14 May 2008

Seven Simple Solutions - but first - a story

It's nice out, and I'm tired of being inside and being angry. The philosophy of education can make my head hurt. And so can the low expectations of supposed liberals with limited agendas for change. So let me tell a short story first, and then repeat a few simple ways to begin changing possibilities.

in a city in Michigan

They come up to me, afterwards, and begin to ask all the questions they will not ask in front of others - not in front of their friends, surely not in front of their teachers. "I want to be..." they begin, or, "I want to go..." or, "I want to do..." and then, "How can I?" or, "Is there a way?" or, "Is there anything that can help me?"

These children have been in school in America - that most powerful nation on earth - that wealthiest of societies - that preacher of equality of opportunity - they have been in school in America for over ten or eleven or even twelve years, and they have received nothing but a list of their limitations. Every day they are measured by the ways that they cannot be exactly like their teachers or those who rule the nation. They cannot hear the same way. they cannot see the same way. They cannot walk the same way, or read the same way, or understand the same way. They might simply not be able to sit still the same way, or they may have been born into a culture that does not see the universe exactly in the same terms that Protestant White people do. And so, in ten, or eleven, or even twelve years they have received nothing but a list of their limitations.

"I want to be a pilot," a boy named Saddam says. "I have been getting flight time with the father of a friend, I am getting very good, I have landed the plane myself already, but I cannot read the Ground School books." I tell him we can get him software that can read these technical books to him. I give him the name of the software. I give him copies of my card and tell him to have both his school teacher and the Ground School to get in touch with me. And I work hard not to say the other things - that this software has been easily available for a dozen years, longer than he has been in school, but those in charge of his education have been too lazy and careless to get it for him. And I do not say that sadly, this third generation American from the heartland of American industrial democracy will have a hard time getting a pilot's job no matter what because probably half of Americans are too stupid to separate this boy's name and religion from their prejudices.

"I have this phone," another boys asks, through a Sign Language interpretor. He holds up a smartphone, the basic lifetool for the deaf in the 21st Century. "Can I get the school to let me use it in school and to unblock their computers so teachers can text message stuff to me?" And I suggest how he and his parents might argue for this. I send him links to the law, my computer to his phone. We talk by text for twenty minutes. I do not say that American institutions of secondary education - like the prisons they most closely resemble - are far more concerned with control and security than anyone's learning - especially his.

"The electric door on the cafeteria broke last year and they say they're still trying to fix it, and I can't get to the bathroom without announcing it and asking friends for help." Again, I bring up the law, and I quickly look up a local advocacy group and recommend it. But I don't say that I am quite sure that if the football stadium's scoreboard broke, it would be fixed immediately, and so would the superintendent of school's laptop, and it is
simply that this young women counts for less than others in her community.

"They told me that I couldn't become a paramedic because they wouldn't let me have a reader on the certification test." And all I can say is that, unless things change where he lives, that he may have to cross state lines to a "higher rights" state, or cross the border, which really is not far, and go to a more progressive nation. "Don't let being born here," I tell him, "stop you."

But I know that being born here can stop kids. It can stop them cold. It can stop them dead. America since the e
lection of Ronald Reagan has fallen completely out of the top twenty major nations in social mobility. If you are born poor you will be poor. If you are born with a disability you will be uneducated and you will be poor. If your parents have not been to college you will not finish college. If you are born to the wrong zip code there is a 95% chance that you will never succeed, if you even manage to live to age eighteen.

And while the United States has become a place of inherited wealth and privilege it has ratcheted up the myths of opportunity, thus blaming the poor, the disabled, and those whom prejudice traps for the results of cruel government policy that robs from the poor to enrich those who already have so much.

But I cannot say any of that right here. The people who have invited me are lovely. They are all on the right side. Thi
s is not the place to begin a revolution. Those who make the rules that have crushed these children - they are not here. They are not listening. They are too busy handing their money to politicians who will guarantee the future of their tax breaks, too busy buying huge televisions and expensive cars, too busy making sure that neither their kitchen nor their bathrooms look anything but up-to-date. With all that to take care of, they have nothing to share with kids in need.

story copyright 2007-2008 by Ira Socol

Seven Simple Solutions (we have to start somewhere)

Not to make the whole day depressing. Let me repeat a few simple solutions to the most common struggles I see among all kids in schools. Free solutions, and - yes, just so you can start a fight at your local school by quoting me - if your school does not have all these installed and/or linked on every computer - they are guilty of educational malpractice. They are guilty of deciding that access is not important. They are guilty of intentionally leaving children behind.

No school official should ever be allowed to complain about the cost of accommodations until all the free stuff is installed everywhere in the school. If they start to complain, just tell them to shut up and start downloading.


The Firefox Add-On from Charles L. Chen that makes text on-line accessible to almost every LD student and supports sight-word development. The brilliant simplicity of the three button toolbar, which can fit write into the Firefox bookmark bar or be presented larger separately, allows it to work for students with a very wide range of skills. When combined with Google Docs this system can even allow students to hear their own writing read back to them.


A wonderful new tool offering free text-to-speech within Microsoft Word. Stunningly simple to use. Again, not just a reading support, but a writing support as well. (Thanks to the CALL Centre)


The spellcheck system that most of us need, ghotit.com actually helps to fix the types of spelling and word errors most students - especially dyslexics and English Language Learners - make. It indicates misspelled words and misused words and links corrections to definitions. All you need is a link in your bookmark bar to give your students a real chance at spelling and correct word use.


Full Measure's PowerTalk is a brilliant solution for the visually impaired and the dyslexic. It reads the PowerPoint slides to you.

AutoCorrect in Microsoft Word

Someone at the Szentannai Samuel Mezogazdasagi Szakkozepiskola Gimnazium Es Kollegium in Hungary was reading my post about mobiles in classrooms the other day. I thought, "I wouldn't want to write or type that every day." Nor, of course, do I want to type the name of my university every time. So I use what's built into Microsoft Word - the AutoCorrect feature. I've created four to six letter "quick key" combos which result in commonly used names and phrases appearing in my Word docs. It is as easy as going into the "Tools" Menu, going to "AutoCorrect Options," putting your quick key combination in the left box and the result you want in the right box. Instructions are here and here. And instructions for duplicating, transferring, or copying those lists are here.


Right click translations for anything highlighted in Firefox. Hard to beat for Language Learners or anyone trying to globalize a curriculum.


A complete graphing calculator for free, but that isn't what's great. What's great is that students who struggle to get maths written properly can simply grab the screen from Graph-Calc and paste it - calculations and/or graphs - right into a word processing document for homework, classwork, or tests.

- Ira Socol

a post worth reading from Unlocking The Classroom - The Surge Against First Graders - this goes well with the debate at Ms. Mercer's Blog on colonialism, and the link between how neo-conservatives treat the world, and treat children other than their own.
(original Huffington Post article)

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


Steve Lee said...

Thanks for the PowerTalk plug Ira and gTranslate sounds very usefull.

So you have made me wonder if would ClipTalk would also be useful as it speaks anything you copy to the clipboard?

irasocol said...

ClipTalk is another valuable solution. I'm working on "the next seven"

Melinda Pongrey, MSEd said...

Ira, as usual you really SAY it! Thanks for your eloquence and your passion AND all the info on accessibility technologies.

After reading your posts, there are NO EXCUSES for not integrating all free software solutions into every school and workplace.

Are you familiar with K-12 schools that have done this? Colleges?

Paul Hamilton said...

Great set of tools, Ira! If you aren't already familiar with it, please check out Accessibar--a free Firefox add-on providing a whole toolbar that facilitates internet access for individuals with low vision. There may still be a few bugs, but the developer continues to work on it. (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/4242)


Anonymous said...

The idea of an illiterate pilot or paramedic is absolutely frightening.

How, for example, can an illiterate person give the right dosage of the right medicine in an injection ("Quick, inject 30 ccs of morphine!" "Uhhhh....which one of these is morphine and how can I tell what 30 ccs is?")

And how is anyone who is illiterate supposed to make use of avionics? ("United flight 2384, this is O'Hare Flight Control. What is your altitude, over?" "Uhhhhh....Flight Control, this is United 2384. I have no idea, over.")

irasocol said...

Of course the comment above would be made anonymously, because it is so very cruel, so very uninformed - at the most basic level - and so very typical.

How do you know what vial is what? There are lots of ways to "read" and lots of ways to identify items instantly. But this "anonymous" would rather, I suppose, die than get help from a doctor or paramedic who worse eyeglasses (exactly the same type/level of support we are discussing here).

The same for a pilot. People can fly planes with all kinds of artificial assists - eyeglasses, hearing aids, speakers and headsets with volume controls, even digital readouts and warning horns which bring them information rapidly through a couple of different senses.

All we are asking is for the same rights all the people this "anonymous" wants to call "normal" have. They, in fact, may not be "normal" at all. They may have weak vision. They may be too short. They might have less than perfect hearing. They may get headaches if they try to read whole books on a computer screen. They may not read Chinese well, or speak Hindi intelligibly.

Careful "Mr. or Ms. Anonymous" - You want to limit possibility to those you deem "perfect"? You might find yourself outside that definition all too quickly.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

So in your crazy little universe, illiteracy is no more of a big deal than needing glasses? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

I must thank you. Your blog is quite entertaining.

irasocol said...

Ah, the unidentified fool returns. I wonder if he/she could actually define illiteracy?

My guess is, probably not. There's usually a reason people won't identify themselves, and it usually isn't because they know what they are talking about.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

All too easy: illiteracy is the inability to read.

Someone who is illiterate cannot, for example, read a digital display or read the label on a vial.

And there's no point in identifying myself because a) I'm no one of consequence and b) if I did, educrats like you (including the vast majority of the education establishment) would try to find a way to either slander/libel me or sue me into oblivion at the first inkling of something that might approach a case.

irasocol said...

OK, now you're just a "victim." That's cute. The oppressor claiming that "we're all out to get him."

But ok, you poor abused person, please define "reading." In your example, a person who needs glasses is exactly the same as the student I was discussing - without an assistive technology they cannot get the information on a digital display or a label. But with it, they can. You just think that one kind of disability (vision) should be accommodated, while others should not.

But thanks for linking me with "educrats." They won't let me into their club, but I appreciate your efforts on my behalf.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Do you honestly not know what reading means? You're presumably literate...

Reading is the act of understanding written language.

That you equivocate the wearing of eyeglasses with the inability to read is laughable. The wearing of eyeglasses doesn't diminish one's ability to read (and, hence, one's ability to succeed in modern life).

And yes, you--and those like you--have a very solid grip on educational policy. You people are partially responsible for the dumbing down of standards throughout K--12 and higher education, especially in mathematics and the sciences. In fact, I just resigned my position as an assistant professor because people like you are rampant throughout the administration of the "university" at which I used to work.

irasocol said...

Well, I am thankful that you are no longer teaching. That's a small victory.

But let's get exactly what you are saying. I've never read any of the books I've read by listening to them. I've never passed any exam I've taken with text readers. Blind people do not read at all - that's impossible.

You are a fool - and you are a bigot.

And you can define neither illiteracy nor reading, which is sad.

Reading is not "the act of understanding written language" - it is "the act of understanding recorded language." And just as you might need help to read, say, ancient Persian texts (perhaps a translator, perhaps eyeglasses), dyslexics need help with certain other texts (perhaps a screen reader, perhaps a translator).

But please - if you worked in a place where people like me are "rampant" could you please tell me where that is? I sure can't find it. And I'd love to, because, unlike you, I'm not trying to limit human potential, I'm trying to expand it.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. It is the most useful thing I've read on the internet in weeks. I'll be linking a bunch of these tools in my fall courses.

CB said...

Ira, it's a strong, well-written post. I think we're experiencing the same professional weather right now in this system.

Anonymous, as you note, has a very elementary definition of reading. We read all sorts of non-print texts as normal daily literacy. Some do it well, others naively. Some don't even realize, apparently, that they do it at all.

Again, enjoyed your ideas and prose. Sympathies for dealing with the anonymous (they're always anonymous) troll.

Anonymous said...
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irasocol said...
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irasocol said...
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Melinda Pongrey, MSEd said...

Ira - thanks for the insightful posts. Teachers trained in literacy learn that literacy is communication with language, both receptive - listening, reading - and expressive, speaking, writing. As you note, reading and writing fall into the "recorded" language category. indeed developing language and literacy.

And, not only do we read words; as you note, we read symbols- MacDonalds vs Burger King, etc. I also find that people read their own language more easily than that of others, so frequently students will be able to read their dictated language first. Or, adults may read fishing or dirt biking magazines before they can read other text outside their areas of interest and expertise.

I really like that we have so many ways to access print available now--the more support a person can use, the better "readers" they become. After all, education is supposed to be about developing our thinking! expanding our knowledge!

I really enjoy your posts - always enlightening and thought provoking.

I like what you said about whole-word recognition, as in my work with lots of dyslexic readers, I find that the currently research about phonological processing doesn't seem to match my experience with lots of readers.

Anonymous said...

people who never had problems learning to read, never had a child with that problem, never had a student with that problem (or other LD issues) are just not going to be as sympathetic to the problem- it is unreal to them. the solution is to make it real to them. i haven't read 'the drool room' by ira socol yet, but that would be part of the solution if more people read it- just as helen keller illuminated what is was like to be blind and deaf. i myself after 11 years of teaching, my own initial problems learning to read as a child, a child with reading problems, and many students over the years with nontraditional ways of processing information, am just beginning to have a really deep sense of what's going on. to others with no experience, it just seems that the curriculum is being dumbed down, that we are letting students get away with something, that we are not challenging them enough. i don't think anger at these people is what i feel. i think it is just ignorance on their part- it's not malicious. i change minds when i take over students other teachers have been unsuccessful with and get results with them. i do it on a small scale, but it works when they can compare the frustrated, angry, 'oppositional' student before with the successful, outgoing, happy student after.

Anonymous said...

just to add one thought to what i wrote above. how is it possible to have teachers who have been teaching for years and years and many of them still don't want to recognize that LD's really exist? I know for a fact that there are teachers that think ADD really should read as 'Adults Don't Discipline'. my belief is that they are teaching large groups and don't get to know, whether through a lack of time or sensitivity, the way their individual students process information. it's like what the teacher/author frank mccourt who wrote 'angela's ashes' said to a new teacher once re how they will affect their students. he said: 'you won't know what you have done for them or to them.' this quote to me says that throughout all his years teaching, mccourt doesn't have a handle on how is has helped or hurt his students. this quote doesn't apply as much to elementary school teachers, where i feel the real teaching usually gets done, but for the assesmbly line style of secondary ed, i think it does, and to a lesser extent for primary ed.

i teach 1 to 6 students at a time usually, and many times as an esl/ell teacher i have my students for more than one year. i get to know them very well. i also have 2 children of my own, 10 and 12 years old. being so closely involved in the education of children across longer time spans i feel has given me more insight into how students process information than the average classroom teacher would have. that insight has to be brought to them artificially in the form novels (the drool room) , teacher training videos (fat city), etc. teachers who love teaching and want to be better will soak up this info and it will have an impact. teachers who are burned out, never liked teaching that much anyway but can't find a better job, etc will not be responsive.

irasocol said...

Vera: Thanks for all of your thoughts. You've already suggested two posts I want to write.

Empathy is not easy, and teacher-training institutions rarely support it. We're so concerned with "techniques" that we forget to listen to students. And thus we choose not to understand them, and choose not to give them what they need.

I'd love every pre-service teacher to read at least the first half of The Drool Room, but if I can't get that they at least must read Borderliners [Hoeg] and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time [Haddon]. If they can't decide that the kids in these 2 or 3 novels are ones they are willing to work with on the kids' terms - they should not become teachers.

- Ira Socol