28 December 2011

for whom the medium is the message...

Telling stories without words. George Méliès, 1902
"Enough is enough. No more computers, cameras or consoles. No more watches, neckties or perfumes. Heck, no dead tree, no annoying lights, no overstuffed duck, either. I’m casting an ink-and-paper pall over the holiday, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa: This year we’re going to give each other a book.

"A real, hold-in-your-hands paper book. Nothing more, nothing less. Already, the book edict has gone out on paperless email to the two key recipients of holiday love: my children. Noses have been turned up, derisive shrugs have been given: What a downer the old man is. A book? Come on."
The above was the holiday missive from International Herald-Tribune "senior editor" Kyle Jarrard, who went on to describe how all the folks say about digital devices and distraction are nonsense, "I’ve been known to drive the car while reading. Reading is the answer to everything, I’m fond of saying. More long stares have been given in my direction for years regarding my inability to not read," and finally to describe himself as absolutely and completely clueless about literature in general...
"A book allows you to time-travel, or just plain travel to real and imagined places, a not un-neat trick considering the price of airline tickets or space tourism. It allows you to meet evil, wonderful, mysterious, odd, crazy, fun, and not-fun people who often end up being more “real” in your life than real people. A simple tome of paper links you back, for instance, to the age of François I, Renaissance poet and book collector supremo, when the printing press and its wild spread across Europe was as exciting to us all as are e-books today."
Mr. Jarrard is, of course, the kind of easy target I enjoy beginning an argument with. His argument is so patently ridiculous that it creates its own parody, but, as I hope you know, if he was alone in his self-deception, and probably if he wasn't a powerful personage in the world of news distribution, I wouldn't bother.

But he is not alone, and his is a powerful voice, and so there is a problem.
Faith in a medium. A scroll made of sheepskin, lettered by hand.
No vowels, no punctuation.
Now, I can "show" Mr. Jarrard how he might travel to space or even back to 1954 New York City without touching paper, without even opening his eyes. Or how he might travel to space or back to the 14th Century without decoding a single letter, but is this really necessary in this second decade of the 21st Century? Really? Must we point out to an educated, responsible, journalist that one can read and understand Genesis even if it is printed on paper made from cotton or wood-pulp, and printed mechanically? Must we point out to someone like this that blind people managed to understand books even before Braille was developed? Or - perhaps more significantly - must we explain to a senior staffer in The New York Times organization that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were great literature long before anyone had ever written either of those "books" down.

visiting space without the smell of paper and ink

Mr. Jarrard, like too many in education, has a faith-based belief in a medium. Actually, his - their - belief is much narrower than that. It is a faith-based belief in an industrial process, in paper-making machines and rotary presses, for it is a belief in "print," not even in "text." To this group Homer and Socrates were illiterate morons, incapable of experiencing literature, the Blind are a sad, pathetic group forever banished from the corridors of knowledge, and anyone who accesses a newspaper on-line is exchanging depth of understanding for convenience.

And that is very sad. Or worse than sad. It is a kind of evil, an insistence that one's preferred medium, or in this case, textural and olfactory experience, is superior to any other. It is the worst kind of cultural imperialism.

Y. The Last Man. Book One.
My house is full of Christmas books this week. They range from an epistolary novelI gave to my "spousal equivalent" (a Gary Stager term), to a collection of Shel Silverstein storiesdone for Playboy Magazine in the 1960s, to the Momofuku Milk BarCookbook, to Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck, to the first three Vertigo-Paperback installments of Y: The Last Man, a graphic novel.

All tell stories, all take the "reader" places they perhaps have never been, just as the stories included on our #ccGlobal St. Nicholas' Workshop Christmas Site do. There is no actual hierarchy of information delivery here, no matter how anyone, Mr. Jarrard or otherwise, wishes there were. Stories are told well or badly, effectively or ineffectively, entertainingly or boringly, imaginatively or not, in ways accessible to the many or the few, no matter the medium. Poor Shakespeare does not rank below Tom Clancy because he worked in the Elizabethan equivalent of television rather than print. Socrates is not a lesser light than Malcolm Gladwell because he spoke his words and never had them printed and bound. Charles Dickens, that "blogger" of the penny-paper era is not less important than Jack Kerouac even though Kerouac chose to write, like those ancient rabbis, on a scroll.

Brian Selznick, author but child of film-makers, has worked out a literary
mix of comic book, cartoon, and text for himself.
It is essential that we understand this now. It is essential that we stand up to those, from Mr. Jarrard to those who push "Common Core" standards, who seek to rank media in a hierarchy according to their personal preferences and in order to preserve their own status, wealth, and power ("I am important and intelligent because I am highly literate.").

Our students can, and will, tell stories in many, many ways. They will read stories in many, many ways. Sometimes they will read certain ways because that is how their brains work - which is neither, I need to tell you, neither better nor worse than the way yours works - and sometimes they will read certain ways because that is their preference, and thus their human right. And sometimes they will read certain ways because that is the way the author offers access to the story, and sometimes they will need help to convert media because the author's preferences and their needs do not match up - I understand - I have witnessed professors and teachers reading Shakespeare, and though this seems odd to me - the performances are routinely available via YouTube - I do not criticize them. Perhaps they can not hear well, or perhaps they cannot easily sit through a whole performance.

So give your students stories this year. And give them the freedom to tell stories. The medium may matter, but the medium is only the message if the message can effectively be received through the medium chosen. Otherwise, an unreceived story, is, well... not much at all.

- Ira Socol

11 December 2011

Stop asking questions if you know the answer

I was working on a lesson with sixth graders and middle school teachers in doing math without any tools, just in your head. Not memorization, but logic.

So I said, "I've never really gotten the "9 x" table, so, if I asked you what 9x12 was, how would you figure it out?"

See, this is a question I cannot possibly answer for them. There is no "correct" answer possible.

"I'd say," one student quickly responded, "that 9x9 is 81 and 9x3 is 27," he paused, you could see him looking at the addition in his head to check himself, "and that adds up to 108."

"That's not the way to do it," a teacher sitting at his table told the student, forcing me to intervene instantly. "That's great," I said, "perfect. But I can never remember that 9x9 thing like you can, so, does anyone have another way?"

This connects, just keep reading...
Newt Gingrich says that every nation shown here (in color) is "invented"
and thus has limited rights. Do your students agree?
 The teacher had her answer, and she was thinking of traditional school questions, which are really not questions at all, whether asked on paper, or verbally, or via computers, or via clickers, but traps. 'Gotcha' devices to train kids to respond exactly the way they've been taught. When we ask real questions, kids stop repeating and start thinking, and learning.

For me one of the critical ideas in education comes on page 138 of the Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner 1969 masterpiece, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, "Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answer to," the authors recommend, "This...would not only force teachers to perceive learning from a learner's perspective, it would help them to learn to ask questions which produce knowledge."

The teacher who asks, "what is 9x12?" teaches nothing. The question I asked, among other things, introduces the concept of algebra. For the "9x9" kid, x = (9x9)+(3x9), finding the unknown via knowns, and he is thinking, not parroting.

Why critical? You should never ask any question for which you will not allow unexpected answers. If you don't allow unexpected answers, you are declaring that you "know everything," and, as I told some UConn grad students last month, all saying, "I know everything" does is tell students that you are a liar, a bad way to begin a learning relationship.

Now, if you are an American, I understand that your nation prizes simplistic, expected answers and efficiency over learning and democracy, so this is difficult, but it makes it doubly important if our kids are to build something better. Do you, do your students, know that most governments in the United States begin every election by declaring that they have absolutely no intention of counting every vote? They do this - refuse to count write-in votes for "unregistered" candidates - because they can't handle anything unexpected, because it might take too long, whatever. Of course, the unexpected answer is invention (we don't need an improved gas lamp, we need something else), and it is democratic, and it forges new cognitive paths, but yes, it is slower (In Ireland it can take many days to count votes in an election, which would really mess CNN up). OK, maybe a vote for Mickey Mouse is odd, but say 10% of the electorate chose to do that, might we not learn something?

What works in math, in elections, works everywhere. The reason I brought the Andersonville Trial to sixth graders last week was that this is a question impossible to answer definitively. Did the United States government really insist that it was an obligation to take up arms against it if that government behaved immorally? And if so, what does that mean? What did it mean at Nuremberg? What does it mean at Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street?

It was why I asked students, "Where does 'space' begin?" because, well, we've been arguing over that for years.

Newt Gingrich gave us a fabulous history question this week... does the fact that your nation was once part of an empire mean that you have no rights? So, because the United States was part of the British Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Because England was part of the Roman Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Because Greece (like Palestine) was part of the Ottoman Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Obviously the nation of Israel was part of the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights?

Is there a "correct" answer to any of this? Gingrich thinks so, do your students? How might they research this, how might they argue their opinion with real information?

British Empire in 1700, is the United States an "invented nation"
and what exactly does that mean?
Even Christmas offers amazing inquiry opportunities... Was Scrooge redeemed or just frightened into behaving well? Does the Bible require taxation for income redistribution? Why do so many northern hemisphere cultures have holy days around the Winter Solstice? and why is the gift of food so common? Who created our Christmas stories and rituals, and why?

So the next time you start to ask what 2+2=, or when the Civil War began, or the formula for some physics thing... Stop! and ask a question you do not know the answer to, a question you can't possibly know the answer to. It will liberate your students and it will liberate you.

- Ira Socol

09 December 2011

Among Schoolchildren - December 2011

Learning how to work on any device, anywhere
Monticello High School Library
Charlottesville, Virginia
I have spent another week in Albemarle County, Virginia, working with the people, of all ages, who make up the Albemarle County Public Schools. There are fabulous educators there, people who work every day to get better at what they do. People who seem to spend 24/7 reaching out across the globe to bring their students better learning opportunities, better connections, more far reaching experiences. But now I want to talk about the kids.

There are myths in America that our kids are, well, I don't know, "lazy," "uneducated," that they are "failing," that, to use US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's words - just this week - that we are in "a race to the bottom." And believe me, I know our schools are a long way from perfect. The educators in Albemarle County know that their schools are a long way from perfect, and we are putting in some incredibly long days to try and get closer. That is what I joined them in for the past ten, very, very long days, but...

The last five days I worked with students, as I helped teachers re-imagine lessons. We're working on something called "The Iridescent Classroom" in Albemarle County, a form of Universal Design for Learning joined to a deep commitment to getting kids ready for the choices of their century, the choices of their generation, so that they have the skills, the passions, and the knowledge to do a better job than previous generations. This requires, for students who will, for the most part, begin their adulthood in the third decade of the Twenty-First Century, the ability to collaborate globally, to share transparently, to value all cultures and skills, to search rapidly and effectively, to choose tools wisely, and to do a lot more than read and comprehend, but to be constantly able to adapt knowledge to changing environments and situations. It also includes the ability to work anywhere (like an airport, as I am doing now), from many devices, with every kind of person, through every kind of interface. And it means thinking deeply, in transformative ways.

For, to quote one sixth grader this week, "People keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and we have to stop."

He said that in a lesson about the Andersonville Trial. They are starting to study the Civil War and they are beginning Middle School, and I thought a lesson bringing these things together might make sense. Now I don't know what you were asked to do at 12, but I wasn't asked to wrestle with one of the thorniest questions of national morality... when is a person obligated to disobey orders, to rebel against his government.

We started by watching the scene above, representing a crucial moment in United States history, in which the United States Government declares that even a military officer has an obligation to disobey orders, to take up arms against his government. A position the U.S. reiterated (with the death penalty) at Nuremberg, and reiterated again when My Lai occurred.We started them with these websites:

And we asked these 12-year-olds, not rich kids, not kids from great neighborhoods, not kids whose parents have university degrees, but kids from some incredibly poor places, kids who came from an elementary school where teachers join local churches in sending food home every weekend when kids will be away from free school lunches, the kinds of kids Arne Duncan thinks can only handle KIPP education so they learn to stare at their teachers, we asked them what they thought... and it was remarkable.

They understood all the implications, the difficulties, the issues - ranging from a crowd of kids bullying someone to nations invading nations. They looked stuff up on their laptops, they raised serious questions. They even challenged the adults in the room.

This is what education means to me. It may or may not matter much if these kids are slow readers, we can get them information many ways. It may or may not matter if they spell well, when I was asked, "how do you spell that?" I simply said, "I'm really not sure, try spelling it in Google and see what happens." They did, it worked, they found what they needed. But what these kids already have are deep inquiry skills, deep comprehension skills, and effective technology skills. And you know what? That other stuff, well, its not easy, but they live in a century when all that is solvable.

In a math lesson a day later I watched a seventh grader, a kid who really struggled to divide 64 by 2 in his head, or 32 by 2, or, for that matter, 16 by 2, work diligently to explain to his disbelieving teacher how he knew - and he knew instantly - how many games are in the NCAA basketball tournament. He knew, because math is about rules and logic, and his logic was perfect and his understanding of the rules I had described was perfect, and because math is not arithmetic, no matter how much our poorly educated national and state leaders think it is. He and his classmates also understood, almost instantly, that the question - no calculators or paper or Google allowed - "If the temperature in Detroit, Michigan is 50 degrees what is the temperature likely to be in Windsor, Ontario? was about (a) culture, and then (b) understanding comparable scales, and then (c) order of operations.

Yes, I showed them this map. Yes they were surprised that Michigan is north of Canada (as you may be). But they got it, and could do it in their head, and understood that if you divide by 2 first then subtract 32, you're in trouble, they even understood that when they said "9" and a teacher said, "well actually 9.9," that it didn't matter, the point of mental math is to know that if someone anywhere outside the U.S. says, "it's 10 degrees," that the person isn't very cold.

With other sixth graders we rocked through a Yuri Gargarin lesson, heading deep into what "space" means and ideas of distance. I met one of the fastest, most effective, users of a search engine I have ever met... a kid usually labeled, "a problem."

I watched fourth graders listen to a story while using computers to look up everything they didn't understand.We were reading Titanicatand we were flooding them with ideas. We used Google Maps to fly from Esmont, Virginia to Belfast. Belfast? They all found Belfast. What country is Belfast in? What does "UK" mean? OK, does, "University of Kentucky" make sense? What is the United Kingdom? Is it in England or is England in the UK? Where in Belfast was the ship built? Do they still build ships there?

The story moves to Southampton, and on the big white board we showed them the Quay at Southampton. They found that. Where was London? "Who else sailed from London that we talk about in Virginia?" OK, they got me there, they knew the name of the ship and the captain who brought the colonists to Jamestown in 1607, something I didn't.

It was a wildly chaotic environment... and yet... it was not. The kids were all working, really working, learning search, learning maps. If some found their houses or ended up looking at London or missed half the story, its no big deal. They'll read the book later. They were learning skills and doing things many of the people who write the laws about education probably cannot do. Mostly, they were reveling in inquiry.

I ended the week in a high school, talking to seniors who wanted to ask questions for a citizenship/service capstone project. We sat in a library filled with students working in all sorts of ways with all sorts of tools, and they asked what I thought about requiring all Americans to have health insurance and offering in state tuition to "illegal" - undocumented - immigrants who live in the state.

I challenged them to stop thinking politically, or even constitutionally (which is, by nature, open to varied interpretations), and to think about what kind of society they wanted to live in. Why do we have laws? Why do we require anyone to do anything? Why can they tell you not to drive 100 miles an hour or tell you to wear a seat belt? The kid working on the tuition issue, who is putting together a public forum with elected officials and experts, and who invited "Rick Perry, because, why not?" asked what I thought. I suggested first that he think back to 1607 and Jamestown, Virginia. Weren't those illegal immigrants? Didn't they come without permission, not knowing the language, not willing to learn the language or rules of the society? Weren't they sloppy people so uninterested in health that they began a pandemic? Maybe, I suggested, the otherwise conservative Texas Governor Perry believes in this because Texas too was created by illegal immigrants from the United States?

They rolled with all this, wonderfully neither accepting my opinion nor rejecting it. They were considering, wondering what to ask next, who to ask next. They were as smart, as educated, as engaged as any 18-year-olds I have ever met.

So I brought up the idea of "equal vs. equitable" to them.I asked if Finland's income-based system of fines sounded good to them. This is a tough concept for Americans to consider, and they immediately began debating it. I should have brought up the pilot of The Andy Griffith Show, which, back in 1960, was all about that...
"Danny finally agrees with his wife and decides to the $5 fine. He takes out a huge wad of cash, and he gives him more money and more money. Danny doesn't care if Andy is robbing him, after all he's a big time star. Andy sees this as a time to get more money, and tells Danny he has to pay $100 or spend 10 days in jail. meanwhile Any fines another motorist $2 for the same offense.

"Danny is furious! He goes in his jail cell talks about tyranny in this world, and how he languishes in a cold, damp, dirty cell. Andy is offended by this and says "Now hold on a durn second!" Andy says his Aunt Lucy cleans the cell and does a fine job! The host then cross-examines Andy, and Andy says he had to raise the price to make an impression on these city folk, who can get $5 or $10 very easily. Danny realizes he was wrong and apologizes to Andy in the end after hearing his explanation"
but... I now know these kids, and I suspect one of them will find that, and a whole lot more.

So I just want to tell you, that the kids are all right, and if we trust them, and challenge them, and stop sweating the meaningless stuff every day, they'll be great. They'll be a lot better than we ever were.

- Ira Socol

06 December 2011

Learning to see your students every day

In the film Smoke(1995) Auggie Wren, a Brooklyn cigar store owner, explains his "life's project" to grieving widower, and frozen writer, Paul Benjamin...
Auggie: "You'll never get it if you don't slow down my friend."
Paul: "What do you mean?"
Auggie: "I mean you're going too fast, you're hardly even looking at the pictures."
Paul: "They're all the same."
Auggie: "They're all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your summer light and your autumn light, you got your weekdays and your weekends, you got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you've got your people in T shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same, or the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle."
Paul: "Slow down, huh?"
Auggie: "That's what I recommend. You know how it is. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, time creeps on its petty pace."'

You walk into your school, into your classroom, and what do you see? Do you see the same place, the same students, the same children you saw yesterday?
Do you see the kids who is "always the screw up"? The one who "always understands"? The one who "never figures it out"? The one who is "always happy"? The one who will "cause a problem if you take your eyes off him" (or "her")? The one who is "good at math"? The "slow reader"?

Any student, and anyone who can remember being a student - K-12, primary, secondary - understands the assumptions the adults make about them. How students become "fixed" in description, and how hard it is - how impossible it often is - to change that reputation.
Last week @MissShuganah sent me a note about how one of her daughters suddenly did some thing for the first time. Something she'd been unable to do for years... and then, one day, one random day, something changed, and what was impossible became possible.

Working with Middle Schoolers the last two days, I watched kids amaze me. And sometimes they changed across the brief period I worked with them. Because kids, really all humans who are willing to learn, are like that. Constantly changing.

They're the same kids, but each one is different from day to day and sometimes hour to hour or minute to minute. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your tired days and your days filled with energy. You've got your sad days and your happy days. You've got your days when things click, and days when nothing does. Sometimes students make leaps, sometimes they move very slowly. The brain chemicals change, and connections link, or become elusive. The slow, the sad become quick and happy, the happy and fast have bad days and moments of intense struggle. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. And no student is exactly the same ever again as they are in that moment.
But teachers and school administrators, and yes, even parents, miss much of this. They see students as they see furniture and the walls of their classrooms - as permanent things. When you listen, they describe students with terms like "always," "every time," "never gets it," "always behaves perfectly."

When we do that, we give up on being educators, we give up on being the transformative adults we must be around children, and we surely miss out on the chance to intervene in so many moments.

So how do we see anew every day? First, we must want to do that, because it isn't easy throwing off years or decades of filters on our eyes. Second, we must give kids choices every day, because without children having choice, all you will see are patterns, all you will see is a repetitive scene.

If your classroom has real choices, children will do many things, and you will see them many ways. In the video below, Mike Thornton's third grade class is doing a familiar exercise - write five sentences about what you did over Thanksgiving break, put a picture with one - but, because they have choice in tool, in work environment, in many things, we not only see work and learning happening, we see it happening with individuals, individuals who have never been exactly like this before, and who will never be exactly like this again.
Once you have allowed your students to be the individual humans they are, rather than actors doing a performance for your benefit, you have the chance to see them in all their human differentiation, and they have the chance to stop playing their roles - the smart kid, the dumb kid, the disabled kid, the teacher pleaser, the kid with one skill set or one interest, the behavior problem, the silent kid - and start being the evolving human learners they are away from adult preconceptions.

Slow down tomorrow. Walk toward your school as if you haven't seen it before. Walk through your hallways as if you are fully "ADHD," sucking in every sight and sound. Look at you classroom as if you are a kindergarten student observing a place for the first time. And watch your students the way you look at a new group of friends, figuring out how you might approach each of them in a way which personally connects.

Then try to do that every day. You'll find you are in a new place every time our planet spins.

- Ira Socol