17 September 2009

Transactional Disability

Michel Foucault, I have learned from my favorite Foucault scholar, wanted to investigate not identity, and not causes, but the movements - the acts - we make in the "spaces" between us when we interact.

And Tom Shakespeare joins the social model of disability to the body itself when he speaks about disability occurring at the "intersections" - the "places" where our bodily capabilities meet the world "as it exists."

Then, a Twitter-pal with a visually impaired child, wrote this: "Going to get son to walk around lake with me in the dark - he won't need his cane, but I'll need flashlight."

Transactional Disability.

Somewhere between "the medical model" - difference described as a medical illness the way Americans do - "a person with cancer" "a person with a reading disability" - and the "social model" - difference described as only a problem created by societal norms, lies "the transactional model." Yes, we are all different in various ways, including our set of capabilities. These differences become "impairments" when we - the differently capable - find that we can not negotiate the world the way others have set it up.

I may not be disabled when I watch a movie. Nor when I watch television, listen to the radio, listen to a friend or a teacher, listen to music, look at art. In fact, I think my capabilities are at least "average" or better when I meet these tasks. I become disabled when people choose, instead, to present information in alphabetical code. Those former information transfer systems I can navigate with ease. The alphabetical code leaves me tripping over myself. There is nothing "wrong" with me, nor is there anything wrong with the alphabetical code - the problem occurs in the transaction space - where print and I meet.

So there is no doubt that the mother and son in the Tweet above have actual capability differences. Their vision capability difference is not merely a trick of societal construction. Yet there is nothing "wrong" with either. This need not be a "diagnosis." As the mother knows, the description of "disability" changes as the light does - thus it changes as the seasons change - and changes as the location changes. Walking around the lake in the dark she needs Assistive Technology, her flashlight, while he needs none. Moving across a street in the daylight, he may need supports, and she not.

This is important. I really believe it is. Right now we describe both the son above and myself in pathological terms. There is something "wrong" with us. But who decides that? That is society abusing some to raise up the power of others. The person who can't translate a construction document goes through much of their life without problem. But when they end up with a pillar in the middle of their office (I actually saw this almost happen) they are having a "transactional" problem - we need not label them "a person with a plan disability." The 5'6" person who cannot reach the top shelf at the grocery store is also having a "transactional disability" - we need not diagnose a height problem.

Just as the child who is "fine" until you ask him to sit in a chair for an hour need not be diagnosed. There's nothing inherently wrong with the chair or the child, just what happens when they meet. Alter the transaction space, or the rules of the transaction space, and the "disability" will vanish.

Look at the kids in your classes today. Look around. Then look around the space you share. Look at the tools you use. And think about the "transaction spaces" and who gets "disabled." Maybe you can figure out ways that allow us all to meet on equal terms.

No diagnosis required.

- Ira Socol

13 September 2009

This Century

As we finish the last year of the first decade of this century, it is time to take stock of your school. What century is it when students walk through your door?

(Let's not argue the 2000/2001 thing for century start - of course there was a "year zero." Did we simply jump from 1 BC to 1 AD in twelve months? No. That is not the way the history, or the math, works.)

In today's New York Times Week in Review there is an article about our online digital tools ability to begin recreating the best of education - the Oxford Don, one-on-one approach which predates the industrial processing mode which defines education in the US today. "21st-century technology carries the potential to nudge mainstream education back toward the 16th-century vision of one-to-one tutoring," the article says, in other words, after 400 years of believing in a single technology for education - the fixed, unchanging, impossible to personalize Gutenberg book - we now have technologies to restore humanism and individuality to education - but this time - on a mass scale.

But that is probably not the educational world your students live in. They function each day in a poorly designed factory with inflexible subject divisions, inflexible time periods, and inflexible grade-level-expectations which insist that all learners are moving through all interests - and all skill development - at the same rate. They sit in classrooms which make them uncomfortable, which discourage collaboration, which create and exaggerate "disabilities," which usually prohibit preferred learning tools, and they wait for bells to sound.

Look familiar? Listen, that's not the 21st Century, it is not even the 20th Century. That is a system developed in and created for a 19th Century vision of "Social Darwinism." It is a system based in the supposed needs of the Prussian Empire for industrial workers and compliant soldiers. All the "tools" in use in this "typical" school - age-based grades, discrete subjects, bells signifying periods, the same book in all the students' hands, the chalkboard, the group instruction, the standardized test, were all created between 1800 and 1890 in an attempt to socially engineer society for the second industrial revolution. To 'de-Catholic' British and American society, to build a compliance with industrial shift timetables, to train compliance to authority, and to create failure for most, in order to ensure success for the elite.

And you probably work in a school, or send your children to a school, that is still working toward this bizarre set of goals, while actually arguing over the usefulness of "twenty first century skills."

Change we can believe in

We're not going to change your school overnight. But there are things you can insist on today.

If your school does not have one-to-one computing and wireless networking, insist that students have access to their own devices, and begin collecting used mobile phones and laptops which can be lent to students who lack them.

If your school uses filtering software insist that it block only pornography, not social networking. Students need access to global mentors, and learn to use them.

If your school computers do not use Firefox for web browsing, insist that they install this accessible software with accessibility features - Click-Speak, gTranslate, Dictionary Look-Up, foreign language dictionaries, dictionary switcher, and mapping tools on every computer. A good case can be made that Internet Explorer only schools violate Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended) by failing to make information and communication equally available to all students, and you can suggest that parents, and students, begin to file complaints.

If your school assigns one book to all students, without accessible versions being made available, you can insist that this stop immediately. Your school must belong to Bookshare (free), the Accessible Book Collection (just $49 annually), and must routinely utilize Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, the University of Virginia Library, and other sources to provide accessible texts to all students who need them - or want them.

If your school does not embrace project-based learning, including cross-curricular projects good for credits in multiple subjects, insist that they do. Students function best when their own interests are engaged, and engagement does not come the same way to any two different students.

If your school library is not an open, accessible space, a path to information-on-demand, it is failing to help students prepare for their future, insist that this change immediately.

And if your school is wasting excessive time on 19th Century skills - including handwriting and no-look keyboarding - insist that they stop tomorrow. Students will be far better served by learning effective texting skills than learning how to sign greeting cards or how to copy text into computers - when their own voice can do that.

Those are, of course, just a few suggestions. But the key is that we must stop debating which century we are in, and start functioning as if the time is now.

- Ira Socol

09 September 2009

Shush and Sit Down

President Obama's speech to America's students began in a familiar way. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's first word upon mounting the podium was "shush." The President's first phrase was "sit down."

There we go. "Reform" which looks an awful lot like my classrooms of long ago. School is silent, passive, still, and information is one-directional.

I have heard Barack Obama speak to crowds before. I've seen him speak to attentive crowds of standing people, even standing young people. I've seen him speak to rowdy crowds, crowds who talked back, chanted, laughed, interacted.

But there's something about entering the school building which changes the conversation - "shush" and "sit down."

Changing schools requires something much more than telling kids to "try harder" and "keep trying." Especially since kids aren't that stupid. They actually know what is going on. They see "Zero Tolerance Policies" which tell kids that one mistake is all they get. They see voters choose to fund football stadiums over classrooms. They hear their parents and leaders denigrate teachers almost every day. They see that the only way they can be treated like an "adult" before they are 21 is to commit a crime. They see cutbacks in school funding while any talk of altering funding for senior citizens is met by howls of protest. They see politicians and even religious leaders lying and cheating. Mostly they see their leaders not listening to them. They know it's a game, a game rigged against most of them.

So I really would've like President Obama to converse with America's students. Even if they were standing up, lying on the floor, or walking around. I really would've liked him to tell students that if "you take responsibility, we will too." That we'll stop pretending that testing is education. That we'll stop comparing education to a "race" where we already know who the winners will be. That we'll have "zero tolerance for zero tolerance," or for schools which fail to take advantage of this century's learning technologies.

I'd like him to have promised our students that they'd have the best teachers because those teachers would be paid well, treated with respect, and offered every opportunity to build their own knowledge. That our schools would have fair funding, with the most money going to the schools where needs are greatest. That universities would stop admitting rich kids based on daddy's contributions. That classes and curriculum would have relevance.

But instead I heard him and his Secretary of Education tell kids they weren't trying hard enough, and of course, to sit down and shut up.

Just another day at school in America.

- Ira Socol

06 September 2009

America Lost

Digital friend, distinguished professor, and ed blogger Jon Becker likes to quote a Thomas Friedman New York Times column from 4 November 2004. Friedman, describing his post election depression, says, "We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is."

The conversations about Barack Obama's broadcast to American schoolchildren (coming Tuesday) have proven both the truth of this, and the dangers we face.

This is not just laughable. Yes, of course it is "funny" that those who, ten months ago, would have howled in fury about "disrespect for the Commander in Chief in time of war" now insist on "disrespect for the Commander in Chief in time of war" (ah, what a difference a bit of skin color can make). And I suppose it is expected that the party of Mark Sanford and David Vitter objects to students being told about "personal responsibility." And, yes, I'm amused that I, who disagree with every thing the Obama administration has done re: education, who views the President, in educational terms, as "Bush III," has spent a week arguing for his presence in our schools, but... it isn't funny at all.

The United States is a fragile nation. Always has been. It really is more Yugoslavia than France, and has been from the start. In 1787 party-hardy New York, and feudal Georgia had little in common, except language, with dour Calvinist and mercantilist New England. They were joined together out of the need, in a colonialist world, for mutual economic and military protection, and the borders were somewhat random. Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations wasn't really interested for a long time. "Upper Canada" (what we now call "Ontario") probably should have been included. The Great Lakes region? Just a treaty bargaining chip. As I said, more Woodrow Wilson's bizarre ideas of nation-construction than any nation-state of the 18th Century, save perhaps Switzerland.

So, America's first hundred years were spent trying to either split up or stay together. Insurrections (meet John Brown, to whom The Battle Hymn of the Republic is dedicated, or just look at the Whiskey Rebellion), rebellions (Civil War), wars on native populations, internal occupations, attacks on neighboring nations in attempts to build patriotic fever, and huge struggles over minority group rights completely define the US through the third quarter of the 19th Century.

Like Spain after the Civil War or the United Kingdom after the 1707 Act of Union, things "settled down" afterwards, but really only on the surface. The "settlement" was essentially one of "leaving each other alone." So New York and California became socialist republics - free universities and hospitals - while the south re-feudalized (Jim Crow), and both were seen as "quaint" - the way Londoners view the Scots of the Hebrides and vise-versa. But whenever the cultures met - the Scopes Trial, the Civil Rights movement, the resistance to secular law, the response has been every bit as violent as anything the Basque Separatists have done.

And today, after two decades of everything from massive bombings to political assassinations, the US is as polarized about its President as it was in the winter of 1860. Not just because his skin color is seen as a threat by so many who feel "left behind" in this 21st Century, but because that skin color represents an America they do not believe in, and want no part of - urban, diverse, tolerant, with at least a hint of being a meritocracy. If your self-image is entirely tied to the privileges of being white and the notion that "granddaddy worked hard," none of this is good.

That the biggest explosion of the moment should come around the issue of school is no surprise. Our education system was largely designed to combat most of what "Obama" (the image) represents. US schools were supposed to "protestantize" the Catholic and "whiten" the Irish. They were supposed to train children in the culture as it existed. Everything from Catholic Bibles to any foreign or native languages were banned. Behavior patterns developed for Calvinist church services were made law in the classroom. Culture was transmitted through fantasy history.

And now a tall Black male, a big city guy, with an immigrant parent from "the dark continent," who was born in Hawaii (surely that can't be a state, unless we pretend - for purposes of those historical fictions - that it was in 1941), wants to "walk in" to your neighborhood school and talk to your children! If Barack Obama is not dangerous to children, then the America as understood by those "left behind" isn't real, and that is a hard thing for the barely educated (or educated in isolation) to comprehend or accept. So, he must be very dangerous indeed.

The map of the divide is not simple - no matter what liberals (American term) think. But the divide is very real. In today's global economy the US has no more reason to stay together as a nation than Czechoslovakia did. I know that most New Yorkers would rather be part of the European Union and I know that Oklahoma would rather be politically allied with Saudi Arabia (extraction economy, extreme conservative religiousity) - though few in either place could understand why.

Other bloggers have written excellent discussions of the educational issues involved, at Will Richardson, at SpEdTeacher, at Principal's Page. But I'm here simply to suggest that this is one more bit of evidence that the two parts of the United States are preparing their children to be the citizens of separate nations. And that divorce takes a big step forward Tuesday, noon Eastern Time.

- Ira Socol