30 May 2016

Learning to Love One World Trade Center and what that means for me and for schools

crossposted from medium

The World Trade Center, as it existed, say 1970 to 2001, was truly one of my favorite places on earth. Others I know describe it as “ugly” or “blocky,” or, in the language of The Atlantic or The New York Times, “anti-urban,” but they’ll never convince me.

I watched it most days for many years, key years for me, childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Somehow, is it possible? I have a memory of my father, New York World Telegram & Sun in his hands, reading to me about how people feared that the television signals from the Empire State Building would get scrambled when they echoed off these not yet built super towers.
I remember a fascination with the ‘seawall on land’ — what I understood the slurry wall to be, with the ‘straw within a straw’ framing system, with those massive exterior trusses, with the whole giant platform underground…

So I watched it rise. Maybe it was, for me, a symbol of ‘my city,’ new and challenging all the old. The elegant brick skyscrapers we’d inherited, the Empire State, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Daily News Building, the Wall Street towers — the Bank of the Manhattan Company Building,* Cities Service Building, One Wall Street  — were the work of my father’s childhood, and his generation were justifiably proud. The sleek postwar creations, Levert House, the Seagram’s Building, Chase Manhattan Plaza, were also that generation’s work — part of their triumph in the war and domination of the world. Buildings like the United Nations, the reclad/rebuilt Allied Chemical Tower, the GM Building seemed to belong to the real baby boomers, our older siblings and cousins who grew up with moms at home.

The World Trade Center, though, was all ours.
It was huge and aggressive and incomprehensible in scale. As it began to be clad in curtain wall it was also postmodern before any of us knew the word, it’s tracery owing more to the Woolworth Building — that tower displaced in the city’s heart by the structures of our parents’ childhood — than to anything since. It became changeable across the changing light of the day, it wasn’t a solid solid.
Maybe most importantly, it was a beacon, calling us back to the city so much of the previous generation had fled.
And when built it was an enormous playground, from the mall — ahh to hang out watching the 6 pm human waterfall at PATH Square — to the plaza, to Windows on the World, where faux sophistication and the greatest views ever could be had for the cost of an overpriced drink.

OK then. Nostalgia.

History is cruel and my father’s landmarks stand and mine is gone. And my response to that loss was typical: rebuild it as it was, stop calling it ‘the twin towers’ or ‘north tower’ (to know it was to say “Trade Center” and “One” or “Two”), put the same restaurant back on top…

Nostalgia of course leads to the rejection of the new — an almost unconscious anger toward the world moving on. But cities are dynamic for reasons good and bad. Like many things

I am glad that my son knew the Trade Center that was. I am glad he looked out from up top and looked up those staggering aluminum clad sides…

…but now my kid has taught me to love the new One World Trade Center, to enjoy the park, to marvel at the complexity of the new design. And he taught me that with just a few simple statements that made me look anew.

He started simply by saying that the new One World Trade Center — then just a forming skeleton — ”wasn’t bad. It would be a great building in another place, maybe Houston.” And with that I looked at the shape again, trying to put my generalized disdain for architects Skidmore Owings Merrill to bed for a moment.
Next, glass walls in place, he encouraged me to stand near the phone company building and look up. And I did, and found myself enthralled.
Once here, at the magical infinite tower, I could begin to find all the rest. I could start to see the wheel of towers — the not-quite-lost magnificence of Daniel Libeskind’s plan —  emerging around the park and the great lost dinosaur skeleton on Santiago Calatrava’s train station. I could see the memorial park — assuming the morbid museum will be forgotten — becoming the kind of gentle green spot downtown has needed so much more of. (The true success of a memorial can only be measured after all who remember the actual event have gone.)
A parable, of course.

There are so many levels of learning science here. From my passion for the gigantic statement of a new day I learned history, I learned the science of construction, I found a love of math in the structure. I began an understanding of semiotics — the signs and symbols that create cultural comprehension — that has stayed with me for life. I learned the choices of urban spaces and the patterns of city movement.

Imagine what I might have learned if the schools I attended had supported passion-based learning.
From its destruction I learned something much more deeply about those symbols, but that’s another story.
And from my conversion on the new building, my shift from calling it “a bad Houston skyscraper,” the slow acceptance of the loss of both the original buildings and the loss of the pure artistry of Libeskind’s vision, I learned about my own struggles with the impact of change.

So much of what continues to haunt education rides on the back of cultural remembrance and image preservation. It begins, all too often with teachers teaching as they were taught. And it ends with the preservation of crap like hall passes and bells ringing, late slips and petty rules, because, “we’ve always had them,” and, “we don’t want to change everything right away.”

But you know… sometimes you do. I have friends who will bemoan the loss of the ‘Radio Row’ neighborhood to the first World Trade Center. But the towers rose and Philippe Petit made them instantly a part of the rich fabric of the city. They were beacons in a dark time.
The loss of that complex was an incalculable tragedy, but, in its wake is a new city with new aspirations and perhaps much higher goals.
We were not born to live in the past. And if we are educators we simply cannot afford to live even in the present. The future is our children’s time, and we must be brave enough, every day, to help to take them there. 

- Ira Socol

Your School’s UX. What is it? And where to start.

crossposted from medium

Imagine you are 3 or 4 feet tall, a meter — give or take 10 cm — and you climb off this huge yellow bus (the vehicle that teaches you that seat belts are not important), or you climb out of mom or dad’s car, and — you are at your school.

Imagine you are 16 or 17, frustrated, tired, angry with the world, and you drive up to your school and walk toward the doors.

Imagine you are 12, and home has its… umm, challenges. And you get off a chaotic school bus and walk toward your school.

What happens next?

Now stop right there.

You cannot tell me. You don’t know. At the very best you might know the User Interface you have designed, but in all likelihood you haven’t really designed anything.

Quick, what signs are around your school? What does it say on the doors? How do your entries look from the point of view 3 feet above the ground? Or with the eyes of a teenager. (Do you have more than one entrance? Are they equal? Equitable?) What does it sound like? Smell like?

The hospital entrance should be as open-plan as possible. Make use of as much natural light, greenery, water (I’ve worked in a hospital with a small waterfall in the lobby), and background music.”
Hospital lobby (top) Detroit DTW Airport (above)
We don’t think about this much in education. Even the best of us. In retail, in hospitality, there are usually people assigned to look at everything — not just every day, but every hour — to see if the message is right. Why? Sometimes for sales, to interest an audience in something we want them interested in. Sometimes for mood, the United tunnel at O’Hare Airport in Chicago is there to relax people.
Crossing between parts of United’s Chicago-O’Hare Terminal means moving through a work of art

Piano music in hospital lobbies does the same.

This is just the very tip of the iceberg. But it’s a big tip. Because that first impression sets a tone that often extends through every school day. We try to help — our principals and APs are out front every morning trying to greet every child, balancing bad architecture and unintentional user interface design with our humanity. And inside teachers try to decorate and greet and support, but… how much more effective we might be if our user interface design was intentional, and intentionally designed to support children?

What do kids see? What do they feel? What do they smell? What do they hear? What is their experience as they move through your school?

One of the things that is clear is that every single thing kids see, hear, feel, smell, taste, sends a message about your school. Every single thing. And many of the messages schools send are as awful as they are unintentional.

One of my favorite signs in America is on I-95 in Maryland, just north of our nation’s capital. “End DUI Enforcement Zone” it reads, and I always want to say, “time to crack open those beers, boys.” It reminds me of those ridiculous “Drug Free School Zone” signs. As kids at at least one Michigan school wrote on the back of one of those signs, “Now Leaving Drug Free School Zone.”
Which explains why I asked an elementary school principal to take down a sign over the front door that read, “Enter to Learn.” “Should the other side say, “Leaving School, Stop Learning”?” I almost asked.
“We used to have this ‘no hats’ rule,” says one of our high school principals. “We had it for good reasons, trying to limit certain negative cultural symbols, but, every morning we greeted our children by telling them to take their hats off. It was awful. So now we allow hats, and when the kids arrive we get to just say hello to them.”
So, in no particular order, ten look fors to define the user experience in a positive way.

One — Clean up your entries. Get rid of signs with the word “No.” That’s just a bad start word. If you must (and we must), organize a row of international symbols for no smoking, no alcohol, no guns. Repeat as necessary. And instead make sure there are positives. Not cheerleading necessarily, how about questions to ponder? A @Wonderopolis wonder of the day? Videos playing of interesting stuff? How will you welcome kids and sell the cool learning inside?
Two  — Have many fewer rules, and ONLY have rules you can successfully defend in a debate with a student. Why can’t kids chew gum? Kids chew gum in all our schools, teachers chew gum in all our schools. The issue with gum is — I am usually told — with its disposal (under chairs, desks, on the floor). So the rule should be about how we throw things away. Kids can understand that rule. Kids can’t understand rules about — not eating or drinking in class or around computers. They can’t understand rules about — hello elementary schools  — staying in straight lines and don’t touch the walls while in the corridor. They can’t understand bans on cell phones or hats or lots of kinds of clothing. They can’t understand why a they need a pass in the halls or why, on occasion, they can’t just skip a class and go to the library. Why can’t they understand these things? Because they watch the world and they know what adults do.

Three  — Turn off your bells. Turn off your PA. Schools do not need bells. We’ve all got our phones, there are clocks everywhere. We know what time it is. The factory whistle can go away now. That’s part A. Part B is stop interrupting your kids. It takes kids over 5 minutes to really get back to work after a 30 second announcement. And it’s 2016 people, in elementary schools email the teachers. In secondary put it on Twitter. Or send a note to the effected classroom.
Four  — Eliminate lunch detention and no recess punishments. Those are cruel punishments which demolish your credibility with every child.

Five  — Working graffiti is good. When kids see other kids’ work they get inspired. Which makes the dry erase marker your best friend. Our kids write everywhere. On floors, on Windows, on desks and tabletops, of course on whiteboards. It not only leverages the power of large muscle movement and lets thinking quickly take shape, it gets other kids interested.

Six  — Make sure that no teacher desk blocks student access to a window. Unfortunately we’ve all seen it, teachers who grab the best corner of the room and set up house for themselves. And few things send a stronger message that the room is not the kids’ domain. Natural daylight is essential for kids, and so those windows belong to them. Obvious corollary: clean off all of those window sills. That’s kid space.

Seven — Always allow passion time. In every day, in every half day, let kids chase what matters to them. Children, and everyone in K-12 is a child, need space to explore their world, which is not necessarily your world.
Eight  — Skip the homework. Haven’t you taken up enough of their day? Let them have time to be children in a real way. So why not send them off at the end of the school day with things to wonder about, or maybe to find someone to share their discoveries with, or with hopes that they might imagine a story to share tomorrow?
Nine — Stop ranking children. Throw out your age-based grade levels, your numerical or letter grading, your honor rolls, your “how many books did you read?” Stop separating kids by reading level. Kids in this world have enough to worry about without our arbitrary ratings. And remember, when adults rank kids, bullying begins.

Ten — If it’s glass, it’s supposed to be transparent. Stop covering windows, windows to the outside, windows to the corridors, windows into rooms, windows in doors. What are you hiding in there? What are you doing that is bad for kids to see? School is no place to keep the learning and creations of other kids a secret. It is no place for the adults to be plotting against children behind drawn shades. It is no place for keeping the outside world out. Understand, every covered window says you are hiding something in a place that’s supposed to be about openness and discovery.
Everything we do tells our users — our children — something. What is your school, from every inch of the building to every word we say, saying? What is it that our kids are experiencing?

Ask yourself this, every time you walk into your school, every time you speak, or do, or plan. 

- Ira Socol