29 October 2010

Where the adults are...

A twenty-year-old kid named Declan Sullivan died this week.

He died because adults, responsible, extraordinarily well-paid adults at one of America's most prestigious universities had first convinced him that his job videoing football practice was so important that he would take extraordinary risks to do it, and then then because those same adults refused to take the normal precautions for employee safety we'd expect of any workplace.

how about taking responsibility?

But he also died because of skewed priorities in American education, skewed priorities and sorry messages which claim too many lives. That this occurred in the same 24 news cycle which included the incredible homophobic Facebook posts of an Arkansas school board member makes the need for change more obvious than ever.
"The harmful by-product of big-time sports is the myopia required of those intimately involved. To compete at the elite level requires an entire network of people -- athletes, coaches, trainers, support personnel -- to all subscribe to the same skewed belief system: that what they do in the field of competition actually has some larger, intrinsic value beyond winning a game, meeting a profit margin or padding a university's coffers."

"When you work and live around others who only know how to live and work that way, the grand scheme gets shoved aside.

"And the only times these people are driven from their cocoons is when reality in the form of tragedy punctures the walls. Declan Sullivan died Wednesday afternoon when the automatic lift that had him high off the ground collapsed amid the 51-mph wind gusts in South Bend, Ind. He was up there in those conditions because his job was to film Notre Dame football practice." - Mike Wise in The Washington Post
When I read Mike Wise's column I posted this comment: "In high schools across the United States, and yes, in Middle Schools and even some elementaries, football is raised up as the ultimate expression of both the school and the community. At universities across the nation the football coach is typically the highest paid person on campus, often the highest paid public employee in the state. Football is the most promoted feature of so many universities. Are we really surprised that a 20-year-old assumes that he is serving a "higher mission" by risking his life for the most important thing at the most famous university in America. Notre Dame is an extreme example of this of course, but it is hardly alone. And I feel awful for Brian Kelly, who went from being a great coach at a university (Grand Valley State) where varsity athletics had a logical (Division 2) place in the scheme of things. Now, sucked into pursuing "the dream" and the accompanying riches, he is here, wondering why he was not responsible enough to move practice inside, or at least tell one of his student employees not to behave recklessly. The cure for this "disease" lies in rethinking our educational priorities up and down the line. In rethinking which kids get most celebrated in our communities. And in rethinking how we hold adults at educational institutions accountable for their decisions.

Real men hate...
But in that comment I did not make the most important case, which lies in how football is used in American schools - and far too often that use is to enforce conformity, to train tribalism, and to encourage bullying by ranking some students as more valuable than others.

Walk into any high school, or onto most US university campuses, and you will see an adult created hierarchy. Often it begins with football players at the top, and gay students, minority students, disabled students, at the bottom.

Peer pressure doesn't create that ranking, "grown ups" do. They're the ones who build giant football stadiums while skimping on essential educational tools. They're the ones who fill those stadiums with people who rarely find the time to cheer differing types of student accomplishment and courage. They're the ones who walk around deifying certain athletes and celebrating even those close to those athletes, thus announcing to all who is valued.

So there is the wilful ignorance of basic safety...
"According to government safety regulations, “work on or from scaffolds is prohibited during storms or high winds unless a competent person has determined that it is safe for employees to be on the scaffold and those employees are protected by a personal fall arrest system or wind screens. Wind screens shall not be used unless the scaffold is secured against the anticipated wind forces imposed.”' - South Bend Tribune
And then there are "traditions" which, when embraced, savage kids on all sides of the lines we adults draw. The Declan Sullivans who are figuratively (or in this case literally) crushed by joining in, and the students who figuratively and literally die because they fail to match the single descriptors of success we create.

What do we do? Well, maybe we can start by acting like adults. Responsible, accountable adults, and consider the side effects of our actions. If you look around your school, decide what you can do to spread the acclaim around. Maybe skip every other football game, devoting that time to watching a "minor" sport, or a play, or a concert. Maybe you need to hold pep rallies celebrating student art. Maybe you need to offer your support to the school's Gay/Straight Alliance instead of attending a basketball game or two. Maybe "Homecoming" should revolve around some things other than a football game and a popularity contest. Maybe you think about athletics as an important part of education for a large group of students, and thus invest more in participation and a bit less in creating a spectator sport (adding sports rather than rebuilding major sport facilities might be an example of this).

I don't know the answers, but I think I know the questions we should be asking. And those questions revolve around the messages we are sending to our children.

- Ira Socol

26 October 2010

New Tools for Your Toolbelts (or, Thank You Scotland, Michigan)

I talk a lot about something I call "Toolbelt Theory," here and elsewhere, because I believe - very strongly - that our responsibilities as educators includes helping our students learn how to use, adapt, invent, and choose the information and communications tools which will give them the greatest level of independent access to whatever and whomever they want and need to know, discover, enjoy, interact with across their lifespans.

With that said, there are some new tools which students - of all types - can make use of out there...

The MITS Freedom Stick is a new "Americanized" version of the AccessApps - LearnApps USB-Flash Drive system developed by RSC-Scotland North and East.

Download this onto your computer and load the suite onto a 4gb or larger flash driveand your students can carry much of their accessibility with them to and Windows PC, anywhere. We paid special attention to the Firefox Browser on the Freedom Stick, and it comes with a wide range of supports and bookmarks.

Of course you can also download the system MITS or directly from RSC-Scotland North and East and develop your own individualized or school-district wide solutions.

If you want to make Firefox accessible on your home or school computers, take a look at our MITS Add-On Collections. There are solution packs for Windows/Linux, for Mac O/S, and an additional language pack to help English Language Learners.

If your students need Word Prediction, you might want to have them compose using Google Scribe. Scribe is free and offers Word Prediction in English, Spanish, and Arabic. It is not the most sophisticated Word Prediction (it is based in letters, not phonetics), but it does a great job within those constraints (your students can always paste their writing into Ghotit for grammar checking).

Create&Convert is another solution from RSC-Scotland North and East. It joins together a group of tools for converting digital text into fully accessible electronic books, via Microsoft Word (2003 or 2007) and OpenWriter. Having your "print-disabled" students learn to create their own accessible books is an important part of building independence.

And more from RSC-Scotland North and East. My Study Bar loads onto your Windows computer and gives your students a powerful sets of tools and tutorials easily accessed through a floating toolbar.

- Ira Socol

18 October 2010

It gets better

Over the weekend Alec Couros connected me, via Twitter, to this extraordinary video...

In a political realm (especially Texas) dominated by cowards, this man is a giant hero
The Trevor Project

...part of the national "It gets better" project created by columnist Dan Savage in an attempt to help LGBT teens and young adults get through the misery that is secondary education.

I cried, as will any actual human who watches this incredible display of courage and compassion. And I got angry as well. I got angry that we, strangers to specific communities - in this supposedly "Christian" nation, must so actively intervene to assure our children that they are loved and valued creations of our God.

And then I thought how much wider this is...

I say that not to diminish for one moment the horrific pain inflicted on kids - by their peers, parents, schools, communities, and nation - because of their sexual identity. Nor do I wish to insist that every gay educator come out and be a public mentor. Mr. Burns heroism is part of his identity - but - and this is essential - our identities are ours, for disclosure, description, definition, and our forms of heroism are ours. It is not for "us" - any of us - to insist on some form of "authentic identity" from others. That kind of thinking is its own form of bullying.

But, if we are "educators," and I mean that in the broadest sense, we can speak to and for kids. We can and we must. We can, within whatever identity we, as adults, have crafted for ourselves, find students we can connect with and say, "It gets better."

School is Hell (as Matt Groening says)
There are so many chances to intervene. To stand up and protect, or to look into the shadows which surround your school's grounds and corridors, and find the child, teen, young adult, who needs to know his or her value.

I coached soccer, about a decade ago, in a high school in a supposedly "good district" (that is, one which got good scores on standardized tests). It was a small school (about 800-900 kids K-12 in a single building), in a small community. And every morning, according to my players, one history/government/economics teacher greeted them by calling them "faggots" because they chose to play this football rather than that other kind (terrifyingly, a Google Search indicated that this guy is now being interviewed for a position as principal of a Colorado high school). Down in the elementary school wing, we had to fight to let youth soccer players - girls and boys - wear their team shirts to school on Fridays. They wanted to do this because the school expected youth football players and youth cheerleaders (down to Kindergarten) to wear their uniforms to school on Fridays. But it was a big fight. As one teacher told me, "we don't want to celebrate differences."

In three years the principal came to half of one game. The Superintendent came to none. The only teachers who came consistently were a Middle School English teacher and the High School theatre teacher. Of course the football stadium would be filled Friday nights with more people than lived in the town.

If soccer players are abused because they are different, if "faggot" is the faculty insult of choice, what chance might a gay student have in that school?

What chance might any "different" student have?

I think I did a pretty good job coaching soccer there. We won more games than we lost. A few players really blossomed into fabulous athletes. We even gave other kids a place to hang out when we played Saturday night games, crowding ourselves onto the tiny "American Football"-sized field so we could play under the lights and offer teens another option besides getting high on the town's tiny beach or hanging out at the gas station's cappuccino machine or at Tans + Tapes across the street (yes, that kind of small town).

But none of that's important. Despite fantasies embraced by many coaches and parents, school sport is not vocational education. What was important, whether as soccer coach, or Odyssey of the Mind coach, or as "the tech adult" for theatre productions, was the ability to share the days with kids who often lacked community support.

To share the days with kids who were, maybe, a touch too smart to make some teachers feel comfortable, or a touch too active (or creative) to want to play a fall sport that is mostly standing around waiting for adult instruction, or a touch too uncomfortable with print to learn plays by reading them, or a touch too unhappy at home for any of a thousand reasons, or a touch too excited to sit in a classroom for hours on end. Maybe, even, that some of them had intrinsic personal desires which weren't welcomed in "a place like this."

And to be able to see these kids, and to tell them that I once had these kinds of problems, but that I had managed to survive. And that they could survive too. That, yes, "it gets better." That school is often hell. It is far too often a cruel hierarchical place where conformity and compliance is worshipped by the adults in control, but, it is also over at age 18, and then you can escape. You can leave. And you never have to come back.

I think about those conversations, and they are/were the most important things I did/do as an educator. Whether it was ordering pizzas I really didn't need on a Sunday night just to talk with my team's Libero who worked 40 hours/week while his mom lay sick in bed, or meeting students this semester who feel abused by certain professors. "Hang on," "I understand, believe me, I understand," "It gets better."

We can fight bullying, and we must. We can fight the roots of bullying, in every class, in every activity, and we must.

But while we are doing that we need to do something more. We must look into the shadows - the shadows that are there in every classroom, in every school hallway, in every community - and we must crouch down in those shadows with the children, the adolescents, the young adults who hide there, and we must tell them what we understand - what we have learned through our nightmares - and we must say, "it gets better."

- Ira Socol

I actually began writing The Drool Roomfor certain "damaged" boys on my team at that high school. In "cleaned up" form I shared some of the stories. And I think I said something much like... "it gets better."

17 October 2010

Tom Whitby's Blogging Day: Insist on Change

Tom Whitby's Reform Wallwisher for Today

"Re - Form" 

Perhaps the problem lies in our definitions -
  1. To put into a new and improved form or condition; to restore to a former good state, or bring from bad to good; to change from worse to better; to amend; to correct; as, to reform a profligate man; to reform corrupt manners or morals.
  2. To return to a good state; to amend or correct one's own character or habits; as, a person of settled habits of vice will seldom reform.
  3. (transitive, intransitive) To form again or in a new configuration. Wiktionary
Because we can not, as some politicians and educators think, "restore [American or British-style schools] to a former good state," or "correct it," or, as Arne Duncan or Bill Gates imagines, "reform corrupt manners or morals." Our educational systems have not "gotten bad" through unionization or lowered standards or through poor public management...

They were, as I wrote last month (over 5 posts), designed from the very start to fail at least 75% of their students. If they are now failing just 60% or 65%, they are remarkably over-achieving. Something I attribute to many great teachers and great public school administrators.

Schools are not "failing" because of teaching quality, or some bizarre concocted view of 'lack of competition,' or even because of insufficient teacher education. They are failing because we are pursuing an absurd concept of education. It was evil when it was constructed originally - designed to keep people down. It is absurd now, because, as nations, though we know better, we continue to maintain a structure which only works to make our nations 'banana republics' where only the offspring of Gates, Duncan, Cameron, Clegg, et al will succeed.

So, we must insist on change. Actual, fundamental change.

Politics: These changes will be difficult, but they are necessary choices. And perhaps they begin with the need for everyone concerned about education to vote, and to vote straight Democratic in the US midterm elections. Now this sounds odd, Obama has been no friend to schools, or teachers, or students. And yet, efforts to "punish" the US Democrats, like the desire to "punish" Labour in the UK or Labor in Australia, will backfire. Unless you are a dedicated Leninist, you really don't want to move your nation "forward" by bringing on right-wing chaos in hopes of sparking a revolution.

Let's face it, we cannot begin to conceive a more fair, more inclusive, more inspired educational structure without building a fairer, more inclusive, more inspired economic structure, as TheJLV pointed out so well recently. Kids who are hungry because of cuts in the social safety net, or sick because even minimal health care reforms are rolled back, or have parents locked up in re-education camps (as New York's Republican gubernatorial candidate suggests), are nowhere. As are teachers with support structures and school construction programs gutted. Nor will we fix anything by giving tax cuts to Goldman-Sachs executives and letting them decide which schools to support.

So, first, as the UK is learning in horrible fashion, as Australia barely averted, first, keep the nation moving left. Then, pressure that left to act in the best interests of children.

And we do that by being much more involved, and much more continually involved. By pressuring candidates, by becoming candidates, by grouping contributions so we cannot be ignored, by doing - for example - exactly what "we" did in the Democratic primaries in DC and New York - tossing out DFER supported and other faux progressives when we're not handing elections to right-wingers or their collaborators (remember, even the most "moderate" US Republican - Maine's Susan Collins, stripped massive amounts of school funding from the stimulus package in 2009 - it was her one "accomplishment" of this congressional term).

Next, where you can, elect your school boards. Do not accept candidates who don't understand the needs for fundamental change.

Teacher Education: We need teacher preparation programs to run fundamentally different laboratory schools, which train new teachers in radical new ways of thinking. These laboratory schools need to truly experiment, but they must start by undoing our 19th Century paradigms. The age-based grades, grading systems, classrooms, subject separations, industrial blocks of time. It is these structures which have failed, these technologies, these visions of what "teaching" is. And so we must train our next generation of teachers in totally new conceptions of education.

We also need history and philosophy as major, inherent parts of our teacher education programs. We need to understand why the systems in which our future teachers succeeded is so horribly wrong. That is difficult to talk about, but there are no shortcuts here.

Each teacher: Each educator, on the ground, must push the envelope as far as possible within their environment. There are no shortage of examples, whether your environment is supportive, or insane. Years ago, I'm thinking early 1970s, my mother, a third-grade teacher, somehow harrassed her principal until he let her knock down walls separating classrooms so she and others could create a vast multi-age classroom. She somehow got the space carpeted and threw out the desks and chairs. The school did not really transform around her, but the kids in that space did fabulously. I still get messages through facebook from former students who want to thank her.

My 'Neil Postman' alternative high school was pushed into existence by one Junior High English teacher (and union leader) who just wouldn't let kids get pushed out of school.

Every day I talk to teachers fighting for their kids - fighting for the freedom to do what is right for their kids.

I know teaching is difficult enough, but this is 'war time,' and we somehow have to do more.

Each parent: You have to fight for the change you need, but you have to understand that the change we need does not look like the schools we have now. I don't care how well you did, or how rosy your recollections. The evidence is clear, this system doesn't work for us - our society - and we have a moral obligation to truly "re-form" it. To start again, to create something which creates opportunities and possibilities for all.

Parents, I know you - first and foremost - want to protect your children. Obviously. But we must be better than that. We must want to protect - and enable - all of our children.

Insist on change. Real change.

And join us for the next day of Blogging for Real Reform on November 22.

- Ira Socol

15 October 2010

A Tragedy, indeed.

"In the tiny high school of the zone’s Promise Academy I, which teaches 66 sophomores and 65 juniors (it grows by one grade per year), the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room. There are three student advocates to provide guidance and advice, as well as a social worker, a guidance counselor and a college counselor, and one-on-one tutoring after school.

"The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on. Mr. Canada called the dismissal “a tragedy.”' - The New York Times, 12 October 2010
I want you to think about this quote from an article on the Billionaire Boys' Club's "Superman," Geoffrey Canada and his much "lauded" Harlem Children's Zone schools.

"...but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on." How lovely.

Superman just left Jimmy Olsen out there to die, and he says, "hey, it's a tragedy."

"We start with children from birth and stay with them until they graduate," unless their test scores might embarrass you and your Wall Street donors. Yes, that's the alternative to public education we are being offered.

Now, I like much of what the Harlem Children's Zone represents. I like the Euro Socialist vision for America. Big corporations and the very rich should re-distribute large amounts of their obscene wealth to those born without silver spoons. Americans should have a right to affordable health care, no matter what their income level. U.S. parents should get support from birth as parents in France, Denmark, Germany, and Finland do.

I agree with Canada, the solution to education lies in solving the problems of poverty, not the reverse.

But Canada's education model is less impressive. Despite having a teacher for every 8 students, despite massive funding, his students tend to do - on average - a little bit better than kids in some of the most poorly supported public schools in New York City.

Like Teach for America and KIPP he makes rich people feel good, expends a lot of cash, and still has to set the bar incredibly low in order to show any results at all. [According to KIPP's favorite study, about 10% of KIPP schools show significant improvement after 4 years when compared to America's worst schools. According to TFA's favorite study (oddly by the same research group) TFA teachers were a tiny bit better than completely unprepared, untrained novice teachers - if you don't count English Language Learners or Special Education students.]

But the trick to all - the politically aggressive part of the charter school movement, the Harlem Children's Zone, KIPP, TFA, Democrats for Education Reform, is student selectivity, and the ability to dump kids - as Canada did - who fail to measure up.

Which is not what public educators do.

In a fight with KIPP Press Agent Jay Mathews a month or so ago I mentioned the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids, MI. Godfrey-Lee has real demographic problems - very low parental income, very low parental English proficiency, very low parental education, the lowest property tax base in the state. And Godfrey-Lee gets no massive funding support from Goldman-Sachs and others. So students may struggle, and the Middle School might get declared to be "in need of improvement." But what Godfrey-Lee does not do is toss out kids who struggle.

Godfrey-Lee doesn't do it. Nor do thousands and thousands of public school districts with similar demographics across America. They open their doors to every child who walks in. No complex parent application process. No publicly humiliating lottery. No "we're full" signs. No conversations about how "a student with these kinds of issues might be better in a public school." No limits on transportation services. Just a door which opens and stays open, for some students until they are 25.

This is what separates real educators from the "school reformers." Public educators don't kick out a grade because the kids might make you look bad. Public educators don't discourage special ed kids. Public educators don't fail to provide transportation. Public educators don't pick and choose their results.

Educating all children is hard. But the solution does not lie in the Geoffrey Canada model, the KIPP model, the charter model. The solution lies in child-centered education, and in reforming our national priorities, so we become a nation where every child matters.

- Ira Socol

Blogging for Real Education Reform

There are two groups battling over education these days, whether you live in the United States, in the United Kingdom, Australia, or elsewhere.

One group, including some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on earth and the biggest corporations - Oprah Winfrey, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, General Electric, many Ivy Leaguers, and a bunch of ultra-rich hedge fund managers - have proclaimed themselves the saviors of our schools, and with their vast resources, they have squeezed all dissenting views out of the national media.

The essential idea is that, education being an industrial process, if it is not working, it must be the fault of some combination of the raw material(the students) or the production line workers (the teachers). (see the pathetic Rhee/Klein manifesto for the ultimate version of this, as many have pointed out)

This presentation of the problem ensures that the system - which has always worked well for the rich and powerful - does not change. Plus, as a side-benefit, it destroys unions and forces unsuccessful communities onto a treadmill which guarantees that they will never catch up.

But there is another group, and another narrative. This narrative arises from people with more experience in education than Michelle Rhee's two years in Baltimore or being handed a job without qualifications by Richard Daley, Mike Bloomberg, or even Barack Obama. This is a student-centered narrative of systemic change. It is a narrative which understands the fundamental issues facing our students. A narrative which understands, in the words of the Sacramento (CA) schools, that "there is no magic bullet to our problems, no easy answers. But collectively and collaboratively, I believe we have enough power to change the lives of the children we serve." We can't get NBC or Oprah or The New York Times or even Barack Obama to pay attention yet, but we can start the conversation from below.

I'm asking you, those who know schools, and who seek real reform, to blog with me and others on Monday, November 22, 2010. Describe the change you think education needs - in America, in the UK, in Australia, in Ireland, in Canada, wherever. The date is "American" - it is designed to push the conversation as those in the US gather with their families for Thanksgiving, but the idea is globally important.

If you add a link to your post in the comments section of the "Blogging for Real Reform" post which will appear here on November 21, I will link to it - whether we agree or not - no matter what you say - short of hate speech. And then I'll ask you send your blog post, and a link back to the collection, to as many of your local news sources, and local leaders, as you can.

Please. Let's take back the discussion, let's take back the agenda. *a diploma from Sidwell Friends is not required to participate in this event

- Ira Socol

13 October 2010

Creative Collaboration

What is your school teaching?

I'm not discussing content. Content can be interesting, or worthless (a must read blog post in itself), but its a small part of school. What schools "teach" first and foremost is that completely unhidden "hidden curriculum" - the curriculum which aims to turn children into passive, compliant, individuals.

Tuesday night I came home from "teaching" a class. I drove through the night listening to NPR programs about the almost-ready-to-begin Chilean miner rescue and about recollections of a similar rescue 62 years ago in Nova Scotia. At home I watched two things on my computer, the BBC Feed of the Chilean rescue and the video below, sent to me by the head of MSU's Alumni Association:

I have a BA in Criminal Justice/Juvenile Justice from Grand Valley State University,
where I had extraordinary professors

Spring Hill, Nova Scotia 1958 - the rescued (above)
and the rescuers (below)
And as I watched both, I met friends, from Virginia, and Perth, and Salt Lake on Twitter, and we talked about this.

"What is rescuing those miners? Learning, care and creativity. Sounds familiar?" said Tomaz Lasic from Western Australia. "And collaboration" I said.

We thought about how amazing humans are as problem-solvers in an immediate crisis, whether rescuing astronauts on a crippled moon journey or capping a runaway oil spill a couple of miles beneath the ocean, but how bad we are at developing solutions when we lack the immediate issue to focus on.

I said, "We are brilliant problem-solvers when we want to be. I think we owe God better than we give on too many days."

And Dave Doty said, "No doubt--but most days we're too busy casting blame than pulling together. This is very inspiring."

So let us be inspired.

"What is rescuing those miners? Learning, care and creativity." "and collaboration."

And what are we teaching?

In the morning this Tweet arrived via BBC's stream: "1022: Chilean Planning Minister Felipe Kast tweeted: "A great day for restoring faith in our collective ability to face huge challenges with urgency and hard work."

This comes at an interesting moment. Today, Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee resigned. Rhee is famous - or infamous depending on who is doing the writing - for dissing the value of creativity. It is also the day that The New York Times chose to look 'under the press releases' of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.

Speaking of the Zone's new high school the Times reports: "The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on." (article p. 2)

Yes, they kicked out an entire grade because the kids' scores would have made those who promote these schools look bad. [I think Canada began with the best of intentions, it is sad to see him become a shill for American Express and right-wing politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.]

No one dismissed: the Chilean rescue was the result of allowing competing creative solutions (three rescue tunnels were being dug) and a commitment to actually leaving no one behind.

There was also a comment on my blog post about helping students to see differently: I had quoted Postman and Weingartnerabout prohibiting teachers from "asking any questions they already know the answers to." And a commenter asked, "Is this supposed to apply only in limited situations or what? I can't imagine how kids would ever learn math, for example, if their third grade teacher only posed problems (say, from calculus) that she couldn't figure out."

I tried to explain that I could demonstrate, allow discovery, allow students to doubt, that "testing" - this commenter was really not talking about "teaching" - she wanted to know how to test "knowledge of facts" - is not "learning," but he/she could not understand.

And now I think of the GVSU video and the Chilean Mine Rescue. Both could certainly be "assessed," but neither could be judged on the basis of an "objective" exam. Neither could have happened without "students" looking over each others' shoulders, sharing work, talking, arguing, disagreeing. Neither could be limited by a specific knowledge base or the separation of knowledge areas. Neither could have happened with artificial time limitations.

Both are the result of many things we far too often discourage in school.

So, let us be inspired. Let us be the opposite of Michelle Rhee. After all, if kids are creative problem solvers we can easily leverage that to allow them to "read" and "write" in many ways. If kids are creative collaborators we can help them learn to build networks for learning and discovery. If kids are caring humans we can give them a world to learn about. The technologies of this century make the mechanics of reading, writing, math easy, it is the creativity, the empathy, the collaborative skills which need the encouraging.

We need classrooms filled with the chaos of imagination, the chaos of 'in-progress' communication capabilities. The chaos of many different paths to learning. We don't need more tests, we don't need more "standards," we don't need more scripts. And we don't need more unified strategies.

Let us embrace a learning system which helps create adults who will change the world. We can do it. It isn't easy, but, Yes, we can.

- Ira Socol

09 October 2010

Where does space begin?

There's a really cool weather balloon experiment video going around...

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

This is truly an awesome thing... but here's the question - did this balloon "reach space" as the Twitterverse and news commentators often suggested?

Let's look at another vision of this zone above the earth - 19-21 miles (30-34 km) above sea level...

"On Dec. 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, Chuck Yeager narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after vainly battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling craft. In this incident he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. "

from Wikipedia [cc]
How can our students decide? What does "space" mean? What does "atmosphere" mean?

And how can you introduce this discussion, a discussion with no clear answers, which you probably don't really know how to answer, into your classroom?

NASA's site has a couple of great resources - a flight data simulator and this little video, but maybe we need to challenge everyone in the classroom - a classroom of any age kids - with a few questions:

If, at 122 km above earth (75 miles) the Space Shuttle can begin to switch from using hydrogen thrusters (space control systems) to "aero surfaces" - that is, the wings begin to function, what does that suggest?

If the International Space Station flies at 278 km above the earth (173 miles), what does that suggest?

If meteors are burning up at about 90 km (55 miles), what does that suggest?

Pause here: Was the balloon in the top video a homemade spacecraft?

MIT students - who might be more exacting in language - called 93,000 feet "near space" a year ago...

...which was also the term Mr. Clapper's Chemistry class used...

Let's ask more questions then...

Is it oxygen which defines the line between atmosphere and space? Is it particles which reflect sunlight (giving earth its blue glow from space)? What does friction mean when we are speaking of "air"? Does a parachute depend on friction?

Can we experiment with friction from air, with aero surfaces, out on the playground?

What does friction look like outside the "atmosphere"?

And who began to figure this out? Where?

Pause again here: Was the balloon in the top video a homemade spacecraft?

The X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne went a bit over 100 km (62 miles) above the earth. Alan Shepherd, the first American "in space," went 116 miles (187 km) high. Yuri Gagarin, the first human "in space," went 105 miles (169 km) up. In the early 1960s the U.S. Air Force X-15 planes flew above 50 miles (80 km) 13 times and above 62 miles (100 km) twice.

What is 19 miles from your school? What is 50 miles from your school? What is 62 miles from your school? What is 116 miles from your school? Go out on the playground, create a 1 meter = 1 mile (or 1 km) scale, and look at the distances. Does that matter?

Now, you've got all sorts of math happening, atomic chemistry, physics, geometry, history, geography, and you've got to take advantage of all that.

But most importantly, you've let your students know that questions really don't have "right answers." That we humans are investigators. That we seek answers by looking widely. And your class will not be the same.

- Ira Socol

thanks to Mike Thornton for the question which began this conversation

07 October 2010

History and Diversity. Globally, and in your School

"On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after [St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in New York City] was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside  —  a religious observance then viewed 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 of people were injured and a policeman was killed." - The New York Times, 7 October 2010

Unlike New York's Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Father Kevin Madigan knows all about "9/11" and the attacks on the World Trade Center:
'"Father Madigan returned to St. Peter's Church to make sure the staff got out safely and could get back to their homes. Then he went back outside. On the street, he met a priest who was an assistant fire chaplain and went along with him. "He and I were walking south on Church Street, which is the eastern boundary of the World Trade Center.

'"All of a sudden we heard this BIG RUMBLE! The South Tower was collapsing first—even though it was the second tower hit. ‘Go down here!' I yelled to the priest, pointing to the stairs leading into a subway station. I figured that if we could get down into the station—and nothing collapsed on top of us—we could walk along the subway platform and emerge about four blocks north of the World Trade Center.

'"Transit cops were also nearby and they ran down the steps behind us. ‘Huddle against the wall!' they shouted. We huddled there for about 15 minutes. Dust came pouring in and we began choking. The dust finally settled. We all linked arms. One of the cops had a flashlight so we just walked along the subway platform and emerged again into the open air after about four blocks."

"Father Madigan is still counting his blessings. If he and the fire chaplain had been walking a block or two farther down Church Street, he believes the falling debris of the collapsing tower might have easily killed them."
St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, Barclay at Church Streets, New York
And unlike Archbishop Dolan, Father Madigan knows something more. His church is almost exactly as far away from the World Trade Center site as the proposed Park51 Islamic Cultural Center which has inspired such angst, especially among the ignorant and the easily misled.

And when his church began building, 225 years ago, certain "American crazies" opposed this building too. Claiming it was funded by anti-democratic foreign powers (in this case, accurately, King Charles III of Spain made a very significant contribution), claiming this church would be a center of anti-American activity.  In fact, the "powers-that-were" pushed successfully to have the church moved from the original Broad Street site which was deemed too provocative. But the acceptance of that move meant nothing, as the quote atop this post makes clear. The opposition was not patriotic or concerned with security, or troubled by memory - they despised difference, and they were not willing to accept anyone who acted so bizarrely "foreign" that they'd pray without books in their hands or celebrate a dangerous holiday, like Christmas.

"But [Madigan] said Catholic New Yorkers had a special obligation. The discrimination suffered by their forebears, he said, “ought to be an incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted on more recent arrivals."'

I'm not a big fan of the word "tolerance." Who wants to be "tolerated"? But I am a big fan of acceptance. And I am a big fan of adapting our culture and society in ways which make acceptance seem, and actually be, real.

Rendering of proposed cultural center in lower Manhattan,
two blocks from the World Trade Center, two blocks from St. Peter's
There are, of course, the obvious hate groups which abound globally - often funded by the world's wealthiest people - or backed by mainstream political parties. But the world of non-acceptance is much more pervasive than that, and it goes beyond those who are actively against groups, whether Islamic, Catholic, Jewish, African-American, Latino, etc. And that pervasiveness not only allows the hate groups too exist beyond the fringes, but it allows a hierarchy to dominate our societies, and specifically, our schools.

The problem at the core of the 1780s battle over St. Peter's, or the 2010 battle over Park51, is a belief in "normal," and that belief is an insidious destroyer.

Normal: synonyms: conventional, ordinary, standard, usual. antonyms: unconventional, nonstandard, unusual - abnormal.

In America, whites are "normal," heterosexuals are "normal," Protestants are "normal," people who speak English are "normal," people with a certain amount of money are "normal," people who read a certain way are "normal," people who hear, see, move, walk, pay attention... you understand.

You do understand, right? Because many, obviously, do not.

The same belief structure which allowed a mob to attack Catholics celebrating Christmas in 1806 (at least Christmas was not actually illegal in New York, it was in a number of other states), which allows Republican candidates to win voters over by attacking a Sufi cultural center, allows educators to insist that kids "read" a certain way, sit a certain way, "write" a certain way, take tests a certain way" - it is a belief in the 'absolute truth' of "normality."

Oh sure, these arguments are often couched in codewords. It will be "easier" if students behave "normally," if they "read normally," if they pay attention "normally." It will make them "more competitive," give then a "better" chance to succeed.

Fix 'em all, as we might say. It would be "easier" if all Americans were white, Protestant, English speaking, heterosexuals, right? So many fewer points of conflict and debate. No pesky need to worry that you've scheduled homecoming for Yom Kippur, or that your football schedule creates problems during Ramadan, or that you need to create accessible texts, or alternative tests, or flexible furniture.

But who, exactly, gets to decide what is "normal"? A lot of people who think its fine to expect to speak English when they visit French or Spanish speaking nations are adamant that we only speak English in the U.S. The so-called "Anti-Defamation League" which insisted on the "normality" of Judaism at a Houston high school,  decided that Muslims are not normal. A church which may argue strongly for the "normality" of minority religious practice may argue equally strongly against minority love. And a guy who thinks his racial status should be "normal" is willing to lead a group which actively discriminates against all kinds of students - including those unable to maintain "proper" eye contact, and those struggling to read ink-on-paper.

In schools across America, "normal" is described as being like the schoolboard, or like the principal, or like the teacher. The kids whose behavior, religion, background, skills, and personalities are closest to that of these 'power models' are both "normal" and, of course, successful. The further you differ, the more "abnormal" you are. Eventually, one standard deviation? you get pathologized. You are "at risk," or "disabled."

So I have this wish. I wish to do away with the word "normal," the concept of "normal." I think this has become the ultimate "hate speech" idea. "Normal" allows those who hold power to imagine that they are there by virtue of their innate superiority. It allows them to declare that those who are unlike them are - to use the best literary description - "children of a lesser god."

We are human, we are different. We all need to be respected and understood as the individuals that we are.


- Ira Socol

04 October 2010

How to help students see differently

There is a reason that, when the American Film Institute surveyed people, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbirdwas chosen the greatest hero in American film history.

For me this heroism is not simply represented by the fact that Atticus is someone "born to do our unpleasant tasks," as Maudie says, or by his unstinting sense of justice, but in something even finer.

Atticus teaches all three children in the story to look at the world in ways unknown to the society which surrounds them. Because of this they are able to see Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and Mr. Cunningham in new ways, and - much more importantly - those children, at least two of them, grew up able to transform our ways of seeing. 

So when we read - or see film versions of - To Kill a Mockingbirdor Breakfast at Tiffany'sor In Cold Blood, we are enmeshed in unique world views enabled by Atticus Finch, or at least by Amasa Coleman Lee, father of Harper Lee, neighbor of the child Truman Capote.

On Sunday evening on Twitter @stardiverr and I were discussing the concept of hypothesis. I tend to think schools, and especially the dreaded Middle School Science Fair, should avoid the "hypothesis" idea entirely.

I think this because hypothesis in schools - as in the social sciences - too often means "guess" or - worse - "desired outcome." We "guess" that 'fertilizing' a bean plant with nicotine will damage it, we "want" our reading program to be effective. The result of both is bad observation - confirmation bias - and bad science.

I said that I thought the most important thing we could do with our students - in 'hard' sciences, in social sciences, in literature, in history, across the board - was to teach them to see differently, to look beyond the obvious. @stardiverr agreed, but said that is a hard thing to do. I agreed with that, absolutely.

Invention comes from new ways of seeing. Most of us can not really imagine pulsed signals moving across a wire, yet those who could "see" that, from Samuel Morse to Nikola Tesla to Bob Taylor and his ARPA colleagues, have fundamentally redefined our world. Most of us can only see gravity when we, or something else, falls, but Albert Einstein saw this radically differently, because he saw time and space differently - Einstein saw so differently that we are still confirming his ideas. Most of us can't see a lawn as Scott Fitzgerald did, "The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens--finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch," but because he could merge the new art of the motion picture with the older art of writing in his mind Fitzgerald could create a timeless masterpiece about the American dream.

Is there a way to teach this skill? Or, perhaps more to the point, is there a way not to drive this skill out of children? I ask this the latter way because we all know that if we listen to young children, they see the world in amazing ways, they ask amazing questions, they haven't yet been taught the expectations which limit our vision. Young kids might ask if trees speak to each other, which, it turns out, they seem to do. But older kids, facing "science," stop asking those questions because they are beyond the ability of kids to effectively test. Young kids might wonder what it might be like to live under a purple sky or what would happen to a fish in bowl which somehow ended up in earth orbit. But older kids know these as "dumb questions."

Young kids might be marvellously inspired to rethink what they see as they come and go by a book like And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, but soon enough, their writing is reduced to essays "comparing" and "contrasting," or worse, re-writing Wikipedia articles so they can explain who John Adams was to a teacher who already knows.

Dr. Seuss's first book
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their classic book Teaching As a Subversive Activitysuggested prohibiting teachers from "asking any questions they already know the answers to." (p. 117) That's a good start, it would, as those revolutionary authors suggest, "not only force teachers to perceive learning from the learner's perspective, it would help than to learn how to ask questions that produce knowledge." Yet that's only a start.

No science experiment should ever begin with anything but observation. "I see this and I wonder..." "I hear this and I wonder..." "I smell this, feel this, taste this..." Let us observe, and wonder, and then ask systematic questions which help us get to a hypothesis - an idea far closer to the "end" than the beginning of scientific learning.

No writing assignment should ever begin with anything but, "What questions do you have about this?" or, "What do you imagine about this?" We need to push our children to investigate, to imagine, to dream, to play, to never be satisfied with the canned explanation.

We need to help our students stand on their heads, or look down from a high tree, or to look up from under water, or whatever, as long as we help them to find new ways of seeing. Once they have this new view, then structure can help us climb down into the questions. But before they have this new view, all structure does is prevent people from climbing to new places.

So, we need to create environments in our schools, real, virtual, and academic environments, which allow dreams to evolve and collide, develop and connect.

What we don't need is structures which end up as prisons for the mind.

- Ira Socol

03 October 2010

The Tool Imperative or A MacGyver Complex

"ddraper You really think that school exists primarily to teach kids to use the tools? http://post.ly/10zuH @irasocol stars as #MacGyver."
 Darren (not Don) Draper [1] had said this...
"But you're not really buying this, are you Scott? You really think that school exists primarily to teach kids to use the tools? Whatever happened to student-centered pedagogy? Whatever happened to creativity? Whatever happened to thinking?

"Show me a kid that's learned how to learn, one that can think, can process, and critically evaluate. Show me a kid that's learned how to analyze reality, with or without the use of technology...

And I'll show you the kid that will master the tools of the future, simply because they invented them in the first place."
Now what I had originally said was this...
"The issue is this -

"In order to be lifelong learners it is essential to understand and know how to function with the information and communications technologies of our world, and to know how to adapt when those technologies change.

"In order to be human successes we also must understand how to communicate what we know, how to collaborate, and how to distribute information.

"This is why Socrates drilled his students on memory. In pre-literate Greece, that was the essential tool.

"This is why we taught “reading” (meaning decoding ink-on-paper alphabetic texts) in school, and why we taught writing with pens and pencils, and why we introduced students to libraries. In the Gutenberg era these were the essential tools.

"I sure hope we didn’t do this to preserve our great grandfather’s skills. I hope we did it to enable our students to function in the world.

"Now, the tools of learning have changed, as have the tools of collaboration, of distribution, of creation, and if our schools do not teach these – and much more – help our students to understand how they must manipulate these tools for their purposes – and the world’s – nothing else we do in school really matters, because our students will not be able to effectively work with what they know.

"So when Troy (below) says, “Without technology an educator can be ‘successful’” I think he is wrong (I note as the spellcheck in Firefox allows me to instantly correct his misspelling “‘succecssful’” – a spellcheck which I can instantly switch between US English, British English, Australian English, Irish, and French). So is the colleague who told him, “I don’t need technology to engage my classes” – who, I bet, uses 15th to 19th Century technologies every day in her classroom (printed books, chalkboards, paper, pens, a clock, lighting, windows, chairs).

"Without the technologies which enable communication and information access, education is simply impossible. And if you choose to refuse to use the technologies your students will use – whichever antique technology you are limiting yourself to: books, carved stone tablets, hand scribed scrolls, or cave paintings, Morse Code or mail sent by sailing ship – you are abdicating your responsibility as educators."
So am I just a MacGyver tech geek? Or do I have a point...

Is learning personal or social?

There is personal, internal learning. You don't need a lot of social interaction to know, as an example, that if you stand outside and it is raining, something will change. You might even, without social interaction, learn that - depending on the season - this will feel good or not. And further, you may learn that if you are uncomfortable and you stand under a tree, you make become less uncomfortable. And I'm not here to discount any of that human learning - it is very important.

But to go beyond that - to know what rain is or to know that standing under that tree may not always be the best solution - we humans need social learning. We need to be able to share information.

And sharing information requires technology, which, as frustrating as it is to bring in an academic discussion of an old German Nazi-collaborating philosopher, brings us here...
"Heidegger found his way back to the Greeks in answering the problem of technology. The Greeks use the word techne for technology. Techne does not only refer to activities and skills of craftsman, but also for the fine arts. This is why techne as craftmaking is also techne as art. More than the idea of making and manipulating, techne is a way of bring-forth something. It is a way of letting something be known. The techne of making a statue for example is a way of bringing forth or showing the nature of the human body.

"Techne in this sense is very much related to the idea of poiesis. Poiesis is the origin of the word poetry. Poetry is an “art” of bringing forth into imagery the reality. Like the basic meaning of its etymology, poetry is a way of “revealing” something.

"Furthermore, both poiesis and techne are connected to the idea of episteme. Episteme means being at home, to understand, and be expert in something. In other words, episteme has something to do with knowledge in the broadest sense of the word. Today words taking its root from episteme, like epistemology, connote “knowledge.” Epistemology means the study of knowledge.

"These three Greek terms (techne, poiesis, episteme), although different, have the same essence; they are all processes of revealing, bringing-forth, and opening up. Thus, going back to the question of technology, what is decisive in techne or technology does not lie at all in making and manipulating, nor in using of means, but in the aforementioned revealing. Heidegger maintains: “Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.''
Technology is what allows us to socialize learning. Language (verbal and non-verbal) being, perhaps, step one. Technology also allows asynchronous social learning (step two - languages - pictorial, symbolic, and alphabetic) from the first cave paintings to Twitter. It is through technologies that the world is revealed to us, and that we reveal ourselves to the world.

Lascaux Cave Tour
So, it is a need for technology, not an unquestioning love for any specific technological set, which brings me to insist that technology is the most important set of skills we can help students learn in schools.

We all know this when we remember what "technology" is - our way of manipulating the world. And we all know this when we remember that one of the primary definers of humans is adaptive tool use.

Bonobos use tools, but they don't adapt them like humans do... (cc: Wikipedia)
Yes, plenty of other species use tools, but none adapt tools the way humans do, changing them, developing them. It is what has allowed humans to survive, and significantly, to rise from the middle to the top of the food chain.

Thus, education must be dominated by helping students to understand and adapt the tools of learning and communication. They cannot become lifelong learners without that. They cannot engage the world without that. Their "learning" - without that - becomes limited to the personal.

And we must help them learn and adapt the learning and communication tools of their time. Antique methods make nice hobbies - we still have stonecarvers and scroll artisans, people still make quill pens and papyrus (all awesome YouTube videos) - but none of that is helpful in discovering how the universe works, either mechanically or poetically. And none of that will enable them to voice their thoughts and discoveries to the world effectively.

I stand by what I said... this is not a question of MacGyver theatrics, but a question of human learning.

"Without the technologies which enable communication and information access, education is simply impossible. And if you choose to refuse to use the technologies your students will use – whichever antique technology you are limiting yourself to: books, carved stone tablets, hand scribed scrolls, or cave paintings, Morse Code or mail sent by sailing ship – you are abdicating your responsibility as educators."

- Ira Socol

[1] I had thought "ddraper" was a cute pseudonym, until I realized it was the man's name. When I coached soccer I had a player named "Steve Rambo." His jersey said "Rambo" and he took a lot of heat from opposing players... luckily, he was very good.