28 December 2011

for whom the medium is the message...

Telling stories without words. George Méliès, 1902
"Enough is enough. No more computers, cameras or consoles. No more watches, neckties or perfumes. Heck, no dead tree, no annoying lights, no overstuffed duck, either. I’m casting an ink-and-paper pall over the holiday, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa: This year we’re going to give each other a book.

"A real, hold-in-your-hands paper book. Nothing more, nothing less. Already, the book edict has gone out on paperless email to the two key recipients of holiday love: my children. Noses have been turned up, derisive shrugs have been given: What a downer the old man is. A book? Come on."
The above was the holiday missive from International Herald-Tribune "senior editor" Kyle Jarrard, who went on to describe how all the folks say about digital devices and distraction are nonsense, "I’ve been known to drive the car while reading. Reading is the answer to everything, I’m fond of saying. More long stares have been given in my direction for years regarding my inability to not read," and finally to describe himself as absolutely and completely clueless about literature in general...
"A book allows you to time-travel, or just plain travel to real and imagined places, a not un-neat trick considering the price of airline tickets or space tourism. It allows you to meet evil, wonderful, mysterious, odd, crazy, fun, and not-fun people who often end up being more “real” in your life than real people. A simple tome of paper links you back, for instance, to the age of François I, Renaissance poet and book collector supremo, when the printing press and its wild spread across Europe was as exciting to us all as are e-books today."
Mr. Jarrard is, of course, the kind of easy target I enjoy beginning an argument with. His argument is so patently ridiculous that it creates its own parody, but, as I hope you know, if he was alone in his self-deception, and probably if he wasn't a powerful personage in the world of news distribution, I wouldn't bother.

But he is not alone, and his is a powerful voice, and so there is a problem.
Faith in a medium. A scroll made of sheepskin, lettered by hand.
No vowels, no punctuation.
Now, I can "show" Mr. Jarrard how he might travel to space or even back to 1954 New York City without touching paper, without even opening his eyes. Or how he might travel to space or back to the 14th Century without decoding a single letter, but is this really necessary in this second decade of the 21st Century? Really? Must we point out to an educated, responsible, journalist that one can read and understand Genesis even if it is printed on paper made from cotton or wood-pulp, and printed mechanically? Must we point out to someone like this that blind people managed to understand books even before Braille was developed? Or - perhaps more significantly - must we explain to a senior staffer in The New York Times organization that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were great literature long before anyone had ever written either of those "books" down.

visiting space without the smell of paper and ink

Mr. Jarrard, like too many in education, has a faith-based belief in a medium. Actually, his - their - belief is much narrower than that. It is a faith-based belief in an industrial process, in paper-making machines and rotary presses, for it is a belief in "print," not even in "text." To this group Homer and Socrates were illiterate morons, incapable of experiencing literature, the Blind are a sad, pathetic group forever banished from the corridors of knowledge, and anyone who accesses a newspaper on-line is exchanging depth of understanding for convenience.

And that is very sad. Or worse than sad. It is a kind of evil, an insistence that one's preferred medium, or in this case, textural and olfactory experience, is superior to any other. It is the worst kind of cultural imperialism.

Y. The Last Man. Book One.
My house is full of Christmas books this week. They range from an epistolary novelI gave to my "spousal equivalent" (a Gary Stager term), to a collection of Shel Silverstein storiesdone for Playboy Magazine in the 1960s, to the Momofuku Milk BarCookbook, to Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck, to the first three Vertigo-Paperback installments of Y: The Last Man, a graphic novel.

All tell stories, all take the "reader" places they perhaps have never been, just as the stories included on our #ccGlobal St. Nicholas' Workshop Christmas Site do. There is no actual hierarchy of information delivery here, no matter how anyone, Mr. Jarrard or otherwise, wishes there were. Stories are told well or badly, effectively or ineffectively, entertainingly or boringly, imaginatively or not, in ways accessible to the many or the few, no matter the medium. Poor Shakespeare does not rank below Tom Clancy because he worked in the Elizabethan equivalent of television rather than print. Socrates is not a lesser light than Malcolm Gladwell because he spoke his words and never had them printed and bound. Charles Dickens, that "blogger" of the penny-paper era is not less important than Jack Kerouac even though Kerouac chose to write, like those ancient rabbis, on a scroll.

Brian Selznick, author but child of film-makers, has worked out a literary
mix of comic book, cartoon, and text for himself.
It is essential that we understand this now. It is essential that we stand up to those, from Mr. Jarrard to those who push "Common Core" standards, who seek to rank media in a hierarchy according to their personal preferences and in order to preserve their own status, wealth, and power ("I am important and intelligent because I am highly literate.").

Our students can, and will, tell stories in many, many ways. They will read stories in many, many ways. Sometimes they will read certain ways because that is how their brains work - which is neither, I need to tell you, neither better nor worse than the way yours works - and sometimes they will read certain ways because that is their preference, and thus their human right. And sometimes they will read certain ways because that is the way the author offers access to the story, and sometimes they will need help to convert media because the author's preferences and their needs do not match up - I understand - I have witnessed professors and teachers reading Shakespeare, and though this seems odd to me - the performances are routinely available via YouTube - I do not criticize them. Perhaps they can not hear well, or perhaps they cannot easily sit through a whole performance.

So give your students stories this year. And give them the freedom to tell stories. The medium may matter, but the medium is only the message if the message can effectively be received through the medium chosen. Otherwise, an unreceived story, is, well... not much at all.

- Ira Socol

11 December 2011

Stop asking questions if you know the answer

I was working on a lesson with sixth graders and middle school teachers in doing math without any tools, just in your head. Not memorization, but logic.

So I said, "I've never really gotten the "9 x" table, so, if I asked you what 9x12 was, how would you figure it out?"

See, this is a question I cannot possibly answer for them. There is no "correct" answer possible.

"I'd say," one student quickly responded, "that 9x9 is 81 and 9x3 is 27," he paused, you could see him looking at the addition in his head to check himself, "and that adds up to 108."

"That's not the way to do it," a teacher sitting at his table told the student, forcing me to intervene instantly. "That's great," I said, "perfect. But I can never remember that 9x9 thing like you can, so, does anyone have another way?"

This connects, just keep reading...
Newt Gingrich says that every nation shown here (in color) is "invented"
and thus has limited rights. Do your students agree?
 The teacher had her answer, and she was thinking of traditional school questions, which are really not questions at all, whether asked on paper, or verbally, or via computers, or via clickers, but traps. 'Gotcha' devices to train kids to respond exactly the way they've been taught. When we ask real questions, kids stop repeating and start thinking, and learning.

For me one of the critical ideas in education comes on page 138 of the Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner 1969 masterpiece, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, "Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answer to," the authors recommend, "This...would not only force teachers to perceive learning from a learner's perspective, it would help them to learn to ask questions which produce knowledge."

The teacher who asks, "what is 9x12?" teaches nothing. The question I asked, among other things, introduces the concept of algebra. For the "9x9" kid, x = (9x9)+(3x9), finding the unknown via knowns, and he is thinking, not parroting.

Why critical? You should never ask any question for which you will not allow unexpected answers. If you don't allow unexpected answers, you are declaring that you "know everything," and, as I told some UConn grad students last month, all saying, "I know everything" does is tell students that you are a liar, a bad way to begin a learning relationship.

Now, if you are an American, I understand that your nation prizes simplistic, expected answers and efficiency over learning and democracy, so this is difficult, but it makes it doubly important if our kids are to build something better. Do you, do your students, know that most governments in the United States begin every election by declaring that they have absolutely no intention of counting every vote? They do this - refuse to count write-in votes for "unregistered" candidates - because they can't handle anything unexpected, because it might take too long, whatever. Of course, the unexpected answer is invention (we don't need an improved gas lamp, we need something else), and it is democratic, and it forges new cognitive paths, but yes, it is slower (In Ireland it can take many days to count votes in an election, which would really mess CNN up). OK, maybe a vote for Mickey Mouse is odd, but say 10% of the electorate chose to do that, might we not learn something?

What works in math, in elections, works everywhere. The reason I brought the Andersonville Trial to sixth graders last week was that this is a question impossible to answer definitively. Did the United States government really insist that it was an obligation to take up arms against it if that government behaved immorally? And if so, what does that mean? What did it mean at Nuremberg? What does it mean at Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street?

It was why I asked students, "Where does 'space' begin?" because, well, we've been arguing over that for years.

Newt Gingrich gave us a fabulous history question this week... does the fact that your nation was once part of an empire mean that you have no rights? So, because the United States was part of the British Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Because England was part of the Roman Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Because Greece (like Palestine) was part of the Ottoman Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights? Obviously the nation of Israel was part of the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, is it an "invented nation" with no rights?

Is there a "correct" answer to any of this? Gingrich thinks so, do your students? How might they research this, how might they argue their opinion with real information?

British Empire in 1700, is the United States an "invented nation"
and what exactly does that mean?
Even Christmas offers amazing inquiry opportunities... Was Scrooge redeemed or just frightened into behaving well? Does the Bible require taxation for income redistribution? Why do so many northern hemisphere cultures have holy days around the Winter Solstice? and why is the gift of food so common? Who created our Christmas stories and rituals, and why?

So the next time you start to ask what 2+2=, or when the Civil War began, or the formula for some physics thing... Stop! and ask a question you do not know the answer to, a question you can't possibly know the answer to. It will liberate your students and it will liberate you.

- Ira Socol

09 December 2011

Among Schoolchildren - December 2011

Learning how to work on any device, anywhere
Monticello High School Library
Charlottesville, Virginia
I have spent another week in Albemarle County, Virginia, working with the people, of all ages, who make up the Albemarle County Public Schools. There are fabulous educators there, people who work every day to get better at what they do. People who seem to spend 24/7 reaching out across the globe to bring their students better learning opportunities, better connections, more far reaching experiences. But now I want to talk about the kids.

There are myths in America that our kids are, well, I don't know, "lazy," "uneducated," that they are "failing," that, to use US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's words - just this week - that we are in "a race to the bottom." And believe me, I know our schools are a long way from perfect. The educators in Albemarle County know that their schools are a long way from perfect, and we are putting in some incredibly long days to try and get closer. That is what I joined them in for the past ten, very, very long days, but...

The last five days I worked with students, as I helped teachers re-imagine lessons. We're working on something called "The Iridescent Classroom" in Albemarle County, a form of Universal Design for Learning joined to a deep commitment to getting kids ready for the choices of their century, the choices of their generation, so that they have the skills, the passions, and the knowledge to do a better job than previous generations. This requires, for students who will, for the most part, begin their adulthood in the third decade of the Twenty-First Century, the ability to collaborate globally, to share transparently, to value all cultures and skills, to search rapidly and effectively, to choose tools wisely, and to do a lot more than read and comprehend, but to be constantly able to adapt knowledge to changing environments and situations. It also includes the ability to work anywhere (like an airport, as I am doing now), from many devices, with every kind of person, through every kind of interface. And it means thinking deeply, in transformative ways.

For, to quote one sixth grader this week, "People keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and we have to stop."

He said that in a lesson about the Andersonville Trial. They are starting to study the Civil War and they are beginning Middle School, and I thought a lesson bringing these things together might make sense. Now I don't know what you were asked to do at 12, but I wasn't asked to wrestle with one of the thorniest questions of national morality... when is a person obligated to disobey orders, to rebel against his government.

We started by watching the scene above, representing a crucial moment in United States history, in which the United States Government declares that even a military officer has an obligation to disobey orders, to take up arms against his government. A position the U.S. reiterated (with the death penalty) at Nuremberg, and reiterated again when My Lai occurred.We started them with these websites:

And we asked these 12-year-olds, not rich kids, not kids from great neighborhoods, not kids whose parents have university degrees, but kids from some incredibly poor places, kids who came from an elementary school where teachers join local churches in sending food home every weekend when kids will be away from free school lunches, the kinds of kids Arne Duncan thinks can only handle KIPP education so they learn to stare at their teachers, we asked them what they thought... and it was remarkable.

They understood all the implications, the difficulties, the issues - ranging from a crowd of kids bullying someone to nations invading nations. They looked stuff up on their laptops, they raised serious questions. They even challenged the adults in the room.

This is what education means to me. It may or may not matter much if these kids are slow readers, we can get them information many ways. It may or may not matter if they spell well, when I was asked, "how do you spell that?" I simply said, "I'm really not sure, try spelling it in Google and see what happens." They did, it worked, they found what they needed. But what these kids already have are deep inquiry skills, deep comprehension skills, and effective technology skills. And you know what? That other stuff, well, its not easy, but they live in a century when all that is solvable.

In a math lesson a day later I watched a seventh grader, a kid who really struggled to divide 64 by 2 in his head, or 32 by 2, or, for that matter, 16 by 2, work diligently to explain to his disbelieving teacher how he knew - and he knew instantly - how many games are in the NCAA basketball tournament. He knew, because math is about rules and logic, and his logic was perfect and his understanding of the rules I had described was perfect, and because math is not arithmetic, no matter how much our poorly educated national and state leaders think it is. He and his classmates also understood, almost instantly, that the question - no calculators or paper or Google allowed - "If the temperature in Detroit, Michigan is 50 degrees what is the temperature likely to be in Windsor, Ontario? was about (a) culture, and then (b) understanding comparable scales, and then (c) order of operations.

Yes, I showed them this map. Yes they were surprised that Michigan is north of Canada (as you may be). But they got it, and could do it in their head, and understood that if you divide by 2 first then subtract 32, you're in trouble, they even understood that when they said "9" and a teacher said, "well actually 9.9," that it didn't matter, the point of mental math is to know that if someone anywhere outside the U.S. says, "it's 10 degrees," that the person isn't very cold.

With other sixth graders we rocked through a Yuri Gargarin lesson, heading deep into what "space" means and ideas of distance. I met one of the fastest, most effective, users of a search engine I have ever met... a kid usually labeled, "a problem."

I watched fourth graders listen to a story while using computers to look up everything they didn't understand.We were reading Titanicatand we were flooding them with ideas. We used Google Maps to fly from Esmont, Virginia to Belfast. Belfast? They all found Belfast. What country is Belfast in? What does "UK" mean? OK, does, "University of Kentucky" make sense? What is the United Kingdom? Is it in England or is England in the UK? Where in Belfast was the ship built? Do they still build ships there?

The story moves to Southampton, and on the big white board we showed them the Quay at Southampton. They found that. Where was London? "Who else sailed from London that we talk about in Virginia?" OK, they got me there, they knew the name of the ship and the captain who brought the colonists to Jamestown in 1607, something I didn't.

It was a wildly chaotic environment... and yet... it was not. The kids were all working, really working, learning search, learning maps. If some found their houses or ended up looking at London or missed half the story, its no big deal. They'll read the book later. They were learning skills and doing things many of the people who write the laws about education probably cannot do. Mostly, they were reveling in inquiry.

I ended the week in a high school, talking to seniors who wanted to ask questions for a citizenship/service capstone project. We sat in a library filled with students working in all sorts of ways with all sorts of tools, and they asked what I thought about requiring all Americans to have health insurance and offering in state tuition to "illegal" - undocumented - immigrants who live in the state.

I challenged them to stop thinking politically, or even constitutionally (which is, by nature, open to varied interpretations), and to think about what kind of society they wanted to live in. Why do we have laws? Why do we require anyone to do anything? Why can they tell you not to drive 100 miles an hour or tell you to wear a seat belt? The kid working on the tuition issue, who is putting together a public forum with elected officials and experts, and who invited "Rick Perry, because, why not?" asked what I thought. I suggested first that he think back to 1607 and Jamestown, Virginia. Weren't those illegal immigrants? Didn't they come without permission, not knowing the language, not willing to learn the language or rules of the society? Weren't they sloppy people so uninterested in health that they began a pandemic? Maybe, I suggested, the otherwise conservative Texas Governor Perry believes in this because Texas too was created by illegal immigrants from the United States?

They rolled with all this, wonderfully neither accepting my opinion nor rejecting it. They were considering, wondering what to ask next, who to ask next. They were as smart, as educated, as engaged as any 18-year-olds I have ever met.

So I brought up the idea of "equal vs. equitable" to them.I asked if Finland's income-based system of fines sounded good to them. This is a tough concept for Americans to consider, and they immediately began debating it. I should have brought up the pilot of The Andy Griffith Show, which, back in 1960, was all about that...
"Danny finally agrees with his wife and decides to the $5 fine. He takes out a huge wad of cash, and he gives him more money and more money. Danny doesn't care if Andy is robbing him, after all he's a big time star. Andy sees this as a time to get more money, and tells Danny he has to pay $100 or spend 10 days in jail. meanwhile Any fines another motorist $2 for the same offense.

"Danny is furious! He goes in his jail cell talks about tyranny in this world, and how he languishes in a cold, damp, dirty cell. Andy is offended by this and says "Now hold on a durn second!" Andy says his Aunt Lucy cleans the cell and does a fine job! The host then cross-examines Andy, and Andy says he had to raise the price to make an impression on these city folk, who can get $5 or $10 very easily. Danny realizes he was wrong and apologizes to Andy in the end after hearing his explanation"
but... I now know these kids, and I suspect one of them will find that, and a whole lot more.

So I just want to tell you, that the kids are all right, and if we trust them, and challenge them, and stop sweating the meaningless stuff every day, they'll be great. They'll be a lot better than we ever were.

- Ira Socol

06 December 2011

Learning to see your students every day

In the film Smoke(1995) Auggie Wren, a Brooklyn cigar store owner, explains his "life's project" to grieving widower, and frozen writer, Paul Benjamin...
Auggie: "You'll never get it if you don't slow down my friend."
Paul: "What do you mean?"
Auggie: "I mean you're going too fast, you're hardly even looking at the pictures."
Paul: "They're all the same."
Auggie: "They're all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your summer light and your autumn light, you got your weekdays and your weekends, you got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you've got your people in T shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same, or the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle."
Paul: "Slow down, huh?"
Auggie: "That's what I recommend. You know how it is. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, time creeps on its petty pace."'

You walk into your school, into your classroom, and what do you see? Do you see the same place, the same students, the same children you saw yesterday?
Do you see the kids who is "always the screw up"? The one who "always understands"? The one who "never figures it out"? The one who is "always happy"? The one who will "cause a problem if you take your eyes off him" (or "her")? The one who is "good at math"? The "slow reader"?

Any student, and anyone who can remember being a student - K-12, primary, secondary - understands the assumptions the adults make about them. How students become "fixed" in description, and how hard it is - how impossible it often is - to change that reputation.
Last week @MissShuganah sent me a note about how one of her daughters suddenly did some thing for the first time. Something she'd been unable to do for years... and then, one day, one random day, something changed, and what was impossible became possible.

Working with Middle Schoolers the last two days, I watched kids amaze me. And sometimes they changed across the brief period I worked with them. Because kids, really all humans who are willing to learn, are like that. Constantly changing.

They're the same kids, but each one is different from day to day and sometimes hour to hour or minute to minute. You've got your bright mornings and your dark mornings, you got your tired days and your days filled with energy. You've got your sad days and your happy days. You've got your days when things click, and days when nothing does. Sometimes students make leaps, sometimes they move very slowly. The brain chemicals change, and connections link, or become elusive. The slow, the sad become quick and happy, the happy and fast have bad days and moments of intense struggle. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. And no student is exactly the same ever again as they are in that moment.
But teachers and school administrators, and yes, even parents, miss much of this. They see students as they see furniture and the walls of their classrooms - as permanent things. When you listen, they describe students with terms like "always," "every time," "never gets it," "always behaves perfectly."

When we do that, we give up on being educators, we give up on being the transformative adults we must be around children, and we surely miss out on the chance to intervene in so many moments.

So how do we see anew every day? First, we must want to do that, because it isn't easy throwing off years or decades of filters on our eyes. Second, we must give kids choices every day, because without children having choice, all you will see are patterns, all you will see is a repetitive scene.

If your classroom has real choices, children will do many things, and you will see them many ways. In the video below, Mike Thornton's third grade class is doing a familiar exercise - write five sentences about what you did over Thanksgiving break, put a picture with one - but, because they have choice in tool, in work environment, in many things, we not only see work and learning happening, we see it happening with individuals, individuals who have never been exactly like this before, and who will never be exactly like this again.
Once you have allowed your students to be the individual humans they are, rather than actors doing a performance for your benefit, you have the chance to see them in all their human differentiation, and they have the chance to stop playing their roles - the smart kid, the dumb kid, the disabled kid, the teacher pleaser, the kid with one skill set or one interest, the behavior problem, the silent kid - and start being the evolving human learners they are away from adult preconceptions.

Slow down tomorrow. Walk toward your school as if you haven't seen it before. Walk through your hallways as if you are fully "ADHD," sucking in every sight and sound. Look at you classroom as if you are a kindergarten student observing a place for the first time. And watch your students the way you look at a new group of friends, figuring out how you might approach each of them in a way which personally connects.

Then try to do that every day. You'll find you are in a new place every time our planet spins.

- Ira Socol

23 November 2011

The conversations we need to have about Occupy Davis

There have been two "grass roots" movements spring up in the United States since President Obama was elected. The "Tea Party" and the "Occupy Movement."

University of California at Davis students reoccupy their campus's Quad Monday
the way kids at a geek/ag school do, with high-level engineering
One, though I do not doubt either the passions or energies of many followers, has been revealed to not actually be "grass roots," but "astroturf roots" in our political parlance of the day, that is, the movement was either wholly created, or hijacked at birth, by the Koch Brothers and other extreme right wing corporate types - you know, the kind who argue that a corporation must be treated as a citizen in all ways except liability and tax rates.

"No taxation without
representation," here in a
protest document signed by
John Hancock. Sadly, only
half the quote can be
recalled by Republicans.
The other, the "Occupy" movement, is very clearly a bottom-up mass movement which owes its capabilities to the powerful affordances of those "new technologies" so many in education find unimportant.

Thus, one is a classic movement of the modern era, the Tea Party is a top down, wealth-financed movement which owes its strategies and techniques to the powerful political class - they even have their own cable television network in FoxNews. It is, of course, limited by national boundaries and has very traditional goals.

The other is of the contemporary world. Its television is LiveStream and UStream, its media is Twitter, Text-Messaging, and Blogs. Its strategies are ad hoc and constantly evolving. It has proven itself to be global almost overnight. And one more thing, which traditional politicians, leaders, even many educators fail to understand, it is non-specific about most goals because it is about democracy. It is a global pro-democracy effort, and naturally it terrifies the oligarchs, whether American, British, Russian, whatever.

Both groups have some connection to American roots. The Tea Party - and perhaps this works because of the memory issues of many Social Security and Medicare collecting adherents of the cause - bases its appeal in the first half of the four word slogan of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. It is stunningly amusing that this movement which now paralyzes most American government cannot recall all four words, although, to be fair, two of the four words have multiple syllables, so, ya know... but it is also horrifyingly sad that Americans know so little of even their own history.

The "Occupy Movement" comes, on the other hand, from something very deep in American history, and something universally appealing: true democracy, where the voices of all are heard and the needs of all are respected. There is much about the Occupy Movement, laughed at as it was when born from powerless unknowns two months ago as Occupy Wall Street, which links directly back to Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, equally opposed to power from London, Albany/Kingston (New York's seat of government at the time) or Portsmouth/Exeter (New Hampshire's seat of government at the time), and to those who formed the Free Republic of Franklin in 1784, and maybe to those who made Woodstock the safest large city in the United States in 1969.
"The [Free Republic of Franklin] legislature made treaties with the Indian tribes in the area (with few exceptions, the most notable being the Chickamauga), opened courts, incorporated and annexed five new counties, and fixed taxes and officers' salaries. Barter was the economic system de jure, with anything in common use among the people allowed in payment to settle debts, including federal or foreign money, corn, tobacco, apple brandy, and skins ([The Governor] was often paid in deer hides)."
This is a global, a universal, a human idea. Unlike the Tea Party's commitment to selfishness - "I don't want to pay for anything anyone else may receive." - the Occupy Movement  is based in basic humanity, we all deserve opportunity, we all deserve to be included in society, we all deserve to be heard. And this is a radical re-understanding of democracy, because, though the roots of this run deep in early America, it is not what we've taught in school the past 150 years, where the concept that "majority rule" = "democracy" has taken charge, along with the idea that "democracy" = "you get to vote occasionally."

When Norman Rockwell described "Freedom of Speech"
as one of the Four Freedoms we fought WWII for,
he used the Occupy Movement's "General Assembly"
as the model.
The "General Assemblies" which drive the Occupy Movement are nothing more than the "Town Meeting" which Americans once saw as democracy at its best, people gathered together to listen to each other and to respectfully make decisions. It is a different notion of democracy than in which Americans get to vote among highly limited choices. And it is a cross between the democracy early Americans understood and the European vision of democracy in which the tyranny of the majority is to be prevented at all costs, and in which the human rights to education, health care, and shelter are every bit as important as any right to vote.

The Occupy Movement is not a counterpart to the Tea Party notion of selfishness and our society doing less for each other, rather, it is call for a fundamental rethinking of what democracy is, and what priorities we, as a society should have. No wonder it scares Democrats in Washington almost as much as Republicans.

Which brings us to Davis, California...

On a couple of autumn days when we would expect university students to be focused on (a) football and (b) getting home for Thanksgiving. After all, when we last looked at an American university campus we were watching Penn State students riot because a football coach had been fired for covering up child sexual abuse for a decade, while allowing that to continue. So Davis took us by surprise, but it also revealed a series of key questions we must be asking in our schools... in every one of our schools.

One: What can we learn from the actions of UCD PD Lt. John Pike and his fellow officers? I have watched the videos very closely, and a few things stand out clearly, beyond the "humans should never do things like this to other humans, or even most animals." Pike is so disassociated it is bizarre. He has completely separated himself from humanity, even from his own humanness. As many have said, he looks like he is spraying a rose bush for aphids. He is, to put it simply, "doing his job."

How does this happen? I am not advocating for removing personal responsibility, I agree with the United States government position from Andersonville to Nuremberg to My Lai, your orders are secondary to your humanity, and yet... as in all of those cases, the question is rarely a clean one.

I encourage you to watch the video above with your students, and also watch The Andersonville Trialor Judgment at Nuremberg, or both, and to let your students face this question: Orders and rules? Or morality and humanity?

This is a question which defines us, and though - thankfully - rarely as dramatically as in the case of Lt. Pike, it is a question which controls the course of our lives.

Two: Where were the educators? When UCD education professor Cynthia Carter Ching wrote her open letter to Davis students and faculty she apologized to the students, "You know, it wasn’t malicious.  We thought it would be fine, better even.  We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things.  But it’s not fine.  It’s so completely not fine.  There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine. So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge."

The fact is, we've become so institutionalized in so many places, that we, in education, forget what our purpose is, and as Ching says, "It's not fine."

I suggested on Twitter yesterday, "Dear University Presidents, if you find students "occupying" their own campus, sit down with them and be an educator," but this goes far beyond those at the very top, as Ching says, we all need to widen our roles, our vision, and our functions because the full environment of our educational institutions is part of our "teaching." When Michigan State University is really bad about disability rights, it quite loudly undoes much of what I try to do in the classroom. When Linda Katehi orders riot-geared police to remove a few students sitting on a lawn, it undoes so much that UCD faculty are attempting to do. Hell, every time a bell rings in our high schools or middle schools and interrupts an important conversation, we are undoing all the try to teach about learning and dignity.

So, this is a time to listen to your students. To, yes, shut up and listen. Let them record their day with the video cameras on their phones, or give them flip cameras. Let them show you what "you" - their school - is teaching. And then, truly respond to that.

Three: What does democracy mean? I remember that my father, discussing the aftermath of the World War II in which he had been a central combatant, told me that, "We all fought for the Four Freedoms, but afterwards, the U.S. decided to only worry about two, and the Russians decided to only worry about two." Once again, the inability to remember four - must be a lesson here.

My father meant that while the U.S. focused on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion, the Soviet Union focused on Freedom from Want (jobs, food, housing, health care, education for all) and Freedom for Fear (a huge border area of nations controlled to make sure that the Germans did not come back). He wasn't making excuses for either, he was faulting both.

For my father, the reason he had fought his way through the nightmares at Metz and Bastogne and Dachau, and had crossed Germany to end up in Plzen, was to assure people's rights, from America to Prague, to all four. He felt badly cheated.

I've talked about experimenting with different forms of voting before, letting our students learn options and ask questions, but this needs to go beyond that. What are the purposes of our society? What should we do together? What things are all of our responsibility? What is government supposed to be? How are decisions made? What are the rights we should all have? What are the responsibilities we should all have?

You cannot limit this to the United States or whatever nation you are in, you need to allow students the range of options contemporary societies have chosen, from French right to health care and education to the Finnish right to broadband to the East German right to long family vacations at the beach.

Democracy deserves better than a short answer. The Occupy Movement understands that, and we, with our students, need to start asking the same questions.

Happy Thanksgiving to all in the United States, and welcome to Advent to all.
- Ira Socol

21 November 2011

What have we been teaching?

This post probably began to form when I got into an argument on Twitter with a guy who is an "associate principal" of a secondary school somewhere in California. He was defending the use of pepper spray against seated, peaceful protesters at the University of California at Davis last Friday.

What I said that got him upset, to assemble the thoughts into a single quote, was, "Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in a school."

I stand by that statement. I'd, of course, go further, and say, Anyone who looks at the video from UCD and thinks what is happening there is anything but unquestionably wrong, shouldn't be working in any law enforcement capacity in any nation on earth."

These statements are, I believe, true. They are clear truths for anyone who was, as we used to say, "raised to be better than that." They are true for anyone who learned anything appropriate from their family, their religion, or the literature of the world. As I later said to that school administrator, "I still know right from wrong."

"We had to clear the Quad, they were breaking the law, they did not move."
It isn't just what took place on the Quad at Davis which troubles me so, like at Penn State two weeks ago, it is the reaction of too many of those who share my society. Not just loudmouth fools like blogger Jim Hoft who said, "The UC Davis pepper spray incident was standard police procedure," but on CBS News, "Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.  When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."   After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.  "What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said," and more sadly, people commenting on blogs, news sites, and Twitter often said this was a reasonable action, even teachers, school administrators, etc.

So, I am forced to ask this question, what have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?

"We had to clear the Square, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Beijing, China, 1989)
How has a society, a global society, which once so condemned the actions of Mississippi Sheriffs (1960-1965), Chicago Police Officers (1968), Ohio National Guardsmen (1970), South African Riot Police (1970-1995), Chinese police and troops (1989), and the security forces this very year from Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria, become so accepting of official violence against our own children?

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

"We had to clear the Corner, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Derry, Northern Ireland, 1972)
It is not just the United States. We've seen tolerance of horrid policing in the United Kingdom and far too many other supposedly "civilized" nations. We've seen it because we have allowed ourselves to see our organizations, our institutions, our governments, our nations, as more important than our humanity. So societies which back in 1943 would have (and did) laugh at the joke, "We have order, but at what price?", or "Mussolini made the trains run on time." now not only do not laugh, we do not even think about asking the price.

We have become ugly intolerant cultures obsessed with compliance, conformity, efficiency, and safety. And this has built over decades. I remember shock when New Yorkers accepted Rudy Giuliani's fencing off public access to City Hall in the 1990s, "people were walking in and it was bothering us," he said. Imagine, citizens walking in to, even complaining in, their own city hall. Well that was not just "unsafe," it was "inefficient." And once you do that, it is very easy to block all access to public streets so people cannot make noise near their mayor. And, from there, why not beat and gas people who are protesting in a public park?

As a CNN anchor said last Thursday, "these protesters are inconveniencing people." And that justifies just about anything.

"We had to clear the Street, they were breaking the law, they did not move." (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
In search of answers, I read and read... finding a fine piece by Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman, both history professors at UC Davis, which included this paragraph:
"The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush. The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both. Pike’s actions met with approval from the chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza, “who observed the chaotic events on the Quad, [and] said immediately afterward that she was ‘very proud’ of her officers.” Clearly in Chief Spicuzza’s mind there was nothing exceptional about the use of pepper spray against nonviolent protesters."
Yes, "bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both," and, I would add, humanity.

Then I found this on a blog post via my Twitter feed...

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

It is a "young" man, around 30 I'm guess from the whine on his sign, who doesn't blame Wall Street, just poor people, for his plight. And, certainly, this shows a lack of empathy and tolerance (and interest in ever being a good partner or parent if he believes this lifestyle is acceptable), but it demonstrates something else which is part the problem I see - and I saw this in many comments belittling the kids at Davis specifically for "wasting their time" and more generally about Occupy Wall Street for "doing nothing" and "having no clear goals" - an extreme amplification of the belief that unless "it is hard, it has no value."

The young man above is incredibly proud that his entire life is filled with work. He is incredibly proud that if he gets sick the hospital he goes to will seize everything he owns for payment. He is incredibly proud that if his mother got sick, he could not spend any time with her.

What have we been teaching? and what questions have we not been asking?

Frighteningly, we have taught all of this. We have taught it in our schools, we have taught it in our homes, we have taught it in our churches, we have taught it with our "literature" - all that we read, watch, listen to.

What are you doing in your school which encourages compliance and conformity? Or which breeds fear? Or which encourages the belief that "hard" is always better? I'm not necessarily speaking of your words, I'm speaking of every part of your school environment, from corridor rules to tardy slips, from seating charts to multiple choice tests, from schedules to the non-acceptance of Universal Design technologies. From your honor roll to your homework assignments. Look around, is it really so hard to believe that a high school administrator would have no problem with the actions of Lt. John Pike? Is it hard to believe that "Mr. 53%" thinks he is living well?

Then look around your home. What is your schedule? What are your priorities? What do/did your children see of your choices? Where is your house? Have you chosen to live in a mono-culture, you know, "good schools" and all.

In politics, we usually leave it to others, or we vote for people who swear they'll lower our taxes, or we'll accept horrific things because "the other guy is worse," or we don't even vote at all, not finding an hour in our year to be part of our society. As consumers we shop at Walmart or Asda because we save a buck, a quid, a euro, so what if shopping there destroys the businesses of our neighbors?

Even, for Americans, your church is probably chosen because it is convenient, safe, has good parking, doesn't challenge your politics, and is filled with people just like you.

Yes, we are teaching every minute of every day, and we have been teaching some terrible things. And maybe worse, we have stopped asking ourselves the questions that matter.

In an open letter to her students and colleagues, Cynthia Carter Ching, a professor of education at the University of California at Davis, says eloquently, "So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge." And she implores the faculty to, "join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run.  Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours.  It’s our university.   And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again.  Not to our studentsAnd not at our university."

"We had to clear the hallway, they were breaking the rules..."
But I'm going to add something, the University of California at Davis, like the Pennsylvania State University, are not isolated places. They are all of us. These crimes, or those on the streets of New York, or the streets of Oakland, or the streets of London, did not happen because of a few villains, they happened because we all stopped working hard enough to build a moral, fair society.

We have been teaching terrible things. And we have to stop.

- Ira Socol

19 November 2011

Democracy in America

I am old enough to have seen this before, a generation aroused to press for a more open and democratic society, met with thug police tactics, and eventually, National Guard bullets... and the nation went back into a long slumber.

So Saturday, as I struggled with what happened in New York on Thursday, and especially in Davis, California on Friday as US police cracked down viciously on the nascent pro-democracy #Occupy movement, I found myself with a series of thoughts...

First, having been a New York City Police Officer, I am embarrassed. I have always been proud of my police career. Yes, there are some significant scars on body and soul, but I, and those I worked with, did our best to be members of our communities, to build connections, to be the citizens we were. "The police are the public and the public are the police," Sir Robert Peel, founder of modern policing once said. And that's who we wanted to be, not an occupying army enforcing the dictates of tin horn dictators like Mike Bloomberg. So, having cops in New York be led into the Imperial Army form, depresses me. Worse, seeing a coward like UC Davis police lieutenant John Pike destroy the reputation of police officers, well... it's horrific. Was he badly trained and horrendously commanded? Obviously, but he has also let himself become less than human, and the cops I knew did not let that happen.

Second, these Cal Aggies at Davis, a wonderful land-grant-type university, have shown the world something about university students which needed to be said after the events of the past two weeks at Penn State. They were out there, fighting for democracy and an equitable nation, they were protesting in the finest traditions of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and, perhaps most brilliantly, on a football Saturday, they were working overtime at democracy, desperately trying to teach their university administration something important. Their "Silent Treatment" of their abusive Chancellor as she walked from her public excuse-making session was brilliant. The kids, as they say, are alright.

In my police parlance, we'd call this a "perpwalk"
Criminal UC Davis Chancellor Katehi
is met with the stone-cold silence
of students who know things about right and wrong she never will.

Third, I thought about life in a nation which has never had an actual revolution. The United States copied the government structure of its "mother country," pretty exactly. The US had an elite revolution which changed not even one colonial government - unique perhaps among revolutions. The United States had an elite led Civil War, disastrous indeed, but a civil war in which the two sides had the exact same government structures with the exact same governmental intentions. In the 1930s and 1940s, when most industrial nations were convulsed by chaos then destroyed by wars, the United States, led by the scion of one of its oldest families, converted seamlessly from peace to war to permanent cold war with nothing more threatening to the political structure than Huey Long (somehow assassinated) and Henry Wallace (who got fired before he might've gotten near the presidency). So the United States has arrived at the 21st Century having never really had to adapt, or grow up, or change, having never - as a society - faced and conquered an existential challenge. Unlike most democracies, it still elects its leaders as the 18th Century Brits did. It still has a legislature in which enormous power is invested in a legislative body which in no way responds to "one man-one vote." Even its presidential election system gives some voters up to three times the voting power of others. It still clings to a two party system modeled on British aristocracy. In fact, except for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the United States has the oldest intact government structure on the planet. Great for stability, but few of us are spending a lot of time relying on 18th Century structures for getting around. So, change does not come easy under the Stars and Stripes.*

And fourth, I wished these kids could find a few "grown ups" to look up to. "They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations," wrote a University of Chicago grad student in the Washington Post. "Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work" His history might be wrong (its UChicago after all, the university which gave us the global economic meltdown), I, for example, left high school and walked out into a disastrous economy and a nation shredded by an endless war, but his points are right on. There are no leaders at the top anymore.

Then, I thought about being a kid in 1968, sitting in front of a black and white television with my family, watching the horror of that year's Democratic National Convention unfold on the streets of Chicago. And I still recall the nightmare of hearing about Kent State, when an American governor sent young Ohio men onto that state university campus to shoot other young Ohio men.

But "we" - "last of the baby boomers" and "early GenXers" - had a few leaders of the older generation - leaders, men and women even in the US Congress, who would speak up.

Connecticut US Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounces "these Gestapo tactics on the streets
of Chicago" with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley sitting only feet away as he nominated
Senator George McGovern for President at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Bobby Kennedy, when out in America
he actually listened to real people.
The President of Yale University, Kingman Brewster, Jr., who in 1968 had staunchly defended the anti-war actions of the university's chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, said this in 1970, "I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States. In large part this atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers in many parts of the country. It is also one more inheritance from centuries of racial discrimination and oppression…" Which, quite sadly, is a very long way from the UCD Chancellor's Saturday night statement, that she wants to, "reevaluate whether university policy on encampments offered students sufficient "flexibility to express themselves."'

"Our children" struggling for democracy and an equitable society today do lack major adult supports: Faced with this video of a guy surely in the running for the title of worst cop in America assaulting peaceful university students at the University of California at Davis...
US President Barack Obama said not a thing from his stateroom on Air Force One, and California Governor Jerry Brown, fled the state on vacation. I'm still waiting for a helpful word from anyone in any of our governments.

And thus, where are our kids - unemployed, under-employed, crippled by student debt, lacking health insurance, often unable to establish credit, and keenly aware that other societies have learned things America has not - supposed to turn?

And now I'm going to tell all of you who'd rather focus on other things, to be careful. The United States has never had a revolution, true, but that does not mean it will never have one.

Because, once again, the power structure is making every possible mistake. From the "vanished" and silent Barack Obama (as Barbara Ehrenreich noted in the Guardian) to the bizarre chief of the UCD campus police, those in charge are doing their very worst to escalate everything.

Now, I would argue that while cops are often smart - I've been one, I've known many - police departments are often remarkably stupid. Police departments are often remarkably stupid because they are led by the most compliant members of the breed - those who seek favor from the powerful to climb the chain of command - who are in turn led by the type of egocentric, small vision person who can succeed in America's politics these days. You understand, if a meteor crashed through the sky and fell flaming at Mitt Romney's feet, he'd need to turn to his advisors and donors to ask what he'd just seen.

This combination is toxic. It directs people away from conversation and toward confrontation. The "policing" tactics of the British Army in 1916 Dublin set off the Anglo-Irish War. The "policing" tactics of that same British Army in 1972 Derry launched a three decade civil war in Northern Ireland. The "policing" tactics of the French Army in 1950s Algeria almost destroyed France. Very recently, police crackdowns led to government overthrows around the Mediterranean during our ongoing "Arab Spring." Just this year the tactics of the London Metropolitan Police created nationwide chaos during the summer, after creating smaller zones of complete chaos during the G20 and student protests. Not to mention...
"In the matter of demonstrations, the (New York City) Police Department has, in fact, had a long and dramatic history of assuring the outcome it seemingly would most like to avoid. During the student uprisings at Columbia in 1968, aimed at the university’s affiliation with a research group linked to the Defense Department and at the construction of a university gym in Morningside Park, police brutality resulted in a powerful escalation of the movement.
    '“In the beginning, it did not have broad support on campus,” Alex S. Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist specializing in police response to protest, told me. “But when the cops started beating people up, things really changed.
    "On April 30 that year, a police raid injured more than 100 students, students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the remainder of the semester. Footage of the events documents radicalization in progress. “I was a nonviolent student,” one young man witnessing the aggression says. “I couldn’t care what happened. I was completely neutral. I am not neutral anymore. I’m going to occupy a building tomorrow.”'
    - The New York Times, September 30, 2011
"The police are not here to create disorder," old Mayor Daley said, "they're here to preserve disorder." But in these cases, it is worse, the police departments and the political and economic leadership which control them, are here, all too often these days, to ignite the worst. It is the opposite of the "always be calm, if your presence is the cause of the problem, you probably want to back away," that I was taught in the Police Academy.

Because, no matter which side we're on, as we can see in the clip below from the film Bloody Sunday,  pushing the young over an emotional cliff has its problems.

James Nesbitt as MP Ivan Cooper in the film Bloody Sunday.
Outside of the United States, police crackdowns on democracy
movements typically backfire, leading to revolution.

I firmly believe that America needs - for once - to make radical changes. And I am proud of the Occupy Movement which, to me, is citizenship at its very best. These aren't Tea Partiers whining about government in their spare time while collecting Social Security or writing off their mortgage interest, these are people making real sacrifices to try to get Americans to begin to listen to each other.

Like the marchers who tramped down the hill in Derry on that Sunday morning almost 40 years ago, they wanted democracy and opportunity, and they were pushing for it peacefully. It was the police tactics that started a war which still claims casualties today.

So, if anything "goes wrong" with this movement, don't come calling with your Mike Bloomberg whine about health and safety, the fault will lie with those in power, those who chose not to lead.

- Ira Socol
It's a tough war: Gun against spears and arrows,
Ethiopia 1936, or America 1600-1900
Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, "the origin of the distinctive egalitarian, democratic, aggressive, and innovative features of the American character has been the American frontier experience," is wrong. The defining thing of American culture is a history of a lack of real challenges. America is the spoiled kid who was born to a fortune stolen by their parents - the kid rich enough to have every opportunity and rich enough to be bought out of any trouble - the kid who has never had to seriously think about who they are or what to do, much less re-think any of that.

Oh, I know. This is at serious odds with everyone from John Wayne to Mel Gibson. But its true. Americans conquered a continent first with guns against bows and arrows (when we talk about Mussolini in Ethiopia we admit this is a mismatch), and then with the tools of the Industrial Revolution. This isn't exactly chasing the Germans back from Stalingrad or building the Great Wall by hand.

This is NOT to suggest that the march of white folks across North America wasn't individually extremely hard, extremely difficult. People, families, communities really suffered. But it was culturally easy. It never strained the society toward any breaking point, it never absorbed any resources beyond those readily available, it never forced society to re-define itself. Yes, at one point in World War II gasoline, meat, even clothing was rationed, people were even asked to recycle, but...