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


Miss Shuganah said...

I've had a whiplash couple of weeks. Last week I was at TASH where I felt a kind of homecoming and yet a sense of separate yet equal. Drinking at the coloreds only drinking fountain. Acutely aware that Special Ed kids will never have equity you speak of, but at least at this conference they have a place.

I returned to the unprofessionals at Kid O's school. I returned to an IEP meeting for our younger daughter, Kid Q, who I rarely talk about. She is very smart, inquisitive and creative. She has some vague LD label. She is being slowly eased into GenEd. Her Reading teacher came to the meeting and didn't even look at me or really acknowledge me. She left the room after she spoke. Her mind is made up. As far as she is concerned, Kid Q is not capable of reading at a 4th Grade level.

This morning Kid Q showed me unfinished reading logs. She actually does have good reading comprehension. She also is a shiny object person. Does that translate directly to attention deficit? I am not so sure, and, once, when I brought it up, I was told that a diagnosis would invariably mean medication. I find the idea of it abhorrent. I wonder, instead, if perhaps these teachers are simply not keeping her engaged. There has to be a better way than scolding a child for not doing the work she has no interest in doing and, in fact, distresses her. The Special Ed teacher has done some good things with her, but there seems to be some kind of absence of thought... Kid Q asks us all kinds of questions. I help her look up things all the time, which lights her up. Why, then, are they not doing something similar? I get the impression that the GenEd teacher wants everything to be orderly, and Kid Q ruins that orderliness. Essentially this teacher is having a fit because she does not have a perfect universe and Kid Q is to blame. I suspect that she does not try to engage her. When we impose rigid rules on children, we do not get good outcomes.

I want schools where both my daughters can feel at home, and, more importantly, where they can feel joy in learning.

monika hardy said...

love this Ira...
the kids are all right...let's trust them.

let's facilitate that all rightness..

Paul Bogush said...

Often when someone complains about their kids I come back with "What were you doing in X grade?" Only once did a teacher come back with an answer that shut me down...and she was schooled in Communist Russia.

Miss Shuganah said...

Depressing to think about how much ground the US has lost in the last forty years, advances in technology aside.

Karen Janowski said...

The challenge is in asking the "right" questions. Do scripted curriculums offer that option? As we remove innovation and creativity from the classroom (for both teachers and students) and embrace uniformity and consistency (every fifth grade class doing the same things on the same day) we lose the learning opportunities you describe here.

Keep modeling for us. You challenge conventional thinking.

westchester blinds said...

I also love the idea of archiving long form thoughtful pieces here.