Archive for May, 2008

None of the Above

May 29 2008 Published by under borderland

Dave Gross…Every time you are confronted with choices and, instead of playing one of society"™s designated roles, you choose "œnone of the above" and find yourself alone in a nameless category "” you score a point for our team. He says that he looks at social roles the way that hackers look at network protocols "” as brittle algorithms vulnerable to clever cracks. He is the proprietor of , the “Culture Jammers Encyclopedia.” He’a also a student of the Yippie movement, which began with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Paul Krassner.

The video, Yippie! is a short documentary that describes the evolution of the movement, explaining how they used guerilla theater, political pranksterism, civil disobedience, and media manipulation as tactics for achieving political ends. The documentary isn’t an example of any of those, since it uses a conventional presentation style, but it’s fun to hear the music and look at those old photos.

According to Making Yippie, by David Farber, Hoffman’s idea was that “the best way to reach people and spread the new consciousness was by creating a "œblank space" in the national media.” Hoffman’s idea was to use a new public art form that relied on weirdness and absurdity to grab people’s attention and make them think again and look at the world differently.

Abbie Hoffman was developing a theory of mass media based on his conviction that television had come to define reality for people, especially young people. He believed that “to get the kids right into the new consciousness you can"™t just give them articles to read or speeches to listen to or even rallies to watch but instead you have to absolutely invent a whole new medium that begins with and depends on involvement and participation, that defines reality through immediacy rather than through passivity, that replaces explanation with actualization.

Enter edupunk.

Jim Groom’s been having some fun with this word, lately, as it seems he coined it. And, at Stephen Downes’ suggestion, he offered my post about Utah Phillips as an example of an edupunk anthem. I wasn’t thinking about any such thing at the time I wrote it, but what the hell? Sure.

I see that Stephen Downes today provides a summary of the discussion, and conscisely snags the main point I was going to make about the rhetoric, “I would like to think that true edupunks deride definitions as tools of oppression used by defenders of order and conformity.”

This is all good fun, and it may even serve to push the envelope a little where edtech evangelism is concerned. But i hope people don’t gravitate toward the word! Every other label with an ‘edu’ prefix has ended up a bastardized version of something we love to hate, bounded by social norms that inhibit anything new from happening. What we want to recognize is the need for a new consciousness of learning and teaching. And since Stephen and Jim both thought the Yippie movement had something to say about edupunk, (“The hippie is a romantic. The punk is a revolutionary.”) I wanted to toss out a little more background here on the Yippies, in case anyone else sees possibilities for them as an edupunk template.

Adding to Stephen’s “entire world literature on the subject,” Chris Lott’s question about edupunk’s relationship to hacking ethos reminded me of culture jamming, which might be a useful way to think of it also, since it relies on Yippie communication tactics. To reiterate Stephen’s comment on definitions, if edupunk, eduhacking, culture jamming, or whatever we want to call it is worth anything as an idea, it won’t depend on labels or movements for a power source.

Have fun out there.

10 responses so far

Carry it on

May 28 2008 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics,social class

Listening to Utah Phillips, I heard the voice of a teacher.

Utah Phillips

From Democracy Now [transcript]:

AMY GOODMAN: …Over the span of nearly four decades, Utah Phillips worked in what he referred to as "œthe Trade," performing tirelessly for audiences in large and small cities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. His songs were performed by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. He earned a Grammy nomination for an album he recorded with Ani DiFranco and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips in 1935, he later adopted the name "œUtah," from where he grew up. The son of labor organizers, Phillips was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. As a teenager, he ran away from home and started living as a hobo who rode the rails and wrote songs about his experiences. In 1956, he joined the Army and served in the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. In 1968, he ran for the US Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.

For the past twenty-one years, he has lived in Nevada City, where he started a nationally syndicated folk music radio show called Loafer"™s Glory, produced at community radio station KVMR. He also helped found the Hospitality House homeless shelter and the Peace and Justice Center there.

Today we spend the hour hearing Utah Phillips in his own words. In January 2004, I had a chance to sit down with Utah for an extensive interview. We met at the pirate radio station, Freak Radio Santa Cruz, where Utah had come to perform. I began by asking him why he arrived at least a day early to any city or town where he performed.

UTAH PHILLIPS: When you have an engagement, at least in my world, the world that I create for myself, an engagement doesn"™t begin when you hit the stage and end when you leave the stage. It begins when you hit the city limits, and it ends when you leave the city limits.

There"™s a whole lot going on in that town. My trade is like being paid to go to schools, and every town is its own teacher. Every town, that"™s my university. And there are marvels and wonders. There"™s Hobos from Hell, are from Santa Cruz. They"™re young people riding on the freight trains, and they"™re better at it than I ever thought I would be. You"™ve got the Homeless Garden Project. You"™ve got just an enormous rich community here.

I was involved some years ago in helping to organize a street singers"™ guild in this town, and it"”you got to beat the streets and learn from the people, and then you"™ve got to get on their stage and, having done that and been with those people, let that audience know that you"™re not just doing the show you did in the town the night before, you know. You"™re no"”you"™ve got to know who you"™re with and where you are. That"™s very important to me. And they"™ve got to know that I understand that, that I"™m really there for them.

I was curious about Freak Radio:

Free Radio Santa Cruz has been on the air for over twelve years without a license. We broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, in defiance of federal regulations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with regulating the airwaves in the public interest. We believe that it has failed to do so and has proved itself to be controlled by monied interests.

I logged in to their stream last evening and listened to a show about the history of the Weather Underground, who:

waged a low-level war against the United States government through much of the 1970s, bombing the Capitol building, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison and finally evading the FBI by going into hiding. In THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, former Weathermen including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd and David Gilbert speak frankly about the idealist passions and trajectories that transformed them from college activists into the FBI�s Most Wanted.

It was a great program. This history was something that I remember. I saw it on television, and read about daily in the paper. Times were turbulent, to say the least. The Days of Rage “riots in Chicago took place over a 4-day period beginning October 8, 1969, after members of the Weathermen, a militant offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, converged on the city to confront police in the streets in response to the trial of the group of anti-Vietnam War activists known as the ‘Chicago Eight’”.

Bobby Seale

The Chicago Conspiracy Trial was a study in political theater with, most notably, the iconic image of Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom.

The trial transcripts read like a cultural Who’s Who of the times, with people like Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Seale, Dick Gregory, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Richard Daley, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Rennie Davis, Norman Mailer, and Jesse Jackson called as witnessness.

From the testimony of Abbie Hoffman:

MR. WEINGLASS: Will you please identify yourself for the record?

THE WITNESS: My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America.

MR. SCHULTZ: Your Honor, may the record show it is the defendant Hoffman who has taken the stand?

THE COURT: Oh, yes. It may so indicate. . . .

MR. WEINGLASS: Where do you reside?

THE WITNESS: I live in Woodstock Nation.

MR. WEINGLASS: Will you tell the Court and jury where it is?

THE WITNESS: Yes. It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind in the same way as the Sioux Indians carried the Sioux nation around with them. It is a nation dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money, that there should be some other basis for human interaction. It is a nation dedicated to–

THE COURT: Just where it is, that is all.

THE WITNESS: It is in my mind and in the minds of my brothers and sisters. It does not consist of property or material but, rather, of ideas and certain values. We believe in a society–

THE COURT: No, we want the place of residence, if he has one, place of doing business, if you have a business. Nothing about philosophy or India, sir. Just where you live, if you have a place to live. Now you said Woodstock. In what state is Woodstock?

THE WITNESS: It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my brothers and sisters. It is a conspiracy. Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.

MR. WEINGLASS: Can you tell the Court and jury your present age?

THE WITNESS: My age is 33. 1 am a child of the 60s.

MR. WEINGLASS: When were you born?

THE WITNESS: Psychologically, 1960.

MR. SCHULTZ: Objection, if the Court please. I move to strike the answer.

MR. WEINGLASS: What is the actual date of your birth?

THE WITNESS: November 30,1936.

MR. WEINGLASS: Between the date of your birth, November 30, 1936, and May 1, 1960, what if anything occurred in your life?

THE WITNESS: Nothing. I believe it is called an American education.

MR. SCHULTZ: Objection.

THE COURT: I sustain the objection.


MR. WEINGLASS: Abbie, could you tell the Court and jury–

MR. SCHULTZ: His name isn’t Abbie. I object to this informality.

MR. WEINGLASS: Can you tell the Court and jury what is your present occupation?

THE WITNESS: I am a cultural revolutionary. Well, I am really a defendant—full-time.

MR. WEINGLASS: What do you mean by the phrase “cultural revolutionary?”

THE WITNESS: Well, I suppose it is a person who tries to shape and participate in the values, and the mores, the customs and the style of living of new people who eventually become inhabitants of a new nation and a new society through art and poetry, theater, and music.


MR. SCHULTZ: You and Albert, Mr. Hoffman, were united in Chicago in your determination to smash the system by using any means at your disposal, isn’t that right?

THE WITNESS: Did I write that?

MR. SCHULTZ: No, did you have that thought?

THE WITNESS: That thought? Is a thought like a dream? If I dreamed to smash the system, that’s a thought. Yes, I had that thought.

THE COURT: Mr. Witness, you may not interrogate the lawyer who is examining you.

THE WITNESS: Judge, you have always told people to describe what they see or what they hear. I’m the only one that has to describe what I think.

MR. WEINGLASS: I object to any reference to what a person thought or his being tried for what he thought. He may be tried for his intent.

THE COURT: Overrule the objection.

THE WITNESS: Well, I had a lot of dreams at night. One of the dreams might have been that me and Stew were united.

MR. SCHULTZ: Mr. Hoffman, isn’t it a fact that one of the reasons why you came to Chicago was simply to wreck American society?

THE WITNESS: My feeling at the time, and still is, that society is going to wreck itself. I said that on a number of occasions, that our role is to survive while the society comes tumbling down around us; our role is to survive.
We have to learn how to defend ourselves, given this type of society, because of the war in Vietnam, because of racism, because of the attack on the cultural revolution—in fact because of this trial.

Given that Seale ended up bound and gagged (and became the heroic victim in Graham Nash’s song, Chicago), and that Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the defense team were not going to take the trial seriously. Judge Hoffman had his hands full, and issued numerous contempt citations.

From Abbie Hoffman’s contempt hearing:

Specification 8: On October 30, when the Court was compelled to deal appropriately with Mr. Seale, Mr. Hoffman engaged in the following:

“MR. SEALE: The Judge is not-he is not trying to give you no fair trial. That’s what you are. You are lying. You know exactly what you are.
MR. HAYDEN: Now they are going to beat him, they are going to beat him.
MR. HOFFMAN: You may as well kill him if you are going to gag him. It seems that way, doesn’t it?
THE COURT: You are not permitted to address the Court, Mr. Hoffman. You have a lawyer.
MR. HOFFMAN: This isn’t a court. This is a neon oven.
MR. FORAN: That was the defendant Hoffman who spoke.
THE COURT: Let the record show that the defendant Hoffman spoke.” Official Transcript, Page 4,846. And very shortly thereafter he continued in the following interchange:
“MR. HAYDEN: I was not addressing the jury. I was trying to protect Mr. Seale. The man is supposed to be silent when he sees another man’s nose being
MR. HOFFMAN: The disruption started when these guys got into overkill. It is the same thing as last year in Chicago, the same exact thing.
THE COURT: Mr. Hoffman, you are directed to refrain from speaking. You are ordered to refrain from speaking.” Official Transcript, Page 4,847.
After this interchange the Court determined that a recess would be appropriate. When the Court left the bench the defendant Hoffman refused to rise in the customary manner.


Specification 21: On April 4, during the cross-examination of the witness Phillips, Mr. Kunstler was examining the witness concerning the witness’ concept of how hippies dress. During that incident, Mr. Hoffman got up and danced around, lifting his shirt and baring his body to the jury, and engaged in antics designed to make light of the testimony of the witness. The incident is reported as follows:

“Q You are the first one that hasn’t identified him. (Hoffman.) This is Mr. Hoffman over here. (There was laughter in the courtroom.)
THE COURT: Let the record show that Mr. Hoffman stood up, lifted his shirt up, and bared his body in the presence of the jury – -
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, that is Mr. Hoffman’s way.
THE COURT: – - dancing around.
(There was laughter in the courtroom.)
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, that is Mr. Hoffman’s way.
THE COURT: It is a bad way in a courtroom.”

This is all just a long way to illustrate what was going on, and how unbelievably strange things were. The outcome? “Though the jury found five of the seven defendants guilty (not of conspiracy, but of individual acts). the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals voided the convictions and the contempt citations imposed by Judge Hoffman. The government chose to not retry the case.”

This quote from Tristero’s review of Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, explains the political fallout, and helps us to contextualize the current class divide in the US political landscape:

Back in the 60′s and early 70′s, Perlstein writes (and this jibes with my own memories), progressives were extremely confident that they were forging a new Democratic coalition, arrogantly ignoring the traditional ties of the Democratic party to blue collar voters and their worries. They were abetted in their arrogance by a press that completely misunderstood, and misreported, the complex political and cultural changes that Nixon’s politics produced. One important wedge Nixonism drove into American life split the Roosevelt coalition of liberals and blue collars in two, creating an enormous amount of downright hostility between the two groups. Nixon harvested the blue collar vote for himself while progressives fooled themselves into thinking those votes were irrelevant to the trend of increasing liberalism. Perhaps they were, but they were also necessary to win elections.

This kind of analysis is real important now. We’re living in the shadow of a time when the seeds for a lot of future problems were scattered. The radical left was engaged in serious political action, and the conservative right was outraged at their style, their tactics, and their political aims. Outrage was the order of the day. And the press gave us theater, a TV digest of what was happening. It was incomprehensible to almost everyone. Not much has changed in this regard, except that people seem more resigned to the same conditions that sparked all of this back then.

We really need to elect people who are clear-headed enough to steer us clear of the conflict that we may reap from rising oil and food prices, war, and climate change – from the excesses of global capitalism. When Amy Goodman asked Utah Phillips how these times compare with the labor struggles of the last century, he said:

I think that"”I think that it"™s getting"”it can get as bad. I think that we"™re being frog-marched into a corporate fascist takeover of the country. And no fooling, I think that we"™re in the Weimar Republic. And that"™s another thing that I would encourage young people to understand, what"”that was Germany before the Second World War, the rise of Hitler, the rise of Nazism. Why didn"™t people do anything? You know, the big question that young Germans are asking their grandparents: "œWhy didn"™t you do something?" Read about the Weimar, compare the rise of fascism in Germany from the 1920s to what"™s happening right here right now.

The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. Listen, you young people I"™m talking to, that long member has been taken away from you. You haven"™t gotten it in your schools. You"™re not getting it on your television. You"™re not getting it anywhere. You"™re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. You know, you can"™t remember what happened last week, because you"™re locked into this week"™s crisis.

No, turn that off. You know, walk away from that. Walk out your front door. Go find your elders. Go find your true elders. Go find your people that lived that life, who knew that life and who know that history. And get your hands down into that deep rich stream of our people"™s history. We divided our culture up into a market for youngers, a market for young adults, a market for young marrieds, a market for older people, you know. It"™s not that way. And mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we"™ve been through and trivializing important events. No, our people"™s history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions. That huge river, you know, it"™s like tributaries that flow down into the polluted river and purify it and purify it.

Utah Phillips, a seminal figure in American folk music who performed extensively and tirelessly for audiences on two continents for 38 years, died Friday of congestive heart failure in Nevada City, California a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where he lived for the last 21 years with his wife, Joanna Robinson, a freelance editor.

Utah Phillips said that the hardest thing to learn is to “shut up and listen.” We need to do that. We need to listen to stories that give us the courage to go out and ask questions.

2 responses so far

Classroom Teaching

May 27 2008 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education

Margaret Edson is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and kindergarten teacher, working in the Atlanta Public School System. She delivered the Smith College Commencement Address on May 18, 2008.

Margaret Edson’s words are an important reminder of the value of something that can not be counted – the power of a teacher’s presence in our midst. The transcript does not do justice to the strength of her message, which after all, celebrates presence and communion. Watch the video. Her delivery is both warm and magisterial – befitting the occasion. She makes some introductory remarks which I’ve not included here. Edson’s entire speech and the video are available from a link on the Smith College: Commencement page.

Salutations, memorials, bromides: let us commence.

I want to talk about love — not romance, not love l-u-v.
I want to talk about a particular kind of love, this love: classroom teaching.

I have my posse of gaily clad classroom teachers behind me.

They like to be called college professors.
And we can’t all work for the government.

We gather together because of classroom teaching.
We have shown you our love in our work in the classroom.

Classroom teaching is a physical, breath-based, eye-to-eye event.
It is not built on equipment or the past.
It is not concerned about the future.
It is in existence to go out of existence.
It happens and then it vanishes.
Classroom teaching is our gift.
It’s us; it’s this.

We bring nothing into the classroom — perhaps a text or a specimen. We carry ourselves, and whatever we have to offer you is stored within our bodies. You bring nothing into the classroom — some gum, maybe a piece of paper and a pencil: nothing but yourselves, your breath, your bodies.

Classroom teaching produces nothing. At the end of a class, we all get up and walk out. It’s as if we were never there. There’s nothing to point to, no monument, no document of our existence together.

Classroom teaching expects nothing. There is no pecuniary relationship between teachers and students. Money changes hands, and people work very hard to keep it in circulation, but we have all agreed that it should not happen in the classroom. And there is no financial incentive structure built into classroom teaching because we get paid the same whether you learn anything or not.

Classroom teaching withholds nothing. I say to my young students every year, “I know how to add two numbers, but I’m not going to tell you.” And they laugh and shout, “No!” That’s so absurd, so unthinkable. What do I have that I would not give to you?

Bringing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing, withholding nothing –
what does that remind you of?
Is this a bizarre occurrence that will go into The Journal of Irreproducible Results?
Or is it something that happens every day, all the time, all over the world,
and is based not on gain and fame, but on love.

There are those who say that classroom teaching is doomed and that by the time one of you addresses the class of 2033, there will be a museum of classroom teaching.

Ever since the invention of wedge-shaped writing on a clay tablet, classroom teaching has been obsolete. It’s been comical. Why don’t we just write the assignments and algorithms on a clay tablet, hang it up on the wall, and let the students come who will to teach themselves from our documents?

Why, since the creation of writing with a pen on a piece of paper, do we still bother to have schools?

Why, since the invention of movable metal type, don"™t we all just go to the library?

Why do we have to have class? Why do we need teachers?

Why, since the advent of the microchip, don’t we all stay home in our pajamas and hit send?

Technology is nipping at the heels of classroom teaching, but I perceive no threat.
How could something false replace something true?
How could a substitute, a proxy, step in for something real and alive?
How could the virtual nudge out the actual?

The other great threat to classroom teaching is the rush to data — data-driven education.
We must measure everything — percentages, charts, tables.

I’m not entirely opposed to this.
If data-driven education were a pie graph, I would have a piece.

But I was not educated and did not become a teacher to produce data.

I love the classroom.
I loved it as a student, and I love it as a teacher.
I can name every teacher I ever had:
Mrs. Mulshanok, Miss Williams, Mrs. Clark, Miss Bogan, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Muys, Mrs. Parker, Mr. Eldridge, Miss Bush — and that"™s just through sixth grade.
I could go on, I promise.

I loved coming to class: the chairs, the windows, unzipping my book bag.
And I loved my teachers.
There was content, I suppose, but that’s not what I remember.
I remember my teachers.
I remember being in the room,
and no data and no bar graph will be assembled to replace that, or even to capture it.

This week my students worked on dividing a pizza between two people, and they realized that if you make the line down the center of the pizza the two sides will be equal. After much trial and error, they came to this conclusion on their own, and I welcome you to try it. I think it’s really going to take off, and let this be where it begins.

When they take a standardized test, they will be able to fill in the bubble next to the pizza that is cut exactly in half. Do they know that will be the correct answer? Yes. But I don’t care that much. What I care about is how they got there, how they figured it out for themselves.

This skinny little high school senior got herself into Smith College by writing an essay about Anne Morrow Lindbergh"™s theme, “The journey, not the arrival, matters.” It worked for me.

Standardized tests measure the arrival, but they have nothing to say about the journey, about having wonderful ideas. Do you know it/do you not know it is second, and how do you know it, and who are you, is first.

The only way this knowledge grows inside a student is with a teacher, a classroom teacher. Of course, my students will insist they did it themselves, and I don’t try to disabuse them of that.

But the work you graduates have done was in the classroom with your teachers.
That’s the miracle of today.
Why don’t we talk about it?
Because it doesn’t show up.
There’s not a bar graph for classroom teaching. There’s no data for classroom teaching, and yet it persists this year and the next year and the year after that.

Telling tens of thousands of people what to do is not teaching, it’s shouting, and there’s a lot of that going around.

Showing somebody how to do something exactly the way you’ve always done it is not teaching, it’s training. And there"™s plenty of that, too.

But the reality that is neither shouting nor training is classroom teaching.
Nobody can touch it because nobody can point to it.
You have it forever.
When it grows inside you, it’s doing its work.

We can disappear.
We’ll never see you again, probably.
The chairs will be folded.
It will be as if we were never here.
There will be nothing we can count after today.
But not everything that counts can be counted.
Not everything that matters can be put into a pie chart.

The Board of Trustees has set a very great challenge for itself:
to educate us all for lives of distinction.
You are never going to be able to make a bar graph out of that.
That is immeasurable, and that’s what makes it so real.
I admonish you — because that’s my job — to think about the things that float away:
your love for your friends,
the smell of the lilacs,
the feeling your families have on this day.
You will have nothing to take with you.
The diploma you receive will be someone else’s.

Everything meaningful about this moment, and these four years,
will be meaningful inside you, not outside you.

I’ve been a classroom teacher for sixteen years–as long as you have been in the classroom. We started the same year. And I hope to go on for fourteen more years.
That will make thirty, and I’ll be done.

At the end of that time, someone will bring me a box, and I will put in it a ceramic apple somebody gave me thinking it would be symbolic somehow. I will have nothing, and that will be proof of the meaning of my work.

If you can point to something, you might lose it, or you might break it, or someone might take it from you. As long as you store it inside yourself, it’s not going anywhere — or it’s going everywhere with you.

This day is a day of love.
It"™s a day of your family’s love for you,
your love for each other and your teachers,
and your teachers’ love for you.

In time, the bar graphs may tumble,
the clay tablets may crumble.
They"™re only made of clay.
But our love
is here to stay.

Thank you.

[via Susan Ohanian]

8 responses so far

Class Not Dismissed

It’s been a week since school let out for the summer, and I’ve been been thinking about what happened in the classroom this year. Decompression – it happens every May. Long bike rides are key: 30 miles yesterday, 20 today, 50 miles tomorrow, if it doesn’t look too much like rain. Two-lane country blacktop with nobody talking at me helps clear the slate. I’ve also been preparing the garden for planting.

And I’ve been working on my summer reading list – more on that, below.

It’s been over five years since I worked with sixth-graders, when I was in grad school, which is when I got hooked on reading education research. The academic reading colored my outlook on what, this year, turned out to be a difficult teaching assignment. Sometimes it only takes one or two “problem” children to derail a group, but when half the class is ‘special’, then everyone is at risk of getting pulled off track.

Too much of the time, it felt like I was the only person not-drinking at a party. About half way through the year I realized that I was putting more time into teaching School (with a capital S) than I remembered from previous years. Spending too much energy maintaining order saps the enthusiasm. For me, anyway.

I was reminded of Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, a book about counter-school culture and ‘style’ in an English boys’ school, and it’s connection to the larger world of working class culture. Willis said, “In particular, counter-school culture has many profound similarities with the culture its members are mostly destined for – shopfloor culture,” which he calls, “…the zone where strategies for wresting control of symbolic and real space from official authority are generated and disseminated.” It’s a zone where people are not serious about work; it’s about resistance – joking around, goofing off, wasting time, disrupting and subverting the “boss’s authority and status.”

In this case, it just means ‘sixth-grade,’ and I’m not complaining about it. Just noting that there was a lot more screwing around than I remembered from my previous experiences with the age group. Not everyone joins the game, of course. Some are more resistant to authority, or peer pressure on the other side of the coin. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this. It’s mostly just shop-talk. (See how the metaphor works?)

I ended up thinking of the class as essentially two groups, even though they were never formally distinguished from one another. The achievers were the kids who did their homework, finished their assignments, and managed their time without too much oversight from me. The shirkers sharpened pencils, joked and laughed when they should’ve been busy, read or talked while the teacher was talking, visited the bathroom, fiddled around with stuff in their desks, lost and forgot things, and rarely asked for help. Projecting a few years down the line, I believed I could reasonably predict who would be working for who.

The theory that cultural practices are sustained across generations is called cultural reproduction. Schooling is one of the main mechanisms for this phenomena, and one of the ironies of formal education is that it works at cross-purposes to itself. On the one hand, we see education as a gateway to social mobility, while it also acts as a mechanism for sorting children into the roles they’re destined to play in the adult world. People are advantaged by different sorts of knowledge, which they develop both formally and informally, depending on how they see themselves and how they want other people to see them. This knowledge is expressed in not only what they do, but in the countless ways they express who they are. Not everyone willingly buys into the official program because it may not necessarily further their personal ambitions or reflect their values.

One of the main issues in the school reform discourse is how to help kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds become achievers. If you watch them in action, though, you notice wide variability in their attitudes toward these good-intentioned efforts to promote their success and happiness in life. Some seem to want little to do with it. Why? Dina Strasser, a blogger I encourage everyone to read, asks a great question when she wonders if maybe they are being resistant, and suggests that we might want to look at why, and whether they may be justified.

I wonder if the deeper question is this: whether the students and/or the communities who might take such anti-school attitudes are doing so by choice"” and if so, whether that choice is justified.

The axis of that question, of course, being one of responsibility. And isn"™t that the heart of hearts of any question of social injustice? Who is responsible?

This question about responsibility and justice has been rolling around with me for a long time. Responsibility gets carved up and shared, as I see it, among people all down the line. Looking through a cultural lens we tend to focus on the surfaces of things without getting into the deeper structures that may help us understand why they’ve turned out a certain way. But if we shift the lens a bit, and point it in an inconveniently uncomfortable direction, we get into an area that may expose some closeted skeletons. And that would be to look at social class, and to notice how it colors our interests and values. In a society with democratic ideals, class distinctions are generally discounted as non-existent or irrelevant, since everyone is supposed to have a shot at making something of themselves. But I couldn’t overlook what was there in front of me all this year.

As Eduwonkette pointed out back in November, structural issues are problematic for practitioners because we can’t tell kids, “Forget it. The deck is stacked against you. Give up.” But if we simply tell them, “Work hard. Be nice,” we risk losing credibility and setting them up for disappointment when things don’t work out as well as we’d like, even if they did work hard and act nice. However, since we know it’s their best option, that’s what we tell them to do. We teach compliance with a system structured to favor some over others.

How, then, to navigate this chasm that is also called the “achievement gap?” It becomes a fascinating issue in diplomacy, psychology, politics, and strategy, and it holds promise for new areas of teacher inquiry.

Without any formal training in sociology, I’ve been doing a lot of background reading. But I want to point to an especially entertaining and informative source, brought to my attention recently by Dave Pollard. It’s a book by gonzo journalist Joe Bageant called Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. You can download and excerpt from the first chapter, American Serfs.

This may be the germinal phase of the book I’ve been thinking I need to write. At any rate, it’s too big to squeeze into a single blog entry, so I won’t go too much farther with it right now. I’m going to begin reviewing the literature, and introduce some characters. I have plenty more to say on the subject.

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Putting it Together

May 16 2008 Published by under borderland

It’s the last day of school, the kids are gone for the summer, and I’m writing a little book review here. This book was not recommended to me. I found it almost by accident at the library when I was there on an errand. It was written nearly 60 years ago, and the fact that nobody ever mentioned it to me is the reason I’m writing this now.

No education professor, no colleague, no-body ever said to me, “You know, Dewey laid out a theory of what makes experiences educative – or not – in Experience and Education. And, along the way, he touched on just about every major controversy in the discourse of school reform.”

I wish someone had told me to read it long ago because so many things would have made sense, sooner. I’ve read it twice in the last week. It’s a short book, and it’s a conceptual roadmap for progressive change in schools.

I have to resist the urge to clutter this with quotes. But maybe this, from page 1, will get me rolling:

The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.

OK. So there it is in bold strokes. Advocacy for school policies splits into two main camps, the instructivists and the constructivists. Dewey calls them ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ schools. He reminds us that we needn’t reject one view only to uncritically endorse it’s opposite. He urges us not to confuse experience with activity, to know the difference between authority and leadership, and to understand that freedom from rigid control is not the same as license.

What is wanted, he says, is the development of some general principles of learning through personal experience along with the understanding that these, alone, will not solve any problems. Rather, they present us with new sets of problems that are worth exploring and talking about. Subject matter still needs to be organized, but along what lines? Guidance must still be exercised, but to what end? Experience, he reminds us, can as easily be miseducative as it can be educative.

He suggests that we use ‘continuity’ and ‘interaction’ as two principles for educative experience, since they provide links from the past to the future, and require us to pay attention to the responses of students to whatever situation they may find themselves in. Preparing kids for an imagined future by insisting that they ignore the present is a self-defeating practice.

Rarely, I’ve observed, is NOTHING learned in school. Unfortunately, what’s learned too much of the time is that some subjects are more interesting than others, that some teachers are better than others, that some people are smarter than others. What is learned best is an idea that runs constantly in the background, which is that school is not about learning as much as it’s about getting credit for fulfilling other people’s expectations. I want to avoid this kind of lesson if I can, next year.

A democratic participation structure for schools is recommended, since persuasion makes for a higher quality experience than coercion. I have to build more opportunities into the school day to discuss “issues,” and provide my students with more decision-making opportunities to make this happen.

We were on a field trip the other day, hiking up a steep hillside when a tired young lady asked me, “Why do we have to do this?” Funny, that nobody ever asks me that question about routine things they’re given to do in the classroom. But projects are often hard work.

I told her, “Sometimes we need to put it all together.”

This little book was an inspiration to work toward that end. Advocacy for change is off the mark, because talking about “reform” means that nothing new is likely to happen.

Summer vacation soon – just a few administrative things to take care of over the next few days.

7 responses so far

Intelligence Training

May 13 2008 Published by under borderland,education,technology

People tend to think of intelligence as a static quality, something that some people have more of than others. Yet we know that our brains are developed through experience, by stimulating neuronal connections. Yet, all experience isn’t equally valuable. And some experiences may even inhibit intellectual growth. Our goal as teachers should be to stimulate habits of mind that promote growth and development.

Maybe we should begin thinking of learning as more than just a psychological event. An article on the SharpBrains blog, Can Intelligence Be Trained? provides evidence that fluid intelligence, the ability to deal with new problems, may be influenced by exercising working memory.

A memory training experiment conducted by Martin Buschkuehl and Susanne Jaeggi is described in which participants in the experimental group far outperformed members of the control on a test of fluid intelligence that wasn’t directly trained. The question of whether any kind of memory training would have produced the same result was answered by pointing to other studies in which memory training did not transfer positively to fluid intelligence.

The authors of this study believe their memory training program was effective because it was challenging, complex, and it was designed so that participants could not develop task specific strategies that allowed them to “beat the game.” Working memory capacity, they claim, was truly extended through this training.

The best part of this whole article is that the memory training program is available online. Try it yourself. It’s tough, and it’ll take some practice. The more they trained, the more they gained, say the researchers. Who doesn’t want to try it?

A download version of Braintwister may soon be available.

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The Mountains are High

May 06 2008 Published by under borderland

The Forum for Education and Democracy released a report last week, Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Role in Education [pdf], to commemorate the release of the landmark A Nation at Risk report, issued 25 years ago by the Reagan administration. A Nation at Risk claimed that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Shocking rhetoric, which has been repeated time and again in think-tank wars during the last few years. It got quite a bit of attention from media and policy makers. Richard Rothstein’s analysis of its warped conclusions seems about right:

The diagnosis of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation"™s other social and economic institutions for learning.

…which isn’t to say that we should turn a blind eye to our problems. From the executive summary of Democracy at Risk:

  • Nearly one-fourth of U.S. children live in families below the poverty line, more than in any other industrialized nation;
  • The U.S. ranked 21st of 30 OECD countries in science and 25th of 30 in mathematics "” a drop from a few years earlier;
  • High school graduation rates have been stagnant for a quarter century and have recently begun to decline;
  • About 30 percent of an age cohort in the U.S. gains a college degree, as compared to nearly 50 percent in OECD countries;
  • Growth in state spending on prisons far outstrips growth in education spending;
  • Studies reveal declines in voter knowledge and participation.

Although A Nation at Risk did say, “…public education should be the top priority for additional Federal funds” and that, “A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society,” those statements regarding the need for, and proper role of federal support have been largely lost in the discourse of choice, achievement, and accountability. Democracy at Risk is an attempt to highlight the lack of progress toward the goals that were laid out 25 years ago, and outline some recommendations for federal involvement in education, to include

  • Rectifying inequalities in access to quality education, investing in out-of-school learning supports;
  • Investing in the recruitment and training of new teachers and school leaders;
  • Supporting education research and innovation by disseminating information about promising practices, including assessment and data reporting mechanisms that will inform instruction;
  • Engaging local communities by placing schools at the center of community education.

The authors of the report note John Glenn’s observation that “our public education system is ‘the personnel office for democracy.’ And when our schools are unsupported, that democratic future is at risk.”

Interestingly, A Nation at Risk was written the year I began teaching. I can’t recall ever discussing it with anyone. Teachers typically don’t concern themselves too much with the politics of policy. The proverbial Chinese expression, "œThe mountains are high and the emperor is far away," might be a guideline for practice in a complex decentralized system where decisions are made in response to ever-changing conditions.

One of the core issues in current policy discussions is from what level curriculum control should emerge. Top down program administration too easily misses the fine print and messy details that come with the teacher’s territory. The only people who are surprised by a billion dollar per year program bust are the clueless pundits and policy pushers who believe that “scientifically based reading research” is about science and reading, and not about ideology and profiteering. I knew when I started this job that I’d become a cynic. It only hurts when I care, which is most of the time.

The top-down/bottom-up disagreement was explored recently in a fascinating story, Liberating the Schoolhouse. A researcher from UCLA, Wellford Wilms, documented the tenure of a new principal who took control of a troubled school in S. California, and managed by several measures to pull the school out of its tailspin, only to be replaced by a more traditional administrator. Her unusual approach to leadership was to require the school’s dispirited staff to run their own meetings and begin making significant decisions that would affect real change.

By the end of 2004, Infante"™s vision began to show results as the school"”administrators, teachers and students"”began to emerge as a single community. The campus was cleaner as students started picking up after themselves; tardies and cuts dropped in frequency; and the school"™s test score index shot up an amazing 95 points in less than two years, a gain that placed Baldwin Park High School among the schools with the greatest increase in scores. Infante recalled of her staff, "œat first they thought it was a mistake. They didn"™t believe in themselves."

Another teacher leaned over the table and whispered, "œIt was like an invisible takeover, a secret government that never actually took power."

But something happened to take the shine off the apple. Infante was reassigned and removed from her principal position by a school administration that wanted to maintain a more conventional hierarchy of control. They didn’t understand the steps this principal had taken to empower her teaching staff. According to Wilms, the board and superintendent were “blinded by their own ambitions.” Stephen Smoliar sees this as a cautionary tale, and comments that reformers can’t afford to wear blinders to the larger context within which their innovations might be executed.

That’s right, if your goal is to work and survive within the system. But who wants to do that these days?

6 responses so far

E18 Error Report

May 01 2008 Published by under borderland,technology

The last three weeks (time since my previous post) have been more or less an extended insult. I don’t know if things are improving or not at the moment. It snowed throughout the month of April – right up to yesterday, when we got yet another 2 inches of slop. Throw in some agonizing and intermittent tooth pain for me. (Waiting on the root canal – in 2 weeks.)

But school lets out for the summer soon. So mid-May holds some promise.

My long range plan has been to get my students out in the field with the biology grad student who’s been working with us all year. But the weather has been…frustrating…I mentioned that, didn’t I? Next week we’re headed out on 2 all-day outdoor education missions. Today we toured the university power plant, saw examples of thermokarst in the “drunken forest” behind campus, and visited the migratory bird refuge, which was some sloppy wet walking. A good time was had by most.

I was taking pictures with my Canon S2 IS, and I noticed a little bit of vibration as the zoom lens retracted/extended. That lasted for about 2 on-off cycles before the whole works jammed (open) and the camera refused to work. A little message in the viewfinder said E18. That’s all it said.

Nothing happened to this camera that might have damaged it.

In a futile bid for a quick fix to this weird problem, I replaced the batteries. No such luck. I carried my broken camera around all day alternately seeing good photo subjects, and cursing Canon for its fussy equipment that costs as much to repair as to replace.

After school let out I took it to the camera shop to see what they had to say. The guy behind the counter took about 15 minutes with me, and he managed to get the lens to retract – once. I took a picture and it jammed again. He told me that we should think of this stuff as “disposable.” And he tried to interest me in another Canon product.

When I got home this evening, I searched “Canon” E18, and I found plenty. I left a comment on this complaint collection site, after I saw how common the problem was. There’s even a class action lawsuit, apparently. Interestingly, a site search at Cannon turns up zero results for EI8. Yet there’s even a web domain called with a slew of error reports and some useless suggestions for fixing the problem. Even more reports of this mess at the Jungle Zone.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if Canon would stand behind its product. But this amazing customer service fiasco puts that pipe dream to rest. I won’t be getting another Canon. It stinks that this stuff is built to break.

Most of what’s been dogging me lately is bound to improve. I need some suggestions for a new camera with good zoom and macro capability. And, yeah, it should be tough enough.

6 responses so far