28 December 2010

The King's Speech

There is a certain collection of literature I feel is important for people seeking to understand "disability" in a deep way. This includes books like Borderlinersand The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, films including Edward Scissorhandsand Rory O'Shea Was Hereand plays like The Elephant Man... Anyway, there are not many. Most suggest either "cure" or evoke the notion of "supercrip" and I despise both of those tropes.

But I watched The King's Speech this week and immediately added it to the list. Yes, the context... the British Royal Family... is far from most of our experience, but only one level of the film is "royal/historical" (though that is a very fine level indeed, with some fascinating attempts at insight into both the Queen Elizabeths of our age). The other level is a much more common tale. A tale of disability and bullying, powerlessness and power, perseverance and the high costs of being seen as a success.

"Bertie Windsor" is mocked and abused because he cannot do "the expected" easily. This occurs at the hands of the father who loves him and desperately wants him to succeed, and at the hands of those - including his older brother - who simply enjoy feeling superior. He is mistreated by quack "healers" - wait for the marbles scene - and made to feel as if he is somehow less than human, royal birthright or not.

This film is not a tale of triumph. Yes, George VI becomes a beloved monarch who did much for his nation at its time of greatest peril, but that is not the point of the film, or of this man's life. Rather it is a story of fear, of loneliness, of desperation, of effort, and yes, of cost. Becoming what others want/need him to be is a mountain which "Bertie" must scale, and it is a climb which injures him in permanent ways. As the film The Queen puts it, [Tony Blair on Elizabeth II] "That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job SHE never wanted! A job she watched kill her father."

And it is not a tale of "cure" either, though Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue uses that term. Bertie needs "accommodations" his whole life - in the form of the personal and constant efforts of Logue at every speech. He needs - in the media of the time - to be seen much more than heard.  It never gets easy, it never gets solved, and Bertie battles his "issues" his whole life.

When you watch the film, when you watch Colin Firth's face as he struggles, as he is humiliated, see the faces of all the children in our schools who find themselves struggling, with speech, with reading, with writing. And stop telling them to "try harder" and reach out with the individual helps they need. And accept that they are fully human, even if they never will quite do things as you do.

- Ira Socol

21 December 2010

"God bless us, everyone"

What was Charles Dickens modeling when he gave us "Tiny Tim"?

"'As good as gold,' said Bob, 'and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"

1870s illustration
It is Christmas, and so our television screens will be filled with one of literature's most enduring portraits of disability, Tim Cratchit in Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol.

Tim has a small part in the book, but it is a powerful one, even before the pity inducing film performances of the 20th century. But, after debating with a friend on Twitter over whether Tim was a "positive" or "negative" for the disability community, I wanted to separate Dickens' Tim from Hollywood's Tim, because they are somewhat different characters - different in crucial ways.

The first difference stems from both time and intent. The book Dickens wrote at the start of the second industrial revolution was an indictment of early capitalism, barely less "radical" politically than the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which would appear just five years later.

In Dickens' story Scrooge's capitalism runs over everyone and everything in its path, it is as malevolent to the well-born as it is to Tim and his family. Tim might be there to heighten sympathy a bit, but really, he is just another voice protesting for a more humane world. When Hollywood, or the British film industry, retold the tale before and after the World War, it became more Christian than political, and more sympathetic than angry, and Tim's position within the story changed.

1951 Tim
"The image of the Tiny Tim gained popularity in the 1940's and 50's when charities focused on finding cures for disabilities such as polio. They realized that pity opens wallets, so they began poster child campaigns. These campaigns played on society's fear that this thing, this disability, this horrible tragedy, could very easily invade their homes. Unless, of course, they sent in money to find a cure. The undertone of these campaigns was clear: G-d forbid you end up with a disability like the child on the poster. You're life will no longer be worth living; you'll be less then human (Shapiro, 1994)."

Tim gets prettier in these films, cuter. Of course everyone does. In the 1938 Hollywood version Bob Cratchit is fat. Capitalism has no longer run amok, rather, we are telling a story of charity, and charity needs the 'poster child.'

So the film Tiny Tim is sweet, high-voiced, pretty, and pathetic. But is that the character Dickens described?

To me, the literary Tiny Tim is something very powerful - especially in the context of his time. Whatever Tiny Tim's "affliction" - kidney disease is the most speculated - Tim was a fully embraced human in this story, when all across Britain, northern Europe, and the United States society was beginning to dehumanize those who could not 'compete.' The first "school" (asylum) for "idiots" was opened in Paris in 1841, with various other separated facilities appearing along with industrialization over the next 30 years. Tim was not separated. He fully participates in the life of his family. He even participates "as a male" - going to church with his father and brothers, not staying home with the females as they prepare the Christmas dinner.

And unlike so many "defectives" of the period developing as Dickens wrote, Tim has a voice. A clear, respected voice. This may not sound like much today... unless you've ever attended an American IEP conference or its equivalent in other nations... but in 1843 it was perhaps as radical as Dickens' call for redistribution of wealth.

Dickens is also decidedly less "romantic" about the ending. Though films often end with a "cured" and robust Tim, all Dickens will say is, "Tiny Tim, who did not die." There are no promises of "normality" here, only promises of humanity.

The visions of disability matter, and they need to be brought out into the open, and discussed. I like to use Edward Scissorhands as the classic example of trying to drag "the disabled" into "normality" by making them "heroic servants." I'd love high schools to do The Elephant Man - the play- rather than hold "carnival game"-type disability awareness weeks. (Compare it to the very different film as well). I saw a fabulous college version of Richard III a few years ago with Richard as a "contemporary" disabled man. In a wheelchair, constantly stared at by an unblinking video camera.

But we can begin this Christmas, in our homes, to explore those visions, and the divides between sympathy and empathy, and between victim and human. I see Tiny Tim as a great step forward for 1843, and sadly, in many ways, a great step forward today. But it is not a big enough step either way.

- Ira Socol

17 December 2010

What do you do with history?

Two New York Times efforts ran in parallel this past week, and emphasized all that we might do in schools if we move away from the bizarre subject divisions imposed on us in the late 19th Century.

One, running for some time now, has been an effort to watch the build up to the United States Civil War 150 years ago. I cannot recall the Civil War Centennial, but I'm old enough to have grown up with the aftermath - that is textbooks and lessons which often emphasised a "morally neutral" vision of that war. "In these sensitive times [the 1960s] we need not offend the South," I came to presume before I knew of the bizarre power of the Texas State School Board over American curricular content.

The view the Times is offering this year is much deeper, much more conflicted, much more interdisciplinary, and much darker.

Slavery Visualized: from The New York Times
The county-by-county demographic mapping of slave possession, a map-making work of 1860 census workers, tells us much about the times, and even the sciences of the times, if we embrace this opportunity. But so does this tale of "Jim Crow on West Broadway" regarding race relations in the "free" states. For a nation which actually believes that slavery ended in the United States on "Juneteenth" it is important to discover what really happened [actually: "Legally, the last 40,000 or so slaves were freed in Kentucky by the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Slaves still held in New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also became legally free on this date."].

In this series you will find ways to lead your students into history, literature, geography, map-making, statistics, music, art, political theories, calculus if you wish (can't discuss artillery without calculus), all based in fantastic stories.

This week that series has been joined by a story from a hundred years later, December 16, 1960, when two airliners, a DC-8 and a Lockheed Constellation, collided in fog-bound skies above New York Harbor.

This was a traumatic moment for New Yorkers, even those of us too young to really recall it...

Years later "older kids" would scare us with stories about planes "falling from the sky" - or worse - "boys falling from the sky." The event was a critical marker - where jet travel became something other than simply glamorous - a little taste of the loss of RMS Titanic48 years before. More than that, for those raised after World War II, but with the constant threat of 'death from above,' this was a frightening manifestation of that.

You can start here and follow this story. One of inexact sciences, yes, and mathematical equations, but also a depiction, in words, sights, sounds, of another time. A depiction of both the apparent simplicity of the 1950s and the complexities our nostalgia hides.

Stephen Baltz
Especially with the link to a child's story, you could build a fascinatingly complex set of projects around this bit of history, from glide paths and gravity to the march of technologies ["As hard as it may be to imagine today, it was standard practice then for a jet hurtling over the metropolitan area at more than 350 miles an hour to be left to find its own way for minutes at a time. When the controllers on the ground were tracking planes on their radar scopes, using grease pencils to identify them on plastic strips called “shrimp boats,” they could not judge altitudes."] and the patterns of racism, classism, and urban decay patterns.

Now, take a minute and imagine how boring any of these topics - James Buchanan, the speed of a falling object, block-busting in Brooklyn - might be if separated from other stories which give them context, which create avenues for student interest. You know, like the classes we've all attended.

- Ira Socol

15 December 2010

A week without technology?

Just about every "education reporter" in the United States - from small market local media to The Today Show - has written this story at least once by now. Students are asked to spend a few days or a week without "technology" so they can - well, get smarter? be less distracted? become better at human interaction? become better humans?

OK. Yes, by "technology" these people mean, "tools their teacher is uncomfortable with." By becoming "better" at something, these people mean, "becoming more like the teacher." Though those tidbits are never reported.

So students are asked to turn off computers and mobile phones, but not clocks or pens. They are asked to not use email and SMS, but school busses seem fine. They are asked not to use digital signals, but paper is actually recommended.

We need to understand this a whole lot better. Technology is the tools with which we manipulate the world, or even the art of manipulating the world, and it is time to stop pretending that it is "anything invented after [I] was born.

A small paper making machine. This is NOT technology.
The book, and the paper it is printed on, even the ink used to form those letters, are gigantic technologies. Expensive, polluting, highly-evolved technologies typically controlled by a few major capitalists - from Bertelsmann to Barnes+Noble to Amazon. Pens and pencils are also invented technologies. Sort of complicated and dangerous too. Kids cheat with them. Bully with them. And there's still a chunk of graphite in my hand from when I was nine and got stabbed for - I'm sure - "no reason at all."

But there are technologies I'd like schools to go without, for a week - or much longer... Technology "abandonments" that would truly demonstrate important things to kids...

Let's try a week without clocks and bells. Few technologies interrupt the learning process more, and limit learning to "the shallows" more, than the school timetable. And few things belittle students more - or expose our hypocrisies more - than bells. They are not just Pavlovian, they are unfairly so. Kids are "late" when the bell rings, but teachers often insist that they get dismissal power, meaning bells are only significant when they can punish students.

So take a week. Cancel the start time and the finish time. Abandon the class schedule. Let students pick which of their classrooms they want to be in - and when. Let kids spend a day working on one thing, or five minutes, whichever they need and want. Let them eat when they want, use the toilet when they want, debate Shakespeare when they want. See what happens.

Our school schedule was invented by Henry Barnard to train kids for industrial shift work. Is that what are schools are still designed to do?

Let's try a week without desks and chairs. Pile them all up in the corner and ignore them. Let kids bring what they need to make themselves comfortable. As I asked one school district: "Do any of you have furniture like this at home?"

The chair and desk, that contribution of William Alcott in the 1830s, might have made sense them. But we have central heating now, and carpets are available everywhere. And pillows are cheap at Ikea - so are lapdesks. And kids would rather be comfortable.

And... teachers might find themselves worrying a whole lot less about controlling how kids sit in their chairs.

Let's try a week without books and paper. We know how many of our kids struggle with reading and writing - the physical acts. The word decoding, the holding of the pen, the traditional keyboarding - these things are our primary creators of disability.

So let's get "Socratic" for a week. Lets get fully digital (adaptable text, speech recognition) or simply verbal/audio. Let's talk and listen. Let's think out loud and work on auditory memory.

We might see a whole new set of student skills rise to the top with those "Gutenberg technologies" stripped from our kids' lives. We might see a whole new kind of learning.

- Ira Socol

13 December 2010

Comfort and Joy

At a certain point in my childhood I would spend a lot of time sitting on the shoreline rocks at Davenport Park in New Rochelle, looking across the water at the ruins of Fort Slocum. I could have been at school, or I could have been with the others not in school at the Park's car park, or down at Hudson Park, or up at The Mall, or wherever. But sometimes it is better to be alone.

Fort Slocum (now fully demolished) from the Structural Descent Blog
There are a lot of places you go as an adolescent or pre-teen when you need to be away, when you need to work on seeking yourself. I've written "some" about this...

The Drool Room(2007) River Foyle Press

We so rarely acknowledge this need in schools. In fact, we fight daily against this. Our students - especially secondary students, go through the day without any personal space or time. It is an abusive, continually challenging environment which forces students to adopt the worst of self-defense mechanisms - from bullying, to gang membership, to surly disassociation from all those around. It robs students of the psychological space in which to think, to add knowledge to a framework in a personally effective way. Our students end up acting exactly as caged rats - with lizard brains locked in survival mode - they simply fight or please their captors, rather than having time or opportunity for higher learning.

This is why, when I ask people to "re-think learning spaces" I rarely suggest that they think about "schools" at all. Our notion of "school" is a trap. It presupposes a certain concept of spatial and societal organization which interferes profoundly with our expressed desires for education.

The Long Meadow, by Frederick Law Olmsted, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
I ask instead that we look at parks, and bookstores, street corners and coffee shops. Places where people voluntarily go to learn and commune. Places where people can make themselves comfortable, join groups or not, and let their defenses down.

Outside the Brooklyn Public Library, Main Branch [photo cc: Ira Socol]
Because defenses and discomfort block the possibility of learning. If I'm uncomfortable, fearful, hungry, thirsty, worried about time - those emotions dominate the brain. There is no room for higher order thinking.

JP's coffee, prime hangout, Holland, MI
So, space design, like the "Do Not Disturb" sign, the classroom hiding place, creating a more "ADHD-sensitive" set of school rules, corridor open spaces with comfortable furniture, even increasing "passing times" to allow kids "safe times" and, of course, personal technology devices which allow momentary escapes and personally directed learning, will all allow students to make space and time their own.

Make sure your classroom has various kinds of furniture, various kinds of lighting, various kinds of noise control. Make sure your school offers kids options in terms of space wherever they are. Booths, high tables, benches, in the cafeteria. Carpeted floor areas to hang out on. Umbrella tables outside and in offering a tiny sense of enclosure. Make sure those spaces offer choices - calm, interactive, private, voyeuristic, loud, quiet, and make sure creation tools - from wireless access to drawing spaces are available. We want students to have the option of personal learning time or an environment with contagious creativity.

This means being less paranoid. It means less pretending that somehow your school security systems will see all.  They won't. They don't. Right now they miss the bullying going on by the lockers - hall or gym. They miss the sex acts in the back stairwell too. They miss the casual cruelty of the crowded corridors during your 4 minute time between classes. But your attempts at security do make your students' lives miserable. So just calm down.

Seattle Public Library
"Instructional Tolerance" is a key phrase. It implies accepting that your students are individual humans who will shift between on-task and off-task, between engaged and unengaged, between interested and bored, just as you do. It implies that your students need space just as you do. And "planning time," and - sometimes - they need the right to be alone - physically or just mentally.

When I sat in that park - in a place as comfortable for me as any I have ever known - I was breaking all "the rules," but I was not away from education. There, certain parts of my brain relaxed in important ways, and the world came into a certain kind of focus. I sat on fossil-pocked boulders hacked up and flipped by the movement of great glaciers. Tidal pools with life's beginnings glistened at my feet. The inexorable reach of salt water stretched to the east and west. Airplanes began their descent toward LaGuardia. Wind pulled some boats along while others moved with throbbing motors. A Civil War-era fort marked one horizon, speaking of a time when distances were much greater and, perhaps, war much closer.

All kinds of things I had heard in disconnected trivial segments from "teachers" came together in a place I might both learn, and find questions.

Why couldn't school offer me that?

- Ira Socol

07 December 2010

Teach (Know) Your Children Well

This was the last night of the undergraduate course I co-taught with Sara Beauchamp-Hicks this semester. It was a class in Special Needs Students in Regular Ed - inclusion - and in the technologies which make that easier. But while we used lots of technology, exposed these future teachers to lots of technology, our goals were more personal, and more human...

So we began the last class session with this clip of a Japanese classroom...

There's so much here, about everything from creating a classroom environment which allows dissent and values every child to the way that project-based learning re-orients the learning process, and the students were struck by how different that class - and the student-to-student attitudes therein - were from what they see every day in their "pre-internship" placements. That difference became even more obvious when we watched the next video...

"I've spent a lot of time focusing on autism," one woman said, "on giving them voice, but after watching this I realized how many kids need to be given their voice." We talked about a lot of things after that, and then, just before the end, I showed the beginning of Mickybo and Me. Before I started this I asked the class to focus on the boy they'd "meet," to assess his strengths, to consider what issues he might have in school, to think about how a school might make these strengths work to help him overcome some of the socio-economic issues he might struggle with.

Because I'm very sure that this isn't "rocket science." This isn't about "common cores" or standardized tests or more time in the school day or private school operators or any superman. Helping kids find their path to learning lies in knowing the kids, and in getting the learning environment to meet their needs.

In the end we want these future teachers to know that we really do not want them producing any "product." Humans are not raw materials ready to have "value added." They are individuals who deserve to be treated as such. Individuals who will learn differently, have different interests, and who will grow up to lead different lives.

If we got any of that across this semester, it was a good semester indeed.

- Ira Socol

01 December 2010

Learning Space

Above is the best educational space in the College of Education at Michigan State University. Just off the building's entrance, in a heavily trafficked zone, there is this space overlooking the Red Cedar River. Behind "the photographer" is a coffee shop, and in this area there are booths and big tables and small tables, high tables and desk height tables. Regular chairs and bar height chairs. Bar stools. Benches, couches, and soft chairs. And a broad window sill to sit on. At the far end of the picture are quieter rooms with similar furniture mixes, including a couple of tables separated from other spaces by a level change. To the left, out of the picture above, is a small maze like zone of screens creating places for one to four people to gather quietly, and next to that, is an open zone filled with creation equipment - powerful computers and tools for video production, interactive white boards, giant monitors, etc.

This arrangement allows people to find their comfort zone, whether individually or as groups. It affords them "what they need" - whether that be fast wireless or "decent" coffee or a pita wrap or a doughnut or, yeah, a flip camera or a powerful scanner. You can have quiet and (a certain level of) privacy, or you can be loud and very public.

But most importantly, this space is an intersection. It is where people from every different part of the college bump into each other, meet, discover, talk, share. It is where silos break down and communities mingle and overheard conversations become opportunities for intellectual cross-pollination.

It is our "commons."

How different that is from our classrooms, our formal conference rooms. How different this is from the K-12 classrooms our students work in.

In 1832, when William A. Alcott wrote his "Essay on the Construction of Schoolhouses" and introduced the classroom-as-we-know-it, with desks and chairs all the same in rectangular rooms, he was advancing a certain idea of education, and a certain conception of society. He was trying to both make students more comfortable, protect female dignity, and support teachers. Alcott is no villain here, but we might think that (a) times have changed, (b) student needs have changed, and (c) our knowledge of the young brain and the learning process has grown in the 178 years since. Alcott, a keen observer, would - I think - be shocked to find his designs still central.

Alcott's classroom, 1832
This notion of "the commons" really matters, on so many levels. If your school is broken into little dis-connected rooms for discrete age-groups and subjects, if your classrooms are filled with one kind of desk and one kind of chair, you have created extreme limits on your pedagogical opportunities.

You have prevented much "peer" tutoring, you have prevented kids from joining ideas together, you have forced yourself into disciplining uncomfortable children, and you have blocked "natural" learning paths.

Remember, when Alcott created his rows of desks, at least his classroom already included all ages, dealt in all subjects, had no set time-schedule, and offered big windows looking outside on two-sides, specifically arranged to the natural sequence of the day would be obvious. Your classroom probably lacks many of those benefits.

Those are not the only ways in which we actually offer our students a "worse" experience than what Alcott was recommending:
"Again—no provision has been made for the pupils standing at higher desks a part of the time, because it is believed they may sit without injury for about half an hour at a time, and then, instead of standing, they ought to walk into the garden, or exercise in the play-ground a few moments, either with or without attendants or monitors. Sitting too long, at all events, is extremely pernicious...

"The relative position of each pupil should occasionally be changed from right to left, otherwise the body may acquire a change of shape by constantly turning or twisting so as to accommodate itself to the light, always coming from a particular window, or in the same general direction.

"If a portion of the play-ground is furnished with a roof, the pupils may sometimes be detached by classes, or otherwise, either with or without monitors, to study a short time in the open air, especially in the pleasant season. This is usually as agreeable to them, as it is favorable to health. A few plain seats should be placed there. A flower garden, trees, and shrubs, would furnish many important lessons of instruction. Indeed, I cannot help regarding all these things as indispensable, and as consistent with the strictest economy of space, material, and furniture, as a judicious arrangement of the school-room itself.

"Sensible objects, and every species of visible apparatus, including, of course, maps, charts, and a globe, are also regarded as indispensably necessary in illustrating the sciences. They not only save books, time, and money, as has been abundantly proved by infant schools, but ideas are in this way more firmly fixed, and longer retained. In the use of books, each child must have his own ; but in the use of sensible objects and apparatus, one thing, in the hands of the instructer, will answer the purposes of a large school, and frequently outlast half a dozen books."
In other words, we don't even afford our students today the best ideas of 1832, but a pale reflection of that design science.

So today we must do better. Today our students are much more isolated from society than they were in 1832. Today our students are not parts of big, multi-generational households with numerous siblings around them. Today our students do not play in village squares or farm-yards where all the news and sciences of the world are on display.

So we need not simply dispose of Alcott's rows, we must create Jeffersonian "Academical Villages" with the kinds of urban intersections and parks and coffee shops where people gather, get comfortable, and share human knowledge. We must allow - encourage - our kids to interact, to learn with each other, to collaborate and grow together.

Please, lets stop teaching in a bad replica of an 1832 learning space. We can do better.

- Ira Socol

30 November 2010

Carnegie v. Gates: Centuries of Educational "Reform"

The Carnegie Library of Homestead, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
On a hill on the north side of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh sits a remarkable public library. Actually not just a library, this incredible building, opened in 1898, includes a massive "Music Hall" and a full community athletic center, including a pool. It is a remarkable bequest to the "Steel Valley" community of western Pennsylvania from United States Steel pre-genitor Andrew Carnegie. But it was not just a good deed, it was a deep attempt at an apology.

The Library overlooks the waterfront site once occupied by the Homestead Steel Works, site of the nightmare Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, one of the low points of American industrial "democracy" - a moment when U.S. capitalists demonstrated exactly how little they thought of the society which had made them rich, and the U.S. government demonstrated that it belonged to wealth, and not the people.

Andrew Carnegie wanted to get into heaven, and unlike today's Christian capitalists, he did not believe his ruthless pursuit of profit and failure to support his society via taxes would get him there.

So once he sold the world's largest steel-making corporation to J.P. Morgan, he devoted much of his life to making amends for his commercial life by giving his money away. Much of this effort was directed toward education in the United States and the United Kingdom. He endowed universities and, of course, public libraries, and he created a foundation which came to dominate educational research in the 20th Century.

The Carnegie Corporation - and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching - funded, supported, and advocated for many commissions and reports which structured 20th Century education. Everything from the curricular structure of high school - in which Carnegie helped spread the Committee of Ten division and order of secondary subject matter - to the notion of high school credits and seat time ("Carnegie Units"), to the idea of generous retirement plans for teachers, were generated by these organizations carrying out the wishes of their benefactor.

Carnegie had massive wealth, and he used it to do the things which were important to him. Some seem like undeniable good works - those free libraries we all use. Others, the promotion of educational industrial standardization for example, now seem like disasters (and seemed disastrous at the time to educators such as Maria Montessori). This kind of agenda-setting power of the wealthy always seems a double-edged sword, but equally, it is always counter to the idea of democracy. Grand societal decisions occur via personal grants from an aristocracy, not through community decision-making or community effort.

Fast forward 100 years, and now data management is to American capitalism what steel-making once was. Not the non-contributory wealth-making of financiers like Jay Gould (then) or a Lloyd Blankfein (now), but massive engines of production, jobs, and great fortunes. And today's Andrew Carnegie - in some ways - is Bill Gates Jr. No, he wasn't born poor like Carnegie (he followed a more conventional 20th Century path to massive wealth, leveraging the advantages of being born wealthy). And I don't think he is motivated much be the fear of going to hell. But he does imagine himself as the great capitalist benefactor of today.

And while we all might find his efforts on global health to be laudable - like Carnegie's global peace initiatives - Gates' work in his home nation, on education, seem worse than Carnegie's mixed results. Perhaps that's because he isn't motivated by that fear of hell, perhaps it is because he is still motivated by egotism and greed. He believes - in Horatio Alger form - that he is not just an expert, but a morally good man, because he is very rich. Of course if his policies preserve his family's generational wealth advantage, that is all good too.

Diane Ravitch this week:
"The struggle for control of American education continues to evolve at a dizzying pace. I read that Bill Gates advised the Council of Chief State School Officers to eliminate seniority and tenure and recommended that schools stop spending to reduce class size and stop giving teachers extra money for master's degrees. He wants teachers to get paid based on "performance" (i.e., their test scores). I guess we are now seeing a full-court effort to impose the corporate model of school reform, and Gates is the leading spokesman.

"No, wait, I take that back, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said something very similar in a speech a day or two earlier, where he seemed almost happy to say that the days of wine and roses are over and schools must learn to do more with less. They seem to be sharing scripts. I don't know who is the leading spokesman.

"I can imagine some of Secretary Duncan's predecessors, such as Secretary Shirley Hufstedler or Secretary Richard Riley or commissioners of education such as Frank Keppel or Harold Howe saying something very different. I can imagine them going to the public and urging them to support more resources where they are needed and more equitable funding. I can hear them saying that we need to thank our hard-working teachers, and we need a stronger profession. But Secretary Duncan likes to win plaudits from the people who love to cut education budgets. Go figure. The eerie similarity between Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates makes me wonder who is running the Department of Education.

"Funny, about the same time I read Gates' demand to eliminate tenure (that is, the right to due process), I got a letter from a young teacher, expressing his concern about what was happening in his district. When I asked if I could post his letter on my website, he asked me not to use his name because he is untenured. This is not unusual. I have received hundreds of letters from teachers who have asked for anonymity, because they fear reprisals. Some are tenured, some are untenured.

"Since Gates is a multibillionaire, he can't possibly understand what it means to work in an environment where you might be fired for disagreeing with your boss. Nor can he possibly understand that schools are collaborative cultures that need senior teachers who are ready and willing to help newcomers. He can't imagine that school is different from Microsoft or other big corporations. Let's be honest. CCSSO and The New York Times pay attention to what Gates says because he is so rich. If he didn't run the biggest foundation in the world, if he wasn't one of the richest men in the world, would anyone care about his opinion of education? Really, who would care what he said if he were the chairman of the Whatzit Corporation and sold widgets?"
(you may want to read all of "Ravitch answers Gates")

It is not to overstate Gates' personal wealth or what that wealth can buy to suggest that he has become the engine driving the current corporate-based "reform" effort in education on two continents. His money lies behind a constant stream of misinformation spread from Seattle to Westminster. His ability to speak to any newspaper, any network, even almost any school - an ability based solely on his wealth, not any inherent capabilities or knowledge - make him a powerful voice no matter how misinformed he might be.

Today, we still live with many of Carnegie's mistakes: Our kids take Biology before Chemistry and Chemistry before Physics because Carnegie pushed a Committee of Ten curriculum based on alphabetical order, not logic or an understanding of learning. Algebra is an essential course rather than Logic because Carnegie needed to beef up secondary math. We equate "seat time" with knowledge because of a Carnegie report. But at least we have the libraries.

What damaging nonsense is Gates inflicting on the next hundred years? We can only guess right now. But whatever it is, it will not be a community's mistakes, decided through research and democracy. Rather it will be the blatherings of one rich guy - a guy who is incredibly wealthy mostly because he bought someone else's work and passed it off as his own.

He's calling the shots on our future. If we let him.

- Ira Socol

29 November 2010

Faux Nostalgia and the Damage it does to Education

The "Holiday Season" is here, and so is our annual high-point of faux historical belief, when nostalgia is mistaken for history. We imagine old "Colonial New England" Christmases with everyone gathered around the tree, forgetting that most of New England outlawed Christmas throughout the 18th Century as a "pagan holiday." We see Christmas Trees many places Christmas Trees would not have been before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made them "Anglo-fashionable" in 1848. And we think of gift giving, a tradition brought to North America for the sixth of December (St. Nicholas Day) - more or less, as something which has always been part of the holiday. The American right-wing, forgetting that they usually belong to Christian denominations which once rioted to stop Christmas celebrations, treat all that we do now in December as if it was an essential part of 2,000 years of Western Tradition.
"On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after [St. Peter's Church near what is now "Ground Zero" in Manhattan] was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed by some in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens were injured, and a policeman was killed."
But at this high point in nostalgia for the never-was, we cannot forget the place where false memory might be most damaging, education. A while ago Tomaz Lasic, Dr. Greg Thompson, and I wrote a never-quite-finished series which began with the question: "Why is everyone an expert on education?"

It is a serious question, especially at a moment when New York State's chief education officer has once more caved to pressure from Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and allowed a "completely unqualified" person to take the job running New York City's public schools. What makes Cathie Black an expert on education? Or Joel Klein? Or Paul Vallas? Or Arne Duncan? Or Michelle Rhee? Or, for that matter, any of the thousands of recruits who will go into classrooms this year via Teach for America? Or, to move further down the road, the hundreds of thousands of parents who want schools to remain the same or return to some mythical "golden age"? (you know, homework and basics, desks in rows, "classroom discipline," et al)

Well, yes, what makes them experts - in their own eyes - is that they remember going to school.

But what, exactly, do they remember? And is any of their memory related to any understandable "truth"?

There seem to be two kinds of memory out there, both fundamentally flawed. Type one is dominant among the names I listed above. They went to "good schools," where they "did well," and hung out with other kids who, "did well," and they came home from school to some Leave it to Beaver-esque home with supportive parents. Actually, this is also the memory - however more recent - which Teach for America kids hold. School was good, and it was easy, we just have to be nice, smart people in front of the kids and everyone will get As on their tests.

Type two is more common among the type of low-income parent who signs their kid up for a KIPP Boot Camp. Here, school was terrible, but the terrible is - it has been taught by the media - the fault of the students themselves. They didn't have enough rules at home or in the classroom. They didn't work hard enough. They dressed badly and blew off their homework. If only they had done all these things right - think of that Horatio Alger image of Barack Obama and his mom in the wee hours of the morning doing tough schoolwork at the kitchen table - then they'd be successes today.
"I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.  

"Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."'
That is America's Horatio Alger myth in full flower. Failure is not a system issue. It is not because schools typically work in absolute opposition to the way kids learn. It is not because school is designed for compliant white Protestant middle class typically-abled children and the way they've been raised. Failure happens because you are a moral failure - because you didn't suffer enough. It is Calvinism gone wild. We ignore that Barack Obama was the child of not one, not two, but three super-intelligent, super-educated graduate students, in a family of college graduates, who attended elite private schools, and we stare instead at his miserable 4:30 a.m. suffering.

The myths are different, but both equally reinforce the current failed way of doing things. Both blame the children (and parents) for the problems and defend the essential structure. Both lead away from radical - effective - changes and back to conservative tinkering which imagines that schools as-we-know-them are some sort of natural creation of God's. And the combination - from the winners above and the losers at the "street" level - of these mythic faux memories block real change both legally (see The U.S. Department of Education), societally (see The New York Times), and even when principals and teachers try to truly improve things despite all that.

My father, who had a clearer memory than most, used to say, "Of course high school was 'better' back then [1930s], only the top third of kids ever made it past eighth grade." Then he'd say, "Those kids still do fine, in fact, they'd do fine if there wasn't school." And he'd point to my sister, the one who was the perfect student, who, if there was no school, would have sat in the library all day anyway. I suspect he said that mostly for my benefit. He knew I wasn't stupid. He knew I could work intensely hard. And he knew school was all wrong for me. Every day.

That's the reality. That was the reality. But just like Colonial Christmas in Boston was a full work day with slaves sweating and workmen shredding cold skin at hard labor, we recall it all differently. Unfortunately, misremembering history will never get us where we need to be.

- Ira Socol

22 November 2010

Blogging for Real Reform - Real Ideas, Not Faux Reform

Please go to http://www.wallwisher.com/wall/BRR2010 and stick your post on our wall...
More posts at Cooperative Catalyst where Paula White is tracking this a bit better than I.

Superintendents, Principals, Parents, Teachers, Technologists, Researchers, Professors, Students: A global education community seeking real transformation of education for our times. Different visions, different motivations, different ideas, but one commitment. Schools for student learning...
Also see the October 17th blogging event posts...

My post on ending age-based grade cohorts is just below... and on physical redesign, "The Third Technology"...

Looking at the day... Pam Moran - Superintendent Albemarle County Public Schools
                          and Dave Britten - Superintendent Godfrey-Lee Public Schools 
                          and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
The day's Twitter Feed Transcript

Chad Sansing: “Beep beep doot doot doot.” 

Adam Burk: "Education for Sane Planetary Citizenship"
Becky Fisher: "Effective at What? Effective for Whom?"
Mary Beth Hertz: "Take the Power Back: Teacher-Run Schools"
Paula White: "Planting… or Uncovering… Brilliance"
Ira David Socol: "Changing the Structure"
Ira David Socol: "The Third Technology"
Teacher Ken: "One educational reform I would like to see"
Dan McGuire: "e-portfolios will be central to the new form"
David Britten: "Real Reform Begins with Raising Expectations"
David Britten: "The Rule of Law
Pam Moran: "Imagine. November 22, 2010
Jon Becker: "To everything there is a season... except learning
Chris Lehmann: "What we can do: New Teachers"
Dan Callahan: "What #edcamp has to teach us about PD: A letter to administrators"

Gregory Hill: "Reform Your Perceptions of Geography and “Salvation”'
Miss Shuganah: "Don't Be Stingy or, Forming a Grassroots Organization to Save Public Education"
Stephen Hurley: "Re-Inventing The Learning Process: Really?"
Larry Ferlazzo: "The best lists on School Reform
Deven Black: "All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky"
David Wees: "Reform Through Action"
David Wees: "Voices of Reform" - an open VoiceThread
John T. Spencer: "A humble reform"

Greta Sandler: "America needs Reflective Educators"
Shelly Terrell: "Education needs Reflective Educators"
Monika Hardy "Document...Reflect...Share"
Damian Bariexca: "Deschooling Education"
Michael Kaechele: "Real Reform Goes Backwards"

Ann Etchison: "Golf, Procedural Knowledge, and Ed Reform"
Tom Altepeter: "Justifying Injustice"
Mike Lubelfeld: "Educational Reform - changing the way(s) in which we always do things in public schools..."
Corrie H. Kelly: "“Drowning in shallow water”: How can we deepen literacy instruction?"
David Keane: "Students' Insights"
Kevin Hodgson: "Blogging for Real Education Reform: Empower Students"
Dave Meister: "Positive Reform, making it happen"
Jason Flom: "My Inner Pollyanna’s Ed Reform Blue Sky"
EdReformPR: "Zombies are attacking! Ready the children!"
Bill Bushaw: "National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform: PDK’s Commitment"
David Warlick: "Education Reform is Re-establishing, Redefining and Retooling"
Tony Baker: "Technology Training for Teachers - The Right Way"
Alice Mercer: "Blogging for Reform: First, let’s fire all the teachers…"
Michael Thornton: "Go beyond the Four Walls of the Classroom"
Jonathan Martin: "Computer-based Math: the silver bullet for Math education"
Steven W. Anderson: "#Blog4Reform-Slow Down And Take A Step Back..."
Jeremy Lenzi: "How can (I, you, we) work toward ed reform?"
Steve Barkley: "Teacher Evaluation"
Heidi Hass Gable: "Mixed Messages"
Eric Sheninger: "Passion Drives Us"
Ryan Woods: "Educational Dilemma - What's Important?"
Sabrina: "Whatever happened to promoting student ownership & responsibility?"
Chad Ratliff: "Are We Preparing Developers or Producers?"
Peter Pappas: "9 Questions for Reflective School Reform Leaders"
Kyle Pace: "The Passion Bug Is Spreading. Have You Ever Caught It?"
Lyn Hilt: "Win the Battle"
Lyn Hilt: "Loosen up (your hold on classroom management)"
Walter McKenzie: "From Drift to Shift: Celebrating the Transformation of Education"
EdVoices: "
Celebrate the National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform on November 22"
Magistra Mahoney: "Experience Matters"
Stephanie: "Ed Reform – Critical Time To Truly Make Change Happen"
Jeff Delp: "Unfettered Educational Reform"
Chris Fancher: "National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform"
Chris Fancher: "God Bless Elementary School Teachers"
Gail Poulin: "Sharing Ideas in Teaching"
Mrs. Brophy: "Those that inspire…teach"
Tobe Buffenbarger: "$120,000 for 20 Years of Service?"
Lani Hall: "An appreciative vision"
Ruth Bettelheim: "Time for Schools to Stop Damaging Children"
Bob Sprankle: "Overlooking the Obvious"
Milena: "Data and Collaboration"
Bill Ivey: "So Close and yet So Far"
Bill Ferriter: "Testing is Destroying Schools"
David Truss: "Passion Driven Conversations"
David Truss: "Thinking about Change"
Vanessa Peters: "Preventing Reading Learning Disabilities"
Jeff Jarvis: "Who says our way is the right way?"
Chris Fritz: "The WHY, WHAT, and HOW of Real Education Reformation"
Rick Hess: "Even on IDEA's 35th, Special Ed Dollars Aren't Free"
Mrs. Ripp: "A Teaching Degree Does Not Make a Teacher"
Nancy Flanagan: "Sub-a-dub-dub"
Deanna Senn: "Research + Classroom Application = Real Ed Reform"
LeeAnn: "The Power of Integrated Curriculum"
Doug Peterson: "Blogging for Real Reform"
David Loitz: "It is about relationships, stupid"
David Loitz: "Transformation Plan: Designing Backwards"
Walt Sutterlin: "A Mission from the Heart"
Institute for Humane Education: "The World Becomes What You Teach: Transforming Our Education Systems to Graduate Solutionaries for a Better World"
EduRebel: "Real Ed Reform"
Nicole: "How I would change education"
Mr. Zimmer: "America's next best teacher"
Kathy: "Education for Profit and Its Nexus with the DPVA Decision"
Moriarity: "Blog4Reform"
Michael Sweeney: "Should we be good at school?"
Laura Thomas: "Real Reform"
Kristin: "Should we be good at school?"
Rafaela Ramirez: "Do I have to good at school in order to be successful?"
Amanda Brooks: "Should we be good at school?"
Ashley Alexander: "Should we be good at school?"
Nick2.0: "Should we be good at school?"
Jason Tarpey: "Should we be good at school?"
McMan: "Irrelevant?"
Shelley Owen: "My Rants and Praises"
Carolyn Foote: "21st Century Education is the Real reform"
Bonitadee: "What is our Purpose?"
Mike Klonsky: "The trend for appointing CEOs to top ed jobs"
Julie Woestehoff: "National Education Blogging Day"
Julie Woestehoff: "School Funding and the Kindness of Strangers"
The Frustrated Teacher: "KIPP Should Change Its Name To CIPP: Updated"
Dana Bennis: "Ten elements of a good education"
Robert Skeels: "Governor Elect Brown: Please remove Ben Austin from the State Board of Education"
Cian Sawyer: "And I'm not saying there's only one way..."
David Timony: "No, #Reform is not "Trending"'
Richard Lakin: "44 Words which Bear Repeating"
Adrianne Stone: "The “New Normal” of Sec. Duncan"
Ann Leaness: "We Stand Beside Them and Learn"
Garden337: "A moment for education"
Eric Juli: "Name your reform"
Mary Rice-Boothe: "One size does not fit all"
Rick Glass: "Creative Courage"
Lauralee Moss: "Normalcy of Public Schools"
Pam Lowe: "Keeping what's important in focus"
Chris Liebig: "What is "content"?"
Kelly Tenkely: "Education doesn’t need any more Nip Tuck: Our Normal Approach is Useless Here"
Frank Noschese: "Science for 21st Century Students"
Milton Ramirez: "US National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform"
Renee Moore: "Taking charge of our profession (again)"
Yoon Lim: "Learning for pleasure, seriously"
Stella Porto: "Blogging for Real Education Reform"
David Andrade: "Incompetent Teachers or Dysfunctional Systems? Fix the system to support the teachers."
David Andrade: "Excellent Education Model - WPI's Plan"
ZebBassoon: "There Is NO "Magic Bullet"; "Superman" Does Not Exist"
J. Robinson: "Is It Reform or Is It Memorex? Nature of True Education Reform"
Charlie Sutherland: "Schools a third way"
Zoe Branigan-Pipe: "Teaching Teachers to become Global Educators – an inquiry approach"
Paula Naugle: "Transform to Reform"
ITeachQ: "My #blog4reform suggestions"
Tyler Rice: "What I want from my union"
Tyler Rice: "Reform Education - one classroom at a time"
Donna Mace: "Even in failure the St. Johns County public school system got it right"
Shullamuth: "Re Form: Why Libraries are the Future of School."
Jennifer Sertl: "Fostering Passion and Curiosity"
Cathleen Richardson: "“What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying” '
Shelley Krause: "Mind the Gap"
Sarah Puglisi: "Yeah, Maybe It's ALL about Finland"
David B. Cohen: "Education Reform Tragedy, and Catharsis"
Casey Corona: "The Collective Individual"
Adam Fletcher: "A New Vision for Students in School Reform"
Chad Sansing: "Gowalla and the virtual geography of learning"
Eric Brunsell: "On Education Reform - Equity"
Carrie Bakken: "Minnesota teacher to Secretary Duncan: To improve teaching, put teachers in charge"
Ted Kolderie and Joe Graba: "Describing teacher-run schools in a Teacher Magazine interview"
Nicole Pelton: "Obsessing over education"
Mark Ahlness: "Trust Me"
Tamar Wyschograd: "One parent's story of one school"
Shelley Wright: "Taking the plunge"
Marla McLean Atelierista: "An Awakening of Sorts"
Ryan J. Wassink: "Ryan's Recipe 4 Reform"
Anne O'Brien: "Reform Education: Get Rid of the “Students as Widgets” Mentality"
Scott McLeod: "If we were really serious about educational technology"
"Arne Duncan" [ED.gov]: "Making Real Progress on School Reform"

I will keep building this throughout the day...

- Ira Socol