14 August 2012

One Ethos, Open Culture, Many Paths, Many Tools

"Ethos is a Greek word meaning "character" that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology."

A Twitter conversation led me to this place. What does a place of learning need to welcome all, to offer all the kinds of paths to the future which our children need?

I settled on a set of four thoughts: One Ethos, Open Culture, Many Paths, Many Tools.

If that is the belief system, I think that the rest - the pedagogies, the spaces, the schedules, the ways we treat each other, and the kind of deep, inspired learning humans deserve - will follow.

One Ethos

High School Math Teacher (1996): "That damn kid, he's rather go to Saturday School than come to my class."
High School Librarian (replying): "Well, you'll have to think about that!"

Why would a student come to your school, if she/he were not forced to? This is a question you must ask every day, as every teacher ought to ask, Why would a student come to my class...?

What does your school, as a whole and in every space inside, offer children? Safety from unsafe families or communities? Food which otherwise be in short supply? A chance to hang out with their friends? Do they come for just one teacher, or only because of music or sport? Is that good enough for you?

These kids of questions are rarely asked in American education, though we fill millions of square feet of wall space with "mission statements" and "learning goals." We just don't ask, "What is this school for?" In fact, we avoid that question so deeply that last January the US President got up in front of the nation and actually suggested that the solution to high school dropouts was to make dropping out illegal. Talk about giving up...

So why? What do you - as an entire school - offer every student that would make them come if compulsory attendance laws and the parental need for babysitting disappeared? Would they come because they understand that your school is a safe and happy place in which they are offered a world to learn in a somewhat less-risky-than-real-life situation? Would they come because they are excited about what they invest in when they walk through your doors? Would they come because they find the push to discovery, learning, and growth to be inspirational instead of coercive? Would they come because you offer a great collection of paths to an independent future? Would they come because you offer a laboratory for democracy and life - that you are - all together - creating a future better than the present?

I cannot tell you why... but you must find this answer, and that answer is the ethos your school must embrace - universally.

Open Culture

I'm not against the"Common Core" because I'm a crazed postmodernist. There are other things I'm against because of that. And I'm not against the "Common Core" because I doubt the need for us to share some commonalities of knowledge.

I'm against the "Common Core" because it is neither "common" in my experience nor is it generally at the "core" of what people need. Instead it is part of a long history of education as Pygmalion - to use George Bernard Shaw's lovely mythological metaphor.

"None of this is new. "Established in 1914, the Ford English School taught the company’s immigrant workers more than just how to speak English. It taught them about American culture and history and instilled the importance of such virtues as thriftiness, cleanliness, good manners, and timeliness." There has always been a tension in the United States between the expressed ideal of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society - you know, that brilliant combination of ethnicities in any World War II film - and the reality on the political ground, which is that "our leadership" would find things "much easier" if we were all "white, protestant, straight, northern Europeans,"' I wrote more than a year ago, while pointing out that even that belief is a lie, a cover for something else, that is, if school is about being a "white, protestant, straight, northern European," it guarantees that those now in power will watch their children begin school with an insurmountable lead on everyone else, thus assuring social reproduction.

People think the "Common Core" is inclusive because teachers can choose books, but in this, they miss the point. The "Common Core" is "white protestantism" because of the values it suggests while pushing all children to meet Middle Class Age "Appropriate" Learning Targets - or in their carefully crafted words - "provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live."

What if it doesn't really make a f---ing bit of difference to my kid's, or my community's, life, if my 7-year-old doesn't... "by the end of year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, in the grades 2–3 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range"?

Pygmalion, why are you superior? 
Could my 7-year-old spend that year investigating physics with balls and paper airplanes and by building bridges instead? Or learn to speak the languages which might surround her in our community? Or learn measurement concepts by learning to cook? Or might he just want to listen to, and tell, stories? Or, as was the case of my kid at that age, was he far more interested in adult reading and music than in the "grades 2-3 text complexity band"?

In Finland, much of Scandinavia, kids don't even begin school until they're 7-years-old, and since the "Common Core" claims to be built on "best practices," and Finland tops those international comparisons, maybe the alphabet is the best cultural target. In Ireland I watched 7-years-olds from all over participating in classrooms with kids up to age 12, with all that subject matter, but mostly... participating by listening and talking.

A culturally diverse school is not about flags in the hallway or "welcome" written in a bunch of languages, its about being a learning space where kids get to negotiate how their culture meets the others around them. Where, say to begin, holidays are shared on equal terms, without pressure to either "opt in" or "opt out." Where time is respectful of cultural differences, whether it is Ramadan and Yom Kippur or "on-timeness" or "appropriate speed." Where communication is accepted and developed because it is authentic, not because it meets E.D. Hirsch's cultural expectations, and as it is developed, we all learn to communicate more widely, and we learn far more about communication choices.

A culturally diverse - a culturally "open" - school also refuses to grade by compliance to Anglo norms. It is not a question of why read For Whom the Bell Tollsinstead of The English Patient, but rather, the violence you will do to The English Patientif you try to analyze it and write essays about it "the common core way"?

Many Paths

Where is the student now? Where does the student want and need to go? What are the possible ways to get from point A to the much more nebulous point B?

There is really never one way to learn anything, to read anything, to write anything, to calculate anything. There are always choices, and there must be choices - unless we plan to never improve as a species. "Why is fastest better?" I once heard James Gee ask. "Why is the shorter proof better in Geometry? Why is it better to finish an assignment faster?"

Or why is a five paragraph essay better than a one paragraph argument? Or a ten page rant? If this were true Tom Clancy would be a better writer than James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or Colm Toibin, and (let me just assert this truth), he is not.

If all the rules were true, this wouldn't be great literature
Or, why should addition come before calculus? Or biology before physics? Or why is music composition less important than reading about Abraham Lincoln? Or why can't soccer practice count as math class? Is it about "rules," or is it because educators are not imaginative enough to help students pursue the world their own way?

It is way past time to stop imposing single solutions on our learners, Neil Postman and Charley Weingartnerrecognized the choices created by (then) new media in 1968 required teaching practice to radically change. You are now over 40 years late.

And that lateness has been horribly destructive. I am sorry to have to tell you this, but the majority of students leaving American schools at the end of 12th Grade (or before), will describe most of their education to that point as an irrelevant waste of time. That's because it is not "their education" at all, but something imposed on them by people who appear to have nothing in common with them.

Many Tools

"Most of us lack all kinds of powers. I can't lift my car by the bumper in order to change a tire. That's what jacks are for. I can't add long columns of figures in my head. That's what calculators are for. Tools give us the ability to make up for what we lack in native powers." John Perry in the Wall Street Journal.

I believe in Toolbelt Theory, which begins with the concept that we humans are, perhaps above all, toolmakers and tool users, and that thus, in the education of our children, the most important thing we can help them learn is how to be very good at both. "After all," I tell people, "without tools humans are a very long way from the top of the food chain."

It is human to make, choose, use tools
Schools need to stop limiting tool use and equating tool use with "cheating." The tools of today are incredibly powerful, incredibly diverse, and create never-before-seen opportunities for so many students failed, consistently, by our one-size-fits-all education system, that we must embrace these tools, and help students learn to get the most out of the technologies which sit - or will sit - in their pockets. We can't do that by limiting, filtering, and blocking.

Right now, right from the first day of school, every student can read from paper, from a computer screen, from a tablet screen, from a mobile phone screen, or listen to their computer, tablet, or phone read to them, or some combination of those things. Right now, right from the first day of school, every student can write with a pen, a pencil, a stylus, their finger, a big keyboard, a little keyboard, a touch screen, or just by speaking. Right now, right from the first day of school, every student can communicate through text or speech, audio or video, music or art, with much of the world. Right now, right from the first day of school, every student can pull in information from anywhere on the globe, at any time - and truly - that is a skill you must help them learn to do well. And we can't do that unless the tools are present every day, all the time, so that we can all learn what works for each of us.

One Ethos, Open Culture, Many Paths, Many Tools. Because if education matters, it matters enough to do the right things for our kids.

- Ira Socol

10 August 2012

Short Thoughts for the New Year: Zero Tolerance for Zero

If we must have grades - and I would argue that grades, letters or numbers suggesting some percentage of accomplishment, range in actual value to the student from meaningless to worthless - then, at least we ought to have fair grades.

So here's a school year start plan for administrators. Let's have zero tolerance for any teacher ever giving any student a "zero" on a "one hundred point scale." In fact, if you use digital gradebooks, and in the US and Canada you probably do, go in right now and change the parameters to make this impossible.

The reason we cannot tolerate zeros? It is completely absurd to give any student a grade below zero on any assignment, test, or task just so the teacher can f--- up the student's semester and year. And zero is always far below "zero."

In traditional grading there is a 36 point scale, with "64" equalling "failed to meet a minimum" and "100" equalling "did I everything I told you to do." This equates to the classic US university "Four Point Scale" in which 0.0 is "failed" and 4.0 is "totally compliant." And no one at a university ever gets a grade of -6.4, because, well, that's ridiculous, as is any teacher giving any student a -64%.

A scale is a scale, and failure is failure, if you believe in quantifying failure rather than teaching with it. There is nothing - in any rational grading system - below failure.

Zeros are one of those brutal coercion tools some teachers use, and brutality has no place in our schools.

Hypocrisy Alert:

"Five Kent County high schools are requiring students who park on campus to be signed up for a sheriff's department program that notifies parents when teens are pulled over.

"The STOPPED program -- Sheriffs Telling Our Parents and Promoting Educated Drivers -- provides signed-up families with a stop sign sticker with a unique ID number. That sticker is placed on the windshield in the upper corner of the passenger's side.

"When a vehicle with a STOPPED sticker is pulled over, deputies report the reason for the stop to the Michigan Sheriffs' Association using the ID number, which then sends an email to parents regardless of whether or not the teen is ticketed."

or, as we might say, "OMG!"

Now, Kent County, Michigan has its problems with law and respect. After getting blasted by the state and the federal government for violating both minority group and disability rights in school suspensions, the Grand Rapids Public Schools (the county's largest school district), promoted the chief "suspender" to superintendent and vowed to continue to lead the state in kicking out the few students who haven't yet fled under Michigan's Schools of Choice law. (not a problem limited to one district in the county)

Voters in the Republican Primary just nominated a candidate accused of election fraud, and, of course, one school district there is famous for hounding a fabulous teacher to death because he got married. So little surprises me, but...

Whenever I see schools leaping onto the massive hypocrisy bandwagon, the "let's distrust all students" bandwagon, and even the, "let's usurp parental rights" bandwagon, I know the moral compass is way off.

For schools with no alternative parking options (which includes some of these), the right to, say, work after school is no dependent on a student giving away constitutional rights - that presumption of innocence. It is also dependent on giving away any right to privacy. If I attended one of these high schools, this rule would push me right out the door, permanently - and honestly, I think I'm a pretty damned good driver.

Why not just implant a GPS device under the kids' skin? Well, they'd probably like to do that. Most of these communities are incredibly unsure of their abilities as parents - so unsure of themselves and their morality that they automatically assume any child out of their sight will be doing "the wrong thing," so, again, no surprise, but...

I have another idea. I think that any adult involved in the school system - faculty, administration, staff, school board, should be subject to the same rule, except, in this case, every police stop will be reported to the students in their schools and to the newspapers and television stations. After all, mistrust is a two-way street.

- Ira Socol

08 August 2012

of handball and hurling, archery and inclusion

Team Handball, basketball without the height issues, equipment cost? near zero
Like many in the world, I've been watching lots of sport(s) this month. And as I do most Olympic years, I wonder why American schools spend so much money on so few sports for so few students.

Archery... why not? It might allow boys and girls to compete together,
it would surely allow kids who might use wheelchairs to play team sports with other kids.
This isn't an issue for schools elsewhere in the world who can rely on intact communities to support youth (and adult) sport(s), but in the United States it is a huge issue. In most communities I visit certain sport-activities receive massive funding from the schools, while most students miss out entirely on the benefits of this kind of physical activity joined to social learning.

As I used to say, often, when I was fighting for soccer programs for boys and girls at North Muskegon High School in Michigan - if varsity athletics have educational value they need to be available to every student who wishes to participate, if varsity athletics don't have that kind of educational value schools surely should stop including them in their programs and budgets.

Hurling, another relatively low-cost sport with high participation potential
(much cheaper in equipment costs than lacrosse, and without the negative role modelling)
My thought has always been this... the purpose of varsity athletics is participation, pursuit of the personal best, and teamwork. It is not - it cannot be - about American public schools needing to entertain an overweight population snacking on hot dogs after tailgating. It infuriated me that when I suggested that Penn State play football without fans, many said this was "unfair to the players." As someone who played sports few, if any, watched, I wondered, how sick is our academic athletics environment if the only purpose is externally-provided gratification?

Croquet... why not?
With this in mind I am always on the lookout for athletic opportunities which could involve a bunch of kids, especially kids usually left out, while using shared - not new - facilities (even if that cuts down some practice time for some other sports, which is a side benefit for everyone). If you have a pool, do you offer boys and girls water polo? If you have a field do you offer boys and girls lacrosse, hurling, field hockey, rugby (you might do both Rugby Union and Rugby Sevens)? If you have a gym do you offer boys and girls team handball, and team volleyball? If you have some space outside do you offer boys and girls archery, and croquet?

Women's Rugby Sevens. The equipment will not break your budget.
None of this will cost much, beyond a certain diversion of resources (including assistant coaching positions from some sports being shifted to head coaching positions for these new activities), except for lacrosse (and perhaps archery), equipment is cheap, and lack of many opponents is not a problem - a multi-high school or middle school district or division could form its own league, or just a couple of nearby towns could do this together. Remember, the National Hockey League played for 25 years with just six teams. It is still remembered as the glory days.

And most importantly, opportunities to redefine the school culture and climate will be created. There will be less of the elitism which inevitably surrounds the few "important" activities.

So dive into the list of Olympic sports, past and present, and see what opportunities your school can add.

- Ira Socol

02 August 2012

School Restart: Change on Day One

One of the statements which drives me insane is the teacher who tells me that they must, "set the strict rules from the first day, then they can ease off later." I always "suggest" that when they do that, they not only lose all the respect of their students, the literally create a room full of enemies, and if they try to "ease off" later it will go as well as... say the last days of the East German or Romanian Ceauşescu regimes.
"We cracked down, then we allowed a little more freedom"
the end of the Romanian dictatorship, 1989
If you want to begin the school year educationally, creating an ecosystem designed around student learning, you surely don't need to begin as a "tough guy," you instead have to throw out all of your "classroom management" strategies and probably almost everything else your school usually does the day kids come back from summer holidays...

Here are ten things to change at the start:

1. Do NOT welcome kids to a "new school" or a "new grade" - that's your vanity showing through, and it insists that children adapt their learning to you, instead of the educational ecosystem flexing to meet the child. Instead, welcome them to a "continuation of their learning" and of "their life." As I will say over and over here, school is about the children, it is not about the adults - it is about meeting students where they are, not creating hoops for trained monkeys to jump through.

"Step in, sit there" - Alcatraz, early 1960s
2. Do NOT assign seats, or even require sitting - imagine, you walk into a party and the first thing you hear is, "sit down over there and shut up." I, for one, am probably walking back out of the door and not coming back. If you start minute one of day one with an exercise in compliance, your school year is already "over" in many ways, and you've already lost half of your students in significant ways.

So say instead, "welcome, come on in, make yourself comfortable." If this space is to be your shared home for the next nine months, would you want to begin any other way?

3. Avoid the "ice breaker" events until you know your students well, and then they aren't needed. "Ice Breaker" games you have designed are - I'll assume unintentionally - designed to humiliate. Whatever they involve, writing, walking, running, reading, speaking may be incredibly difficult for some kids in the room, creating first day failure, first day humiliation, and, inevitably, justified anger.

Whatever age, whatever place, allow students to find their own places of comfort on day one, only then can you actually observe what the children in your room need.

4. Do NOT let your classroom be set up according to what you like - it is NOT your space, but "their's." I hear all the time from teachers, "I like this color," "I want my desk here," "I want to use this space this way," "I don't want kids writing on the floor, it's dirty," "I cannot handle too much noise," "If I don't have desks this way, I can't see." Lots and lots of "I" statements in a profession which is - quite definably - supposed to be about the children.

This moves from the (perhaps) minor, an odd love for motivational posters for example, to the ridiculous (and perhaps dangerous) - I recently saw an elementary classroom where the teacher had completely blocked the only classroom window with a "presidential-sized" desk of her own, and had filled the windowsill with her stuff so no child could possibly get to natural light. I often see middle school classrooms where teachers have covered every window, both to corridors and to the outside. I see school entryways painted in colors chosen because "the principal likes it."

It is NOT your space. It is the students' space and an essential part of education is learning to negotiate the development of shared space - especially in a society of one or two-child families, kids with their own rooms, and homes which separate instead of bringing families together.

"don't think, just repeat"
Chaplin in
Modern Times
5. Stop encouraging automaticity, cultivate mindfulness instead. It is time to embrace Ellen Langer and work to replace the "robot brain" so many schools encourage with the engaged mindfulness of students consciously making decisions. "Mindfulness, [Langer] tells the medical school audience, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations."

Langer describes what is needed everywhere in education - “the psychology of possibility,” because, “...knowing what is and what can be are not the same things,” and for students, obviously, the "can be" is all important. If it wasn't, they'd be done.

So much that we do in schools to "create habits" works toward what Langer calls "mindlessness." If a child gets off the same bus each day, walks through the same school door, down the same corridor, to the same classroom, and takes the same seat, they have begun their school day by shutting their brain down. The same is true of everything from "homework every night," to memorizing facts - is our goal really the absence of thinking?

Automaticity - mindlessness - is an industrial efficiency concept. Don't think, just repeat. Does that belong in your school?

6. Hypocrisy doesn't work - it tells children that you are a liar and a tyrant. So many children go to schools where every adult eats and drinks while using their computers, but the kids are not allowed to do the same. Many teachers have beverages while kids must wait until "snack time." Many communities tolerate behaviors in adults - and in adult leaders - which would get kids suspended or worse.

This is especially true for the young adolescents who occupy American middle schools, kids who live in the most absurd world where the only sure way they can be treated as an adult is to murder someone, but they are constantly told to "behave like an adult." Either trust kids as the humans they are, or choose to treat them like animals - but understand - they will act as you expect them to act.

7. Do NOT overdecorate with stuff you've bought - let the kids make it their own. Don't fill your classroom with purchased stuff. A great way to begin the year is to make our children into "makers." Let them paint, draw, write, build, sculpt - their passions, their lives, their dreams - and decorate right from the start with what your kids have created.

Really? Really?!
8. Human dignity matters above all - do NOT take it away. A few things must be unacceptable across your school - no one should have the right to tell someone else when they can or cannot use the toilet, no one should have the right to tell someone else when they can or cannot move to make themselves more comfortable, no one should have the right to imprison anyone in a space without something like "cause."

Now, none of this suggests that we don't learn to negotiate all of this within our own community - "how do I get up and head toward the bathroom?" "how do I move from my chair to standing in the back without bothering people?" "what are my responsibilities if I need to leave the classroom?" - but prohibitions based on whim - or some belief in "church-like" behavior - are simply not tolerable.

9. Don't tell, ask instead. I hate the notion that years in school are nothing more than preparation for some pre-cooked set of expectations for the next year. That's absurd, it tells students that their is no actual goal and that none of us understand why any kid would come to school.

Instead, we must meet students where they are. It is not the job of fifth grade teachers to prep future middle school students, it is the job of sixth grade teachers to meet their new students where they are, and then to help them move forward.

So this year, ask. Open a Google Doc and share the link. Put paper on the floor or wall. Create a TodaysMeet room, and ask your students to tell you what they did last year, and where they want to go this year.

10. Don't do what I've done here - nobody wants to look at negative lists. I recently wandered some school corridors with principals during this summer "quiet time" and in one case we tore down every "No" and behavioral "control" sign in the building, because "no" is a restriction, and a limited one at that - far better to empower possibility than to restrict the few things you can think of.

So frame things in the positive, embrace common sense, and remember, people make rules and put up signs when they have failed - when people in a community do not understand the need to do the right thing.

- Ira Socol