23 November 2011

The conversations we need to have about Occupy Davis

There have been two "grass roots" movements spring up in the United States since President Obama was elected. The "Tea Party" and the "Occupy Movement."

University of California at Davis students reoccupy their campus's Quad Monday
the way kids at a geek/ag school do, with high-level engineering
One, though I do not doubt either the passions or energies of many followers, has been revealed to not actually be "grass roots," but "astroturf roots" in our political parlance of the day, that is, the movement was either wholly created, or hijacked at birth, by the Koch Brothers and other extreme right wing corporate types - you know, the kind who argue that a corporation must be treated as a citizen in all ways except liability and tax rates.

"No taxation without
representation," here in a
protest document signed by
John Hancock. Sadly, only
half the quote can be
recalled by Republicans.
The other, the "Occupy" movement, is very clearly a bottom-up mass movement which owes its capabilities to the powerful affordances of those "new technologies" so many in education find unimportant.

Thus, one is a classic movement of the modern era, the Tea Party is a top down, wealth-financed movement which owes its strategies and techniques to the powerful political class - they even have their own cable television network in FoxNews. It is, of course, limited by national boundaries and has very traditional goals.

The other is of the contemporary world. Its television is LiveStream and UStream, its media is Twitter, Text-Messaging, and Blogs. Its strategies are ad hoc and constantly evolving. It has proven itself to be global almost overnight. And one more thing, which traditional politicians, leaders, even many educators fail to understand, it is non-specific about most goals because it is about democracy. It is a global pro-democracy effort, and naturally it terrifies the oligarchs, whether American, British, Russian, whatever.

Both groups have some connection to American roots. The Tea Party - and perhaps this works because of the memory issues of many Social Security and Medicare collecting adherents of the cause - bases its appeal in the first half of the four word slogan of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. It is stunningly amusing that this movement which now paralyzes most American government cannot recall all four words, although, to be fair, two of the four words have multiple syllables, so, ya know... but it is also horrifyingly sad that Americans know so little of even their own history.

The "Occupy Movement" comes, on the other hand, from something very deep in American history, and something universally appealing: true democracy, where the voices of all are heard and the needs of all are respected. There is much about the Occupy Movement, laughed at as it was when born from powerless unknowns two months ago as Occupy Wall Street, which links directly back to Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, equally opposed to power from London, Albany/Kingston (New York's seat of government at the time) or Portsmouth/Exeter (New Hampshire's seat of government at the time), and to those who formed the Free Republic of Franklin in 1784, and maybe to those who made Woodstock the safest large city in the United States in 1969.
"The [Free Republic of Franklin] legislature made treaties with the Indian tribes in the area (with few exceptions, the most notable being the Chickamauga), opened courts, incorporated and annexed five new counties, and fixed taxes and officers' salaries. Barter was the economic system de jure, with anything in common use among the people allowed in payment to settle debts, including federal or foreign money, corn, tobacco, apple brandy, and skins ([The Governor] was often paid in deer hides)."
This is a global, a universal, a human idea. Unlike the Tea Party's commitment to selfishness - "I don't want to pay for anything anyone else may receive." - the Occupy Movement  is based in basic humanity, we all deserve opportunity, we all deserve to be included in society, we all deserve to be heard. And this is a radical re-understanding of democracy, because, though the roots of this run deep in early America, it is not what we've taught in school the past 150 years, where the concept that "majority rule" = "democracy" has taken charge, along with the idea that "democracy" = "you get to vote occasionally."

When Norman Rockwell described "Freedom of Speech"
as one of the Four Freedoms we fought WWII for,
he used the Occupy Movement's "General Assembly"
as the model.
The "General Assemblies" which drive the Occupy Movement are nothing more than the "Town Meeting" which Americans once saw as democracy at its best, people gathered together to listen to each other and to respectfully make decisions. It is a different notion of democracy than in which Americans get to vote among highly limited choices. And it is a cross between the democracy early Americans understood and the European vision of democracy in which the tyranny of the majority is to be prevented at all costs, and in which the human rights to education, health care, and shelter are every bit as important as any right to vote.

The Occupy Movement is not a counterpart to the Tea Party notion of selfishness and our society doing less for each other, rather, it is call for a fundamental rethinking of what democracy is, and what priorities we, as a society should have. No wonder it scares Democrats in Washington almost as much as Republicans.

Which brings us to Davis, California...

On a couple of autumn days when we would expect university students to be focused on (a) football and (b) getting home for Thanksgiving. After all, when we last looked at an American university campus we were watching Penn State students riot because a football coach had been fired for covering up child sexual abuse for a decade, while allowing that to continue. So Davis took us by surprise, but it also revealed a series of key questions we must be asking in our schools... in every one of our schools.

One: What can we learn from the actions of UCD PD Lt. John Pike and his fellow officers? I have watched the videos very closely, and a few things stand out clearly, beyond the "humans should never do things like this to other humans, or even most animals." Pike is so disassociated it is bizarre. He has completely separated himself from humanity, even from his own humanness. As many have said, he looks like he is spraying a rose bush for aphids. He is, to put it simply, "doing his job."

How does this happen? I am not advocating for removing personal responsibility, I agree with the United States government position from Andersonville to Nuremberg to My Lai, your orders are secondary to your humanity, and yet... as in all of those cases, the question is rarely a clean one.

I encourage you to watch the video above with your students, and also watch The Andersonville Trialor Judgment at Nuremberg, or both, and to let your students face this question: Orders and rules? Or morality and humanity?

This is a question which defines us, and though - thankfully - rarely as dramatically as in the case of Lt. Pike, it is a question which controls the course of our lives.

Two: Where were the educators? When UCD education professor Cynthia Carter Ching wrote her open letter to Davis students and faculty she apologized to the students, "You know, it wasn’t malicious.  We thought it would be fine, better even.  We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things.  But it’s not fine.  It’s so completely not fine.  There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine. So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge."

The fact is, we've become so institutionalized in so many places, that we, in education, forget what our purpose is, and as Ching says, "It's not fine."

I suggested on Twitter yesterday, "Dear University Presidents, if you find students "occupying" their own campus, sit down with them and be an educator," but this goes far beyond those at the very top, as Ching says, we all need to widen our roles, our vision, and our functions because the full environment of our educational institutions is part of our "teaching." When Michigan State University is really bad about disability rights, it quite loudly undoes much of what I try to do in the classroom. When Linda Katehi orders riot-geared police to remove a few students sitting on a lawn, it undoes so much that UCD faculty are attempting to do. Hell, every time a bell rings in our high schools or middle schools and interrupts an important conversation, we are undoing all the try to teach about learning and dignity.

So, this is a time to listen to your students. To, yes, shut up and listen. Let them record their day with the video cameras on their phones, or give them flip cameras. Let them show you what "you" - their school - is teaching. And then, truly respond to that.

Three: What does democracy mean? I remember that my father, discussing the aftermath of the World War II in which he had been a central combatant, told me that, "We all fought for the Four Freedoms, but afterwards, the U.S. decided to only worry about two, and the Russians decided to only worry about two." Once again, the inability to remember four - must be a lesson here.

My father meant that while the U.S. focused on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion, the Soviet Union focused on Freedom from Want (jobs, food, housing, health care, education for all) and Freedom for Fear (a huge border area of nations controlled to make sure that the Germans did not come back). He wasn't making excuses for either, he was faulting both.

For my father, the reason he had fought his way through the nightmares at Metz and Bastogne and Dachau, and had crossed Germany to end up in Plzen, was to assure people's rights, from America to Prague, to all four. He felt badly cheated.

I've talked about experimenting with different forms of voting before, letting our students learn options and ask questions, but this needs to go beyond that. What are the purposes of our society? What should we do together? What things are all of our responsibility? What is government supposed to be? How are decisions made? What are the rights we should all have? What are the responsibilities we should all have?

You cannot limit this to the United States or whatever nation you are in, you need to allow students the range of options contemporary societies have chosen, from French right to health care and education to the Finnish right to broadband to the East German right to long family vacations at the beach.

Democracy deserves better than a short answer. The Occupy Movement understands that, and we, with our students, need to start asking the same questions.

Happy Thanksgiving to all in the United States, and welcome to Advent to all.
- Ira Socol

21 November 2011

What have we been teaching?

This post probably began to form when I got into an argument on Twitter with a guy who is an "associate principal" of a secondary school somewhere in California. He was defending the use of pepper spray against seated, peaceful protesters at the University of California at Davis last Friday.

What I said that got him upset, to assemble the thoughts into a single quote, was, "Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in a school."

I stand by that statement. I'd, of course, go further, and say, Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in any law enforcement capacity in any nation on earth."

These statements are, I believe, true. They are clear truths for anyone who was, as we used to say, "raised to be better than that." They are true for anyone who learned anything appropriate from their family, their religion, or the literature of the world. As I later said to that school administrator, "I still know right from wrong."

"We had to clear the Quad, they were breaking the law, they did not move."
It isn't just what took place on the Quad at Davis which troubles me so, like at Penn State two weeks ago, it is the reaction of too many of those who share my society. Not just loudmouth fools like blogger Jim Hoft who said, "The UC Davis pepper spray incident was standard police procedure," but on CBS News, "Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.  When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."   After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.  "What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said," and more sadly, people commenting on blogs, news sites, and Twitter often said this was a reasonable action, even teachers, school administrators, etc.

So, I am forced to ask this question, what have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?

"We had to clear the Square, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Beijing, China, 1989)
How has a society, a global society, which once so condemned the actions of Mississippi Sheriffs (1960-1965), Chicago Police Officers (1968), Ohio National Guardsmen (1970), South African Riot Police (1970-1995), Chinese police and troops (1989), and the security forces this very year from Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria, become so accepting of official violence against our own children?

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

"We had to clear the Corner, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Derry, Northern Ireland, 1972)
It is not just the United States. We've seen tolerance of horrid policing in the United Kingdom and far too many other supposedly "civilized" nations. We've seen it because we have allowed ourselves to see our organizations, our institutions, our governments, our nations, as more important than our humanity. So societies which back in 1943 would have (and did) laugh at the joke, "We have order, but at what price?", or "Mussolini made the trains run on time." now not only do not laugh, we do not even think about asking the price.

We have become ugly intolerant cultures obsessed with compliance, conformity, efficiency, and safety. And this has built over decades. I remember shock when New Yorkers accepted Rudy Giuliani's fencing off public access to City Hall in the 1990s, "people were walking in and it was bothering us," he said. Imagine, citizens walking in to, even complaining in, their own city hall. Well that was not just "unsafe," it was "inefficient." And once you do that, it is very easy to block all access to public streets so people cannot make noise near their mayor. And, from there, why not beat and gas people who are protesting in a public park?

As a CNN anchor said last Thursday, "these protesters are inconveniencing people." And that justifies just about anything.

"We had to clear the Street, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
In search of answers, I read and read... finding a fine piece by Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman, both history professors at UC Davis, which included this paragraph:
"The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush. The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both. Pike’s actions met with approval from the chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza, “who observed the chaotic events on the Quad, [and] said immediately afterward that she was ‘very proud’ of her officers.” Clearly in Chief Spicuzza’s mind there was nothing exceptional about the use of pepper spray against nonviolent protesters."
Yes, "bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both," and, I would add, humanity.

Then I found this on a blog post via my Twitter feed...

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

It is a "young" man, around 30 I'm guess from the whine on his sign, who doesn't blame Wall Street, just poor people, for his plight. And, certainly, this shows a lack of empathy and tolerance (and interest in ever being a good partner or parent if he believes this lifestyle is acceptable), but it demonstrates something else which is part the problem I see - and I saw this in many comments belittling the kids at Davis specifically for "wasting their time" and more generally about Occupy Wall Street for "doing nothing" and "having no clear goals" - an extreme amplification of the belief that unless "it is hard, it has no value."

The young man above is incredibly proud that his entire life is filled with work. He is incredibly proud that if he gets sick the hospital he goes to will seize everything he owns for payment. He is incredibly proud that if his mother got sick, he could not spend any time with her.

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

Frighteningly, we have taught all of this. We have taught it in our schools, we have taught it in our homes, we have taught it in our churches, we have taught it with our "literature" - all that we read, watch, listen to.

What are you doing in your school which encourages compliance and conformity? Or which breeds fear? Or which encourages the belief that "hard" is always better? I'm not necessarily speaking of your words, I'm speaking of every part of your school environment, from corridor rules to tardy slips, from seating charts to multiple choice tests, from schedules to the non-acceptance of Universal Design technologies. From your honor roll to your homework assignments. Look around, is it really so hard to believe that a high school administrator would have no problem with the actions of Lt. John Pike? Is it hard to believe that "Mr. 53%" thinks he is living well?

Then look around your home. What is your schedule? What are your priorities? What do/did your children see of your choices? Where is your house? Have you chosen to live in a mono-culture, you know, "good schools" and all.

In politics, we usually leave it to others, or we vote for people who swear they'll lower our taxes, or we'll accept horrific things because "the other guy is worse," or we don't even vote at all, not finding an hour in our year to be part of our society. As consumers we shop at Walmart or Asda because we save a buck, a quid, a euro, so what if shopping there destroys the businesses of our neighbors?

Even, for Americans, your church is probably chosen because it is convenient, safe, has good parking, doesn't challenge your politics, and is filled with people just like you.

Yes, we are teaching every minute of every day, and we have been teaching some terrible things. And maybe worse, we have stopped asking ourselves the questions that matter.

In an open letter to her students and colleagues, Cynthia Carter Ching, a professor of education at the University of California at Davis, says eloquently, "So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge." And she implores the faculty to, "join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run.  Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours.  It’s our university.   And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again.  Not to our studentsAnd not at our university."

"We had to clear the hallway, they were breaking the rules..."
But I'm going to add something, the University of California at Davis, like the Pennsylvania State University, are not isolated places. They are all of us. These crimes, or those on the streets of New York, or the streets of Oakland, or the streets of London, did not happen because of a few villains, they happened because we all stopped working hard enough to build a moral, fair society.

We have been teaching terrible things. And we have to stop.

- Ira Socol

19 November 2011

Democracy in America

I am old enough to have seen this before, a generation aroused to press for a more open and democratic society, met with thug police tactics, and eventually, National Guard bullets... and the nation went back into a long slumber.

So Saturday, as I struggled with what happened in New York on Thursday, and especially in Davis, California on Friday as US police cracked down viciously on the nascent pro-democracy #Occupy movement, I found myself with a series of thoughts...

First, having been a New York City Police Officer, I am embarrassed. I have always been proud of my police career. Yes, there are some significant scars on body and soul, but I, and those I worked with, did our best to be members of our communities, to build connections, to be the citizens we were. "The police are the public and the public are the police," Sir Robert Peel, founder of modern policing once said. And that's who we wanted to be, not an occupying army enforcing the dictates of tin horn dictators like Mike Bloomberg. So, having cops in New York be led into the Imperial Army form, depresses me. Worse, seeing a coward like UC Davis police lieutenant John Pike destroy the reputation of police officers, well... it's horrific. Was he badly trained and horrendously commanded? Obviously, but he has also let himself become less than human, and the cops I knew did not let that happen.

Second, these Cal Aggies at Davis, a wonderful land-grant-type university, have shown the world something about university students which needed to be said after the events of the past two weeks at Penn State. They were out there, fighting for democracy and an equitable nation, they were protesting in the finest traditions of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and, perhaps most brilliantly, on a football Saturday, they were working overtime at democracy, desperately trying to teach their university administration something important. Their "Silent Treatment" of their abusive Chancellor as she walked from her public excuse-making session was brilliant. The kids, as they say, are alright.

In my police parlance, we'd call this a "perpwalk"
Criminal UC Davis Chancellor Katehi
is met with the stone-cold silence
of students who know things about right and wrong she never will.

Third, I thought about life in a nation which has never had an actual revolution. The United States copied the government structure of its "mother country," pretty exactly. The US had an elite revolution which changed not even one colonial government - unique perhaps among revolutions. The United States had an elite led Civil War, disastrous indeed, but a civil war in which the two sides had the exact same government structures with the exact same governmental intentions. In the 1930s and 1940s, when most industrial nations were convulsed by chaos then destroyed by wars, the United States, led by the scion of one of its oldest families, converted seamlessly from peace to war to permanent cold war with nothing more threatening to the political structure than Huey Long (somehow assassinated) and Henry Wallace (who got fired before he might've gotten near the presidency). So the United States has arrived at the 21st Century having never really had to adapt, or grow up, or change, having never - as a society - faced and conquered an existential challenge. Unlike most democracies, it still elects its leaders as the 18th Century Brits did. It still has a legislature in which enormous power is invested in a legislative body which in no way responds to "one man-one vote." Even its presidential election system gives some voters up to three times the voting power of others. It still clings to a two party system modeled on British aristocracy. In fact, except for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the United States has the oldest intact government structure on the planet. Great for stability, but few of us are spending a lot of time relying on 18th Century structures for getting around. So, change does not come easy under the Stars and Stripes.*

And fourth, I wished these kids could find a few "grown ups" to look up to. "They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations," wrote a University of Chicago grad student in the Washington Post. "Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work" His history might be wrong (its UChicago after all, the university which gave us the global economic meltdown), I, for example, left high school and walked out into a disastrous economy and a nation shredded by an endless war, but his points are right on. There are no leaders at the top anymore.

Then, I thought about being a kid in 1968, sitting in front of a black and white television with my family, watching the horror of that year's Democratic National Convention unfold on the streets of Chicago. And I still recall the nightmare of hearing about Kent State, when an American governor sent young Ohio men onto that state university campus to shoot other young Ohio men.

But "we" - "last of the baby boomers" and "early GenXers" - had a few leaders of the older generation - leaders, men and women even in the US Congress, who would speak up.

Connecticut US Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounces "these Gestapo tactics on the streets
of Chicago" with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley sitting only feet away as he nominated
Senator George McGovern for President at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Bobby Kennedy, when out in America
he actually listened to real people.
The President of Yale University, Kingman Brewster, Jr., who in 1968 had staunchly defended the anti-war actions of the university's chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, said this in 1970, "I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States. In large part this atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers in many parts of the country. It is also one more inheritance from centuries of racial discrimination and oppression…" Which, quite sadly, is a very long way from the UCD Chancellor's Saturday night statement, that she wants to, "reevaluate whether university policy on encampments offered students sufficient "flexibility to express themselves."'

"Our children" struggling for democracy and an equitable society today do lack major adult supports: Faced with this video of a guy surely in the running for the title of worst cop in America assaulting peaceful university students at the University of California at Davis...
US President Barack Obama said not a thing from his stateroom on Air Force One, and California Governor Jerry Brown, fled the state on vacation. I'm still waiting for a helpful word from anyone in any of our governments.

And thus, where are our kids - unemployed, under-employed, crippled by student debt, lacking health insurance, often unable to establish credit, and keenly aware that other societies have learned things America has not - supposed to turn?

And now I'm going to tell all of you who'd rather focus on other things, to be careful. The United States has never had a revolution, true, but that does not mean it will never have one.

Because, once again, the power structure is making every possible mistake. From the "vanished" and silent Barack Obama (as Barbara Ehrenreich noted in the Guardian) to the bizarre chief of the UCD campus police, those in charge are doing their very worst to escalate everything.

Now, I would argue that while cops are often smart - I've been one, I've known many - police departments are often remarkably stupid. Police departments are often remarkably stupid because they are led by the most compliant members of the breed - those who seek favor from the powerful to climb the chain of command - who are in turn led by the type of egocentric, small vision person who can succeed in America's politics these days. You understand, if a meteor crashed through the sky and fell flaming at Mitt Romney's feet, he'd need to turn to his advisors and donors to ask what he'd just seen.

This combination is toxic. It directs people away from conversation and toward confrontation. The "policing" tactics of the British Army in 1916 Dublin set off the Anglo-Irish War. The "policing" tactics of that same British Army in 1972 Derry launched a three decade civil war in Northern Ireland. The "policing" tactics of the French Army in 1950s Algeria almost destroyed France. Very recently, police crackdowns led to government overthrows around the Mediterranean during our ongoing "Arab Spring." Just this year the tactics of the London Metropolitan Police created nationwide chaos during the summer, after creating smaller zones of complete chaos during the G20 and student protests. Not to mention...
"In the matter of demonstrations, the (New York City) Police Department has, in fact, had a long and dramatic history of assuring the outcome it seemingly would most like to avoid. During the student uprisings at Columbia in 1968, aimed at the university’s affiliation with a research group linked to the Defense Department and at the construction of a university gym in Morningside Park, police brutality resulted in a powerful escalation of the movement.
    '“In the beginning, it did not have broad support on campus,” Alex S. Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist specializing in police response to protest, told me. “But when the cops started beating people up, things really changed.
    "On April 30 that year, a police raid injured more than 100 students, students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the remainder of the semester. Footage of the events documents radicalization in progress. “I was a nonviolent student,” one young man witnessing the aggression says. “I couldn’t care what happened. I was completely neutral. I am not neutral anymore. I’m going to occupy a building tomorrow.”'
    - The New York Times, September 30, 2011
"The police are not here to create disorder," old Mayor Daley said, "they're here to preserve disorder." But in these cases, it is worse, the police departments and the political and economic leadership which control them, are here, all too often these days, to ignite the worst. It is the opposite of the "always be calm, if your presence is the cause of the problem, you probably want to back away," that I was taught in the Police Academy.

Because, no matter which side we're on, as we can see in the clip below from the film Bloody Sunday,  pushing the young over an emotional cliff has its problems.

James Nesbitt as MP Ivan Cooper in the film Bloody Sunday.
Outside of the United States, police crackdowns on democracy
movements typically backfire, leading to revolution.

I firmly believe that America needs - for once - to make radical changes. And I am proud of the Occupy Movement which, to me, is citizenship at its very best. These aren't Tea Partiers whining about government in their spare time while collecting Social Security or writing off their mortgage interest, these are people making real sacrifices to try to get Americans to begin to listen to each other.

Like the marchers who tramped down the hill in Derry on that Sunday morning almost 40 years ago, they wanted democracy and opportunity, and they were pushing for it peacefully. It was the police tactics that started a war which still claims casualties today.

So, if anything "goes wrong" with this movement, don't come calling with your Mike Bloomberg whine about health and safety, the fault will lie with those in power, those who chose not to lead.

- Ira Socol
It's a tough war: Gun against spears and arrows,
Ethiopia 1936, or America 1600-1900
Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, "the origin of the distinctive egalitarian, democratic, aggressive, and innovative features of the American character has been the American frontier experience," is wrong. The defining thing of American culture is a history of a lack of real challenges. America is the spoiled kid who was born to a fortune stolen by their parents - the kid rich enough to have every opportunity and rich enough to be bought out of any trouble - the kid who has never had to seriously think about who they are or what to do, much less re-think any of that.

Oh, I know. This is at serious odds with everyone from John Wayne to Mel Gibson. But its true. Americans conquered a continent first with guns against bows and arrows (when we talk about Mussolini in Ethiopia we admit this is a mismatch), and then with the tools of the Industrial Revolution. This isn't exactly chasing the Germans back from Stalingrad or building the Great Wall by hand.

This is NOT to suggest that the march of white folks across North America wasn't individually extremely hard, extremely difficult. People, families, communities really suffered. But it was culturally easy. It never strained the society toward any breaking point, it never absorbed any resources beyond those readily available, it never forced society to re-define itself. Yes, at one point in World War II gasoline, meat, even clothing was rationed, people were even asked to recycle, but...

18 November 2011

Suggesting new ways to see school, education, disability, and learning design Part 2

Barbara Lindsey of the University of Connecticut asked me join her, her students, and colleagues Wednesday for a conversation about Universal Design for Learning and re-imagining education.

You can actually watch the whole Elluminate Session here.

Before the session, those participating sent me ten questions. They were ten great questions, and as I began answering them I began to see an "FAQ" developing... So I wanted to share this widely. This is part two - with my suggested starting points in the search for answers.
Part one, the first five questions, is here.

Rethinking Everything. Michael Thornton Photo.
Q6: "How can we concretely make special needs education more visible at the institution level? Could these policies be spread to all students as each student is different and has his/ her own difficulties? Would that make sense? and how?"

The primary thing is to break “the medical model of disability” and to stop letting the institution see “disability” in pathological terms: http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/05/may-day-retard-theory.html
and begin to understand what, exactly, our human differences really are:
Next, however you can, make your environment open to all, because this is seen, it is highly obvious:
But understand, I am not at all sure many people want all students to succeed:

The Iridescent  Classroom: Learning is transparent, knowledge is constantly shared,
the art of being a child is continually embraced

Q7: "What are some key elements that allow us to implement UDL into our lesson plans?"

I don't really believe in "lesson plans" and I advise teachers not to create them. I'd like you to think more in terms of starting an activity with a "learning goal" or a "learning target." That is, "what will your students be able to do, or understand, or how will they be changed, if your activity/lesson succeeds."

If that is your starting point, then you'll have a real goal which students can focus on, and you won't be trying to specify paths in advance for any of your students. This is essential because specifying paths not only limits creativity, prevents critical thinking, and builds dependence, but it really limits Special Needs students by stopping them from exploring their capabilities.
http://mthornton78.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/cave-painting/ http://mthornton78.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/welcome-to-the-future/

Suppose you are teaching a maths lesson.  Consider, ratios. Different students can choose entirely different routes and completely different tools - based on their needs, interests, preferences. You could use blocks, or food, or a calculator, or a computer, or draw on the floor - you might approach it conceptually or mechanically, the trick - Montessori style - is to have this wide range of tools and supports available. What I call your "Tool Crib."

Similarly, my 9th year English teacher offered us print copies of books, audio books, and movies made from the books. (long before computers) We could write, or type, or dictate to a friend, or record our voice. If we really didn't like the book, he'd help us find something else to read which would allow us to be part of the conversations. This was a class full of "failures," the school referred to it as "Dumb English." Most of us had never read a book before or written more than half a page. Yet with this very low tech UDL we produced hundreds of pages of poetry and short stories and arguments, and read through most of the great dystopian literature of the 20th Century.

Alan from Paul Shapiro on Vimeo.

My high school English teacher, reshaping education to allow all to succeed.

Q8: "It is extremely important not to make feel student with disabilities different but what is a practical example of it? If you have two different examples of cases with different disabilities even better!"

Maybe we begin with what NOT to do.  We don’t want to “disable” students with our choices:
and then move toward what to do, we want to reimagine our classrooms so that there are always choices which enable students:
“For some kids alphabetic decoding will be a quick and efficient method of grabbing that information. For some kids, writing with a pen will be a great, fast way to get ideas down into recorded form. For some kids, writing numbers and/or remembering "the times table" will be a short route to manipulating numbers.
  “And for others, those routes will not work, or they will not work well enough to really give them access.
  “For all those kids, we need to find other routes to get them content, to get them involved, to get them excited, to get them communicating.
   “Which is all easy now. We have the technology, from Click-Speak to WYNN, from WordTalk to Windows7 Speech Recognition, from audiobooks to mp3 conversion, to switch to access systems that work. We can use calculators (free ones) and Word's Equation Editor.  We can get kids in, connect them right now.”

Q9: "Do you think usage of media in a classroom is beneficial towards UDL or could the over-usage of it inhibit the main purpose of UDL?"

It’s all media. Books are media, they’re technology. Pens are media, they’re technology. I think offering numerous ways in to any subject lies at the heart of choice.
What makes flexible contemporary media “better” is its adaptability to differing student needshttp://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/04/culture-and-comprehension.html
The questions regarding technology are complex, but we rarely ask the right things...

Q10: "Why do we use the term "universal design" when we introduce a concept that avoids creating a universally accurate design for all students? Isn't it better when we emphasize diversity?"

First, I need to ask, what is “a universally accurate design”? Can such a thing exist? Even in rocket science, the US and Russia always embraced radically different design ideas.

So, if there is no learning design which can be "universally accurate," we choose to embrace our humanity and acknowledge that we are all different. Diversity isn't something which needs emphasizing, it is simply a fact of working with people instead of products.

It is important to know that the idea of "same for all" teaching and assessment is a relatively recent concept, reaching only back to the start of the Second Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of the American and "Second" British Empires. Until the late 19th century most students continued to go to schools with all ages, individualised lessons and evaluations, they came to school when finished with family chores in the morning, and left school when they were done with their work.

The "all the same" idea, treating students "as if they were any other manufactured product," as Ellwood Cubberley - the chief advocate of this - said, was designed for two purposes (a) to train single function workers for factories and offices, and (b) to fail 80% of students - there are eight grades before high school, each grade was supposed to chase 10% of students out, leaving 20% to go to high school. In fact, as recently as 1960, evidence shows, few more than 25% of American students finished high school.http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/09/designed-to-fail-education-in-america.html http://education.change.org/blog/view/counting_the_origins_of_failure

Those are the purposes behind the design of our schools. If those are no longer our purposes, the design must change.

- Ira Socol

17 November 2011

Occupy Wall Street is the Jacob Marley at Wall Street's Christmas

OK class, before we get to the Christmas Holiday it is time to read a literary classic. We're going to pick one absolutely relevant to the world's situation today, Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, one of the world's most famous ghost stories.

Imagine if the rich had to see pain and poverty? Mike Bloomberg's friends,
like Ebeneezer Scrooge, can't handle that.
Today, I am watching as Mayor Bloomberg and his police commissioner Ray "Missile Boy" Kelly launch those they command in attacks on the pro-democracy demonstrators in lower Manhattan. This comes after a week of co-ordinated assaults by American governments on demonstrators seeking a fairer, more equitable, and more democratic societies across the country. Like the Assad government in Syria, the Obama Administration has little tolerance of this kind of upset, and these raids and assaults clearly have the support of the US Department of "Homeland Security."

Why the attacks? Well, CNN's mid-day anchor made it very clear Thursday. "People don't want to be inconvenienced," he said of the financial industry personnel who work around Wall Street. Right, "health?" "safety?" "cost?" No, those are excuses, the reason is, as Dickens made clear so long ago, that the rich simply do not want to look.

Dickens saw it all in 1843. He saw it right where #OccupyLondon sits threatened today, on the narrow streets of "The City" surrounding St. Paul's Cathedral. That's where Scrooge and Marley's offices sat. That's where early capitalists destroyed the fabric of British society in pursuit of personal wealth. And that's where the first Scrooges called on city authorities and the police to ensure that they did not see the problems they were causing.

the conflict between capitalism and caring has lived around St. Paul's forever

In New York City this has also long been a familiar pattern. In the late 19th Century NYPD boss Thomas F. Byrnes was famous for his "dead line" along Fulton Street. The poor were prohibited from crossing that line because they might be thieves, or might otherwise trouble those of wealth and power. If you are interested in that, Jack Finney's fabulous book Time and Againwill offer you a remarkable view of that time. So, Ray Kelly, who I knew when he first became a captain in the NYPD,1 is just following in a role long established.

That role, which - I need to say in defense of rank-and-file NYPD officers - is not a favorite of any good cops, is to serve as a private army in defense of the comfort of the wealthy and powerful. Because I worked in Brooklyn and The Bronx, I had little connection to that role, but it has always been around. And this, of course,is hardly limited to New York and London. We've seen police in cities across America used - very clearly - for these purposes this week.

Dickens fully understood these power relationships, and this issue is embedded throughout this short and remarkable book. And, it is a story your students, of any age, can access. They can read it (in many accessible forms), of course, or they can watch it in many forms. My favorites being George C. Scott's version, Mr. Magoo's version (yes! "Razzleberry Dressing"), and Alistair Sim's version.

Magoo's version isn't just great music, it is a fine telling

Now, I am not suggesting that you feed your students my socialist line of thought, but I think it is fully reasonable, "at this festive time of the year," to ask students if they see relevance in this story to the news of the world today?

And it is reasonable to ask why the society we embrace in our stories, is not the society we embrace in our economics or politics? And it is reasonable to ask how Charles Dickens might report on Occupy Wall Street or Occupy London?

I think it is long past time for our schools to stop being
socially reproductive, to start preparing students who might decide to, and have the capability to, change the world for the better. In order to do that, we have to stop being afraid to ask our students the tough questions. And Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, all the Occupy Movements, are asking tough questions, just as Dickens was in that Christmas of 1843.

So, let us bring Marley's Ghost to our Christmas season 2011. I truly think he'd have a great deal to say.

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to
you?...Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain!"

And, for your principal, just tell him, "my class is reading Dickens." Chances are, he or she will leave you alone.

- Ira Socol

1. When I first met Ray Kelly he was my C.O., brilliant, incredibly egotistical, a tad paranoid, but limited enough by his position to work with others. I am disappointed to see power corrupt.

16 November 2011

Suggesting new ways to see school, education, disability, and learning design

Barbara Lindsey of the University of Connecticut asked me join her, her students, and colleagues Wednesday for a conversation about Universal Design for Learning and re-imagining education.

You can actually watch the whole Elluminate Session here.

Before the session, those participating sent me ten questions. They were ten great questions, and as I began answering them I began to see an "FAQ" developing... So I wanted to share this widely. This is part one - the first five questions with my suggested starting points in the search for answers. Part Two is here.

“I have a question about assessment. I think the idea of universal design is a great idea. But, if we start implementing different learning tools individually designed for each student, how do you end up with assessment?"

Consider what you are assessing... It has nothing to do with “disability” for us to understand that all students come into any classroom in different places, with different skills, and will be heading different places via different paths.
http://education.change.org/blog/view/evaluate_that_-_schools_for_children http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/04/testing-cannot-be-anything-but.html

Does anyone really need an "exam" to assess any of the learning in this video? Could you
create a test that would meaningfully measure any of it?

Now, to me, there are two different kinds of courses, there are courses where demonstrated competence in a single skill is the point, to quote a structural engineering prof I once had (in a pass/fail grading system), “no one leaves my class knowing 95% of what it takes to make a building stand up.”
http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/06/great-schools-3-profession-without.html So, in that course, 95% was “failing” except, there were no tests, and every student’s project, demonstrating their knowledge, was different. You didn’t have to be “perfect” - but your building design had to work.

The other kind of course, say, what I teach, involves moving students from where they are to a place they need and want to go. So there, I have to ask the students where they are at the start. I ask lots of questions, and ask them to respond to ideas, and then we have a point on the map for the students to begin their journey. My measures in a course like that are based in progress and effort and accomplishing what they set out to accomplish - or how they adapt if they have to change paths.

"Teachers need to interact with students but these students need to be willing to do so. What could be done in compulsory school (or even University) if students are not interested? How according to UDL we can try to motivate them?"

This may sound radical, but if a student doesn’t know why they’re in a class, they’re going to space out and not interact, and most students have no idea why they are in a class. Even though I can do architectural engineering and pretty good statistics, I still don’t know why I ever took any of the Algebra classes I took, whether I failed or got an A
.So, step one, explain to students what this class will do for them, Not for their school career, but for them. Why are they - to put it in micro-economic terms - wasting their “opportunity costs” on sitting with you? If you can’t explain that, well, they should check out.Now, some students - oddly the ones we traditionally consider “good” students - have few internal motivations, and for them - because they rely on external motivation, we can bribe or threaten, which is what grades are. But in my experience that’s about a third or less of students, the rest don’t care about grades - and the ones who do will tend to be “pleasers” - students who only want to give “the teacher” whatever their teacher wants. Which isn’t learning - its compliance.

To work as Universal Design, courses need to be choice-based project-based learning, or passion-based learning. Every student simply cannot be doing the same thing at the same time (most of the time). The course has to be designed - from the start - to be flexible

Q3: "Considering your experience with alternative education, are there non-traditional subjects or activities capable of raising interests among students of any level and that should be introduced to them? How could new technologies help with that?"

As in the question above, Passion-Based Learning is what raises interest, we need to connect what we are teaching to what students want and know they need to know. I don’t care if this is first grade, why would any kid work really hard to figure out a text they’re not interested in? Or in graduate school, if I can’t twist the class into something which matters to me, I’m not interested. Only when you’ve hooked kids through their interests and passions can you begin to expand their world by leveraging those interests

Quoting Alan Shapiro and Neil Postman regarding what they described as their “judo theory of education,”
we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."

When it comes to new technologies, I think we need to build a new conception - I call my “ideas” “Toolbelt Theory”
and it is based in using learning technologies as we humans use any tools
http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/03/writing-without-blocks.html http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/05/freedom-stick-and-massive-resistance.html
and as an overview
also Karen Janowski
http://teachingeverystudent.blogspot.com/ has built a great Wikispace filled with tools and ideas http://teachingeverystudent.blogspot.com/2008/08/free-tech-toolkit-for-udl-wiki-edition.htm

"According to your own experience, how do students face these new-non-scripted assignments? Did you need any previous "training"? Sometimes I feel that most students just want, "do A, B, and C in the X way", and they feel terrified otherwise."

The longer students have been in school the more they have been trained in compliance, and the more creativity scares them. Its fairly easy to get first graders to try anything
http://adunsiger.com/   http://avivadunsiger.wikispaces.com/ much harder with university first years who, being typically the most compliant “pleasers” in their secondary schools, haven’t thought on their own in many years. But there are tricks. A middle school music teacher told me this week that he told students they couldn’t play a certain type of song in his band room unless they had written it themselves. Half the class began composing music. At universities I often ask students to base a part of their project on themselves, or create it for a family member, this makes originality a personal necessity.

"My question is contextualized in a school/high-school where teachers are sometimes just asked to become a nanny for 25-30 students. How do we deal with this individually? How can a teacher manage an appropriate environment for each individuality?"

I think teachers choose to become babysitters. I’ve never understood that, but they do. In order to break that, if this has become “the school norm,” you have to be really aggressive, and you have to be blunt with kids. Get them out of their seats, get rid of their chairs if you can, and get them out of the classroom.

See this classic film clip, using cartoons to get non-interacting kids talking

Blackboard Jungle, 1955

or read Alan Shapiro’s very blunt message to his “school without walls” students
or read Tomaz Lasic’s blog http://tomazlasic.net/ he teaches in a school for extremely troubled students in Perth, Western Australia - including http://tomazlasic.net/2011/08/i-did-nothing/  http://tomazlasic.net/2011/08/a-kindred-soul-in-our-school/  http://tomazlasic.net/2011/09/can-scootering-save-schools/
or Deven K. Black from The Bronx, NY: http://educationontheplate.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/we-need-to-teach-so-that-kids-will-care/

- Ira Socol