Maybe One Reason Guns Make Americans Crazy

In The Tempest, Prospero sends the spirit Ariel to wreak havoc on the king’s ship to drive his enemies to land on the island. When Ariel reports back, they have the following conversation:

PROSPERO

My brave spirit!
Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?

ARIEL

Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad and play’d
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king’s son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring,–then like reeds, not hair,–
Was the first man that leap’d; cried, ‘Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.’

This coil has infected our reason. Our response? “Hell is empty/And all the devils are here.” Evil, people say, causes massacres. Hell is empty. The devils, all of them, are here.

To me, evil lets us off easily as people. Evil sounds like a curse, or a motivation from beyond the human. Violence is very human, and it is, of course, everywhere. Reason is overrated these days, and maybe the history of violence suggests why; violence responds to violence with its own kind of logic, which is a sort of reason.

Arm teachers, say people like the President. Of course, as the first author points out, the state of school funding and the general zeitgeist about teachers is not one of deep respect for competence in any other realm, but to some, the logic of violence says prepare for more violence. After all, evil – Trump’s “sickos” – lurk. These people are, of course, deeply wrong.

And now that the children who survived the horrific attack on their school, on themselves, arise and speak they are, almost unbelievably, again attacked by fearful mariners whose reason loops tightly, fearing devils at every turn. Hell is empty.

#Neveragain seems like another conspiracy for everyone on the king’s ship – this is evil, nobody can stop it. Conspiracy addled and propaganda poisoned, these citizens don’t believe in the power of possibility or change, but only fear. Guns make fear. Guns break people. To stand and speak after guns is to be aglow with St. Elmo’s fire, possessed.

But the kids don’t care. Cameron Kasky, my new hero, “told CNN that anyone who had seen him in the school’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ knows that ‘nobody would pay me to act for anything.'”

Humor might help. Bless that kid.

The terrified are humorless, as the terrified always are. They are beset by devils. Hell has emptied.

Of course armaments are worthless as protection against devils. Instead, guns make the imagination real, devils corporeal. This is the madness. Hell is only an idea we make real.

Context Matters

Educating the whole child means, in our 21st century, creating the conditions for social-emotional learning (SEL). Often, in my experience, out of a love of children and a desire to build resilient, compassionate learners, SEL is moved out of the classroom context into pastoral care environments, especially in independent or international schools. Private schools seeking to prove a value addition may lean on advisory or pastoral care programs within the school day from this desire to serve each child’s need and to most easily package their whole child approach.

In fact, I wonder if schools that chose to promote their SEL within the classroom approaches might spur a revolt among their community by a perceived dilution of academic rigor or contact time? Seems possible. If we love educating for “The Big Five” personality traits (or the positive factors while mitigating those which may form obstacles to success, like “neuroticism”, through “grit” activities, etc.), we may change our minds quickly if we catch a whiff of time away from math instruction.

Here lie some of the inherent tensions and contradictions within schools – the tension between doing something important well and searching for a place to do a little of something important because it seems important to do or the contradictions between what we do and how we do it.

Trusting relationships provide the foundation for learning. One of my past professors described Vygotsky’s concept of the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) guiding a learner through the Zone of Proximal Development as the definition of care in education. Many online guides to Vygotsky quickly point out that the MKO need not be a person, but could be an electronic tutor or the like. That’s true, but the student needs to trust the source – its knowledge and its raison d’être to aid the learner. In my opinion, research by another former professor, Dr. Anastasiya Lipnevich, that shows college students improved faster when rubric feedback was perceived as coming from a computer than from a professor suggests how distrust or the perception of disinterested or cursory grading renders feedback worthless more than it suggests electronic grading has value.

In short, we learn from one another in rich, safe contexts when we do real things – or do tasks in academic environments in which we trust each other and care about the outcome. The same is true of SEL. We learn positive behaviors from models who we trust and care about, and the only people from whom we can receive and integrate feedback on our bad behaviors are those we care about and trust.

The key point is that all behaviors must arise in an authentic context if we are to learn from them. School and classrooms may be arbitrary, but like fiat currencies, they are the coin of the realm. What are we to do? The gold standard should be real, authentic, meaningful environments in which we engage together in shared journeys of learning and discovery, but sometimes, paper money has value, too. It’s easier to carry. It scales.

SEL in arbitrary environments, like an advisory in which no authentic or contextually meaningful tasks are engaged in together, proves a hollow enterprise, often something like an online activity to uncover our strengths or a team building activity to highlight “grit”. These context-free activities demand an exceptionally talented teacher to maintain student interest and focus, or at least an exceptionally agreeable teacher (#BigFive).

I can’t do it. And I question any claims that building a marshmallow tower together once per year provides sticky learning on the nature of one’s own character. Relationship building and social emotional learning stand as essential pillars of a complete education, but should occur in the context of nothing less arbitrary as a classroom, to say nothing of other domains of school, like sports fields or service work. This learning is too important to fake.

Silly Adults, Assessment is for Kids!

Sometimes, we just want to know, objectively, how things are – their current state of being, general direction, gist, and so on. My kid won’t mix red and tan foods. Every time Junior misses a basket, he screams an obscenity. Can Suzy divide fractions? Stuff is complex. Confusing.

What makes everything clearer is a number; ideally, a number associated with a ranking against peers. A score. A percentile. Normed. Benchmarked. Clear.

And so, there are numerous providers willing to sell us objective measurement and ranking for a fee (and an investment of time). Often, these assessments come bundled with instructional materials to address trouble spots highlighted by the assessment (for an additional fee).

These tests will tell us something, and it is easy to imagine that that something is an objective truth. What is instead true is that the testing industry (and its “personalized” online instruction twin sister) provides nothing of real-time value to teachers that they can’t learn themselves from examining evidence of student learning with colleagues. Add-on tests from outside the learning context dilute instructional program coherence. Which is bad.

So, why do it? Oh, right. We want to know something. We need feedback on learning. We want accountability. And we, for sure, are the adults. 

But assessment is not FOR adults. If assessment is for any adults, it is for the adults doing the instructing, planning, and assessment. Few of those adults are asking for more standardized testing.

So, which adults? Probably politicians, parents, and administrators, in that order.

In a recent (and otherwise blase & forgettable) article in IB World magazine entitled “Big Data, Big Problems?”, Bettina Berendt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Leuven argued that “a normalization of surveillance” is going on “that will ultimately weaken democratic learning and consciousness.” Data of the sort produced by these spurious tests serve economic interests first (of the companies themselves, to start), as Berendt points out, and this reality is frightening both for its implications for society and its effect on kids and teachers.

Berendt argues that big data and algorithms “cause labelling which can negatively effect development,” which is spot-on. Why? “They create an atmosphere where students and teachers feel under surveillance, where they feel under pressure to perform all the time. Traditionally, learning environments have a protected and safe nature. This absence of fear and competitive pressure, at least in phases, is really crucial for learning.”

Yes.

Assessment for adults creates a false sense of security, of managing learning and the learning environment, or perhaps comfort in the selection of a school that works. Instead, especially when wed to an ecosystem of online gradebooks and invasive “learning management systems” that report to parents on a daily (or immediate) basis like Google Classroom, schools erect a surveillance system that produces social pressure and stress that runs counter to the mindset and culture demanded for optimal learning.

Then the educators probably tweet something pithy about the value of failure. Guilty as charged right here.

Assessment for kids provides feedback on learning – holistically or against specific benchmarks – and prioritizes growth. Assessment for adults seeks to control somebody. Educator should reject totalitarian education, no matter how well intended it seems.

As schools seek answers in the complex world, adopting easy tools that fill a need to know, or to appear good, or to measure what is knowable through far more valid means, we should, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, spare a moment’s thought for the suffering of children which we spare ourselves the sight in the process.

 

What Does Ketchup Have to do with Diversity?

Where do you keep your ketchup? If you run out, what do you reach for? Chances are, if you keep your ketchup in the fridge, you are white or northern, and if you are not white or from the south (of America, to be clear), you keep it in the cupboard. This Reply All podcast begins with a “Yes, Yes, No” segment on the “Manosphere,” which is throw-up-in-your-mouth worthy, as concepts go. Listen, or skip ahead until the Leslie Miley story about diversity – or the lack thereof – at Twitter.

The point about ketchup is this: if you keep your ketchup in the fridge and run out, you are likely to reach for other condiments you keep in the fridge, like mayonnaise or mustard. If you keep ketchup in the cupboard and run out, you are likely to reach for a condiment that you keep in the cupboard, like malt vinegar (or mustard, I suppose). Diversity offers ways of problem solving in ways that we can’t anticipate in monocultural or monolithic organizational cultures. Even a diverse culture may lose out on problem solving options native to someone with a background not represented in the decision making space.

Diversity is a moral imperative in schools not just for obvious reasons, but also because diverse learning environments are necessary to prepare students for life in a broad, diverse world! This podcast makes the argument better than I can, so give a listen.

Honoring Anxiety – Acknowledging Reality to Improve School Culture

In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.

Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.

Obviously, that list could go on.

A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.

I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?

I think it’s worth a try.

Constructivism & Learning – Reflection from Session 3 of “Learning Creative Learning”

* What ideas in the readings interested or resonated with you?

Seymour Papert’s seventh chapter of The Children’s Machine, “Instructionism vs. Constronstructionism” was incredible. Particularly, his argument that school overvalues abstract reasoning or thinking while undervaluing concrete thinking resonated deeply with me. As a teacher of text from literature to media, new and old, I often find myself talking about abstract reasoning based on abstract data sets like “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” by e e cummings with reverence. At the same time, I brew a variety of British, American, and Belgian beers as a hobby. I meditate, and I snowboard, and I cycle. I enjoy working on engines. I’ve learned that precision and speed on a snowboard mirror my experience in yoga meditation. I like writing and brewing beer for similar reasons – both allow me to create something new, based on an existing form, and engage in a reflective cycle of improvement. I learn from all of these activities, and each involves some level of concrete and abstract thinking. I find each valuable. Linking to the Maker pieces, I greatly enjoyed them and believe in making as a way of being creative. In my secondary school experience, I found great solace in the photography darkroom, making photographs from my negatives tangibly in a way that Photoshop and a printer has not been able to replicate. This space in my day was essential. Schools should have maker spaces, absolutely, for kids to hang out, mess around, and geek out on low tech and high tech making.

* How could you apply these ideas to help others learn in your own work, family, or community?

This is a big question – how do I turn an externally moderated course like AP or IB Literature into a tangible maker experience, where the concrete meets the abstract? I don’t know. My AP Lit Badges have yielded one student-created dress based on a Tennyson poem, which was awesome. I have also created a choice menu for assessment outcomes for a choice novel or drama unit to end AP Lit. Still, my students are either in full embrace of the primacy of “the formal stage” from Piaget as the top of the hierarchy. Few make. Some create, certainly, but nobody is building beautiful cabinets, and my school has zero facilities for making anything other than music, art, and digital anything. We teach to AP/IB outcomes, and there’s no making. This is not a dig; this is reality. Certainly, my Digital Journalism course asks students to explore digital media through making digital media, which is a kind of making, but nothing so tangible as the Soulcraft laid out in this book that began to change the way I see my teaching practice. After reading “Big Ideas Need Love, Too,” a nagging question about, if not the value of making media, the lack of tangible making in my teaching became totally realized. I don’t want to be an agent of superficiality, driving kids to ever more banal forms of expression, turning them into little Alex Joneses. However, I believe in bringing kids to language and inquiry into their world through digital journalism. How else can I make this concrete, real, making? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.

The Big Empty

Sometimes a notion creeps, advancing slowly in moments of clarity and surprise. Lately, a notion is banging down my door, tired of creeping, and it began during a talk by Simon Breakspear at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum last November in Prague.

Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!
Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!

Simon gave an inspiring talk to the group the day before, but due to some delayed flights, I missed it. The next day, we got more inspiration. PowerPoint slides flew fast and furious.

There was a bell curve, but we were all on the right side of it (the right side is the left, of course). There were photos of 19th Century schoolhouses, desks in a row, followed invariably by titters as we were asked if this looked like the classrooms of some people “we” knew in “our” schools. I recognized this rhetorical device. Pictures of candy replaced photos of assembly lines. This trope, too, was familiar. As if in a seance, or as if poised over the Ouija board, the specter of He Who Is So Often Channeled in such situations spoke to me, and he spoke in the form of an Idea Worth Spreading.

He, who is the second most recognizable two-named Sir of my lifetime; first is Sir Mix-a-lot (the hyphens make it one word), second, Sir Ken. For the love of Pete, he’s been animated and knighted.

And so it went, until the slides about what “we” must do to maintain competitiveness with China and India popped up on the screen. I was aghast, looked around, found one or two pairs of eyeballs equally aghast. From where I sat, though, I couldn’t see my Indian and Chinese colleagues who were also being inspired. In the same room. At the same time. Who, after all, were “we”?

They're the same candy. Wait, no...they're different. We're all individuals! Mass produced individuals!
They’re the same candy. Wait, no…they’re different. We’re all individuals! Mass produced individuals! Thanks to sudeep1116 for the photo.

This trope, of course, plays like gangbusters to the Western audience. Fear of a rising China and/or East lies latent, economic distress compounds the concerns, appeals to “competitiveness” strike deeply. Unless you’re Chinese.

What bothered me most in that moment was how this “we” was woven, a roomful of career teachers and a young, charismatic, almost-totally-probably well-meaning ed reformer were “colleagues.” It struck me as odd that a career student of education would so demonize the classroom of the past, present, or future because some are so obviously poor places for learning. I’ve had a bad ski lesson. Should I no longer go to the mountains for skiing?

Of course students learn beautifully outside of classrooms, less so inside some classrooms. Of course education is flawed. Of course education is something we do together; “we” is apropos. Simon is one of us, somehow. But can we reduce the cliches, visual or otherwise? And can we, please, not pit us against them, if we can at all avoid it?

The current educational discourse, so far as I can tell, includes actual teachers on the ground in places like Craig, Colorado, and

You see, it's a factory model, comrade.
You see, it’s a factory model, comrade.

reformed teachers with their heads in the clouds. Both, I’m sure, love kids and want only the best for them, but in the second link is a perfect storm of edufluff. There are two word clouds and two bulleted lists, each in its own format. But this author, Angela Meiers, is not alone. Every day on Twitter I view and re-view blog posts sponsored from upon high (Education Week) and from individuals like myself pouring out thoughts into the ether. Many feature titles such as

  • 17 Amazing Things To Do With an iPad!
  • The Problem With Disengagement
  • Finland – Utopia, or Simply Perfect?
  • Standardized Testing – What Are We Measuring?
  • The Opt Out Movement – Occupy Classrooms
  • Homeschooling: No Classrooms, No Limits!
  • Can Charters Succeed?
Wordle: Untitled
Small. Powerful. Words.

And so on.

When I sat whilst being inspired, quietly seething, I formulated vicious blog posts now sitting in draft format on my server, posts with titles like “Everyone Who Generalizes Sucks.” I sat on those ideas. My 180 Twitter followers might abandon me if I wrote what I felt. Twitter works that way, and so does Facebook, and most other media channels – the system indoctrinates its users into norms, simply and efficiently. Here I sit, typing into a blog read by my Mum (Love you Mum, and appreciate your readership!) and almost nobody else, and I actually censor myself. Seriously.

WikiCommons is a cesspool of filth like this AWESOME "Classroom Birching" image. The Id reels.
Any ed reformer wishing for a 19th C classroom pic should be required to use this AWESOME “Classroom Birching” image. The Id reels.

But today I played a short snippet of a conversation between genius blogger/writer Seth Godin and Krista Tippet on her radio show “On Being” for my Digital Journalism class. We were walking through the “Feature Rubric” for podcast and written features, but I wanted students to feel empowered to edit the rubric and ignore it, “discerning” what was good on their own. Seth, in speaking about art, spoke about discerning what contributes and what fails:

 And the only way you get that discernment is by practicing. Is by saying, when I pick this am I right? When I put this in the world, did it resonate with the people I was trying to reach?

Further, he said:

So tell 10 people — there are 10 people who trust you enough to listen. And if you tell your thing to 10 people — if you send your e-book to 10 people — if you do your sermon to 10 people or show your product to 10 people and none of them want to tell their friends, and none of them are changed — then you failed. That you didn’t really understand what was good. But if some of them tell their friends, then they’ll tell their friends, and that’s how ideas spread. So it’s this 10 at a time — 10 by 10 by 10. How do you put an idea in the world that resonates enough with people if they trust you enough to hear it. That then it can go to the next step and the next step.

I think he’s right. So I challenged students to put the work they care about out into their social networks, to share in any ways they see fit, and to test their ideas in public. Seth goes on to say something interesting (albeit a bit confusing) about social networking, compelling about kids living out loud online, and revealing about his new work, The Icarus Deception. He said:

So if you and I had been sitting around just after the Dark Ages and heard the story of Icarus — what we would have heard is this: that Daedalus said to his son two things — one, put these wings on but don’t fly too close to the sun because it’s too hot up there and the wax will melt. But more important, Son, do not fly too low, do not fly too close to the sea, because the mist and the water will weigh down the wings and you will surely perish. And for me the most important message that I’ve come to after thinking about this for so many years is, we are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk. All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I’m not buying it.

Twitterverse, #education Twitterati, we are flying too low. I can’t continue to reflect the discourse when it is so repetitive. We’ve got to move beyond the packaged message as teachers, and recognize that sometimes, when messages feel familiar, it’s because that’s how they were designed. I want to write the education that I do, the teaching that I organize, the values that I hold. I am putting this out there, sharing with more than 10 friends, and we’ll see if it gets repeated. I’m trusting my voice, my knowledge, and my expertise. It’s time for pragmatics and ideals. I want to raise standards for behavior and turn ethics into action within and beyond my classroom. I don’t know how, but I know what I won’t do ever again:

  1. Quietly digest nonsense
  2. Use photos of 19th century classrooms or candy as a metaphor for “personalization,” which is a bullshit term anyway
  3. Gratuitously abuse lists (OK, I’ll do this all the time, but feel weak as I do so)
  4. Discuss boredom
  5. Retweet a cliche
  6. Embed a word cloud
  7. Complain without a solution
  8. Fetishize social media
  9. Censor myself (editing and revising myself will remain active)
  10. Write a top ten list

I will try to fill the big empty space with something that I care about. This is my notion: Do, then write. Share. And see what happens next.

Conference Like A Champion Today

Heck, I hate ’em, but it’s been a long time, so the title nod (at least on this post) goes to the guys from South Bend.

I’m here in Prague where drizzle congeals for the 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum, and the fun has begun. Re-connecting with colleagues from around the globe like Bram Faems and many others from the European Forum in Lisbon is great. Other, less expected opportunities have cropped up already, as well.

I have sprung brief, very focused monologues about student-centered, constructivist, project-based learning on several edu-luminaries, including one whom I believe may be connected with the French Ministry of Education. Also, upon some visiting professors of education from a number of European countries. I waxed rhapsodic about Turkey to a Turkish teacher, about China to a Chinese teacher, and about my desire to visit India to several Indian teachers.

I’m in my element.

I also somehow immediately gravitated toward two women who engrossed my edu-nerdhood with extreme prejudice: Suzie Boss, who termed our wee cabal “the anarchist’s table” and Lisa Nielsen, who I watched demolish a Twitter echo chamber this week with guilty schadenfreude. Our conversation was excellent because it ranged from who’s interested in PBL in India to the vagaries of education in NYC to strengths (*gasp*) of the Common Core. Also, I was reminded that not everyone has my personal experiences, and that these personal experiences give me an angle on this big topic of teaching and learning that I care so much about. I tell kids often, as they write college app essays, to plug into their personal history, that which they take for granted, because it’s not what their audience has experienced.

So, dude. Come on. Like, heal thyself, too. OK?

I’m excited about learning new things this week and building some strong connections with smart, interesting people who dedicate themselves to helping children have wonderful learning experiences. Also, I’mma write this one up. So stay tuned.

Oh, Good Teachers Have Always Done That…

The cliche says: Man, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. One cliched turn deserves another. I’ve been thinking about backwards design and this concept, what good teachers do anyway.

Very rarely do I say, or hear said: Oh, that’s a great idea that I’ve appropriated for serious misuse. But when I make my big mistakes, it is so often thus. Backwards design from an end that is meaningless, or worthless, or counterproductive, or at cross-purposes to colleagues, or ill-conceived will yield a process that takes us all to this barren shore together, a la high stakes standardized testing and the general, shallow outcomes it yields.

Of course, I can find silly outcomes on my own. However, by identifying what I value most, I can find high-value targets for students to hit. Additionally, I can design curriculum that allows students freedom and choice in their journey towards meeting or surpassing such targets.

Even more powerfully, communities and institutions like schools can come together and make shared decisions about what they value, and focus in on that. For example, when politicians decide that critical thinking has no place in schools, we can expose that conversation and have it at the local level where I feel solidly that few parents would argue that critical thinking and analysis is bad for their kids, even while they worry that (thanks to decades of demagoguery) schools may be undermining religious beliefs and the like.

Simple, focused statements of value are clear and transparent. Simple, focused statements of value can create outcome targets that aren’t obscure or scary, leading to paranoia like that reflected in the Texas Republican platform. Simple, focused statements of value can help teachers do what they’ve always done, better.

Everything we do in teaching is based fundamentally upon what we value. We should endeavor to honor these values with names and descriptors so that we can work purposefully in the same direction within our schools and our communities. I bet that’s something really great schools have always done…