances in life have more to do with who your parents are than who you are, what can you do?

Do you accept your position in society? Do you try to create change? Do you do it alone? Do you organize as a group? Do you fight? What kind of fighting is OK?

For all time philosophers, politicians, religious leaders have wondered how to struggle against injustice. Those arguing for change are often labelled as dangerous. Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Menachem Begin of Israel, and Michael Collins of Ireland have all been labelled as "terrorists" by the governments of the United States and United Kingdom, though the first two would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Collins is now considered one of the great national heroes of the 20th Century. Martin Luther King, Jr. was constantly watched by the American FBI because he was considered a "threat." All of these people spent parts of their lives in jail for their activities. Emma Goldman was permanently thrown out of the United States simply for speaking and writing.

Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian writer of the 15th and 16th Centuries, said, "...in the actions of all men...when there is no impartial arbiter, one must consider the final result." This has often been simplified into, "the ends justify the means," or, in other words, what you need to accomplish is more important than the rules you will break accomplishing that. That belief is controversial, and it has allowed people and nations to justify their actions, from stealing food when you are hungry to dropping nuclear weapons on cities.

Your students might gather in groups and write out a debate on this issue. Not the simple two-sided question as often debated, but what ends justify what means? Allow the conversations to extend from global (Hiroshima, the murder of Czar Nicholas, Afghanistan) to the local and personal (fighting in school, refusing to do homework, taking something you need but cannot afford).

Now, get writing - Ira Socol

10 August 2011

Raising amoral children... The London Riots Part One

I'll begin by saying that, in some ways, once a cop, always a cop. I watch the scenes in London, in Birmingham, in Liverpool and I want to go find a uniform and go after people with so little regard for their neighbors, their communities, their families. I imagine myself helping to at least compare photographs and identifying those so that they can be hauled out of their homes and brought to court.

And as I do this, I wonder. Hell, most animals are born with community sensibilities. I've spent a bunch of this year watching the eagles in Decorah, Iowa raise their children. I've watched my dog keep careful watch over our grand-nephew as he sleeps. I've watched swans negotiate territory on a frozen winter lake. So I cannot imagine - perhaps because I am not a Calvinist - that people are born bad. Somehow, they are made bad. They are taught to be bad.

"You've got to be carefully taught."

This week Nathaniel Tapley wrote, "Dear Mr. & Mrs. Cameron, Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?" And in doing so, he taps into the basic, essential question of our time. How have we raised so many who are completely amoral? And he taps into the essential facts, since the 1980s the Anglo-Saxon world in particular, has revelled in amoral leadership. We have created a nightmare which is now just beginning to unfold.

For, argue all you might, but I felt exactly the same watching the riots unfold as I did watching Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch in front of Parliament, as I did watching Republicans in the US Congress during the "Debt Limit" debate, as I have watching American Governors Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, and Chris Christie perform "their jobs." In each case I stare at the television or computer and ask, "On what planet were such venal people raised?" "How does any human reach even adolescence not knowing anything of the difference between right and wrong?"

Is there a difference between the ways of stealing from the poor to enrich yourself and your friends... even if you don't need anything you took? Is Michael Gove, the UK's Minister for Education, less culpable for stealing £7,000 than any looter smashing a shop window? Is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, shutting off housing support for the poor so that Dow Chemical can pay less taxes really any different than the rioter setting fire to a home? Is US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as he cuts health benefits for children (which will inevitably cause deaths), any different than the Audi driving morons who ran over three men in Birmingham last night?

Well, those elected leaders will not have gotten their own hands dirty in their vicious, amoral acts, but otherwise... ?

It is a rare leader, who other than late in life and wondering if the tales of Hell are true, will admit to moral equivalency. "LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals," said former US Secretary of Defense and World War II bombing planner Robert McNamara in Errol Morris's film The Fog of War. "And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

"We chose to burn hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children."

What makes it immoral if you're poor but not if you're rich? Would be the version of that question to be asked today.
Michael White in the Guardian: "What we are seeing here, by general consent, is an urban underclass with little or no sense of a stake in society, few ties to their local communities or, very probably, to each other in their feral, fragmented families. "Darren, where did you get those three new bikes?" "Shurrup, mum, I'm listening to me new iPhone."

"Liberals can legitimately point to their marginalisation in the workforce and at school (some of these kids can barely speak proper English), in part the consequences of globalising economic forces and the evaporation of low-skilled jobs.

"Social conservatives can point to the collapse of family and discipline, happily unaware that capitalism can be pretty devastating to all but the strongest families, both in terms of depressed wage rates and raised expectations."

My US Representative, Bill Huizenga,
consistently votes against the best
interests of his district because he gets
his pay offs from Wall Street.
"...with little or no sense of a stake in society, few ties to their local communities or, very probably, to each other in their feral, fragmented families." This is true of an underclass, especially in America and the United Kingdom which have, via tax and social spending structures since the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher, shut the door on social mobility. But it is also a very true description of our American and British corporations, and those who run them, as well as the politicians who lead both nations. No member of the "Tea Party," or even the Republican Party as a whole, worries about local support or local contributions or even local campaign workers. If they vote the right way their campaign coffers will be filled by the Koch Brothers and NewsCorp and other super-rich groups, which will also make their television ads for them, and pay for their vacations and homes in Washington, and will guarantee them jobs if they happen to find themselves unelected. They indeed have, "few ties to their local communities," and their only "stake in society" is to profit from it.

What if we look at corporations, HSBC, one of the UK's biggest banks, just announced both greatly improved profits and the lay offs of over 30,000 employees. "...few ties to their local communities or, very probably, to each other." Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder, took over the Gateway Computer Corporation, fired all the workers, sold the name to a Taiwanese competitor, and pockets a hundred million or so for his efforts. "...with little or no sense of a stake in society." We need not look far to find a thousand more examples.

And all we had to do was to watch NewsCorp executive after NewsCorp executive throw their friends and associates under very large Routemaster buses, or see David Cameron's dismissive response to his own party's Mayor of London, to understand, "or, very probably, to each other in their feral, fragmented families."

All this, which our societies in their rush for wealth at all costs have allowed to happen to those born both rich and poor, simply sets the stage, however. Humans do not grow naturally to attack their own, this is taught.

It is taught to children, rich and poor by "role models," from parents up to priests, presidents, and prime ministers, who demonstrate that it is not only "all right" to abuse others, but personally profitable. It is all right, say many a wealthy parent, to cut off aid to the poor so our family can save a buck or a quid a week in taxes. It is all right, say too many poor parents, to take advantage of others because we are taken advantage of. It is all right, says the American Catholic Church, to ask our members to vote based on abortion and not health care for children. It is all right, say many American church ministers, for people to abuse Christ's words to get our support. It is all right, school leaders say, to forge and fake test results so we can get higher personal bonuses - and our Secretary of Education sees that as no big deal. It is all right, say British members of Parliament for us to lie and steal thousands of pounds as long as we apologize for it. It is all right, say too many rabbis, for the Israeli government to abuse Palestinians because Jews were once abused. It is all right, say many in homes, churches, schools, and newsrooms across the US and UK if innocents die in Iraq and Afghanistan because, "we were attacked, and we must be made safe." It is all right, say our "left wing" Presidents and Prime Ministers, if we do not stand up vigorously for what is right, because "politics is only about what is possible."

Where, oh where, might our children get the wrong idea?

NewsCorp: "We only do completely illegal things within the law."

After watching the absurdness of the US government during the "debt limit" debate, I suggested on Twitter that we make John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Couragerequired reading in our schools this year.

I suggest it because it is about time that our schools begin to teach a counter-narrative to the past 30 years. That we begin to help students learn that humans are social animals, and that the health of the human community is dependent on the health of all those who are in that community. That we begin to help students understand that no human survives alone, or pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, but that we are all interdependent, and that we all have benefitted, and continue to benefit, enormously from the efforts of all those who have come before, and who live beside us.

But more than that, we have to begin to help our children understand that morality is not something chanted on a Sunday morning, but rather something courageously lived. That just as someone in David Cameron's cabinet, or the Republican caucus in Washington, needs to have the guts to act in the best interests of humanity, someone in each of those groups of rioters in London needed to have the guts to say "no."

And we have to begin to raise the next generation to believe that courage has rewards beyond a lobbyists job till retirement, a bigger vacation home, or a new pair of trainers...

This is work we must begin.

- Ira Socol

09 August 2011

The First Day

I wrote this story years ago, as an undergrad in my fourth attempt at a university degree. It was even published in the university's literary magazine (which was called Amaranthus back then). I thought I'd pull it out to suggest how hard the start of school might be for some of your students.
via Churchill College, Cambridge

Au Sable Hall

Anthony is now officially panicked.  He stands rigidly, back against the wall, staring at two classroom doors across from him.  He glances at his watch, but, as is too often the case, the squiggles of numeric characters mean nothing to him.  He could be late, but he has no way of knowing.

The crucifix on the chain around his neck is jammed between his teeth, a guard, he imagines, against some kind of seizure he has never had.  Or no, perhaps what matters here is that it penetrates his lips like a mother’s nipple, warm and comforting and consoling, if he could comprehend that about his mother.

He raises the index cards in his right hand so that they fall into his field of vision.  His cue cards.  Written references to match with classroom numbers. A lesson from his special ed counselor in tenth grade.  His vision though, is no longer just reversing and scrambling images, it is becoming less precise by the second, and is no more valid than the plastic lens of a discount store brand of throw-away camera.  He should be able to match the symbols on his card to the numbers above at least one of the doors across from him or one of the doors on this floor anyway, but now, after running across the campus, after trying to find a building, after being lost in the serpentine hallways of this…  Is this even the right building?  He can not remember whether he saw or read a sign, nor whether he saw or read it correctly.  Just like he cannot make sense of any of those Arabic symbols before him that might allow him to enter his course.

Day one, he acknowledges.  Just one class been to and already behind.  Cannot read fast enough to ever catch up.  Cannot even find my way. Lost, stupid.  How did I ever graduate from high school anyway?  Go to college?  What an idiot.

Anthony sits down in the corridor.  Does not ask.  Does not cry.  Does not know how to find his way back to that other building to quit.

copyright Ira David Socol, 1998

01 August 2011

Hulu in the Classroom: Building Literacy

I've never understood our classroom commitment to "the book," but, I've really never understood our classroom commitment to "the chapter book."

What skills are learned from reading a book which are not learned from watching a film? I'm not saying books are "bad," just asking, "why are they 'better'?"

And why is longer 'better'?

Is it because we think reading is difficult and miserable? ...and so the more we do it, the 'better people' we become - as old-time Calvinists would have it? "Work became toil; thorns and thistles frustrate our efforts. Fallen man seeks to glorify himself rather than his Creator through work..."

what about storytelling and comprehension can't be learned by watching this?

is longer really always better?

I began thinking about this a couple of days ago when @corriekelly - a reading teacher in Virginia - asked about short stories that might help engage young, and perhaps reluctant, readers. Stories she could read to them, they could read to each other, they could read to themselves.

I gave her a quick list, from Rod Serling's Twilight Zonecollections, the short work of Jack Finney. I sent James Howe and this collection and this website.

Also 145th Streetand Black Juice. Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Storiesand The Bus People. There are lots of good choices, I'm hoping you'll add others in the comments here, but then...

But then I thought, why do we start with text on a page. I thought back to discovering books of those Twilight Zonestories after years of watching the show, and how much I loved "reading" them (or really, listening to them via audiobook, but I think that's the same).

And I thought that, as part of our effort to make kids want to read, want to write, we must first get them interested in stories, in wanting to know stories, and in how stories are told, and why.

And one great way to do that is to use short fiction in another medium - the short fiction of Hulu and other free sources of video - film and television.

Eerie, Indiana are brilliantly written kid-centered stories

where I learned to write -
WOR-TV9 back-in-the-day
There is really nothing about building reading comprehension, about building understandings of dialogue, pacing, fiction construction, theme, metaphor, plot, which you cannot bring to your kids as effectively through a half hour of video as you can through reading a novel. Nothing. Which means that, while your students might struggle so much with the decoding of alphabetic language (and more kids do struggle than don't) that the struggle to do that dominates all, with video all you have is the reason to read, the how to read, the art of reading.

It was fascinating one night, hanging on Twitter, to discover that Paul Oh of the National Writing Project credited the same source I do for learning how to write dialogue, watching the films on New York's Channel Nine's Million Dollar Movie. Watching what were already ancient movies way back when, we learned how dialogue sounded, when it was real, when it wasn't. Million Dollar Movie ran the same films over and over and over. It was like a course in film and writing. Is that better than learning it from Dickens? I don't know, but is it worse?

the best shows to start with might be ones that are self-contained half-hour episodes

This is not an advert for Hulu, many other video sources exist. You might expand to non-fiction by having your kids examine the always unintentionally funny stories of school long ago - our old educational films from AVGeeks (most of which are also on YouTube or Google Video).

it isn't just fiction...

You can also find these stories on many network sites, again on YouTube, or by borrowing DVDs from your library. Consider Everybody Hates Chris, Pete and Pete, or even old Disney and Warner cartoons... What's the story? How is it told? Why is it being told?

Nickelodeon's Pete and Pete remains brilliant...

I believe in reading. I believe in writing. But I also know that no one learns to read unless they really want to access what reading offers. No one learns to write unless they really want to share stories with others. We can't get kids there with boring readers, or chanting, or phonics for kids with no phonological awareness. But we can get them there by bringing stories into their lives, and helping them learn to work with those stories.

- Ira Socol