30 June 2009

Social Change and the American School

With the NECC Conference running in Washington, I've been inundated with thoughts on Twitter. But this morning a couple of things ran together. UrbanEducation sent me a question: "@ShaySzu I teach in an urban school [without] much technology. How do you use technology in your classrooms without breaking the bank?" Then Greg Casperson, a colleague at MSU said, "Arguments for public online schools dismiss issues of working families that rely on schools for places of learning and child rearing." Asked regarding the question of "bricks and mortar" schools v online learning.

And once again I thought, "Damn, the United States is one very weird nation."

Americans really do not believe in their government as competent or capable. It is not just that they've elected anti-government capitalists to the Presidency, Governorships, positions in Congress consistently over the past generation+ - America's election system is so flawed and antiquated that this could mean almost anything. Rather, it is a deep seated set of beliefs - "Well, I wouldn't really want just a government health insurance system." "I'm not sure the government is the best group to try to run - the trains, the power system, the universities, whatever." It is a belief that government in the United States is clearl
y less competent than that of most other "developed" nations - France, the UK, Canada, Germany, Italy...

But then we get to schools. Schools, we believe, can do everything.

I've seen many tweets, for example, spreading the "gospel" that only education can solve poverty. I find this odd because if there is one overwhelming predictor of school failure in the US, it is poverty.

But we expect it. As Greg points out, people depend on schools to feed their children, to control their children, to babysit their children so American parents can work longer hours than almost anyone. We even expect our schools to provide athletic recreation and sport training. In other words, we've invested most of the American social safety net in one poorly funded set of government institutions, and insisted that they solve all of our problems.

And when this absurd plan inevitably fails, we blame our teachers, our administrators, our parents, our students, and often, we begin to argue that only privatization can solve this.

And now we bring the next issue into play: Schools must solve the digital divide. They must reinvigorate American creativity as well. All righty then.

I want to take you back in time for a minute, to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century.

At this point in history the US had an almost unparalleled wealth divide. It was filled with students from non-English speaking homes. Communications technology was changing rapidly - people were getting their information from films, and from a vast collection of new and unreliable newspapers. Too many parents of impoverished children were both working long hours. Schools were physically in no condition to handle the flood of students. There was insufficient teacher training.

There was a vast response to this at the time. No, very unfortunately, nothing changed the basic pedagogical or physical forms of the classroom that had been established a half century before, that was the missed opportunity, but let's look at what was tried:
  1. Libraries were built across the United States, by both governments and capitalist philanthropists. There was one in every neighborhood in New York City, for example, and Andrew Carnegie fitted out almost every town in America with this 19th Century equivalent of free broadband access.
  2. New schools were built everywhere, equipped with unheard of things like auditoriums and gymnasiums to both help engage student learning and to make schools true community centers.
  3. Teacher Training colleges - "Normal Schools" - spread across the country.
  4. In New York City and California universities were made free.
  5. School nurses were introduced to support child health in poor communities.
  6. U.S. Labor Law was changed to protect workers - and thus parents and children.
  7. The curriculum was radically revamped in an attempt to make school relevant to the needs and technologies of the new century.
Now, what are we doing today?
  1. Consider what might change if those who spend a fortune daily promoting charter schools and Teach for America were to instead fund - Andrew Carnegie-style - free broadband access across America?
  2. Or if our governments poured money into finally constructing schools NOT based in Henry Barnard's 1848 advice?
  3. Or if teacher training institutions became completely free? And were completely re-thought?
  4. Or if graduates of our public schools were guaranteed free post-secondary training?
  5. Or if every school was paired with a local health system to help students get and stay healthy?
  6. Or if U.S. Labor laws were changed to require "Family Living Wages" and paid time off so parents might spend time with their children.
  7. Or if we finally threw out that "Committee of Ten" curriculum and adopted a project and interest based approach to education?
The problems plaguing American society are very deep. These problems stem from a mix of an awful economic system (which leaves tens of millions in poverty), an awful health care system (which strangles innovation by making business start ups prohibitively risky and expensive for most), a bizarre education funding system (which gives the most money to the wealthiest students), incoherent transportation and communications policies (which blocks movement of people to jobs and information to students), and a completely antiquated government system (modeled on 18th Century Britain).

So schools can be a part of this solution - if properly funded and supported, but they cannot be the solution. Without the other changes, the change in education will have just minimal impact.

However, let me get back to Greg Casperson and Shayna Szumach. I'm going to suggest two paradigm switches, one as to what a "learning place" means and the other as to what "educational technology" means.

For Greg, I want schools open 24/7. I want their libraries, their gyms, their auditoriums, their computers open round the clock. It baffles me that I can buy liquor, or marijuana for that matter, almost anytime in most American cities but getting into a library is much more doubtful. In the town I live now, and this is not unusual, the library is open less when students are out of school during the summer!

Schools need to be learning places that are the heart of every community in America, offering adult ed in the evenings, community ed, yes of course, but mostly offering access to information, ideas, knowledge, and socialization.

And so, perhaps, kids should be attending school on flexible schedules as well. Why is education the last "fixed time" service in America? Why can't high school schedules, even primary school schedules, look more like those in universities?

For Shayna, well, technology surrounds you. I can link you to the ideas of used computers (or cheap netbooks) and free software, or I can suggest that most kids carry great tech tools in their pockets - maybe the solution is Blackberries for all? (costly, but still cheaper than what most schools throw away on bad networks and hardware.) I can tell you that schools buy the most expensive solutions (from Apple computers to Clickers to Kurzweil3000) for everything when cheaper is often better. I can ask if your school still pays for an email system when Google Apps for Education is free?

But mostly I can tell you that you need to start where you can. One good tablet PC with a mobile internet card can light up your classroom even with zero building tech support. Polleverywhere can turn any group of cell-phone toting American kids into an interactive classroom experience. A bunch of downloadable and online software, from Firefox with Click-Speak and gTranslate to Ghotit, to WordTalk to Google Earth to Diigo, will make those couple of classroom computers into universal design workstations.

But I'll repeat. We can make schools better, but schools will not fix American society. And individuals crying in the dark won't fix it either. Americans, as a group, must start to believe that they, through their own government, can improve life in these United States.

And in the hope that will happen, schools need to get better as best they can, so they can ride that new wave.

-Ira Socol

25 June 2009

My best teacher

By the time I reached Alan Shapiro's ninth grade English class, I was ready to be done with school. Yes, I enjoyed the lunch periods. Sure, I had lots of friends. And no question - I had loved learning to arc weld in eighth grade. But there was nothing going on for me in any class. I usually managed, after just a few weeks, to pull a desk away from other students into a back corner by the window, and just sit there staring out toward Long Island Sound or drawing in the big sketch pad my art teacher had given me in exchange for no longer coming to his class.

By the time I reached Alan Shapiro's ninth grade English class he had plenty of reasons to have given up. He had already taught for 15 years in an urban Junior High, had risen to become head of the English Department there, then lost that job after leading his AFT local out on a strike the year before - a strike primarily based in the teachers' desire to innovate.

Now he was teaching lots of classes of kids like me.

But Alan Shapiro did not give up. In fact, he became the "teacher who saved my life" by convincing me that there were all sorts of things I could do well, and giving me the chance to do those things. I came into his class a couple of weeks into the school year after I was thrown out of another teacher's English class. I came in sullen and angry. I left in June with an entirely different view of education, of writing, of books, and with a note from my teacher I'll never forget: "To my No. 1 crap detector," he had written, "just go out there and do it."

I've written about Alan Shapiro before, in terms of the alternative high school he began the next year with his friends Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner (please read the comments there), but as an old classmate pointed out there, Alan knew how to change school wherever he was.

That old classmate put it this way, '"Shapiro always said that "regular" schools didn't allow students to fail - that they always had someone else to blame - bad teachers, bad schedule, bad books, bad assignments, boring classes, etc. He said that thus they never owned their failures and thus didn't own their successes either. When all those typical student issues have become student choices - failure is the student's."

"Shapiro had used this in his regular English class before the 3Is. In our 9th grade class, we voted on a grade for the report card, but he supplemented that grade with an individual evaluation. I'll always remember the final he gave us. True/False; multiple choice; short essay and the part where he gave us the 'answer' and we had to come up with the question: Answer:'I didn't do it" question: 'Where's your Romeo and Juliet paper? Shapiro's comment was, "Feeling guilty?" That made an impact on me years later. I got a "w" on the test." [just for the record, I received an "11" - all grades were random symbols]

But there was much more to the class than that. Every book we read was presented multiple ways. The reading list was those dystopia novels, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, etc, and in every case we watched the movie, we listened to him read it (or to albums from the early audiobook creator Spoken Arts) and we had the books to read on paper. Every concept was presented multiple ways as well - none of us in that class can forget him skipping around our desktops singing "death is here, death is there, death is around us everywhere" to illustrate how the rhythm of a poem could be opposite the textual content emotionally.

And we could always respond any way we wanted - writing things, speaking to the class, drawing pictures, or just talking with him. He never cared how we expressed ourselves as long as we did express ourselves.

There was something else - the class was this comfortable oasis in a miserable school. We sat where we wanted, or didn't sit. We talked or didn't talk. We drifted off without that being viewed as a crisis. Entering that classroom was like being able to breath.

And so something remarkable happened in that room that year. With the risk of failing grades removed, with any competition for grades removed, with all the typical classroom absolutes removed, this strange group of academic losers became the most productive secondary English class I have ever seen. We wrote so many poems and short stories across the year that our "best of" collection, printed out via dittos for us to share, was 100 pages huge.

Something remarkable happened to me in that room that year as well. Oh sure, all the other classes were awful, save for the aforementioned art, which consisted of me wandering around with a sketchpad, but in Mr. Shapiro's room I came alive. I began to think then that writing was something I could really do, and I began to think that all those books might have things in them that I really wanted to know. Hope and possibility.

I remember him sitting with me that year, listening to me talk about 1984, hearing me compare it to the school itself, and letting me know, in a way I had never known in that school, that I was all right, that my thoughts mattered, that I had things to contribute.

No grades, multiple representations, multiple ways to express knowledge, no competition, the chance to be who you were as a student and a person.

Later, in his alternative school, he would carry me through high school, and let me glimpse a real future. And I can say absolutely, whenever I have considered giving up on education, he has been the person I've thought about.

He remains a force in educational thinking through the essays and curricula he writes for the Teachable Moment website. He is an educational thinker who respects teachers and students and public education and knows how to bring these things together in ways which really, really work.

So, I've written of Junior High School horrors, but now I'm glad to talk about a Junior High School wonder. And to say that it is from this experience that my view of teachers being as life-or-death important as doctors comes, as well as my belief that great public education is possible anywhere and everywhere.

Thanks Alan, and thanks to all the Alan Shapiros out there, who carve out these places of excellence and opportunity despite it all.

- Ira Socol

Hey, I struggle with Wikipedia. If anyone out there can help me edit the Alan Shapiro page to make it effective, findable, and create disambiguation from other Alan Shapiros.

23 June 2009

MITS Summer Institute 2009

On the shores of Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan teachers gather for the Summer Institute put on by Michigan's Integrated Technology Supports.

I'll be presenting three sessions today, and the SlideShares are right here...

First, a session on evaluation for technology, which begins with a redefination of technology to bring the use of the term in education in line with the actual definition:

Second, a look at the use of free, ubiquitous tools to create a Universal Design for Learning environment in your classroom:

And third, a workshop on Toolbelt Theory:

- Ira Socol

19 June 2009

What Teacher Education needs to be?

More "laboratory" work, more doubt, more diverse, more complex, and more flexible.

Chad Ratliff, a twitter colleague from Virginia, routinely challenges my thinking (a direct refutation of Larry Sanger's claims about web 2.0). Chad believes in Charter Schools (a rare thing in the Old Dominion), and Chad believes in alternative teacher certification, and I think Chad believes that at least some market forces can improve education. As an ex-teacher from a very high-needs impoverished community, and as a guy who studies education closely, I don't take his stances lightly.

First, let me say that I am not against Charter Schools. I believe charters and university lab schools are critical to educational invention in the public sector. My kid attended a great charter school. What I oppose are for profit chain-charters which steal money from children and do nothing to re-invent anything except, too often, racial and disability segregation.

Nor am I against alternative teacher certification. I am desperate to find effective ways to take experienced adults and convert them into great teachers, and equally desperate to develop strategies which turn committed adults from high-needs communities into lifelong teachers and community role models. What I'm against is Teach for America - a program that gives poor kids untrained, non-experienced teachers, while giving rich kids a resume boost.

Yes, I am pretty much against market solutions for public service. In my view market-based strategies have, for example, made American health care the most expensive in the world while also making it clearly less effective than the systems of other nations. And market-based strategies in the US military have given us Halliburton profits and Blackwater murders. I hope for better for our kids.

But let's go back to Teach for America. What's the problem? Well, it starts with a bit of cognitive dissonance. Teach for America claims that going to school to learn something is not just completely unimportant, it might be a negative. This is the heart of their argument (and the arguments of TFA fans like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and The New York Times), that there is not just no difference between teachers who have attended education schools and those who have not, but that those who have not might even be better. This seems a story I wouldn't want presented to any child who I hoped to keep in school. "My teacher says school is worthless," is what I'd say if I had a TFA teacher.

But the bigger problem, even skipping my opinion of TFA as a classic colonial project designed to oppress, is that I see no reason why if rich kids get only "trained, certified" teachers, poor kids deserve something less. That's not, in my opinion, a gap-closing path.

If there is a teacher shortage in certain places, then maybe we do need a small "market solution." Would those districts attract top teachers if the pay was $150,000 or $200,000 a year? If the schools were properly equipped and maintained? If the necessary supports for student achievement were in place? I think the TFA Foundation should be raising cash to try that set of solutions out.

But yes, we all know that Teacher Education across America is not what it should be, and Chad wants to know where and how to start. And its a great question. And in trying to answer, I start outside the field.

Back when I was an NYPD cop, we used to describe certain rookies as suffering from "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome" (I believe the term now might be "Jack Bauer Syndrome"). "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome" cops inevitably came from the distant exurbs of New York, Suffolk County, Rockland County, Putnam County, and beyond. They had led these white bread kind of lives, and all they knew about the City of New York and its diverse population were the "horror" stories told by older cop relatives who had moved their families as far east or north as permissable to escape the "nightmare" of the city, which in their minds looked a lot like the film, Escape from New York. These cops arrived as crusaders who would "clean up" the city. They were totally earnest and sincere, determined to recreate the mythic New York City of their parents' childhoods'. They were also unbelievably dangerous. They could not understand street dynamics, our community standards. They could not comprehend that different people might behave differently on a hot summer Saturday night. They got into endless fights, they made stupid, worthless arrests, they damaged police community relationships, and they hurt members of the public and other cops through turning small problems into huge crises.

Here's an example of typical "Starsky and Hutch" behavior - from a much more recent time - thankfully captured on video:

The moral is, beware saviors, beware crusaders, and go for training.

The reason I start here is that for 6 months, that is, 26 weeks, the NYPD worked diligently in Police Academy courses to eliminate this syndrome. Through sociology and psychology courses, through Constitutional Law courses, through simulations and role play, through awareness training. New York cops learned all sorts of things during those 26 weeks, but the hardest thing to get across, almost every instructor said, was the notion that nothing in the past lives of these suburban 'pre-cops' or their educations (which were often quite impressive), was of any real value in terms of helping those in New York's struggling neighborhoods.

And so, after 26 weeks of 45 hours per wek training, New York's rookie cops are typically supervised heavily on the street for another six months - that's all considered part of their training. And still, more than a few Starsky and Hutches slipped through.

We compare that to the guy on the left, who now runs Teach for America in the San Francisco Bay area. He went through TFA's five week training program, and then taught for two years. I'm just saying...

So, issue one is that it takes a lot of training, and a lot of actual time, to make people effective public servants when dealing with people unlike themselves.

You know I tend to make fun of, and even to bash, my school, Michigan State University, but honestly we do do somethings quite well, and here's one: Our future teachers have typically spent time with as many high-needs diverse students before they begin their internship year than TFA corps members will in their entire "career." And we use that. From the first 100-level ed course on our students work in high needs classrooms. They do this in almost every course. And they come back and we - the instructors - get to work with their reactions. We do that for most of four years, and that makes a difference, because this is very difficult stuff to learn. We don't want missionaries, we don't want crusaders, we don't want saviors - we want teachers who, before they begin "student teaching" are starting to understand that their experience is not their students' experience, and that they are not superior humans for having had better luck in the birth lottery.

Now, Michigan State is no Ivy League institution. It is a Land Grant University (the very first Land Grant University) in a desperately struggling state. Yet our students are the elite, they have made it to one of our top universities in a place where attending any post-secondary school is a minority position. Their knowledge of the struggles of underclass children or children who struggle in school is typically highly limited. And if we, in the College of Education, did not push them out into the City of Lansing's schools or poor rural districts, well, the only times they'd actually get into Lansing itself is going to World Market in the Frandor Shopping Center for beer (sorry Spartans, MAC's Bar doesn't count, it is technically in Lansing Township). In other words, if they were not education majors, they would likely know little of this - even on a campus far more diverse in economic origin than those East Coast elite campuses.

We do something else pretty well at MSU, which is deal with issue two, creating and understanding doubt, which is essential to developing teachers who can differentiate instruction. We do not teach students "one way" to do anything. Our faculty could hardly agree on a group of five or six ways. I say to those in my team-taught course, that even in that single course they will hear three views, often at odds. If you take any sequence of MSU College of Ed courses you will hear lots of ideas, lots of possibilities, lots of suggestions - and as you go out into the a real classroom, and meet any collection of students - you will need every one of them.

Obviously, this also takes time. You cannot dump 50 strategies on a bunch of pre-service teachers in a semester. You can only offer that variety if you give everyone the time to process and compare, to test in actual teaching moments, then process and compare again.

We also have a highly diverse group of instructors at MSU, which is issue three, getting fully comfortable with diverse perspectives on the notion of education itself. I don't mean diverse in skin color, though we do have lots of people from lots of continents. I mean diverse by economic origin, by family origin, by systems of primary and secondary education. The "Brit" group comes with a set of views, as does our "East Asian" group, our "South Asian," and "African" groups have a "Brit plus" view set. Then we have our Americans. There are instructors wth every "disability," and instructors with every kind of language issue, and instructors with every type of political stance. This really does make a difference as new teachers learn to navigate communities which do not share their values or histories.

Issue four is all about complexity. In any class of students, but especially among "high needs" students, there will be real issues you must deal with. In Linda Darling-Hammond's study of TFA this is the place where the untrained teachers really fell apart, they had no exposure to any of this, and it showed. What, I recently asked a man on Twitter who seemed to be suggesting that anyone with good content knowledge would be a good teacher, does (his example) film maker and history buff Ken Burns know about dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ELL, AAC, CAPD, ADHD, EI, Autism, Aspergers - to name a few issues likely to confront every teacher. These are complex issues with no set formulas for answer. These take time too. You must move past the labels, past your "declarative knowledge," to true "operational knowledge," or you will not only not help these students, you will injure them.

My fifth issue though is about flexibility. Because I am a fan of alternative certification. When someone like @spedteacher chooses, after a lifetime of diverse experiences with people, to become a teacher, that is a fabulous thing. And so I want to be able to entice great people, in their 30s, 40s, 50s into education, and I want to leverage the human skills they already have. I want them to be able to study to be teachers while being paid. I want them to have shorter, year round courses, that fit their lifestyle needs. I want them to be merging their past experiences with the curriculum, and I want them in classrooms in a secondary role almost immediately. I especially want these people if they come from the kinds of communities which suffer teacher shortages, because I want to develop a community-based faculty which is lifespan dedicated to that community and its children.

In my battle over teacher training I surprise myself. I have a ton of problems with how we train teachers, just as I have a ton of problems with how we train doctors. So, I might think I'd be on the TFA "No Training" side. But I'm not. I consider these both to be critical, life and death professions. Who kills more in a year? I'd guess bad teachers over bad doctors, really. A disastrous education too often leads to a disastrous - and short - life.

So my solution to bad teachers and bad doctors is not to minimize training, it's to reconstruct it. To make it really work the way it should. That's my start - let the conversation begin...

- Ira Socol

16 June 2009

Bloomsday and the value of alternative paths

Is it the greatest novel written in English? That's open to debate, of course, but there is no doubt that James Joyce's Ulysses is an essential book. It's deep exploration of narrative forms alone makes it crucial to the study of literature. It's invention on top of ancient narrative makes it vital reading for writers. And rarely has a piece of literature been so wholly 'of a place' as Ulysses is 'of Dublin.'

But Ulysses is a very difficult read. "YES BECAUSE HE NEVER DID A THING LIKE THAT BEFORE AS ASK TO get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing-suits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats especially then still I like that in him polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars too hes not proud out of nothing but not always if ever he got anything really serious the matter with him its much better for them go into a hospital where everything is clean but I suppose Id have to bring it into him for a month yes"

from the tower, where "STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air."

Ulysses challenges "great readers," adult readers, the way the texts you hand out in school challenge struggling readers.

Today is Bloomsday - the 16th of June, and Bloomsday is when the literary world and the Irish celebrate this book. The novel is set in Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904. The novel follows the wanderings of Leopold Bloom and his friend Stephen Dedalus on that day, in a modern recreation of Ulysses' journey in Homer's Odyssey.

Now, on Twitter, CESNational asks "am curious: why should we read Ulysses?" And I can say, it is an essential part of our literary canon. It is a basic guide to narrative techniques in the English language. It teaches - quite effectively - the differences between the oral and written traditions. Few books have ever mastered the art of recreating a text so well. It will liberate you from the confines school writing courses often encourage.

Plus, it, perhaps combined with Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy, will explain how modern writing broke away from artificial writing norms and embraced a new paradigm for working with human communication. Joyce begets Dos Passos. Dos Passos and Joyce beget Kerouacet al, Kerouac, et al, beget the kinds of fiction and narrative we find online today. Those who bitch about the loss of what they perceive as language skills - if they were well read - would know that blaming technology is ridiculous - Joyce started it.

But, as I said, it is very difficult to read. So, what do you do to access this difficult text? You do what you should have your students do. You should find the right path.

The first three times I read Ulysses I listened to a remarkable reading of it on cassette. I think there were 48 or 60 cassettes. Oh, but it was beautiful. The next few times I have listened to it on CD, via LibriVox download, or, for more detailed study and interaction, via Text-To-Speech, either a WYNN version I've created, or a Microsoft Reader version, to using Click-Speak with on-line text versions.

I've supported that through period recordings, through online tours, through online criticism.

In other words, I have found my supported text which has enabled me to read and work through one of the 20th Century's essential books, even though I could never read it on paper. And you can too, and so can your students.

Joyce is the perfect author to use to describe why digital text is superior for most learners, for even most teachers have trouble accessing the ink-on-paper version. And so, even if you doubt it's ranking among English-language novels, if you are in education, please give it a try, if only because you might engage a bit of empathy with your students, and you might discover the true value of the flexible text delivery which technology offers.

"O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Happy Bloomsday to one and all... - Ira Socol

13 June 2009

Evaluate that!

My son went to a great high school. Among the things they did was combine grades with long narrative evaluations. This allowed me to see the great conundrum of educational evaluation in a unique way.

For at the end of his 9th grade year his Latin Class evaluation read (in part) this way: "[He] was the best student in the class, he completed both Latin I and Latin II this year. He will need to take future courses at [a nearby] college in order to continue his advancement. Grade C-"

"What grade," I asked the teacher, "did the second best student get?"

I was told that my son got a bad grade because he did not do his homework. "Apparently," I said, "he didn't have to." But, you see, this teacher had a rubric. Homework was 25% of the grade, and apparently there was no block in the rubric for doing two years of work in one.

I didn't really fight. I didn't care. The next year he was sitting among college students reading Ovid. That's what matters.

Except, that is not what matters.

"Can I write "Dear parent, your son has greatly improved on things not considered important by the school [reporting] system"?" Tomaz Lasic asked on Twitter today. Mr. Lasic is a teacher in Western Australia dealing with "troubled" children, and a brilliant observer of the system. He followed up: "in my 'low achievers' class. Where's "halted [self]abuse", "began to smile" box to tick?" And: "Every time a particular kid (totally socially inept past) walks in our office and says please, or gives a hi-5, we say: "Evaluate that!"
What is our national standard (whatever nation you are in) for getting a child to smile? For getting a child to publicly ask a question? For getting a child to confidently present an idea? For getting a child to be willing to ask for help? Or to ask to play with another child?

What is the national statistical trend line for feeling safe in school? For picking up that first book of interest? For solving an interpersonal problem for the first time? For absorbing an unfair call in athletics without going off?

There are so many things we hope children get from their education, but when we discuss "data driven decision making," or "accountability," or "standards," or "merit pay" for teachers we become complete reductionists, assessing (very badly) a tiny fragment of all that expected learning. And in doing this we tell children they are worthless, and we assure that success in school is a matter of socio-economics and playing the "those-in-power" game, and nothing else.

See, it does not matter if a child is rushing ahead or struggling to keep up. We do the same thing to anyone who doesn't measure up to our fictional "average." We crush them, demean them, and sneer at their accomplishments. And in doing so, we prove our worthlessness and lack of credibility to virtually all students.

So when people talk about measurement in education, I always get angry, because I know that neither Arne Duncan nor Michelle Rhee would give a dime of merit pay to Mr. Lasic for helping that kid learn to smile, nor even to that Latin teacher for letting my son rush ahead. And I know that schools which must spend years making their children simply feel safe will always be rated below those in wealthy suburbs. Because you can not discuss "standards" or "evaluation" or even "accountability" until you adopt some kind of legitimate sense of what counts in the education of each individual child. And we are nowhere close to even having that conversation.

Perhaps, as usual, The Simpsons says it most coherently...

"These tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success. " Edna Krabapple tells Bart Simpson's class in a legendary Simpsons episode in which the essential indifference to 'direction from average' in schools is demonstrated. "Do you often find yourself bored?" the school psychologist asks, "All the time" replies Bart.

- Ira Socol

10 June 2009

The Reading List

What if everyone in a literature class didn't read the same book? What would happen if, say, during Great Gatsby month, a third of the class read that, a third read Dos Passo's 1919, and a third read Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth?

What might the class discover? What kinds of discussions would develop?

It's not that I have anything against The Great Gatsby. In fact, I think it might be the best written American novel ever. And there is surely no clearer refutation of the myth of 'The American Dream' ever put on paper.

And this isn't just about fixing terrible teaching. Sure, I read in shocked horror as supposedly "top" high school students misread the novel so badly that a whole New York Times article could be devoted to their complete missing of Fitzgerald's point, '"My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying “Gatsby” in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”' (say goodbye to Harvard, Jinzhao). Bad teaching is bad teaching no matter what you read.

But it is about suggesting an alternative to our basic pedagogy. It is about creating student choice. It is about empowering peer teaching. And it is about exposing students to far more literature.

Two of the basic components of Universal Design are student choice, and the empowering a wide range of expertise among students, so that a classroom becomes a community of learners rather than one leader and a roomful of passive receptors.

We can start doing this by allowing alternate learning tools - this students reads the book on paper, that student listens to the audiobook, this other student uses text-to-speech. We can continue by allowing one student to sit in a chair, another to sit on the floor, and a third to stand. And we can even allow one to express their knowledge through writing, another through creating a painting, a third to create a video. And all those things are good, but I do not think we are quite there yet.

Getting there requires distributed knowledge and community cognition. And distributed knowledge and community cognition means we offer truly different paths to the knowledge we hope to share.

So when we teach Gatsby, what are we teaching? We should be teaching language, yes, and the structuring of thought and image. We should also be teaching the role of literature, how fiction shapes what we know. And we should be teaching a social history - what did Fitzgerald capture in Gatsby? What did he challenge? Why did he challenge those things? or my favorite... Would an American high school English teacher have assigned Gatsby to his/her class in 1928? Why or why not?

If we mix a room of students reading the other two books, how might these lessons change? The three writers are all inventive - all rule breakers - but they all break the rules in radically different ways. They are all angry, but they are angry in different ways. They all doubt the basic myths of America, but they attack them in different ways.

Imagine the conversation as students compare the end of Gatsby to the "Body of an American" end of 1919? Where does the Gatsby character come from? Surely not just Princetonian frustration.

Given all these options, I would imagine that students might compare, debate, challenge, doubt, and, in every way be less prone to seeking the "right for school" answer. They might even want to read one of the books they hadn't read - maybe outside of school.

This isn't just an idea for lit classes. Spreading out the research, spreading out the work, letting peers teach peers, seems a way to expand both the knowledge base in the classroom, but also the number of experts in the room, and I think that's always a good idea. The best classes I have been in are those where students carried in significant, relevant outside knowledge, and the "not completely common curriculum" approach might just help you get to that in every class.

Just a thought as you start your summer, and start dreaming about what your classroom will look like next year.

- Ira Socol

06 June 2009

Great Schools: 3. Profession without Competition

I'm going to discuss two schools here, post-secondary schools. Intense, professional training schools. Radically different schools.

These two schools both had incredibly high standards, both had very demanding professions, both needed to train an amazingly level of personal responsibility because doing either profession irresponsibly created a real risk to the lives of others.

Both also had no interest in fostering traditional academic competition among students.

The New York City Police Academy and the Pratt Institute School of Architecture might seem like odd institutions to link together, but since I attended both, I can, and will...

They did things very differently. At the Police Academy we all wore uniforms. At Pratt we wore anything and on occasion nothing. At the Police Academy punctuality was a big issue. At Pratt, ummm, not really. At the Police Academy we called instructors "Sir." At Pratt we called them whatever we wanted to. At the Police Academy we had a rigid exam schedule. At Pratt, the one time I remember an exam being given, a friend of mine locked the prof out of the room and we did it together. And, counterintuitively, at the Police Academy we went to school is a beautiful Manhattan neighborhood, on a block shared with the School of Visual Arts. At Pratt we lived in a despairing neighborhood that would later be immortalized by Spike Lee in his film, Do The Right Thing.

Perhaps most dramatically, at the Police Academy we were constantly aware of our grades, while at Pratt's School of Architecture we had none. Yet, I will argue here, that both had excellent assessment systems.

But that's just part of the story. Both excelled by being radically different than most US post-secondary institutions. Both really worked to bring out the best in diverse people. Both utilized surprising faculties, which were highly effective. Both combined comraderie and very high expectations, in a way which created communities of learners.

What Worked (Police Academy)

The New York City Police Academy is an unusual program in this field. It is worth a ton of SUNY credits, all earned in six months, including three hours of law, five days a week, for those six months, half of it Constitutional Law (yes, I know it does not seem like that from, say, actions during the Republican National Convention in 2004, or during Critical Mass bike rides, but NYPD cops have every reason to be a lot closer than most to being 'constitutional scholars'). There is a lot of psychology and sociology, and diversity training, in addition to what you'd expect - procedures, physical fitness, weapons training, self-defense, etc.

That's a wildly demanding academic program for a very diverse group of students, and yet, almost every incoming cadet graduates. It is a stunningly successful operation.

Why? First, think, "whatever help you needed" was always there. I needed books on tape, and they instantly provided me cassettes which, dumped into an early generation Walkman, read me to the Academy on the subway every morning and back every night, read me through lunches, and read me to sleep every night. If you needed tutoring, you got it, from peers or faculty, you just had to ask. I know I ran remedial swimming sessions and second, third, and fourth chance CPR certification testing - the stuff I was good at. If you failed something the first time, you got a chance - or two - to do it over. Most people there had never studied law before, or used a gun, some had really never driven before. Which is second, they seemed to understand that we might not all learn all of this at the same rate.

Third, no one seemed 'ahead at the start.' One of my good friends at the Academy had a father who was the Chief of Bronx Detectives. This meant nothing in terms of how he was treated. Others came with significant knowledge, they might have worked for the department in 'civilian' capacities. That made no difference either. It was not just the sameness of the uniforms, it was a sense that we all had a way to go.

But fourth, and maybe most importantly, it was a community of learners. I did extremely well there - I finished second in my class (why didn't I finish first? funny story) - but that was never a focus of anything. The guy who barely passed the exams had no less status. He was a really good friend too. Our goal, company by company of cadets, was to make sure everyone succeeded. Competition did not exist.

None of this is to imply that standards were ever lowered. They weren't. But different things had different standards. You could pass most exams with a 75% mark. Except for one, on the use of deadly physical force. Passing for that was 100%, as it damn well should be.

What Worked (Pratt)

"How can you have an engineering course without grades?" an anxious parent asked at a School of Architecture information night. He was addressing the question to Y.S. Lee, who taught the steel structures and concrete structures courses, and not an engineer to mess with - among his works, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Madison Square Garden in New York. "It is simple," Lee responded. "No one leaves my class knowing 95% of what makes a building stand up."

There were no grades in design studios either, how, exactly, do you grade a design?

Yes, Pratt's Architecture School now has grades, but it didn't then. Everything was pass/fail and that worked, one way or another, for all courses.

There was also a lovely flexibility. On the first day of a landscape design course I decided that I could not handle the mix of students, professor, and room. And I never came back. But I had the syllabus, and I worked with the course information, and I did the final project. I did it big, and left it in the professor's mailbox. My evaluation said, "I have no idea who this student is as he never came to class, but he did hand in a magnificent design as his final project which clearly indicates that he has mastered the content of this course. Pass." Thank you.

And in a Concrete Materials course, fed up with books, we, as a class, decided instead to build a pre-cast concrete structure. We designed panels which could be used vertically (for walls) or horizontally (floors/roofs), designed connector systems, created forms in a basement storeroom, where we tried and rejected a number of reinforcing schemes before settling on one which provided sufficient strength. We scaled the 8'x24' panel design down to 1/3 size, and went to work, casting about 48 of these things. Then we carried the panels out to a sunny campus lawn, and assembled a gigantic structure. Believe me - I know concrete. And as I watch a classmate spec a massive concrete building in New York, I know he does as well.

And in design studios we went wherever we wanted. I tended to craft either Prairie designs based on the work of Marion Mahony or Beaux Arts work, which I illustrated with vast drawings in which the building was inevitably presented against a storm sky. People admired the contextualist approach and the craftsmanship even if they knew I was making myself unemployable. Others were modernists, still others post-modernist followers of architects like Robert Venturi. Didn't matter. We all sat and drew and argued together, and pulled inspiration from each others work.

The other component was that almost all "instruction" was via projects. You worked on buildings which taught you skills. You didn't learn skills, and then work on buildings.

In Common

In professional training the relevance is easy. And these schools kept learners engaged through relevant experiences. But, the key things, the comraderie, that creation of the learning community, was every bit as strong at Pratt as it was at the NYCPA. And that is what ultimately brings these stories together. Both gave students what they needed. Both treated students equitably, not equally, and both developed intelligent assessment structures designed to support, rather than rank.

- Ira Socol

Some of the colleges I think are America's best...
St. John's (Annapolis and Santa Fe)
Evergreen State College
Bard College at Simon's Rock
Landmark College
College of the Atlantic
Prescott College
University of California Santa Cruz
Empire State College
Hampshire College

05 June 2009

Finding the Learning Network

For a few years at the start of my doctoral level education I attempted to engage the widest range of conversations with the widest range of people in my College of Education.

On both my course websites, and on college-wide lists - Education Grad Students, and International Education Students - I posted links (or full copies) to (of) interesting articles I had found. I asked provocative questions. Eventually I began making outrageous statements, all in a series of increasingly desperate attempts to get the conversations to expand beyond the narrow limits of our classrooms.

It did not work at all. Oh sure, people would whisper to me in the hallways or men's rooms that they loved what I posted. A few times conversations began, but were quickly silenced when some wondered if we "should be talking about this." Most often I was admonished for (a) being controversial, (b) wasting people's in-box space, and (c) using a list designed for announcements in the "wrong" way.

I haven't posted to either college-wide list in more than year. In the few remaining courses I have taken, I am much more reluctant to bother to begin online discussions. My personal learning network has shifted.

Social Networking in Education from Dr. Alec Couros

Now that network stretches from Israel to Ireland, from Australia to Saskatchewan, from The Bronx to British Columbia, from Virginia to Scotland. It does indeed include many grad students and education professors, but they are no longer principally (or even significantly) at the university I attend. These vaunted "face-to-face" relationships failed me, and the world stepped in to solve my problem.

Now I debate my big questions, collect my reading lists, struggle with research issues, with a world of people similarly interested and similarly passionate. They might disagree with me 90% of the time, they often call me on my language or extreme conclusions, they may be in education or another field entirely, but they are engaging with me, and my intellectual development.

This network leads me to fabulous online conference presentations, to books I need to read, to research I must evaluate, to opinions and actualities that I have to struggle with. they challenge, inform, inspire, doubt, demand, ask, and answer.

Twitter and blogging, UStream and SlideShare, Elluminate and Skype, Google Docs, and Diigo, have opened my education, allowed it to stretch much further than even the very best doctoral program possibly could.

Consider that when you wonder if you should bring social networking into your classroom.

- Ira Socol

02 June 2009

Summer Reading

Summer book lists are always interesting. I could recommend books in many different interest areas, but for this blog, I'll make them "education important" titles:


Peter Høeg's incredible novel of inclusion gone wrong Borderliners is equally fascinating and terrifying. It is also a must read for every teacher who works with students, "on the borderline."

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's novel of Asperger's and aspiration is the kind of stunning view of a difference I think only fiction can offer.

I'm "probably" biased, but I think The Drool Roomhas a lot to say about special needs education, dyslexia, and attention issues. Plus, it's a pretty easy read.


Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Cultureis a truly essential book, which won me over in the introduction when the author talks about, "Somewhat counterintuitively, I enrolled in graduate school i education. I was trying to crack - at least in my own mind - the genetic code of the institution, one that seemed so stubbornly, intractably resistant to change..."

Surely the recent book most quoted (the title) without being read, James Gee's brilliant What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacyexplores how games teach vs how schools teach, and why one method engages why the other typical chases students away. (You could also read my blog on this, but Gee has much more to say)

More than a debate about a single technology, David Crystal's Txtng: The Gr8 Db8is a fascinating look at technology, communications, politics, and generational battles. Plus, he explores the structure of texting linguistically, in English and other languages.

John Willinsky's Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's Endis that kind of essential look at the purposes of education in a capitalist/imperialist world.

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorderby David Weinberger is one of the best descriptions of how learning is changing.

And Clay Shirky will tell you why those changes are so important in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.


Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (October Books)might make you re-think many things: how you see, your understanding of history, among them. Not an easy read, but well worth it.

Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disabilityseems like important stuff to me. Great essays on difference and what that means.

Challenging everything about education, Teaching As a Subversive Activityby Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner remains the crucial manifesto about changing schools, 40 years later.


Finally, free downloads:

Norbert Pachler and the University of London assembled this fabulous look at Mobile Learning: Towards a Research Agenda. A must read for educators.

And from FutureLab

Transforming Schools for the Future

Designing for Social Justice: People, Technology, Learning

Perspectives on Early Years and Digital Technologies

Social Software and Learning

- Ira Socol