21 December 2012

a brief twitter conversation on our testing culture...

On a Thursday night a mathematics teacher from around Vancouver was looking for sympathy on Twitter...
She said: What do you do when a student skips a math test and the parent thinks YOU are unreasonable expecting them to have been there? #bced #mathed

I looked at this, and thought a few things. I thought about the entire idea of the classroom test. I thought about a teacher picking a fight with both students and parents in the week before Christmas. And I thought about the amazing amount of potential educational time "we" in schools waste on fighting battles over compliance which do absolutely nothing to help kids either learn a subject, a skill, or learn to be successful adults.
from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
So, I jumped in... and away we went...
Me: does the student know the maths in question? #bced #mathed
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  the formative assessment says they know some....
Me: then, is the test important? What will it show?
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  it is summative assessment. It will show what they can do.
Me: ok, but can't she do the same thing lots of ways? Is the test format of some special value?
British Columbia Maths Teacher: yes. It is their opportunity to show me what they can do.
Me: ok, I've just never understood either the classroom test or why it would need to happen at any specific moment... I think teachers have a million ways to gather information about where their students are. And should do it continuously
British Columbia Maths Teacher: [to another in the twitter conversation] the policy is a zero [My thought, a “Zero” as a student score is actually at “minus 65,” a cruel and bizarre rating for anyone to receive]. But this entitlement to my time is frustrating. We have two weeks of holiday. I don’t work tomorrow.
British Columbia Maths Teacher: ok you sound like the father. You aren’t helping, sorry.
Me: sorry, its what I tell all the teachers I work with, around the world
British Columbia Maths Teacher: I’m sure they love that message.
Me: we are pushing back against the testing culture at every level, which creates schools which are better for kids … so we say we don't rank either students or teachers by these test scores
British Columbia Maths Teacher: we spend hours creating fair assessment for this purpose. This one took me 4 hours.
Me: tests are never equitable assessments. They create big problems for some kids
British Columbia Maths Teacher: lol now I know you have no idea. Thanks, but you don’t get it.
Me: think of all the time and energy you wasted, making the test, giving it, now fighting about it. You could have been teaching
British Columbia Maths Teacher: have a great evening. You are right, my time is important. 

from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
Then, she blocked me

I did suggest: good night, sorry you're not open to doubting your practice. Maybe some day

Perhaps I was harsh, she went onto Twitter about this not to look for a solution, not for professional development purposes, but simply to whine and find people who would tell her she was right. I didn't do that, and neither did some others, and she got frustrated and angry. That's ok. That, perhaps, is the exact same reaction she is getting from at least one of her students - as this teacher blocked me to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about her skills, so this student might have skipped this "summative assessment" for the same reasons.

But, I do ask teachers all the time, "why?" Why is this form of assessment important? Why is this assignment, project, book, test, chair, schedule, good for this student, or what this student needs? And I also ask, "is this worth the time you are investing in it?" How much of your day do you want to devote to law enforcement, or conflict, or teaching a particular form of etiquette? Are their better ways for you, and your students, to use your time?

And I often think about something an Albemarle County (Virginia) middle school teacher said to me one night, as we left a bar during a conference in Williamsburg: "I don't know how you can do this job," he said, "unless you have angst every day about the job you are doing?"

Anyway, that abusive "testing culture" we complain about in the United States, in Britain, in Canada, in Australia, in Irish secondary schools... does it really start with government bureaucrats like Arne Duncan and Michael Gove or with corporate thieves like Pearson? Or does it start with the practices we too often allow to exist in our classrooms?

- Ira Socol

17 December 2012

when voices are lost...

"It's a problem that can be solved with more caring. I don't think it's a problem that can be solved with more security." - Bill Bond - school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals
What links the events Friday in Newtown, Connecticut to my opposition to the "Common Core"?

It is that question of Democracy of Voice.

Democracy of Voice means giving every kid a chance to be heard, not heard as "you" or "we" or "society" or those who write expectations about fifth grade essays want them to be heard, but heard as themselves, for who they are, for what they need to say.

It is that right to an authentic voice, in whatever form that voice must take shape, which makes children safe. Honestly, that is the keystone of anyone being safe, for if you cannot be heard and understood, you cannot be safe.

Sadly, not every child has a voice in their school.
This is our first task, caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations?
Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?
Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?
Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change. - Barack Obama
Amidst all the talk of a "perfect town" and a "close-knit community" - as if those phrases have much meaning wherever we might live - we certainly know of at least young person who was not comfortable, not happy, not OK, not part of an idyllic family, and who, quite obviously, did not receive the kinds of help he needed.

This is not excuse making. Excuses are worthless, but explanations can help us understand even the un-understandable. There are people who have psychotic breaks from reality, there are people who develop amoral personalities, there are people so paranoid as to be dangerous, there are people without the capacity for human reason - I have met them all - and these are explanations, not excuses, but in every case it is ours to wonder, "what did we not see?" "why could we not have intervened?"

I struggled Sunday night as I listened to the victim count. One minister talked only of "twenty new angels," I'm not sure what happened to the teachers who died. The President, and the votive candles on display, spoke of "twenty-six" lost. Governor Malloy of Connecticut of "twenty-seven." But twenty-eight people died in Newtown on Friday, twenty-one of them deemed, by American law, not old enough to have the mental capacity which would allow them to buy alcohol.

from The Guardian
Whatever the causes, and damn the excuses, that is twenty-eight moments of incredible failure for us as a society.
"They talk of a boy who dressed smartly and worked hard, but who barely said a word during his time at school and made few friends. Intelligent but shy and nervous, most said. A former classmate,  told the New York Times: "I never saw him with anyone. I can't even think of one person that was associated with him."

"He had no Facebook page and his electronic footprint was minimal although yesterday the police chief seemed to suggest he may have left behind emails which could help explain his state of mind."

"a skinny, shaggy-haired boy "who never really talked at all" and who stayed tight to the corridor walls when he walked, often clutching his laptop."
I am not diagnosing here, I have no depth of information which would allow me to do that, and I am not blaming anyone, but I am discussing "us" in the biggest possible sense of that word. I am not describing anything new either, the heart of the book To Kill a Mockingbirdlies in the questions I am asking.
"The Lanzas' neighbors on Yogananda Street say it's puzzling that on such a close-knit block where residents throw barbecues for newcomers, so few of them knew [him] or had ever seen him.
"It's a mystery. Nobody knows them, which is odd for this neighborhood," Len Strocchia said. "Everyone knows each other through the children, the school bus. The community here is kids."'
But what I am saying is that at least one child in Newtown, Connecticut seemed to lack his own opportunity for voice. At least one child was not heard.

Interestingly, it is children who seem to understand this first. After a horrible event around schools in Virginia this fall it was high school students, the friends of two of the victims, who expressed anguish over what had happened with that "shooter." And in USA Today a classmate of the Newtown shooter said, "Maybe if someone had tried to reach out  — maybe he needed a friend. Maybe this wouldn't have happened," [the classmate] said. "He's just one kid who slipped through the cracks."

Kids slip through the cracks when their voices are not heard, that is the truth, and it is the truth even though hearing their authentic voices will never be any guarantee against mental illness or violence. But simply, allowing each child, helping each child achieve authentic voice is all that we, as humans - not deities - can do.

This is true whether the result is the horror we saw on Friday, or the brilliance we also witnessed on Friday when Connecticut's Governor chose to make every death notification himself, knowing the importance of that symbolism to the families involved:
"Malloy spoke candidly to the students [in 2011] about his struggles growing up in Stamford in the 1960s, recalling when teachers would post his failing scores on the classroom board, or how he stayed away from collecting baseball cards like many other boys because deciphering the words and statistics was so torturous.

'"Honestly, it was just terrible. I was embarrassed most of the time," he said"
Voice matters, and voice is not common, and voice cannot be "grade-levelled," and voice must not be guided into specific kinds of questions, answers, reviews, and essays.
"Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts, including using frequently occurring conjunctions to signal simple relationships (e.g., because)." - page 27
Voice cannot flourish when it is battened down with "standards" and forced to march in a progressive sequence.
"Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text." - page 36
Voice cannot flourish when it is forced into over analysis, when stories are not allowed to be stories, or when our stories are forced into the temporal world of another.
"Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
"a. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically." - page 43
And voice cannot flourish when it must be measured against culturally-ignorant linear models. For voice needs to soar, to experiment, to push against every boundary and break through whenever possible.

Video streaming by Ustream
Authentic voice heard globally - Middle School students Ustream autobiographies to the world.

And voice cannot flourish unless children can express themselves as they need to, in the safety of a community which accepts that voice and encourages it and hears it carefully, and all of that exists in a place where children do not crawl down the sides of corridors in fear, or fear punishments because they behave as children, or where they are measured according to nonsensical adult measuring sticks.

The President on Sunday Night

In the end, we don't need "more security" and we don't need "higher standards." Yes, we need to remove killing machines from our nation, but really, we need to care a whole lot more. We need to rearrange our priorities in such a way that our children come first, that our children and our learning spaces and our educators have the resources - all the resources - which they need and all the safety which allows them to be children and adolescents - to learn, to f--- up, to learn more, to grow, to be who they are.

- Ira Socol
"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

15 December 2012

of loss and anger and memory on a rainy winter day

I am watching the rain fall on a chill winter's day, and I am thinking.

Yesterday morning I had the joyous opportunity to play with letters and words with kindergarten kids in three different schools in Albemarle County, Virginia.

They showed me how to make a J.
I challenged them with a special "J-word" - Jelloricious.
This was special. Special because, though I am not in Virginia this week, I could join through the contemporary technologies which make the world of these children something unique, and special because, unless you routinely see "school,' "education," and our planet through the eyes of young children, you are in no position to discuss education and educational poverty. The gift these five-year-olds give to me is a gift which makes my work possible.

But yesterday morning I also became aware of the horrible evil playing out in a Connecticut suburb, a place close to the homes of friends, a place close to the homes of dearly loved cousins - not that that matters, really - but a place any of us might find ourselves... as parents or teachers.

A mentally ill young white suburban male - does this sound familiar - who did not get the help he probably needed in school, whose family was spread out too far, whose father spent three hours a day commuting to a job I know was longer than eight hours in length, whose - well, we'll never know most of it but we know it all too well, walked into an elementary school, an elementary school secured with all the silly security systems politicians and media-trained parents demanded after Columbine, and murdered 20 babies, five and six-year-olds, and six of those "lazy, unionized" adults our leaders say work in our schools.

Why? There's no answer. I could tell you about profiling the paranoia which grows in certain isolated minds, about how that morphs into conspiracy, merges with America's peculiar machismo love of heavy weapons, and turns lethal, but that's the stuff of stupid Today Show interviews now. It doesn't matter.

There may be answers in American gun laws. America's leaders are far more interested in arresting 19-year-olds with beer cans than people with assault weaponry - "killing machines" is the only term we can use. (A police academy instructor once told us, "There may be legitimate reasons to own a single shot rifle, but the only purpose of handguns and multi-shot weapons is the murder of humans.") There is a great deal of the mantra of the American right wing in this, "the "right-to-life" ends at birth." We like to pretend, in America, that we are heroes instead of an increasingly frightened population, terrified of our own shadows, so we cling to our guns as a faux masculinity, unwilling to take any necessary steps which might make our children safer.

There may be answers in our health care system as well. As middle class health insurance has been gutted by greedy corporations and moronic state legislators, mental health supports have dropped. As school budgets have been cut so has counseling support. I remember being amazed, when I first went to work in a high school, that we had one social worker for 1800 adolescents. Many football coaches, one social worker. It is only because of Obamacare that this shooter could have even had health insurance as a 20-year-old not in college, and, you know, Obamacare is a socialist plot.

The Twilight Zone - The Bewitching Pool - not every suburban idyll is idyllic

There may be answers in our desires for status. I do not know if I would have spent a great deal of money to live in a place which left me with three hours of commuting each day, and only minutes with my children. I earned very little during the time I had to devote to parenting, but I was there. And I'm glad my son and I watched TV together and ate dinner together almost every night. I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilt here, but I think we might need to examine our priorities, to stop laughing at the Greeks or Irish because they value time home with their families more than money and 3,000 square foot homes on half acre lots. I think we need to decide whether our time is better spent in our adult pursuits or in parenting. I think we need to wonder about living in neighborhoods instead of subdivisions.

President Obama

And there may need to be a rethink about how we act when our kids are in trouble. Do we protect our reputation or do we get help?

But, as I watch today's rain, I guess the biggest question is our priorities as a society. I understand that I, as someone who hates guns - I carried one every day for my job, I'd never do that again - its no big deal for me to give up guns if it makes kids safer, but if guns are your love, your hobby, your passion, would you make that choice? I know every tax dollar I pay "hurts" - but I pay, as Michigan's late great Governor George Romney said, "because its my responsibility." I'd rather pay ten more bucks and have a psychologist in every school. I'd rather pay another ten bucks more and make sure the teenager on the next block over has the access to great mental health services. I'd rather pay more at a store which offers benefits to my retail-employed neighbors than shop at Walmart. I'd rather drive a car built by an American unionized worker because I know they have the salary and benefits they need to take care of their families and have dignity in their lives. And I'd rather do what I do with schools than make a lot of money.

I'm hardly a saint. That's not the point. The point is that from every direction, the White House, the Republicans in Congress, America's governors, the Koch Brothers, even Andrew Cuomo (who, like Mitt Romney, was raised to know better), and especially corporate America, children in our society have been pushed to the back of our priorities list. We worry about taxes, and rights, and unions and socialism, but maybe the first question should be, "what about our children?"

We are hurting right now. Horribly hurting. It is beyond our imaginations. But it will go on and on like this until we choose to make different decisions.

There is nothing a school policy or any school security can do about this. This is a society which needs to ask itself some very deep questions.

Because when I next interact with five-year-olds, I do not want to look at them with fear in my heart. I do not want to do that.

- Ira Socol

14 December 2012

"you can compare much of my [writing] to the intricate illuminations"

"Since Ulysses was by that time published, Joyce was embarking on Finnegans Wake and plotting out its systems. The Book of Kells would remain an abiding influence on his work; he would refer to one of its pages explicitly in his new novel. When his friend Arthur Power needed advice about how to write, Joyce suggested that he study The Book of Kells. "In all the places I have been to," he wrote, "Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations."' - in the Guardian

The beginning of The Gospel according to Mark from The Book of Kells
via the Guardian and Trinity College.
Where in the American "Common Core," or in Michael Gove's reductionist ebacc, is the space for linking an illuminated initial to a literary chapter? Where is the ability to delve into the page shown above? Where is the frenetic joy of playing with language that might be found in Finnegan's Wake?
Tolv two elf kater ten (it can’t be) sax.
Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.
White fogbow spans. The arch embattled. Mark as capsules. The nose of the man who was nought like the nasoes. It is self tinted, wrinkling, ruddled. His kep is a gorsecone. He am Gascon Titubante of Tegmine — sub — Fagi whose fixtures are mobiling so wobiling befear my remembrandts. She, exhibit next, his Anastashie. She has prayings in lowdelph. Zeehere green egg-brooms. What named blautoothdmand is yon who stares? Gu — gurtha! Gugurtha! He has becco of wild hindigan. Ho, he hath hornhide! And hvis now is for you. Pens‚e! The most beautiful of woman of the veilch veilchen veilde. She would kidds to my voult of my palace, with obscidian luppas, her aal in her dhove’s suckling. Apagemonite! Come not nere! Black! Switch out !
Where is the art of creating the wholly new? Or in understanding that which neither your teacher, nor your state legislature (nor Michael Gove, nor Pearson) is familiar with?

Where is the argument over Chris Marker's choices in his 1962 La jetée?

or deep debate on the art of manipulation in political advertisement?

or outright lies?
Who trains the next generation of Emile Zolas?
Literacy is about a lot more than consumption, review, summarization, comparison. Literacy is about the ability to see the whole world in depth.

Do not sell our kids short.

- Ira Socol

26 November 2012

Libraries, from Vaults to Supermarkets to Communal Kitchens

The film of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose: "...where are the books?"
The origin of our word "library" (or the French word for "book" or the old European words for "money") all stem from the ancient Indo-European term, "leub,” meaning, "to strip,” "to peel.” The obvious understanding is that information was preserved on - first - strips of bark, of leaves - then of "paper" made from such. But in my adaptation, the concept of "to peel" is the key: the library is a place where we peel apart the known world and begin to reconstruct it, for ourselves, and for our futures.

Image problem? Librarians in Movies - Part 1 (above)'
and Part 2 (below)
Libraries can be vaults, the safekeeping spots, used to preserve and/or to limit access to knowledge.  (see Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose)

"Incendie Alexandrie" by Hermann Goll (1876)
The safekeeping thing often hasn't worked out as well as has been hoped, despite current whining about, "what happens if the electricity goes out?" (see Alexandria Library Fire). Libraries can also be the Carnegie-style "supermarkets" of the 20th Century, a place where certain forms of knowledge and information are distributed in certain ways to certain classes of people.

For awhile I lived near Muskegon, Michigan. In the 1890s a "lumber baron" named Charles Hackley decided to reconstruct the then wild lumber town (which had recently helped rebuild Chicago after the Fire, but was running out of trees along the Muskegon River) into a "20th Century City." To do so he built schools, a hospital, started a bank, created parks, even founded social service agencies, but first, roughly alongside Andrew Carnegie bringing his first US library to Pennsylvania, he funded and built a contemporary library.

Muskegon, Michigan's Hackley Public Library
The library was intended to offer informal but effective education to the residents of the city. Certain books could be taken home, others, of course, could not. Certain types of books were on the shelves, but, surely, others were not. The learning might be "informal," but the library spaces were not. They were sacred-styled environments, hushed and reverent. The books were in English - with a few in Greek and Latin but none in the immigrant languages of Polish and Norwegian. Clean hands and clean minds were expected.

I am not knocking this. The Hackley Library, the Carnegie Libraries were huge successes, offering generations of Americans paths to knowledge, connections to culture, and vastly expanded world views. One need only look at the amazing series of gifts the New York Public Library has received from former immigrants who owe their education to the "free lending libraries" and classic library reading rooms provided throughout the last century.

But that was last century, and the tools of this century are different, the needs of this century are different, and the libraries of this century must be different.

Your Life Work: The Librarian
"love for books and love for people"
It is common for a certain class of librarians to mistake "library" for a place of physical preservation and "book" for a bound, paper-based, collection of pages with ink stamped upon them.
"Google notwithstanding, good, reliable information is only scantily present online," Mark Y. Herring, the library director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, wrote in American Libraries in 2011(!), "The bulk of trustworthy, reliable information still resides only in aggregated databases, some of which are affordable only to libraries, since access costs literally as much as a compact car. While striving to be green, libraries still depend on the printed word. Moving to an electronic format exclusively (which, by the way, some libraries have tried) has been unsuccessful so far. “Nothing is more common" in experiment, wrote the famed late-18th-century chemist Joseph Priestley, “than the most unexpected revolutions of good and bad success.” Well, we may get to “electronic-only” one day. But so far our digital-only experiments have met with “bad success.” When we lose our physical libraries, where will the great masses of us find reliable information?"
When this attitude exists, libraries become museums, and sadly, increasingly irrelevant museums. And, in schools, museums usually do not get funded, especially irrelevant museums. If your school library is silent, used by schedule only (or "mostly"), focused on print, categorized tightly, "a place to read," or to "work alone," you have a museum - and you have already been replaced by: the internet, the coffee shop, the public park - you, the librarian, just haven't lost your job yet.

Marian from The Music Man
Today's library, especially the single-generation serving school library, must be something essentially different. It must be the Communal Kitchen of Intellectual Creativity. It must be a place of resources and collaboration, of tools and inspiration, of communication and, yes, "making."

It must be a place that is both noisy and which has "caves" for quiet. It must be a place of comfort - from furniture to food and drink - so that users can concentrate on creativity and learning, not rules and discomfort. It must be a place where information flows through every possible tool, in order to create the widest, and most effective, access. 

A place of shared creativity, a physical place but one tightly bound to the universe through digital tools. A place of energy and excitement - if we crave solitude and the paper book, well, we have our own spaces for that - books being portable and all. A place of open access - our computers, our tablets, our phones all link us to every conceivable library - why would we enter yours if you offer less?

And a Maker Fairea place where creativity, learning, and problem-solving are contagious and where creativity, learning, and problem-solving break through boundaries.

Today, the "vault" lies in our servers, spaced strategically around the planet. The supermarket sits in our pockets, we can tap a four or five inch screen and access, well, anything. But the kitchen remains a physical place. A place of creation, of comfort, of human communion.

That is what your school library must be, or it will not be at all in a very short time.

- Ira Socol

24 November 2012

The Non-Anglo-American Reading and Writing

"The island raises another question: Is it real? Is this whole story real? I refuse to ask that question. "Life of Pi" is all real, second by second and minute by minute, and what it finally amounts to is left for every viewer to decide. I have decided it is one of the best films of the year," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the new Ang Lee film, Life of Pi.

holding on to the non-Anglo narrative in a way most films refuse to
"I refuse to ask that question," Ebert says... and this is essential. If you approach this tale in traditional, Anglo-American rationalist style, you end up writing the kind of nonsense produced by The New York Times' critic A. O. Scott, who writes...
"No problem! He will go on to embrace Islam and study kabbalah. Thousands of years of sectarian conflict, it seems, can be resolved with a smile and a hushed, reverent tone of voice.

“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” warns Pi’s dad, who is committed to the supremacy of reason and who is, as rationalists often are in the imaginations of the devout, a bit of a grouch about it. But this piece of skeptical paternal wisdom identifies a serious flaw in “Life of Pi,” which embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed. Instead of awe, it gives us “awww, how sweet."' 
Scott is so sure of his position as an authority on reason that he ends his review by stating,
"The problem, as I have suggested, is that the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle.

"Perhaps they are, but insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that “Life of Pi” does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion. The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes — or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all."
Oh my, the very idea that one might actually, "doubt what you see with your own eyes." This is the startlingly disturbing concept which The New York Times cannot embrace in this film, and which prevents us from allowing a democracy of reading and writing into our classrooms and schools. 
"If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe? ... Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer." (Life of Pi, p. 297)
Six months ago I wrote about young students at Scoil ag An Ghleanna at St. Finan's Bay in County Cork, about how those six and seven-year-olds attributed the sinking of the RMS Titanic to (a) "it wasn't blessed," (b) "if you looked in a mirror, it said 'No Pope'," (c) "it was build by the Protestants in Belfast." And I wrote then that, well, who knows what brought that ship together with that iceberg at that moment in that way? "Wrong," is such an absolute word, because, who really knows the whole story?

"We," in that "Anglo-American" conceptualization of the world, crave certainties, as A. O. Scott does. One cannot share religions, because some stories are contradictory. One cannot create a tale based in uncertainty, because it makes the endings too difficult, and the "theme" too personal. One cannot be both moral and a Democrat even in much of America. We believe in hard lines of separation, in linear tales with the climax on page 278, in stories with a specific - instructed - point of view which we can all reconstruct in a summary and, of course, can "compare and contrast" with other similar narratives.
"Tigers exist, lifeboats exists, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank." (Life of Pi, p. 299)
But for most of the world, the certainties that come from being the favored race in either the British or American Empires remain elusive. The universe is unstable. Often our beliefs are unsure. And thus our stories cannot be linear, and can often simply observe and reflect. That "climax," that "turning point," that "transition where the protagonist changes," well, it just may not happen during the segment of life being reported - or the segment of dream being reported - or the mix of the two which it - any of it - may be.

Because the other thing about the uncertainty is our differing conceptualization of "facts." The English and the Americans - at least as those are understood by FoxNews - believe in the existence of the "reliable narrator," that, if we just find that person, be in Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or whoever, we will "get the truth." But the rest of us, we cannot certain of that either. No one sees without lenses, no one sees without experiences and education, beliefs and fantasies. No one sees without having both needs and wants. So vision, yes, is always personal, and thus "unreliable."

Pi Patel is an "unreliable narrator" to The New York Times. Of course he is an "unreliable narrator" to both Roger Ebertand myself, but the difference is, The New York Times is troubled by this, and Ebert and I, perhaps our life experiences tell us that all narrators are unreliable, which allows us to listen to the story rather than to analyse it.

Akira Kurosawa's Rashoman. Truth? Where does that exist?
When the power is all yours, or you believe that power is all yours, you can, you will, feign certainty. And that certainty will allow you to easily split the world between "fiction" and "non-fiction." That certainty will allow you to easily categorize and label and summarize and simplify. That certainty will lead you to the simplicity of introductions, bodies of content, and conclusions. It will allow you to write five-paragraph essays and believe in hard lines between citation and plagiarism, just as you believe in hard lines on a map of the world.
The "rest" of the world might find all this too simple to be true at all. Memory is memory after all. It is "unreliable." It is always fiction and yet, it is also our only "truth," as Norman Mailer made it clear in that essential explanation of the writing of history, The Armies of the Night.
"She is in my memory her own avatar," John Banville writes in The Sea, which I just finished hearing. "Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth any longer retains of her? No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations." 
We are uncertain and we are unreliable, and, as Banville adds, we are uncertain. “Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him," Banville's narratorinsists.
“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” - James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake
So that other "we," that non-"academic," that non-white-protestant-power-owning, non-Anglo-American, non-imperial "we," need that democracy of reading and writing which allows our voices, our world views, and our uncertainty to exist fairly and equally within "your" school's walls. For without our voices being truly welcome, "your" schools have nothing for "us."
"You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see any higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality." (Life of Pi,p. 302) 
- Ira Socol

13 November 2012

Why do we read? Why do we write?

It has taken me some time to get words into pixels after a hurricane weekend at the School Library Journal Summit in Philadelphia.

At first I wanted to write about, "What are school libraries for? Who are school libraries for?" because that seemed to be an essential set of questions that appeared as Pam Moran and I presented our "unkeynote" - a challenge to the how, why, and what of the school library in this century. But then, sitting trapped in a hotel room, staring out a window at the magnificence of Philadelphia's Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, I watched some videos of students "reading and writing" in schools, and I found deeper questions.

Sometime after our unkeynote - a set of challenges to existing harmonies rather than a focus on one - and after Chris Lehmann's keynote the next morning, the SLJ Summit arrived at the business of the Common Core. And it was in that shift, from broad conversations on openness to mechanical conversations on closed processes, that the questions began emerging.

Why do we read? Why do we write? How do we bring reading to children? How do we encourage children to write?

Will we accept a true democracy of voices? Or do we continue to pursue the colonialism of conversion, the colonialism of standardization?

Umberto Eco, the brilliant European semiologist and novelist, says in the afterword to the English-language edition of his 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery that, well, first that he hopes that readers are not to derailed by his "fairly chaotic" non-linear narrative, and that second,he worries about readers - and in both cases this perhaps applies primarily to English and American readers - getting trapped by "the fatal imbalance between story and plot," or, he offers the Russian literary terms, "fabula and syuzhet," in Wikipedia's description, "The fabula is "the raw material of a story, and syuzhet, the way a story is organized."' If you read the linked New York Times review by novelist and professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein you will find that fatal tension obvious. Goldstein reviews the plot, and in doing so, misses the entire story. Eco is not, of course, telling us the origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in The Prague Cemeteryanymore than he wrote a history of the 14th Century Church in The Name of the Rose, rather he is writing a highly contemporary tale of the methods of public opinion manipulation by governments and others, something incredibly relevant to all of us right now.

[I probably should have put a note similar to Eco's at the end - or at the beginning - of The Drool Room, but that I didn't perhaps explains why the book is more popular in Ireland than in the US...]

Goldstein, a very smart person, missed the story, but that's not surprising. She's an American educated academic, raised by "school as we know it," so to her, plot is what matters. We know this, it is the heart of how we read in school, of how we want kids to write in school, it lies at the heart of the Common Core, in all the standards in those documents, which are NOT flexible, because they form a rigid frame within which any reading must be jammed... That rigid frame which prevented Rebecca Newberger Goldstein from finding the story in Eco's writing.

What is the plot of Ulysses? or The English Patient? or Sophie's Choice? Sophie's Choice is one of the most powerful stories of the 20th Century, yet the plot? Well, it's - to be blunt - "how I first got laid." Ulysses? a walk through Dublin one day. The English Patient? You know the plot, in order to make a movie for Americans the story was stripped out of the book - leaving just the plot.
the stunningly rich tale of consent to imperialism in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient
becomes a simple love affair and cautionary tale about boundaries via Common Core arithmetic
"I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country.
Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and
reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I
knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind
of knot in a tie I was out. Was it just ships that gave you such power? Was it, as my
brother said, because you had the histories and printing presses?

"Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world.," says Kipp in The English Patient, as he damns the Common Core idea along with 'the way we teach.' "What do you think will happen next?" we ask our students, focusing on the Anglo-American plot rather than the rhythms, emotions, sensations, evoked memories which drive writing in so many cultures. Can you produce an "accurate and concise summary statement"? one of the teaching videos I watched asked. Really? Who wants the damn summary? What is that for? Why must you imagine what happens next in order to experience a story? What is wrong with the moment? What is wrong with taking something complex in, and not simplifying it?

"You write like a European," I was told early in my doctoral studies, and though i said, "Thank you," in response that was meant as a criticism to be corrected. "They" meant that I do not write in a simple linear form, they meant that I do not adhere to North American philosophies. They meant that my sentences were often crafted with rhythms, not just words. And they meant that all of that is wrong.

We are not usually so obvious in our stated biases, but every day in schools I see students punished for their voices, punished for their culturally ingrained reading styles, punished for refusing to over-simplify, because we teach reading and writing in the same way the English like to teach tea drinking.

So, school librarians, and teachers of the English language, here is a recent story of mine... Can we find an "accurate and concise summary statement"? What do you think will happen next? What is the plot?

In the summer when I turned thirteen I swam across Long Island Sound to the lighthouse on Execution Rocks.

At thirteen there are nights when you cannot sleep. Not because of actual reasons for terror in the house, nor because of worries or pressures. And really not even because the hot, humid Gulf Stream air swamping New York is too still and sweat coats your skin. But because there are so many things to hope for, so many wishes, that your brain cannot file them all away fast enough to let the silence come. This was the morning after one of those nights, and perhaps, not just for me.

Ten of us, maybe eleven - it is hard to count or even know all the faces now - mostly boys but not all, mostly members of the YMCA's Swim Team but not all, stood in the long gazebo at Hudson Park which overlooked the beach and the Sound. Late July, and the early morning light mixed with the incoming salt of the rising tide, and the seaweed and fish and the plants of the marshes. The flag in the park hung limp, only showing flutters of life around its edges.

It began with a dare, because that is the way stories of thirteen-year-old boys usually begin. Someone suggested we swim across Echo Bay, the small enclosure of the Sound which held the city's municipal marina and rowing club, and which, 280 years before, had seen Huguenot refugees of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre arrive to form a new home in a new land. But Echo Bay seemed both too easy - maybe somewhere between a quarter and a half mile - and too dangerous - the other side housed the rich, we'd be arriving on some rich person's lawn - and too familiar - we swam every day at the Hudson Park beaches here.

"We should swim out to Execution Rocks," I then might have said. The kind of crazy statement I could make at times like this. Execution Rocks, which had held a lighthouse since the early days of the American Republic, was the farthest outcropping of the City of New Rochelle, lying more than two miles across the Sound, much closer to the Long Island shore than to any point on this side, and marking the shipping channel through our rock-infested choke point where the Sound became the East River.

Decades later, I would stand in a gourmet food store before a shelf of various sea salts and wonder if I could season my foods with memories. Could I use the salt from this particular branch of the Atlantic Ocean? Or from the surf off Coney Island? From Lough Foyle or the Forty-Foot in Ireland? From Cape Disappointment where the Columbia finds the Pacific? What dreams might those meals awaken?

A thousand yards out, that's 40 lengths of the 25 yard pool we swam in under the Y gym, where the low ceiling held the chlorine captive so you could not smell the difference between air and water, my arms felt fine but my legs were beginning to drag behind me, and I let myself pause, coming upright in the pond-flat green water, my legs in a slow bicycle pump that stretched the muscles in different ways. I was still in coastal waters, tiny Huckleberry Island, legend told us of an old "Shore Club" and a great fire but who really knew?, still lay over a thousand feet away. But here, I breathed as deeply as I could now and saw the world from that exact point we call "sea level," was a wondrously safe spot. I could still see and hear my friends on shore, they were waving, and I waved back - slowly to indicate that I was fine, not frantically as in a call for help - and thought of not returning. And then I turned and began swimming toward the little island's rocky point.

They had said the swim to the lighthouse was "fucking insane," and "really stupid," and when I had argued that neither of those things were true they had dared me to try it. So we'd gotten on our bikes and ridden down the hill out of Hudson Park, turned left onto Hudson Park Road, then left again to climb the little hill at the start of Davenport Avenue - we could have ridden the flat route along Pelham Road and Church Street but it was not going to be that sort of day - and curved around the long reach of Davenport Neck until we tore down the vast grassy hill of Davenport Park and came to the giant tumbled rocks at the water. I'd swim it, but I wasn't going to start an extra half-mile away. We all knew this was not just the closest spot, but that it also had an island sort of halfway, a safety factor of importance.

Here, further out in the Sound, a slight breeze cooled us, but couldn't ripple the water. And the tide was reaching its top now, creating the calmest waters. I pushed my Keds off, pulled my socks off, and dropped my jeans, leaving just the purple Y Speedos most of us wore under our pants that summer. My shirt had been off and tied around the bike's seat post since I'd gotten on it that morning. "Scream if you're drowning," Billy said. "Yeah," I said, and walked to the one spot on the rocks we knew was safe for diving at this moment, and jumped in. "You're buying me pizza when I get back," I yelled after coming up to the surface. "Don't race," Peter said, kind of softly, "just go slow." I turned and headed south.

Three weeks or so later there was a meet at Saxon Woods, a huge county pool up near White Plains, with 50 meter lengths and teams from Ys and recreation programs from all over and the heavy smell of Coppertone and girls, lots of girls, even girls we knew. That day too was way too hot, and between heats the sun would weigh on our skin, pushing against us, driving us into the narrow strip of shade along the bathhouse. The girls, we understood, were there to see us, not to see us swim. They stared at our groins the way we stared at their rapidly growing tits, with not quite fully defined fascination. We then became completely aware of our own bodies, in ways that those of us who choose to hide in the water could not yet deal with. In September of that year, sitting in Cindy's bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, she put her hand on my thigh and asked, "What does it take to get you, you know, umm, excited?"

As she found out, I remembered her looking at me that day at Saxon Woods. How had she gotten there? What, exactly, had she been looking for?

When I pushed off the Huckleberry Island rocks I felt good, if vaguely thirsty. From here, a bit more than a mile maybe, maybe more, I guessed it would depend how far the current pulled me off course - a hundred little corrections adds up in distance, and the target now was a tiny spot in the water, still, at this moment in time, occupied by a lighthouse keeper, and home to deep-voiced steam foghorn which sang me to sleep on the stormy nights of autumn. And here, beyond that coastal zone, the water rose and fell, forcing a change in stroke to make breathing a conscious decision every time, and the smells of land vanished, and the water temperature dropped, and the world narrowed to just me and this sea, both my closest friend and my mortal enemy.

I pulled myself up onto the rocks in full, but not panicked, exhaustion, and lay gasping for air and feeling like my shoulders could not rotate one more time. I closed my eyes and felt the sun, and the warm stone, and listened to the waves splash against those rocks. Those rocks, that was our Halloween story. It was called "Execution Rocks" our story went, because the British had chained prisoners to these rocks during the Revolution and then waited for the tide to rise. When I looked again, I was staring up at both the lighthouse and a man in a blue uniform, who held a large green thermos out to me. "Did you just fuckin' swim here?" there was no wait for an answer, "drink this you crazy moron."

He gave me a salami sandwich on dark brown bread and lots of water as we sat on folding chairs in the shade of the island's house. He asked about my swimming, where I went to school, what I knew about the currents here. He never asked my name, or where I lived, or why I had just swum two miles to his spot on the map. I refused the boat ride back, though there was no doubt that he would shadow me in his launch back toward Huckleberry. For reasons I could not name this seemed to be alright with me.

I climbed back out of the water at Davenport Park three or three and a half hours after leaving. Maybe it was four hours or more. Time is not a specific thing here. I pulled myself up the rocks to a lot of whoops and stuff from now impressed friends. And they wrapped their towels around me, and I looked out, and saw the lighthouse keeper in his boat, just beyond Huckleberry. He waved. I hope I waved back, and then I stumbled to the grass. And then I think I slept.

(c) 2012 by Ira David Socol
I asked the questions above this story for reasons both personal and professional. You see, first, though I felt that I really needed to write this story, I do not know why that was so. This is a story - in my mind it is one fully coherent tale - but I know neither plot nor theme. And second, I read and write stories 'like this' all the time. Not just "fiction" either, for I have found that "reality" - whatever that may be - often looks a lot more like this than the writing in any high school history book.

And so I wonder, (a) where does my communication fit into your school? your Common Core? your library? your classroom? and (b) where does that democracy of voice fit in? How do we embrace that and not squash it?

The First Supper by Jane Evershed
The world is a place of constant reinvention. If we all follow the rules, the paths, nothing changes. There is a reason the books of the colonials so often fill the Booker Prize shortlists, there is a reason Irish fiction and poetry are prized so much more highly than that of the English or Americans.The rules have never fully taken root away from "the Queen's English," and the paths begin in very different places, and it is the uncommon, not the common, which has extraordinary value.
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

"I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience."
- Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
- Ira Socol