30 May 2012

"Fried Chicken 'n Watermelon" at The New York Times

"As access to devices has spread, children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show."
Both The New York Times and "reporter" Matt Richtel are at it again. The Times in their battle against technology in education, Richtel in his war against poor children. [see Class War at The New York Times]

Technology is "not a savior" says The New York Times... except for their own kids
The general idea is that while rich kids will use technology well, poor kids - a dangerous alien population - will not, so rich kids should be connected to the world and this century, while poor kids need to be carefully watched and trained to "be white."

Let us tear apart one key section of Richtel's reporting on this so-called "Digital Divide" crisis:
The study found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999.
Children of more educated parents, generally understood as a proxy for higher socioeconomic status, also largely use their devices for entertainment. In families in which a parent has a college education or an advanced degree, Kaiser found, children use 10 hours of multimedia a day, a 3.5-hour jump since 1999. (Kaiser double counts time spent multitasking. If a child spends an hour simultaneously watching TV and surfing the Internet, the researchers counted two hours.) 
It doesn't take an "expert researcher" to see the nonsense in the above. First, the kid with the TV on and the mobile phone in hand is not spending 11 hours a day, but 5.5 hours doing... um, whatever they may be doing because these categories are absurdly broad. At the moment, in this hour, I am spending 3 hours "wasting time on media." The television is on - HGTV, I'm writing on my computer - this post, I'm tracking mail on my mobile. In just a few hours I'll have used up more than my full day, and jump right to tomorrow.

Second, the giant gap? It comes to 1.5 hours a day - which might actually be 45 minutes, or 30 minutes, or - to be honest - who the f--- knows? Richtel has built a career out of misusing third-rate statistical analysis (he has a Pulitzer Prize for "proving" what is provably untrue - that mobile phone use has made driving in America much more dangerous), and here we go again.

Then, using the "anecdote as fact" structure which has defined Richtel's education reporting, the "reporter" finds the most connected poor child in America:
Policy makers and researchers say the challenges are heightened for parents and children with fewer resources — the very people who were supposed to be helped by closing the digital divide.
The concerns are brought to life in families like those of Markiy Cook, a thoughtful 12-year-old in Oakland who loves technology.
At home, where money is tight, his family has two laptops [obviously with broadband - IS], an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii, and he has his own phone. He uses them mostly for Facebook, YouTube, texting and playing games.
He particularly likes playing them on the weekends. 
Ummm, Matt? I've worked with a lot of poor kids, most are almost completely disconnected at home - except for their phone. When New Rochelle, NY began their 4G laptop initiative in their poor neighborhoods, they could barely find anyone with broadband, much less other laptops at home or connected video games. When I ask, whether in Michigan or Virginia, I find the poor with very little access, outside of the (often shared) smartphone. So Markiy is quite the "thoughtful" find for The Times, a find who makes "poor" parents look lazy, and poor kids - even those described as "thoughtful" poor kids - look irresponsible.  This is the - please excuse the racist expression here but I believe the connection is valid - "Lazy Darkie" theory, the idea, still expressed by the Republican Party in the United States, that African-Americans fail to succeed because they are only interested in "lazing around," dancing, and eating "fried chicken 'n watermelon" (which, honestly, has been expressed more, ahhh, bluntly in the circles of American power).

James Gee on how gaming supports learning
You know Markiy is irresponsible because he plays games on weekends and he isn't doing well in school. I could suggest reading James Geeto Matt Richtel, but information on how children develop and what they need in terms of interactive language, is not The Times goal here.

If it was, they might have reached back to their own paper two years ago:
James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who grew interested in video games when his son began playing them years ago, has written several seminal books on the power of video games to inspire learning. He says that in working through the levels of a complex game, a person is decoding its ‘‘internal design grammar’’ and that this is a form of critical thinking. ‘‘A game is nothing but a set of problems to solve,’’ Gee says. Its design often pushes players to explore, take risks, role-play and strategize — in other words putting a game’s informational content to use. Gee has advocated for years that our definition of ‘‘literacy’’ needs to be widened to better suit the times. Where a book provides knowledge, Gee says, a good game can provide a learner with knowledge and also experience solving problems using that knowledge.
Once again The New York Times could be looking at educational funding equity, or providing technology access in real ways, or about making schools function as relevant learning spaces instead of as worksheet factories... but they choose not too.  Once again they have turned their most anti-poor reporter loose on American schoolchildren and their parents, to degrade them, to attack them, and to help ensure that the legislators The Times influences will not give these "irresponsible" kids what they need.

Shame. Again.

- Ira Socol

28 May 2012

A Memorial Day Lesson in Citizenship

I am fairly sure that it was 1970. A lifetime ago. Two generations ago. Somewhat like today, America was an insanely divided culture, with very different understandings of "reality" embraced by two sides of a political divide. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the rights of women, even the ways to become intoxicated, had split the society down the middle - even if that middle was far to the left of today's divide. (The "right" then - represented by President Richard Nixon - believed in price controls, environmental protection, even a path toward universal healthcare. It was more akin to European "Christian Democrats" than the lunatic fringe the US Republican Party has become today.)

New Rochelle's "The Mall" was still the new hangout in 1970, with blacklight posters
and "paraphernalia" available at "World Imports" on the lower level.
I was a young adolescent. My father was not yet 50. New Rochelle, New York was 282. Memorial Day, begun as "Decoration Day," a name my Da continued to use, was 105, more or less. The war veteran's association, the American Legion, was 51. And a collision was about to occur.

My father was not a politician, but he was what I would describe as "a citizen." He did not just always vote, he didn't just always bring his children into the voting booth in the back of the old Church Street fire headquarters, he didn't just work for candidates - knocking on doors, dragging us kids into passing out campaign literature - but he actively engaged in the debates of the day throughout the year.

Eamon deValera's "war of choice" - the Irish Civil War
disgusted my father as much as Vietnam
He was also deeply opposed to what might be called "state violence." He hated war, police violence, the death penalty. Even wars he "supported" - World War II in which he served, The Anglo-Irish War, Israel's fight for independence from Britain, Algeria's from France, he found morally horrific. "Wars of choice," whether begun to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam or Eamon deValera in Ireland, were, in his mind, the ultimate sin.

"I've been in a war that had to be fought," he'd say, "and even that did more damage to the world than anyone could imagine." He'd been with Patton, at the Normandy breakout, at Metz, in the rush to relieve Bastogne, crossing the Rhine, liberating Dachau, and pushing all the way to Plsn in (then) Czechoslovakia.  He had lifetime leg problems are being hurt, he had nightmares until he died.

But more. He was the son of a World War I veteran, a combat engineer who struggled with what we'd now call PTSD and the scarred lungs of a gas attack victim until he died - at his own hand.

So, unlike the stereotype of the WWII "GI" being "pro-war" in the 1960s, my Da was the opposite - intensely, vocally, politically against US involvement in Vietnam. And he was particularly dismissive of the crowd which hung out at the American Legion Hall across from our home, who, in his words, "had sat back in the safety of the States or in England during their war and now wanted to send kids to die."

Whether that was either true or fair or neither, I really don't know. He knew many of them, so, it might have been true, though, being luckier in assignment than my father had been is really no vice.

Either way, they waved American flags while we went to hear Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, and Eldridge Cleaver. New Rochelle, like most of America, was split.

Not a lot has changed in this view, looking north on North Avenue, except
for the Trump Tower in the distance, and the fact that the big supermarket
across from the Legion Hall has been replaced by a Latter Day Saints Church.
Which brings me back to Memorial Day, and the Memorial Day Parade which traditionally began outside my bedroom window, at the Legion Hall. Two controversies erupted in the days before the parade: First, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War asked to march. Second, the high school band decided to wear black armbands in the parade. In my house, these were easy issues to decide - free speech and opposition to the war, but elsewhere it seemed far more complicated.

The American Legion, like many right-wing organizations "devoted to America," was not particularly inclined to accept the constitutional right to political expression in public places. They said that the parade was something they organized, and thus they could decide who would be in it. The City of New Rochelle took a different view, noting that this was a public event, on public streets, involving the work of many public employees, and as a "public space," was open to all.

And so Memorial Day came. My mother advocated for watching from the windows. My father would have none of this, and led us out into the fray. He was going to march with the Veterans Against the War, and he wanted us by his side. "Citizenship means nothing without expression or risk," a Jesuit priest once told me, and my father was going to do both.

The Legion had placed the two groups they didn't want at the end of the parade, and as the parade began, they unfurled a huge banner reading "End of Parade" right in front of the New Rochelle High School Band - an amusing precursor to "Mission Accomplished" in my mind. But they also had bigger plans. As the band began to move, Legioneers drove cars from both their parking lot and the Daitch Shopwell supermarket lot into the band to block them. Meanwhile a crowd of overweight middle age guys wearing funny hats came out on the Legion Hall steps to curse at the band and Vietnam vets.

Which all led my family into action. One of my sisters climbed onto the hood of one of the cars, stomping the paint, denting it, which led the band to simply walk over the vehicles. My father led a bunch of vets 25 years younger than himself in a charge up the steps of the Legion Hall, demanding to know what battles those guys had served in. I tried to pull him away, to prevent the inevitable fight, and might have been just slightly successful. A few punches thrown. None landed.

much quieter now, Memorial Day 2012,
the parade route has reversed...
A few cars messed up - deservedly I'd say - but the parade, the whole parade, went on. Even if it was the last Memorial Day Parade in town for about 15 years. The war would drag on for another five years. My father would keep hating wars - from Ronald Reagan's bizarre attack on a Medical School in Grenada to George H.W. Bush's first Gulf War.

So, what was the lesson? We need to be engaged. We need to be active. We cannot let others silence us. There are things worth fighting for, including Justice and Peace. But most things are not worth fighting about. There are better ways. And we teach our children to be engaged/active citizens, we teach them about rights and responsibilities, or we do something else. It is a choice. A choice with huge consequences.

Public service, in all its forms, is a gift we give to ourselves. It is humanity at its best, while working at a place like Bain Capital is humanity at its worst. One builds the public sphere, honors our human society. The other privatizes what should be shared, and shatters our social bonds.

Mary and Catherine Cronin's father
rescues a fellow firefighter
in the photo above.
My family's public service, from the military service of my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, to my police work or work in other public services, is one kind. The kind of service which Mary Cronin wrote about in a story about her father which helped inspire this.

But there are other ways of building our public spaces... through commitment, and passion, and yes... risk. And sometimes even by willing to act a bit crazy in the defense of our society, and what it could, and should be.

That day in 1970 my Da showed his passion, his beliefs, his commitment, and he carried his children with him into action. The things I have done for our shared world since, owe a great deal to that Memorial Day.

Now, as I read Michael D. Higgins brilliant bookon our "public spaces," I recall those who have taught us the right things to do, on the most intimate levels.

And I say thanks.

- Ira Socol

25 May 2012

The Multiage Magic

Conor Galvin sent me a link to poem I had almost forgotten, and it started thoughts spinning... (Dr. Galvin on Twitter)
St. Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.
- Seamus Heaney
"And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?" Part of the magic of imagination in the education of ourselves as young people lies in our seeing - and in our constantly changing understanding - of the older people around us. We see, we assume, we imagine, we project, we play at, we practice... and then we cycle through all of that again and again. 

This is the natural rhythm of human learning. It includes steady doses of myth, of vocabulary we do not understand, of subject matter we cannot yet fully comprehend. We guess wrong a great deal, and then we test those guesses, find them wanting, and guess again...
"Belfast was impossibly far away. Only Aedan had been there and he talked about how big it was and how the giant cranes towered over the shipyards. "They built the Titanic there," he told us, "I saw where. It was the biggest ship ever but it hit an iceberg and sank and everyone died." This was an amazing story. We argued about when it might have happened. "Long back." "Very long?" "Before the war." "In the war the Germans sank a lot of boats with torpedoes ." We knew this. There were uncles and grandfathers lost on those Royal Merchant Ships, and even American ones. But before? "Maybe 1938 or like that," Aedan said. This seemed possible. An iceberg! Eventually someone would have to ask an adult."
Multiage Titanic 100th Project
Scoil ag An Ghleanna, Baile an Sceilg, County Kerry
At St. Finan's Bay in County Kerry, the Atlantic and hundreds of sheep outside the school windows, young children could offer clues to why the RMS Titanic sank, "it wasn't blessed," "it said "no pope" in one of the mirrors," mythic answers in a place hardy unfamiliar with either shipwrecks or the mythic. Are these answers wrong? They lack the technical certainty of a St. Mocholomog's School (in County Cork, near Bantry) eight-year-old's description of the length of the tear in the hull and the number of compartments flooded, but... who knows what brought that ship and that iceberg together that night 100 years ago? There is nothing wrong with children looking out at their fog-shrouded sea and hearing the old tales and imagining, before they begin to test and evaluate.

We lose so much when we divide students by age... We lose peer mentoring, we lose the aspirations to be "like the big kids," we lose the ability of younger kids to become leaders, and we lose the ability to let kids grow at their own rate. We also lose the shared public space which lies at the heart of community, culture, and democracy.
"Culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share," Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins writes in his book Renewing the Republic. "It is a process, one that is continually reworked. In addition, because culture is shared, it constitutes the bedrock of the public world  - a public world that is under threat from the demands of a destabilizing, privatizing world, predicated on consumption, and the protection of a life-world often based on a fear of others.  Thus, the shared trust of citizens in the public space is replaced by the insecurity of protecting private possessions."
Multiage Hurling at a Multiage Primary
Dualla NS, Dualla, County Tipperary
In our not too distant past, we grew up in families with many children, in communities with many children, with the older supervising, teaching, supporting, the younger. In the neighborhood of my childhood perhaps 50 kids, in a 12-year-or-so age spread, played together. When I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I would look down from my third floor window on South Oxford Street, and see the youngest kids playing on the sidewalks, protected from traffic by the parked cars, and watched by the young teenagers - who played in the street, and the older teens who watched from their gathering spots on the stoops of the block.

But now, if I suggest that younger children should learn from and with older children, many parents - especially American parents - re-coil in fear. They expect, well, they expect all kinds of corruption, which is part of our belief in adolescents, and even "almost adolescents," as dangerous aliens.

In schools across Ireland over the past two weeks, from Dublin on south and west, in suburbs and cities, in formal schools, at a CoderDojo, at Bridge21Learning, I saw the values of multiage education at work.
National Film Award Winner created by multiage
St. Mocholomog National School (Cuppabue NS), County Cork

Students built their knowledge in skills at a personalised pace which seemed to differ by subject area. Students mentored each other. Students relied on each other. Students cared for each other. James Gee has long written and spoken of the value of video game multiage groupings in building the expert vocabulary of students and their interests in a wider world - and how those informal groupings triumph over our age-segregated schools.
All ages share together at the CoderDojo in Thurles,
County Tipperary (Limerick Institute of Technology)
When I watched the children I saw over the past two weeks, the great lies of "industrial processing education" were exposed. America's "Common Core" with its age-based parameters. Our "grade-appropriate curricula," our "age-limited content," our notions of "must accomplish "x" in "x" grade." All of these, whether in American, British, Australian, Canadian, Secondary Irish, or any other form, are destructive to children and to learning.

Children are children. Individual human children. Learners are learners, and all are different. They grow best in a diverse ecosystem which allows the greatest level of cross-pollination, not in artificially limited, engineered monocultures created by testing and mandated curricula.

"And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?" Let "Kevin" imagine. Let us imagine Kevin. Let Kevin find "himself linked into the network of eternal life," of the world, of our world.

- Ira Socol

22 May 2012

foghlama in Éirinn, Éire foghlama

A Dublin 17-year-old discusses the difference between "education," a self-motivating, inspiring, possibility-building activity he is engaging in at Bridge21Learning, and "school," where uninteresting, irrelevant information is "shoved" at him.

A primary school teacher from Cork demonstrates how his youngest students are creating e-books they have written, illustrated, assembled digitally, and narrated (as alternative output), and then notes that the secondary school most will attend insists that students do all work writing with fountain pens - to encourage proper handwriting.

A first-year university-level student explains that after lectures "no one understands," he and his fellow students meet in a comfortable lounge under a high ceiling, go online, and figure it out together.

CoderDojo Thurles
A group of primary students in Tallaght, crossing years four through six, work in a room with "computers" ranging from somewhat elderly laptops to iPod-Touches, and research, investigate, create stories on films, write, while supporting each other.

In Dualla, primary students from year two through six, work together in a classroom and push each other forward, academically, artistically, athletically, while linking themselves to the world through technology. They enthusiastically share their work on all with clear, sophisticated voices.

On the absolute edge of Europe, where County Kerry meets the Atlantic at St. Finan's Bay, the 24 student Gaelscoil An Scoil ag An Ghleanna was a magnificent place of freedom, democracy, familial community, and learning. A huge Titanic sculpture/display graces one corner of the upper students' classroom, demonstrating and students await Skyping with Dublin and America.

And at the Tipperary Institute of the Limerick Institute of Technology, late on a Thursday afternoon, the widest possible range of primary and secondary students gathers voluntarily, to work individually and together, to build computer programming skills at one of the many CoderDojos which have appeared across Ireland, and increasingly, the world - a movement born of Irish invention.

Ireland is a nation which has valued education for all of its history. It is also a nation which has been remarkably creative in importing, adapting, and reinventing ideas, from Christianity and Beer to Literature in English and Contemporary Software.

That ability, crossing fields of knowledge and hundreds of generations, was not created by "vocational education," but by a broad view of the world which was transmitted to anyone in the population who wanted it. When the British made education illegal for Irish Catholics, students met in fields and caves for "formal" education, and kept singing, dancing, quoting poetry, and debating to keep the art of teaching fully in play.

This is a nation who's heroes are authors - not just any authors - but some of the most inventive to ever write in the English language. It is a nation which has led Europe in software development. A nation chosen as a home for multinational corporations every bit as much for a thinking, adaptive, creative workforce as for any "tax haven" reasons.
I, and American school leader Dr. Pamela Moran, came to LIT - Tipperary to present at the 2012 ICTEDU Conference, to share and compare our experiences in the States with those of Irish educators when it comes to rethinking both education and technology, as well as the point where those things connect. Yet we found a profound disconnect, or a series of profound disconnects - between levels of Irish education, between intentions and policies, between "Dublin" and classrooms, between the future of Irish students and many of their "presents."

That is not to suggest that we were disappointed in Irish education - far from it. In school after school we found wonderful students led by humane and very human teachers, students allowed to find success across the range of human skillsets. We saw beautiful art, heard magnificent music, and found places filled with a passion for learning... but...
We found an educational system crying out for the need to carry the inventiveness and excitement of primary education forward into lifespan learning. An education system needing to join the present - contemporary technology, global connectedness, universal design for learning - to the uniquely human Irish traditions of humanity, literature, arts, and music. An education system needing - desperately - to free itself from the straight-jacket of compliance to testing norms so that students can find the wide variety of paths to success which will equip a small island with the range of talents it will need in the future.

Irish Primary Education appears brilliantly inventive - if a bit "technology challenged" (for a nation which sees itself as a technology leader) - but the post-primary system, of desks and handwriting, test-driven-curricula and 40-minute time blocks, is constricting the possibilities for teachers and students and "our" collective future.

Our students will live their lives in the mid-to-late 21st Century,
they need to learn to manage the tools of their time - not the mid-19th Century
This is both about access - offering the best we can possibly offer to the widest variety of students - and economics - the building of a creative society which leads - not a factory society which builds copies of American designs. It is both about the joy of learning and about the purposes of education. In our minds, we measure our success as educators by the range of choices available to our young people in their adulthood - are they able to choose careers, homes, lives, routes, passions? are they not tied to the limits of doing others' work or emigrating.

Education should not be about creating a workforce for corporations - they may train new workers if they must - but even if Irish Education Minister Ruairi Quinn wants schools as only job preparation, we all know that creative workers, able to adapt and adjust, able to utilize the tools of this century, will surely top test-takers with fountain pen skills.
We did not come to Ireland to show Irish educators how to recreate anything in the American education system. We do not think Ireland should copy Washington's policies or London's policies - both are leading conservative reductionist efforts which seek to strip the humanity from education for all but the children of the wealthy. Rather, we came to Ireland to help push Irish educators toward accomplishing the true goals of the system - an inclusive, creative, supportive, fully-rounded program which helps to develop Irish-European-Global citizens with the skills and learning tools and strategies they will need during their lifespans. We came to connect, to join, to learn from, to share, and to encourage Ireland to pursue its own course toward its own future.
So, we ask Irish educators to slow down, to look deeply at their schools, their students, and the world of today, and to not be afraid to change Irish schools - despite the inspectors, despite the Leaving Certs, despite whatever the sad commentary is from Dublin's government buildings.

- Ira Socol

14 May 2012

ICTEDU: A Space for Education in Irish Society

Throughout Ireland, north and south, throughout the “English-speaking” world, throughout most of industrialized nations, debates about the future of education are raging. In most nations the dominant narrative of this debate focuses on concepts such as “rigour,” and “privatization,” “higher standards” and “testing,” “teacher accountability” and “efficiency.”

Bernie Goldbach circles the myth
Though Ireland has avoided the worst, the most reductive, of these conversations, unlike Britain, the United States, and Australia, they remain significant. In April Ruairi Quinn told the Independent that “teachers are not overpaid, but certainly said they are nowhere near productive enough,” and continued, "We've reduced entry teachers pay by 15 per cent plus – they're not overpaid. But still, they could be more productive, we could get greater outcomes from them." In other words, if there is a problem with Irish education, the problem lies with inefficient teachers. This is just as the Tories in Britain and the Republicans in the US claim – German evidence notwithstanding – that the problem with those nations’ economies lies entirely with lazy, overpaid union workers.

No wonder this month’s Organisational Review Programme (ORP) of the Department of Education found Quinn’s organization “too focused on the management of short-term issues,” which has, “crowded out the development of strategic, longer-term thinking.”

Ireland is wasting time and energy worrying about “efficiency,” “saving money,” “teacher pay,” and battles over the Junior and Leaving Certs, instead of investing in imagining, and moving towards, a lifespan educational structure which will carry Ireland into the future. In this, this nation is hardly alone, but perhaps the stakes are much higher for a small island nation which knows the ability of education to transform a society, which saw the changes of the 1970s and 1980s, in all levels of schooling, lead a societal and socio-economic revolution.

So, on 19 May, in Thurles, County Tipperary, a group of Irish educators, students, technology leaders, and other stakeholders, will gather for a different conversation. This year’s ICT in Education Conference | Comhdháil ICT san Oideachas (ICTEDU) is devoting its day to the broadest possible definitions of technology and education, with “technology” defined as it was by the ancient Greeks who developed the term, as “the art of manipulating the world,” and education defined as individual and social models of learning which we engage in all of our lives.

Taking the Leaving Cert
To begin those conversations, we will not focus on “rigour” – the making of things difficult for the sake of difficulty, nor on “efficiency,” an odd concept to embrace as we discuss the raising of our children, nor on “standards,” which involve statistical tests originally designed to ensure the consistency of barrels of Guinness. Instead we will begin with the idea of creating “learning space,” real, virtual, even imagined, where every student, at every age, has the opportunity to not just succeed, but to thrive.

I am coming to Ireland from the United States to help in this conversation with an American local schools superintendent (Dr. Pamela R. Moran) from Virginia. Though we come from a nation which, we believe, is doing almost everything wrong educationally from the perspective of government policy, we come with real experience in changing those conversations, and, in many of the educators of Ireland, we have found kindred spirits.

Dr. Moran and I have worked in our schools to create a sense of learning space which transcends classroom walls both physically and technologically, which helps students learn how to conjure their own learning environments anywhere, which develops creativity as well as skill and a knowledge base through human communication tools both ancient and brand new. We call this idea “The Iridescent Classroom,” a learning environment which glows transparently with contagious creativity and contagious excitement for knowledge, a learning environment which embraces this century’s primary learning and growth model, search, connect, communicate. Search for information and expertise, connect with that knowledge wherever it can be found, communicate what you have learned, what you are learning, and how your thinking is changing.

We do not, however, bring something for Ireland to copy. We do not even “copy” within the 26 schools which Dr. Moran administers or the various schools I work with, nor even from classroom to classroom down a school corridor. Instead we offer seeds, which we hope will take root in the rich, scholar embedded soil of Ireland, and will grow here in new ways which may enlighten all of us. As Seán Cottrell, director of the Irish Primary Principals Network, argued in an opinion piece this month, this is not the time to worry about comparing Ireland to the often fraudulent test results from nations like China, but to instead rely on Ireland’s rich expertise and rich, unique history to continue to move toward something new and powerful for Ireland’s future.

Please join us, if possible, in Thurles on 19 May. This will hopefully be an important addition to Ireland’s conversation about what education must be, and how this society invests in this essential creation of the future. You may register at http://www.lit.ie/ictedu as well view a video describing the beginning of this discussion.

- Ira Socol

05 May 2012

Appreciating a certain teacher

I had a pretty miserable time in "K-12" education. Hell, I've had a pretty miserable time in all my time as a "student." It's not that I'm not good at learning. I love learning. I think most of us do, but "school" is not traditionally about learning, but rather about arbitrary rules and arbitrary rankings - and I do not like either.

Yet, within a range of horrors that "school" has been for me, there are amazing bright spots... and those bright spots are almost all related to great teachers. A third grade teacher, Mrs. Janowitz, who let me show what I could do with music and architecture and made school a little bit safe. A sixth grade teacher, Martin McNeil, who understood an 11 - 12-year-old boy's needs for certain forms of space. Alan Shapiro, who I spent four years with (formally) as teacher, mentor, advisor, friend, and who showed me what education could be. Joe Kuszai, at Michigan State University, who gave me space as an artist to grow and learn and even lead. Antonio Diaz, police sergeant and lawyer in the New York City Police Academy who focused on what I could do, not on what I could not. Y.S. Lee at Pratt Institute, a master teacher who understand the purpose of education. Jonathan White and Kathy Bailey, life changing educators in Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University, and Alexandra Gottardo and Elizabeth Schaughency, not just great teachers and colleagues, but the "special educators" who truly transformed my life.

below: Alan Shapiro on education, unionization, life...
I can bring myself all the way to the present and Punya Mishra, Lynn Fendler, and Susan Peters at MSU's College of Education.

And I sincerely thank everyone of these brilliant people... but, and in part inspired by Charles Blow, as "Teacher Appreciation Week" begins - and as people like Barack Obama and Arne Duncan begin their faux statements after years of teacher bashing - I want to speak about one teacher in particular.

Her name is Ruth Socol, and she's my mom.

I can remember when she began teaching - I can remember when she graduated from Hunter College - probably mostly focused on adding a touch of income stability to the family. She began teaching in a pre-union time, earned almost nothing and had any chance at free time taken up supervising playgrounds and cafeterias. I remember her up till all hours of the night at this little desk which sat by the front door working on lessons, working on grading. I remember her taking all sorts of summer jobs to help make ends meet.

But that's not what I want to write about.

Not her teacher pic... (obviously)... but my Ma as a young bride was
"movie star" beautiful... and this is an incredible photograph
I want to write about the fighter. My mom never accepted the status quo. She sure could have done all her work and gone home. There sure was plenty to do at home, and honestly, for the time, the schools she taught in were pretty good. But she wasn't satisfied, at any level.

She fought really hard for unionization and the AFT - few elementary teachers pushed very hard for this, it was mostly a secondary thing - but she battled for it. It not only meant decent pay, it meant having a real voice. And when it came down to a big strike over teacher power in the schools - as much as it hurt her to do so - she was part of a small picket line outside of a huge elementary school.

My mom taught third grade, which
featured Dick and Jane in
Streets and Roads
when she began

But even more critically, she fought for kids, every day. She pushed for "open classrooms," literally knocking down walls between rooms in order to build a multiage space with no desks, and almost no chairs, where kids could move and get comfortable and progress at their own rate. She pushed her administrators on this, moving them forward, embracing a newly diverse student body and making it work. She spent summers helping to create new - and multimedia - learning materials, leading the push to kick "Dick and Jane" out of the schools. Leading the push to bring manipulatives into maths. (I clearly remember a few summers, around age ten, when I had piles of Cuisinaire Rods to play with...)

She visited her students' homes. She talked to them in the supermarket. She individualized her lessons and fought against homework. And she observed and observed and observed.

"If I could do one thing," she told me when I was maybe 16, "it would be to never push any kid to read before third grade. Most aren't ready for it, and every year my room is filled with eight-year-olds who hate reading and never want to see a book again."

She was among the earliest teachers I knew to toss classroom furniture and replace those desks and chairs with carpet and pillows because, as she said, "kids hate those chairs." Now, her students were no different than any other students, and what she was seeing was no different than what anyone else was seeing, but she simply wouldn't accept what she knew didn't work.

She fought and she worked and she fought for everything that was right for kids, for her community. And she made a real difference. Hardly a month goes by in which I don't get a message in Facebook from one of her ex-students. "Am I her son?" "How is she?" "Please tell her that she changed my life." All this about a woman kids met at age eight.

Anyway, I am her son, and I am the continuation of her life work. She is doing great, she's healthy and active and living well. And thank you, because she changed the lives of many, in really important ways, as so many great teachers do.

From childhood, from my mom, I learned that there is no profession more important to society than teaching. And for all these years, I've wished our culture recognized that.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to my Ma, to every teacher. And Happy Mother's Day too.

- Ira Socol