30 April 2012

BADD 2012: Toppliing Transactionalism

"Happy Birthday Vivian?" I ask. "Why would anyone put up a poster like that?"
"Vivian?" the response is somewhat incredulous. "What are you talking about?"
I point through the windshield. She follows my finger and stares. Then, because, well, we've been together a long time, "Oh no," she laughs, "those are candles! not letters, birthday candles!"

Ahh, the entertaining world of dyslexia.

Less entertaining might be a few recent wheelchair experiences. A DoubleTree Hotel (slogan: "cookies instead of service") in Roanoke, Virginia with no curb cuts near entrances, unnavigable ramps which changed slope suddenly, and a stage for me to speak from which prevented any physical interaction with those who had come to hear me speak. Or, sitting at the freezing cold plane ends of jetbridges because Rahm Emanuel's City of Chicago can't be bothered with timely responses to wheelchair requests at O'Hare Airport. Or, whether a restaurant in Roanoke or Michigan State University's campus police station, facilities whose "accessible" doorways feature thresholds so high and steeply cut that wheelchairs become stuck - if you're lucky - or you get tossed to the ground - if you're not.

But equally less entertaining are the millions of classrooms in which student movement is considered a problem. The millions of classrooms without student seating choices. The millions of classrooms without Text-To-Speech and Speech-To-Text routinely available. The millions of classrooms where cultural diversity in learning is sacrificed to the corporatism of the "Common Core."

And, I suppose, particularly less entertaining are the many places, from schools, to restaurants, to education PhD programs, where people with "disabilities" have to declare themselves pathologically damaged and beg for help in order to be allowed to pretend to function like "normal humans."

I believe in "Transactional Disability," a spin on Tom Shakespeare's great work linking the social and physical models of disability. To me, there is no actual "disability," there is only "able" and "unable," which are sometimes stable, but more often a constantly changing state of affairs - based on age, health, sleep patterns, energy levels, weather, the day of the week. "My ability to walk has been rapidly improving since my last surgery, but last Thursday the pain was really beyond my tolerance." "I thought I was reading pretty well Sunday, but when we got to the restaurant, and the menu was in ALL CAPS, I couldn't read anything."

"Able" equals, I can take care of it myself. "Unable" means I need help or tools. Those are basic human conditions, and no one should ever require a special permit, or a costly medical examination, or distinct permissions, to use the tools, or get the assistance, they, as equal children of God, need to function in their lives.

Whether you choose to take an elevator instead of the stairs, or you need to put on eyeglasses,
or you need to listen to text instead of "reading" (text-decoding) it - or watching
a video, or whatever... is a personal decision, not a societal prescription
The difference between "ability" and "inability" lies in the "transaction space." And "transaction space" is an ever-changing location. My living room is a different "transaction space" today than it was two months ago. The room, of course, is much the same, but where I can go in it, and where I am willing to go, are very different. The same classroom which may be fine for the "average," compliant, calm person, may be a nightmare for me. As I often say, the story of my friend Melissa and her son represents this perfectly: In the daytime, crossing a street, he is "visually impaired," and needs a cane and often assistance. But at night, as they walk around the lake, he is able to navigate perfectly, while she needs a flashlight/torch and often assistance.

A film is the easiest of transaction spaces for me to navigate in terms of literature, a print-on-paper book is the most difficult. A three-story high urban chain-link fence was a fine transaction space for me when my PF Flyers fit easily between the wires, now it would be an impossible barrier. I will never be able to reach the top shelf in the supermarket without some tool or strategy - that transaction space becomes otherwise impossible.

(Above and Below): fence... book... paths or barriers?
Now, Transactionalism arrives when someone, often someone in power, decides that their tools are fine but yours or mine are not. There was the Michigan State professor, wearer of thick eyeglasses, who drove five miles to work each day instead of walking, who often took the elevator between the third and fifth floors, but who thought I needed a $500 psychological assessment, and five dozen forms filled out, if I was going to use  text reader. There are the schools with impossible wheelchair ramps run by principals with reserved parking spaces up front so that they lose less time coming and going. There are politicians who use drivers for "convenience" and efficiency who run airports and transit systems that make life for wheelchair users close to impossible.

I see teachers and principals who use digital mail, messaging, and calendars all day but who operate in schools where students are not allowed to choose the same tools. I see students blocked from using school elevators so that students must declare their "inability" loudly if walking stairs is very hard one day. I see students denied the right to stand through class times by teachers who have the choice to stand or sit.

Which is all so very, very wrong. Without qualifiers. Without excuses.

Transactionalism is an evil. It must be confronted everywhere, every day. Until Transactionalism is toppled, "the disabled" will always live with identities crafted by others, and equality will always in unattainable.

- Ira Socol on Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012

26 April 2012

Negative Space?

"There is so much action in New York one is sometimes perversely excited by those moments, or those places, when one is not part of it. Where nothing is happening. These places, in turn, become little air-pockets of possibility—what I call negative space. They are unidentified, off the grid, the staging areas for trysts, seductions, encounters. They are the places where crimes are committed, of one kind or another." 
Central Park Lovers (1970s) by Dominique Nabokov
...and so Thomas Beller begins a tale of New York's Central Park in the 1970s, his high school "rich kid" friends, and the power of urban geography. Mr. Beller's piece in The New York Review of Books is a teaser for a story collection to be published soon, but for me it was an immediate window back to essential moments of my life.

I wasn't one of these kids - not a rich kid, not a private school kid, not a native of Manhattan, not on familiar terms with any doorman - but, small world that New York can be sometimes, I knew who hung out with these guys, but the city, the spaces, the concepts, are all deeply familiar.
WTC Plaza in 1978: Photo Joe Margolis via Flickr/About
"Long ago, when I was a kid, this whole area west of the Trade Center was just a giant beach. They'd filled all this land in, out beyond the old pier lines, when they built the towers, but then they'd argued about this place called "Battery Park City" for two decades. So it sat there, vast and empty and cool in the summer and icy in the winter and all we had to do was hop the fence and you could do anything out here, soccer, or stickball, drugs or sex, sunbathing or music – it was the most un-Manhattan place in Manhattan, and we loved it.

"We loved all of downtown then. Companies were fleeing New York and Tribeca hadn't happened yet and nobody at all lived anywhere around. The old folks bitched that the Trade Center was ugly and too big and too square and the plaza was horrible and boring and the shopping mall was just a shopping mall. But fuck them. The towers were fucking brilliant, transparent and glowing and changing colors with every twitch of the sky. For the price of fairly but not absurdly expensive drinks you could go hang out and get hammered up top at Windows with the best view on the planet. You could skateboard or rollerblade or dance all night to whatever music you could bring to the plaza and the lightposts had outlets right there for power. And after all the suits left the whole lower level was for play. We'd meet guys on the cleaning crew for soccer games lots of Sunday nights in the lobby of One."
That's a story of mine, called "The Beach," not in The New York Review of Books (but, whatchagonnado?), but talking - again even if not with the words - about "negative space."

Negative Spaces
, those spaces between, hold so much power for kids, and even more during adolescence. In one of my favorite books about education, Peter Høeg's Borderliners, the negative spaces are so small, carved in a fleeting bit of time in a stairwell, among the stacks in a library, deep in the night for those students boarded at the school... at one critical moment in that narrative it is only a snowstorm which provides the separation, that the power rises to almost unbearable heights.

Of course. It is only in these spaces between, these spaces off the grid, that kids can pause, look up the stars or down into themselves. It is only in these spaces that they can summon the courage to try the very new and very uncertain, or to let themselves experience their deepest fears. And it is only in these spaces that they can take ultimate risks - yes - including with each other.

So, in our panicked-about-safety-and-lawsuits-and-child-sexuality moment-in-time, is there any way to begin to give students in our schools something like "negative spaces"? In an age where a child unseen for a moment is viewed - immediately - as a threat, can we extend some sense of privacy to the students in our care?
Tommy James and the Shondells - I Think We're Alone Now
This is not about sex. Well, maybe it is. I told a group of principals last year that I thought it was wrong "to design our Middle Schools around the belief that any two students aged 12-14, left out of sight for two minutes, would have sex." "Maybe they will," I added, probably not winning any converts, "but if so, they were gonna do it anyway."

Yes, worst case I suppose, but this is really about allowing students to breathe. "It was a kind of no-man’s-land, a place of possibility," Beller says of Manhattan's green space, and I thought of all the "places of possibility" of my youth, from an abandoned military base to an abandoned railway station, from the catwalk above the stage in my Junior High's auditorium to the odd turret spaces which ended the corners of my high school, from the long corridor linking the high school library to the rest of the building - broken into caves by panels displaying artwork - to the tops of the stair towers overlooking the river in the Kresge Art Center at Michigan State. These were places I could breathe, dream, fantasize, imagine, hope, cry. I thought of how a curve of rock along a winter beach might be the safest place I knew at age 13, or how the space in front of the air-conditioner on the roof of Macy's might have been the most intimate at 15.
Above: Platform of the Wykagyl NYB&WRR Station in New Rochelle, NY (last used in 1929)
Below: Fort Slocum in its ruins (now all demolished) David's Island, New Rochelle, NY
or, Below: if you went to the top of The Mall garage behind Macy's and took
the ladder to the store roof, you had Long Island Sound spread out before you.
Superblue's Moatfield climber/shelter
Superblue, a London design firm mentioned in the previous "play" post, offers some "halfway" ideas. Their Moatfield Community Space creates both play possibilities and a level of possible privacy, as does their Radlett design. "The shelter has two seating spaces, one covered, one open. Running through the structure is a unique hexagon climbing strip which lets people climb up to the roof or can be used as monkey bars from below," the designer's say about Moatfield, which mixes that sense of privacy with security visibility.

Orestad College
in Denmark (3XN Architects) manages to create many "spaces between" without creating dark corners. A "Youth Factory" space for teens in Spain, and a Swiss athletic facility might add to your idea possibilities. Look to the parks kids love for more inspiration, and how teens group themselves in coffee shops. An Albuquerque, New Mexico High School has created a hotel-like lobby, with all the choices of levels-of-privacy that suggests.
Denmark's Orestad College (secondary)
Thinking about this requires a very radical shift in school design vocabulary. It requires a shift in how we imagine "time" as well... remember my post - long ago - about the magical impact on a high school of having ten minutes between classes? (negative space requires negative time). It also requires a shift in adult behavior. I've been told, many times, by school librarians that they need to be able to "see the whole room." But by this they mean that they need to see the whole room from one chair behind the circulation desk. If that's the plan, what you need is not a "learning environment" but a "panopticon," which is a prison, not a school.

For "negative spaces" to exist effectively and positively, the adults in the building must be mobile in space and in time, wandering - not on patrol but in search of interaction and opportunities to support. What made the Central Park of the 1970s still "relatively safe" during New York City's social collapse was the amount it was used. You might feel alone, but alone was a relative term.

(When I worked in one high school in the mid-1990s, I wandered the corridors all day as I built the school's highly sophisticated - for the time - network. Access to research CD towers from every classroom, every printer networked, high-end computers for every science class group table, etc. As I wandered those halls - on my random time - I saw lots of what even the "discipline assistant principal" never saw. Maybe I contributed to safety. I know that I found that no prohibited behavior was absent - though I never really saw anyone hurting anyone else.)

So I'm asking you to think about this. To consider how we all need those "negative spaces" during our days. And to consider how we might try to meet our students half way on this.

- Ira Socol

21 April 2012


Wieden and Kennedy's brilliant "tag" advert for Nike from 2002

We took the "grandnephew" to a great playground today. He's four, but the people there who caught my attention were older - 10 years older, 12 years older. They were teens, but while the "teen" spaces in the park - the basketball court, the soccer field, even the skate zone - sat empty, the "Timber Town" playground held them all. Oh sure, two girls, working at being 'too cool,' sat swinging and gossiping, but all the rest, boys and girls, raced through the playground's features playing tag.

Timber Town, Zeeland, Michigan
They were no danger to the little kids. Not at all, and many of the kids were very young. Nor did they ever collide with a parent. Nor did anyone get hurt. But they played and played - inventing the rules, changing the rules as needed - but racing on and on.

And so once again I thought, why don't we have these playgrounds at middle schools and high schools? I know I'm not the only one who asks this - when I brought it up on Twitter, Royan Lee from Ontario mentioned taking his Middle Schoolers on a field trip to a playground, Chris Wejr mentioned how, in his community, when they converted an elementary school into a middle school, they very quickly removed the playground. I understood. Earlier in the day I had passed Holland (MI) New Tech High School (grades 6-12), also a converted elementary. Same thing there, the great playground that had sat behind the building has vanished. Turn 12 kids, and play time is gone, you're an adult now... unless, of course, you want to go to a movie, or choose your own class, or go out at night, or, or, or...

Secondary school playground design from Superblue Design of London (UK)
check out Knitting Nancy and this climber/shelter
Just last summer a Middle School Principal in Frankenmuth, Michigan had told me that virtually every one of his students had signed a petition asking for an "adventure playground" like those built at all the area's elementary schools.

Check out this "mobius strip" playground piece
Why? Where is recess between age 11 and age 18 when you get to university? Where are the playgrounds which encourage healthy play, healthy large muscle use, imagination, and adventure?

or this "ant farm for all ages"
Why do we keep on insisting that kids "grow up" so quickly? And why do we keep insisting that "growing up" means being stuck in a chair - an awful chair - all day?

- Ira Socol

18 April 2012

Rejecting "Evidence-Based Practice"

There are many words and phrases I'd love to toss out of our educational vocabulary. "Rigor" is, of course, a big one. "Flipped Classroom" is another - unless we're going to really try the old Fred Astaire-Royal Wedding thing. "Special Needs," "Special Education," and "SpEd" are others because it is way beyond time to embrace Universal Design for Learning, full inclusion, IEPs for everyone, and Toolbelt Theory for all. But here I am with one more... the dreaded "Evidence Based Practice."

"Evidence Based Practice" sounds so good, sounds so authoritative, sounds so "medical." It is, after all, medical. The term was "Evidence Based Medicine," and like the "Gold Standard" research promoted by the AERA and the US Department of Education, it sounds great to the uneducated, but remains not just impossible to transfer to the field of education, but undesirable.

I heard a medical researcher on NPR this week describing how a highly effective counter-treatment to the side effects of antibiotics couldn't really spread because it could not be evaluated the FDA "gold standard" way, and it reminded me of how evaluation systems stymie innovation everywhere.

But even if these research and practice paradigms worked fully in medicine... we still could not, and should not, import them. First, it is not possible to do a "double blind" trial in education, the practitioner surely knows what "treatment" is being used, and so do most students (we often might as well give out "Control Group" T-shirts) so the "Gold Standard" promoted by AERAis simply fraudulent. Then there's the undesirable - we are educators, it is malpractice for us to withhold interventions from students when we believe they will help.

And so if the methods of collecting our "evidence" are both fraudulent and irresponsible... where does that leave "Evidence Based Practice"?

It leaves it as the tool of those who want to preserve - to harden - the industrial-process nature of education, and as the tool of hucksters with products to sell, like researcher-salesmen Slavin and Marzano. As Peter Smagorinsky says, in terms of how the US Department of Education operates:

 "Consider the ways universities operate. Universities initially compete for students, but once they’re enrolled, that game is over. After enrollments are secured, universities compete for prestige, and the game is not zero-sum: The more prestigious universities, the better the nation is served. The U.S. university system is not centrally organized, so each campus competes in its own way. Public universities are bound by state regents systems, at times intrusively; but for the most part are entrusted to be the institution they want to be. Innovations are very public and available as models for others to consider. Indeed, the publishing imperative forces good work out into the open and contributes to the status of the institution as others seek to adopt it. This approach works well for universities, but public school teachers are not entrusted with the same opportunity.

"The competition and innovation that local control would promote would enable teachers to exercise judgment, an opportunity that is rarely available under the current testing regime. Just as importantly, it would help to shape the incentive system within which education takes place. Presently, young people looking for a field of endeavor read daily attacks on teachers and schools, and see a punitive, assembly-line approach to teaching that follows from standardized curriculum, instruction, and assessment imposed by Washington bureaucrats with no teaching experience. Replace that image with a workplace where teachers’ ideas matter and their innovations are appreciated as dynamic and worthy of admiration. Which environment would you decide to enter if you were a talented young person looking for a rewarding career? Most teachers I know say that they want to teach because they want to make a difference. It’s hard to make a difference when the system rewards those who make everything the same." - Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia and included in Valerie Strauss' Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet, March 28, 2012
I am not against "evidence," we all collect "evidence" to support our actions or to suggest change in our actions every day, but I am also for innovation and creation and experimentation every day, especially in schools. For example, I have never repeated the same "class" - not even when teaching the same thing three times in a row. I learn from each presentation and then adapt, that's my evidence based practice, you know, "well, that didn't work," but there is something else creating the change - the "audience," the interactions change every time - and I can not let "evidence" from a previous experience interfere with the need to innovate, improvise, based on the needs currently before me.

This is the problem with "Evidence Based Practice," with "Common Core," with any enforced "National Standards," all limit our possibilities by enforcing "what is" as noted on Twitter: "All capitulations to national standards reduce your ability to make decisions as a teacher." All capitulations to the "scientific evidence" requirement prevent innovation.

What we need instead in education is a nation, nations, of experimental researchers working constantly with Grounded Theory based Action Research. All teachers as innovative experimenters, all schools as laboratories of what might be possible. This is essential, because otherwise we are, to use the metaphor for this week, simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic because we saw them arranged differently on the Central America.

In other words, our current praxis, our commitment to "Evidence Based Research," is utilizing fraudulent research paradigms to investigate micro-changes in a system developed not through science or research at all, but as a Social Darwinistic effort to prevent social change which might threaten power structures. [See the Five Part series - Designed to Fail.]

Grounded Action

"If a grounded theory is one that, as Strauss (1990) contends, “…is inductively derived from the study of the phenomenon it represents," then grounded action could be described as “…one that is inductively derived from the study of the phenomenon it represents for the purpose of creating and applying practical solutions to social systems” (Simmons & Gregory, 2003)."

Putting together Grounded Theory [link is to a pdf], the observation-based data collection concept which accepts that the real world is more powerful than the laboratory for social structures,  with Action Research, the continually adaptive method of applying developing knowledge to the solution of problems in addition to the study of them, allows us to form a circle which moves us - and more importantly - our students forward. Forward into a world wholly unrelated to the Henry Barnard - Ellwood Cubberley structure of education which remains intact even when "flipped" or "flattened" or privatized.

perational theory is systematically generated from and grounded in explanatory theory. The operational theory provides a grounded theoretical foothold for action planning and implementation."

You learn to see your classroom anew. You observe all the possible options. That becomes your data floor. You make changes, observing the results, constantly observing, recording, and adapting to the inflow of information. You are educators. You are not going to trap a control group of children into a failed reading system for 5 months in order to prove that system works - you are going to keep searching for solutions for those kids - but you are going to do it like researchers... recording your observations, your changing efforts, and your successes and failures, and then sharing that with the world of education - wholly and freely.

And if we all work on invention, and we all share what we're doing, and we're all building on what we're doing, we can stop buying third rate adaptations and begin to grasp the possible future.

Which has to be our goal. To move rapidly into the future, where our students already reside. And we're not going to get there buying ten-year-old crap, that we collected "evidence" for five-years ago.

- Ira Socol

15 April 2012

The value of Early Adoption

Over 1500 people died when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. But it might have been much worse. Had this event occurred just a dozen years earlier, it is likely that the first news of the ship sinking would have come when the Titanic would have failed to arrive in New York. Later, other ships might have come across a few lifeboats floating with the frozen remains of passengers.

When the Titanic stopped transmitting, reporters had to make decisions based
on telegraphic rumors.
The New York Sun guessed wrong, The New York Times,
perhaps with future NBC boss David Sarnoff's help, guessed correctly.
But, despite all of its other safety failings, the White Star Line was an aggressive early adopter of new communications technology, the Marconi Wireless. Rare among ships of the era, White Star liners maintained 24 hour radio watches. Most ships maintained radio operations for just 12 hours, with gaps any time the operator needed to be away from his post. A key question of the Titanic tragedy turns on the actions of the Captain and the wireless operator aboard the S.S. Californian. While surely chief Titanic operator Jack Phillips bears blame for the communications break between these two ships, no one on the Californian considered switching on their set to discover what was happening just a few miles away.

Carpathia arrives in New York Harbor on 18 April 1912
The Carpathia had maintained a news blackout from the morning
of April 15th, until it had docked at a Hudson River Pier.

Now, let us consider the Titanic and its Wireless Operations. Most of that transmitted by Phillips and Harold Bride was the kind of nonsense for which, today, Twitter is oft attacked. Wealthy passengers sent expensive (12s. 6d for ten words and 9d. for each additional word - a shilling was 1/20 of a pound sterling, 240 pennies ("d") made up a pound - 480 halfpennies) - yes, almost $60 or £36 in today's money for ten words - messages to friends on land or on other ships. Over 250 private messages in the just 36 hours between leaving Southampton, England and the collision with the iceberg. They ranged from arrangements for a private railway car to the simple, mundane, "wish you were here." There is no doubt that the distractions of these private messages interfered with the safety functions of this new technology.

Chief Wireless Operator Jack Phillips lets the vital ice message fall through
the cracks in this scene from the 1958 film
A Night to Remember, based on the
deeply research Walter Lord book of the same name. The Morse Coding is
so good in this film that listening, you can understand it all.

The actual Titanic wireless room,
in a passenger photo
But the critical issue that cold April night was not Jack Phillips distractions, it was that few other ship lines had adopted this new technology fully. Not just the nearby Californian shut off its wireless at night, so did the Cunard liner Carpathia, which only heard the distress call when it did because operator Harold Cottam could not sleep. Ships all around the North Atlantic failed to hear the CQD and then SOS distress calls because the Titanic had the misfortune to founder after 11:00 pm, when the lone Marconi operators on most ships had gone to bed.

Unimportant? A new toy? A new gadget? Useful, but not worth spending enough money for a 24-hour two-man watch? Whatever. The wireless was not seen as valuable enough by most. It was dismissed - despite the almost 70 year history of the telegraph, and that dismissal - for the owners of the Californian especially - cost 1,500 lives.

New technologies can seem odd, strange, somewhat worthless. The operators used quirky codes and phrases, even in crisis, [12.20 a.m.  15 April 1912  R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia: “Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W.” "Old Man" was the greeting of the day, included even here. Many other odd abbreviations were in use, making the signals incomprehensible to many. If this sounds familiar...

Among the Titanic's many fable-like cautionary tales, perhaps this is one more. Sometimes early adoption, commitment to new technologies, can make all the difference in the world.

- Ira Socol

12 April 2012

Titanic and the Geographies of Language and Moments in Time

Being sort of "bedridden" (a great old term in itself), gives one time in interesting ways. One way I've been using that time is to listen to audio books. And one of the books - before it descended into a mud-like boredom - was Stephen King's novel 11/22/63.

Even in 1970, there were more Howard
Johnson locations in America
McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's
combined (advert, 1960)
I loved the first 40% of the book. For me it began as the "best" of Stephen King - the wondrous storytelling capabilities of his short stories, novellas, and early novels - Carrie, The Shining, Christine- without the ponderous self-importance of his later works, including this one. OK, sure, the man desperately needs an editor to clear out 35% of his words (or 50% in his last 20 years of books), but this began as classic - fabulous - Stephen King. Second, it is historical fiction, and well done historical fiction is, for me, an incredible chance to learn in a truly beautiful way.

Historical fiction can be both bad history and bad storytelling (see Newt Gingrich), passable history and bad storytelling (see Morgan Llywelyn's ponderous Irish Century Novels), or great storytelling with emotionally accurate but event-confused history (Jack Finney's Time and Againis my favorite in this group - nothing will describe 1880s New York City to you in better ways, but I wouldn't set my clock with its specific accuracy). But at its best historical fiction can teach the past in ways history books usually cannot, and in ways school curricula - common or not - can rarely touch. From Finney's descriptive conversation with a late night horse trolley driver circa 1883, to Thomas Mallon's incredible visit with a female computer at the U.S. National Observatory in 1877, or his view of re-burials for US war dead in 1948, or his description of Grand Central Terminal in 1962, this genre offers a sense of place simply unavailable via date memorization, or any "great man, great moment" textbook history. Why? Because understanding history - actually understanding it - requires comprehending the motivations and fears of the people of a time. It is all about empathy. We talk a lot in history classes about stuff like the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo, but nothing of the mood in Europe which would find dominant Socialist parties in both Germany and France to ignore their belief systems and vote for war, and nothing of the middle class sensibilities in almost all European nations which provided cheering throngs for those war votes. For that concept you'd have to, at least, go to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel.

What did people in 1960 fear?
How did that impact daily life?
We might read a lot about America's internment of Japanese citizens, even debate the legality and morality, but a much finer understanding comes with Snow Falling on Cedars. And thus, one-third of the way through King's latest, I will say that his meticulously drawn portrait of hardscrabble upper New England as the Eisenhower administration drifts toward an end, is a brilliantly taught lesson. The world of the grandparents (or great-grandparents) of our current students, the fears, the hopes, the mills, the factory labor, the environmental destruction, the casual-out-in-the-open discrimination, the ways information spread, the quite specific class distinctions, is so vanished now that it is impossible to explain the Vietnam War and how it began to our students.

King uses a term in his book. He speaks about the "geography of the language" of 1958, and of how his character needs to learn this to succeed in his missions. In Finney's Time and Again there are long courses in these languages and cultural norms for time travellers. This is essential stuff. Humans make decisions based on their knowledge and environments. If we want to be able to explore and understand history, we need to know less about dates, less about "big events" perhaps, and much more about "life."

Language comes from culture, of course, but it also controls culture. So the Geographies of language matter a great deal. New Yorkers, for example, denote distance in time - "I live 80 minutes out on the Island." "I live an hour north of the city." - which makes sense in a place where there is no specific correlation between miles to travel and any expected trip's length. People in Michigan always - always - hold their right hand up to you and point with a finger from their left hand to indicate where someplace is. People in Seattle wake up to weather forecasts suggesting "sunbreaks" and, on the best possible days, "the mountain is out." One of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is creating dialogue which sounds real and of the time while still maintaining contemporary reader understanding. Another is to describe a "foreign" world to readers without stumbling into the trap which creates bad science fiction - pausing to explain details every other paragraph.

The Histories of the Moment

A group of enticing historic anniversaries have collected over this first half of 2012, and this creates an opportunity to use the "geographies of language" to not just offer deep understandings of the past, but to combine that with work which just might improve empathy.

The RMS Titanic sank 100 years ago. The New York Mets were "born" 50 years ago. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom has reigned for 60 years. The first battle between "ironclad" warships occurred 150 years ago. The first K-mart opened 50 years ago, creating new kind of "discount store" chain. Humans reached the South Pole for the first time 100 years ago. Telstar, the world's first communications satellite went into orbit 50 years ago, and AT&T demonstrated phones with buttons to push instead of a rotary dial at Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

Also in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and Ahmed Ben Bella finally led Algeria to independence from France (which was kind of like if Hawaii, or maybe California, decided to re-assert its independence from the United States). 150 years ago US President Abraham Lincoln signed two laws which brought the government deeply into the lives of many Americans - the Homestead Act granting land in the west, and the Morrill Act which began government support for "Land Grant Universities" like the pioneering State Agricultural College in Michigan (Now, Michigan State University).  Yes, Lincoln also signed the Emancipation Proclamation, though it did not impact slaves in the Union States of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, or Delaware. Lord Byron defended Luddite violence against new technologies 200 years ago.

The Battle of Algiers offers a documentary style visit to Algeria as the revolt builds,
the flip side, France in 1962, is shown in
The Day of the Jackal
And 25 years ago, the Commodore PET and the Apple II ushered in a new world of "computers in classrooms."

But how can we understand these moments in time unless we understand the worlds in which they occurred? What would you need to know to comprehend just how radically left the early Republican Party was so you might begin to grasp just how huge it was that the Morrill Act created real federal involvement in education? What must you understand about the world of 1912 to appreciate the fact that - despite "women and children first" - a first class adult male passenger was far more likely to survive the Titanic's sinking that a steerage class child? What might you need to understand about phones in 1962 to appreciate the possibilities inherent in Telstar and "Touch-Tone."

History is a disconnected, meaningless, series of memorizations unless it is built into a real context, and that context requires understanding the various geographies of a time, starting with the geography of the language. Let me offer one example: Working with sixth graders last fall, we were talking about Yuri Gagarin's moment as the first human in space. Students were fascinated, but immediately confused by two things - first - why didn't the US celebrate this amazing moment? and why hadn't their school talked about the recent 50th anniversary of this flight? And second - why were there these long periods when this first Cosmonaut was unable to communicate with anyone on earth?

How would kids understand the "space race" having grown up in a world where the US has become dependent on Russian technology to simply get into space? How would they understand the limited range of "tracking stations" living in a world where no one is ever "out of range." Truthfully, these sixth graders had no idea what "Soviet Union," "USSR," or "CCCP" ("ess-ess-ess-air") meant.

Likewise, there is a wonderful moment in Jack Finney's time travel novel, Time and Again, when the protagonist realizes, for the first time in his life, that Manhattan is truly an island. In 1882 New York, the only bridges link to Westchester County (or recent city annexations) across the Harlem River, unless you count the catwalk over the towers of the emerging "New York and Brooklyn Bridge." If he wants to escape the city police he either has to travel seven miles north to Kingsbridge, or he has to risk a ferry crossing when cops are undoubtedly looking for him there.

1960, the only radio was in the car...
Or, in my personal experience, I can remember reaching the end of my Police Academy time, and now sure I was passing all subjects, I began listening to a novel, The New Centurions, on the subway instead of law books. In the book there's this moment, at the start of the 1965 Watts Riots, where the LAPD officers fight their way back to their "black and white" so they can call for help. Why, I wondered, didn't they just call on their "portables"? It took me quite awhile to realize that in 1965 handheld police radios did not exist. Police cars were truly "radio cars."

So, in the 1912 world where "electronic communication" (if the word electronic yet existed) meant the telegraph (wired or wireless), would students think that communications were private? Would they think phone calls were private in the years before the dial was introduced? How long would it take to send a letter from, say, the Lower East Side of New York City to a rural village in the west of Ireland? Why were all those people in steerage? What was life like in Italy, Ireland, or the lower class areas of England? What did they know of the America they were headed to?

And what of the technology? Would the Titanic really have been racing?  Or did everyone already know that this ship, which had a twin already in regular service, could never go as fast as Cunard's RMS Mauretania? How well did wireless telegraphy work then? When the Titanic became the first ship to send the new S-O-S distress call, who heard it? Why was S-O-S chosen?

In Nacht und Eis, the original Titanic film telling, 1912 (Germany), US release 1913.
You can also watch
The Atlantic, a 1929 film from Britain, the first "talkie" Titanic.
Below: RMS Carpathia passes Sandy Hook as it enters New York Harbor with the survivors of the Titanic.
A 1912 Newsreel - most footage is of RMS Olympic during the summer of 1911
which is obvious from the Captain wearing "summer whites"

Woolworth's was the
center of most US
"Main Streets"
Knowledge of a time includes many things. Some are very small... What does "RMS" mean? If you heard the name "Titanic" or "Carpathia" would you automatically know which steamship line owned which ship? In 1952 how did news of King George VI's death travel? How was the Princess/Queen Elizabeth travelling? What did stores look like in 1962? What did food taste like if you were in an army in 1862? Some are big... What did the British Empire/Commonwealth look like as Elizabeth ascended to the throne? In 1862 who went to college? Why did the early Republican Party so favor what we might now call "big government"? Why didn't "the Union" outlaw slavery? How did Americans learn to fear "communism"?

These details, big and small, and millions of others, begin to explain the motivations which drive the actions of those participating in historic events. Why would "housewives" of 1962 abandon their main street department stores and local Woolworth's and Kresge's to drive out of their way to shop at K-mart? Why did men accept "women and children first"? (if they did), or why did that not apply to 1912's poor? Why did so many immigrants from Ireland join the US Army almost before they left the dock in New York? What was it like to turn 18 in 1952 America - especially if you were male?

Above: The funeral of His Majesty, King George VI of Great Britain, 1952
Below: Elizabeth is proclaimed Queen
Below: New York City, 1952
and London in 1952, from an Italian film
or, selling cigarettes, 1952

So phrases like "1-A," "cold war," "Soviet," "empire," "trans-Atlantic," "telephone," "immigrant," "college," even "shopping," suggest different things in different moments of history.

When Walter Lord, after interviewing the Titanic's survivors in the early 1950s, wrote, "Tonight the problems [of ship designer Thomas Andrews] were typical—trouble with the restaurant galley hot press . . . the coloring of the pebble dashing on the private promenade decks was too dark . . . too many screws on all the stateroom hat hooks. There was also the plan to change part of the writing room into two more staterooms. The writing room had originally been planned partly as a place where the ladies could retire after dinner. But this was the twentieth century, and the ladies just wouldn't retire. Clearly, a smaller room would do." what was he suggesting about the changes in upper class society? What about changes in sex lives? Did upper class changes lead or follow the changes in lower class relationships?

Ancient gas station on the former US-31 in
Norton Shores, Michigan
Lord, who has always been special to me because an Aunt of mine was his secretary as he preserved these memories, works hard in A Night to Rememberto create some of this background, "The things people took with them showed how they felt. Adolf Dyker handed his wife a small satchel containing two gold watches, two diamond rings, a sapphire necklace, and 200 Swedish crowns. Miss Edith Russell carried a musical toy pig (it played the Maxixe). Stewart Collett, a young theological student traveling Second Class, took the Bible he promised his brother he'd always carry until they met again. Lawrence Beesley stuffed the pockets of his Norfolk jacket with the books he had been reading in bed. Norman Campbell Chambers pocketed a revolver and compass. Steward Johnson, by now anticipating far more than "another Belfast trip," stuck four oranges under his blouse. Mrs. Dickinson Bishop left behind 11,000 dollars in jewelry, then sent her husband back for her muff," because this says a great deal about the humans involved. Far more than spending three hours watching Kate and Leo be 1997 types dropped into a 1912 event. 

But how to build this? A Virginia high school librarian told me that she had her kids read All Quiet on the Western Frontwhile wearing wet socks and sitting on the floor next to overturned tables which created "trench walls," a brilliant start. Perhaps you could have kids take a road trip "the old way" - avoiding the interstates and motorways - to offer some sense of life in 1952 or 1962. Looking closely, you'll find the remnants of old shopping centers, gas stations, and "Motels" along these routes. Or use YouTube to pull up a night of television. Or, using the old "city directories" in your local library (these often pre-dated phone books and listed residents and businesses both alphabetically and by address) to virtually recreate a map of your community in 1912, 1952, 1962.

40 years ago, NBA All Stars vs. ABA All Stars at the Nassau Coliseum
Below, US automobile television commercials

Finney suggests that if his characters want to time travel they must know enough of the minutiae to recreate the past in their memory. That they must know the color of the streetlights (very different in my childhood than now) and what the trolley fare would be, and who was president, and - in a general way - what people ate for dinner. I think he is right, and for history to be anything more than meaningless, we need a little bit of time travel, we need enough empathetic skills to imagine the lives of others who are unlike ourselves.

So make room for real history. Use these big anniversaries as paths to the past. It will not just build rel knowledge of history, it will build skills which really help our current world.

- Ira Socol

11 April 2012

Imagination, Internal Motivation, and Real Reward

When my great friend Leigh Graves Wolf sent me the link to the "Caine's Arcade" video (below), she said I had to "watch it now." And I did. And it encapsulated, for me, so much of what we are trying to describe as "The Iridescent Classroom" - the replacement of "teaching places" with "learning spaces."

freedom to learn...
As you watch this short film, you will see what children are capable of when they are given space for their imaginations to roam, when they are liberated from the external motivators of "grades" and other traditional assessments.

Because Caine is not - in my experience - unusual in his capabilities, but rather, what is unusual is the playing field offered to him by his father. It is a blank canvas of a playing field, which rewards imagination and internal motivation. As I watched, I thought back to my own son's childhood - the cardboard box buildings he so loved to make, the tree house he and his eight-year-old friends built without adult design help (and with only surreptitious (late night) adult construction help) - and I thought of my son's rant this past Christmas against Lego kits and pieces so specialized that they stripped the imagination out of play.

Other parents on our block in North Muskegon, MI doubted my sanity and parenting skills - especially as kids began coming home from my backyard scraped from falls from the tree house construction site - but I always preferred to let my kid - all kids - find their own way to knowledge. No one got badly hurt at the tree house, and it completely eclipsed the store kit climbing tower I had built two years before - because the tree house belonged to the kids in every way.

Later, some of those same kids would medal in the Odyssey of the Mind structures competition. Today, they are all capable of creation in their adult lives.

Caine has that open playing field, and he has seized it. His motivations have nothing to do with those prescribed by schools, they lie purely in his curiosity and quest for knowledge. And when a real reward comes Caine's way, it is not a grade, it is not a score, it is not something which compares him to others - the reward comes on Caine's terms, his accomplishments are recognized in ways he understands and appreciates.

So where in your school, in your classroom, is the space for Caine's Arcade?

- Ira Socol

06 April 2012

Transition from Secondary School and the Freedom Stick

As the school year in North America and Europe begins to wind toward a close, here are four new "slide presentations" on making the transition from secondary school to university for students "with disabilities" or "differences" - which I might argue, is just about everyone.

My Study Bar tool from RSC Scotland North+East
There is a focus here on using the tools available on the MITS Freedom Stick, the software package you can download and install on a 4gb Flash Drive or simply run from your Windows computer. But the ideas can be adapted in many ways.

Of course the Freedom Stick is an "Americanization" of the fabulous LearnApps Drive created by RSC Scotland North and East, so you can download their version instead if that serves you better (or their AccessApps - more suited for visually impaired students, or the classroom tool building TeachApps). RSC also offers MyStudyBar for desktop or laptop installation.

The goal is to help students fully develop their Toolbelts for success at university, or in any post-secondary environment.

Disability Life presentation is also here as a Google Doc

Accessible Firefox presentation is also here as a Google Doc 

Open Office presentation is also here as a Google Doc  

Universal Design for Reading and Writing presentation is also here as a Google Doc  

Remember, we have a full selection of support videos, ranging from hour long webinars to three - to - five minute tool use presentations for all of the Freedom Stick tools. RSC Scotland N+E has their own support videos as well.

Humans are tool users by nature. We succeed when we choose our tools intelligently based on the "TEST" formula - Task - Environment - Skills (at the moment) - and Tool Knowledge. If your tools do not offer you the support choices you need, you are making life unnecessarily difficult.

- Ira Socol