17 February 2015

Grit and History


"They were poor because they were lazy, they were lazy because they were Catholic, they were Catholic because they were Irish, and no more needed to be said. This was the transatlantic consensus about Irish Catholics, and it was preached from the finest pulpits and most polite salons in London and uptown Manhattan." - Golway, Terry (2014-03-03). Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics . Liveright.
You like to spend time with your family.  5 (yes, definitely) 4  3  2  1 (No)
http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-BV429_bkrvta_DV_20140309135232.jpg
I've  been reading Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politicsin the aftermath of presenting "Breaking the Grit Hammer" at EduCon in Philadelphia. It is a fascinating book which turns many of the staples of our textbooks on 19th Century American History on their heads. It's not just turning cartoonist Thomas Nast into a well deserved vicious villain, not just making us all doubt Walt Whitman, but it forces us to rethink the concepts of "political boss," "reformer," even "abolitionist," in essential ways.

But a critical part of what the book forces is a historic consideration of "Grit" - a consideration that dives way back - before the antisocial imaginings of Angela Duckworth's favorite author, Thomas Galton.

http://www.inetours.com/New_York/Images/Irish-HM/Irish-Hunger_Ent_4292.jpg
New York City: Irish Hunger Memorial
The Irish Catholics who began to arrive in America in the 1820s, who flooded in during the 1840s when British actions turned a potato blight into a "Great Famine," were the first "Gritless" folks to come to the United States voluntarily. The first "Gritless" people to arrive with the power to vote. And thus the first "Gritless" challenge to the Protestant/Puritan myth of excess labor as a moral good in the history of the American Republic.(1) This lack of the so-called "Protestant Work Ethic" - the willingness to trade wealth for stability, and wealth for a different concept of family and community, can still be seen - when the OECD measured weekly parenting time, Ireland came out at the top when both parents were working, and close with stay-at-home moms.

American paid vacations

You'd prefer to listen to your friends' stories than do math exercises.  5  4  3  2  1 


So that Irish "laziness" - a British and American description - has a history which is deep and complex, and not at all without benefit. Though Angela Duckworth may see herself as a gritty success and the Irish cop patrolling the area outside her Philadelphia office window as a failure without aspiration, others might see it differently.
"Within Irish literary modernism, originating with Wilde and further developed, especially by means of formal experiments in narration, by Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, lies an alternative version of modernity which gives to an historically complex concept of idleness the centrality that capitalism and nationalism give to work. Other writers, Yeats and Eimar O’Duffy among them, elaborated a role for the intellectual in the formation of the State, but this was consistently challenged by the notion that labour and work have an oblique and often sterilizing impact on creativity and emancipatory politics." Gregory Dobbins, Lazy Idle Schemers: Irish Modernism and the Cultural Politics of Idleness, Field Day Publications, 2010
Is a disbelief in that "Protestant Work Ethic" a moral failing? An academic failing? A national failing? Or is the commitment to 'working hard' simply for the sake of 'working hard' - as expressed in Angela Duckworth's "Grit Test" - not the only path to success in life?

A good meal with friends is a worthwhile way to spend an evening.  5  4  3  2  1

"This was a battle that Tammany’s Irish voters recognized as a variation on a conflict that, to a greater or lesser extent, drove them out of their native land. Ireland’s Catholic majority had long been engaged in cultural and political conflict with an Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class that viewed the island’s conquered masses as victims of moral failings and character flaws that encouraged vice, laziness, and dependence and rendered them unworthy of liberty." Golway (2014).

That "moral failing" - that eugenicist belief that disconnects between institutions and humans always suggests a failure of the humans - lies at the heart of Duckworth's beliefs, and the "Grit Narrative" as a whole.
"Probably the finding that most surprised me was that in the West Point data set, as well as other data sets, grit and talent either aren't related at all or are actually inversely related.

"That was surprising because rationally speaking, if you're good at things, one would think that you would invest more time in them. You're basically getting more return on your investment per hour than someone who's struggling. If every time you practice piano you improve a lot, wouldn't you be more likely to practice a lot?

"We've found that that's not necessarily true. It reminds me of a study done of taxi drivers in 1997.*  When it's raining, everybody wants a taxi, and taxi drivers pick up a lot of fares. So if you're a taxi driver, the rational thing to do is to work more hours on a rainy day than on a sunny day because you're always busy so you're making more money per hour. But it turns out that on rainy days, taxi drivers work the fewest hours. They seem to have some figure in their head—"OK, every day I need to make $1,000"—and after they reach that goal, they go home. And on a rainy day, they get to that figure really quickly.

"It's a similar thing with grit and talent. In terms of academics, if you're just trying to get an A or an A−, just trying to make it to some threshold, and you're a really talented kid, you may do your homework in a few minutes, whereas other kids might take much longer. You get to a certain level of proficiency, and then you stop. So you actually work less hard.

"If, on the other hand, you are not just trying to reach a certain cut point but are trying to maximize your outcomes—you want to do as well as you possibly can—then there's no limit, ceiling, or threshold. Your goal is, "How can I get the most out of my day?" Then you're like the taxi driver who drives all day whether it's rainy or not." - Angela Duckworth, The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth, ASCD Educational Leadership, September 2013 | Volume 71 | Number 1 
Notice that the cab drivers Duckworth discusses are not shirking any responsibilities, but they are still failing in her description because they are not working regardless of need. "Calvinism does require a life of systematic and unemotional good works (interpreted here as hard work in business) and self-control, as a sign that one is of God's chosen "elect." Thus, ascetic dedication to one's perceived duties is "the means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation."'

In the fall of 2014 I was in a cab in New York City and the driver and I were discussing a neighborhood we had both been young in - I in my 20s he as a tween - and how we'd survived the crime-ridden time, and then, this was the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly amidst massive climate protests, I asked what he would be doing after he took me and my colleagues from Brooklyn to Queens. "I'm going home to play with my kids," he told me. "If I drive and someone gets in and wants to go to Manhattan I'll have to go, and the traffic will be a disaster. That's just not worth the money."

A man with 'no Grit,' I laughingly thought, tipping him very well. But a man I respect all the more. 

You make time to play often during each week.  5  4  3  2  1 

Like the Irish of the mid-19th Century - or perhaps the 20th Century - the mostly African and Caribbean taxi drivers of contemporary New York are neither "white," nor "Anglo," nor "Protestant" in fact nor disposition, and Angela Duckworth and "Grit" advocates, like the "reformers" and moralists of the 1840s-1850s, are troubled by a different set of moral imperatives. If the Irish chose "limited opportunities," municipal jobs which were secure and held guaranteed pensions over riskier entrepreneurship with potentially larger payoffs, this was disturbing to the power elite. If African and Caribbean cab drivers choose to go home to their families rather than amassing additional wealth, this disturbs Duckworth. If students choose to "get by" in school rather than chasing the "As" and pursuing Duckworth's Ivy League path to success, this disturbs the Grit advocates in American schools.

https://dontforgetyourshovel.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/noirishnelson.jpg?w=640
"No Irish need apply," was a common employment advertisement tag line in the 19th Century
It is a peculiar thing that we limit opportunity for those we then criticize as lacking motivation.


You enjoy sitting outside doing nothing.  5  4  3  2  1 

Back in the last century - long ago I guess - a classical literature professor, one of the very best, told us that the most important dividing line in Europe was the old Eastern/Southern Boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. "Americans know nothing because they ignore the historic realities," he said (or something like that) as he explained why Czechoslovakia had split, why Yugoslavia had shattered, why even Italy was hopelessly divided, north and south.(2) The divide, created centuries ago, remains an essential reality of culture, an essential reality of understanding. Those perceiving themselves as having "been included" see themselves as "right." They see those on the other side as "lazy," or to use our current terminology, "lacking Grit."

Czech Republic, in - Slovakia, out. Slovenia and Croatia, in - Serbia and Bosnia, out. Northern Italy, in - Southern Italy, out. The Holy Roman Empire created a cultural divide lasting to this day, as the England/Ireland divide remains.

“Their means of resistance —conspiracy, pretense, foot-dragging, and obfuscation —were the only ones ordinarily available to them, ‘weapons of the weak,’ like those employed by defeated and colonized peoples everywhere,” wrote historian Robert James Scally in his masterful re-creation of Irish townland life." Golway (2014)

You are fascinated by new things you discover.  5  4  3  2  1 

http://www.printmag.com/wp-content/uploads/Nast01_black+white-orig.jpg
How many American history textbooks celebrate the work of political cartoonist Thomas Nast?
I don't need to take "someone out of their era" to know a vicious racist, anti-Catholic nativist,
and to wonder why his work is used, without caveat, in our schools...

(Irish were always portrayed as apes in his work, Catholic Cardinals sometimes as crocodiles)

Taking Duckworth's test I got a "Grit Score" of 1.25, or "grittier than 1% of the population." Ah well, perhaps I have other attributes, attributes worth valuing. It's possible, right? As it is possible that our "ungritty" kids might have other attributes, or might need other things. After all, as I asked at EduCon, "if I managed to get thrown out of your class every day, wasn't I exhibiting grit by Duckworth's measures?" I mean, if it isn't just compliance, as I've suggested more than once, than that kind of commitment to a task demonstrates grit? right?

You enjoy books and stories that have little to do with your daily work.  5  4  3  2  1

"Protestant areas of the island [of Ireland] because “we are a painstaking, industrious, laborious people who desire to work and pay our just debts, and the blessing of the Almighty is upon our labour. If the people of the South had been equally industrious with those of the North, they would not have so much misery upon them.” Golway (2014).

If the 'Grit Narrative' isn't about compliance it is false. If it is about compliance, if all Angela Duckworth wants is for poor kids to behave like her, it is racist and classist and Calvinist (in a political, not a religious, way).

But if our narrative is a question of a lack of abundance, it suggests different tools for our use within our schools. If the British government had stepped in during the 1840s Potato Blight and stopped the massive exports of food from Ireland - stopped the exports so that the Irish could eat rather than letting 1.5 million people starve to death - then the Irish communal memory might be very different, and the aspirations of those who left Ireland and crossed the oceans might have been different. If those nations outside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire had not been treated like colonies to be pillaged, the history of the Balkans in Europe might look different. Had African-Americans actually been liberated - liberated from enforced poverty and powerlessness - at the end of the Civil War, the African-American communal memory might be different, and hopes might look different in many communities.

If the poor in America actually saw a path to possibility, then community vision today might be different.

You are willing to shift from one task to another based on interest and value.  5  4  3  2  1

So the only role schools might have today is to offer abundance, not training in grit. We can offer what people have not had, offer 'wealth' of resources, and offer possibilities. And at the same time understand that differing cultures value differing things, and the 'Protestant Work Ethic' is just one path, and not the only path, not necessarily the best path, not necessarily the one moral path.

We offer kids the abundance of choices and that offers an abundance of possibility.

- Ira Socol

(1) If you've ever been to Europe (besides the U.K., the Scandinavian countries, protestant Germany, and Switzerland), or if you’ve been to Mexico, or Central or South America (or most of the rest of the world), you've probably noticed that these cultures have an entirely different orientation to work and leisure from that of most U.S. people. Residents of these other countries are usually baffled by the frantic "workaholism" typical of the U.S. (and parts of Northern Europe). These people can put in grueling hours, as U.S. citizens commonly do. Unlike U.S. residents, though, if they work tremendously hard, it's because they need to do so -- the job requires it, they need the money, or some such thing. They make a conscious decision in favor of it.
  Most U.S. people, on the other hand, seem psychologically impelled to work much too hard for no obvious reason. Many of us actually feel guilty if we aren't working much too hard.   And we tend to think very highly of people who hate what they do; that is irrationally seen as somehow more virtuous than having a job one loves!  
  This workaholic attitude is often treated (by people in the U.S.) as just common sense, just part of human nature. It's not. It's a distinct phenomenon, only a few centuries old (that is, very, very recent in terms of human history), localized to a few areas of the globe, and with specific causes in those areas. 

(2) Years later, in this century, I was faced with Robert Putnam's work on the divide in Italian democracy in a research methods class. I earned the undying enmity of a brittle MSU prof by challenging this Harvard publication. "He never considered history before the 19th century," I argued, "he never looked at the inside/outside of the Holy Roman Empire."  How could I doubt the Ivy League author of the famous Bowling Alone? I could for the same reason I doubt Angela Duckworth's work. I find that both ignore the facts of history and culture.

21 December 2014

of Darren Wilson, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, and a 4-year-old in Greene County, Virginia

On my first night as a uniformed cop in The Bronx's 47th Precinct I worked as "Four-Seven-Adam" in a "Radio Car" with long-time veteran Jerry Murphy, a guy who'd survived Vietnam and the 41st Precinct at the height of its "Fort Apache" Apocalypse.

Jerry told me a lot of things that night - the classic old cop passing wisdom to the young - and much of what he told me stays with me still.

"Don't pick fights," he said, "most of the people in this place, in any place, are just trying to get by, they need us to be their friends." The Four-Seven was a dark crazy place in the 1980s, a drug supermarket for rich kids from Westchester and Connecticut, a place whose population included a majority that were illegal immigrants. A place whose police needs overwhelmed the number of officers available, but that was still true.

"Don't try to push anybody else's idea of what a neighborhood should be," he told me. "Fuck Ed Koch, these people can't live in pretty little Greenwich Village [Mayor Koch's home] and they probably don't want to. This is their home, not a place The Mayor needs to be comfortable."

47th Precinct Station House, 1980s
"If you ever work with someone who is afraid of these folks because they don't look like he does, get out of the car and tell the boss you're sick."

And finally, "Never give a ticket to anyone who's got their kids in the car. You've totally embarrassed them by stopping them, if you give them a ticket they'll drive away cursing you and you've made two generations of enemies. If you're nice and tell them you're just worried about their kids they'll drive away saying nice things about you, and you've made two generations of friends - and kid, we need friends."

Jerry Murphy, working with a bullet fragment jammed against a nerve in his leg from an interrupted robbery 12 years before, was a wise man. I thought about him for the rest of my police career. I still think about him. I've thought a lot about him this season of nightmare in police-community relations.

Heartbreaking in every way.
As Jerry often told all of us, "remember kids, you work for these people, not for City Hall," and, "Kids, you want to make damn sure someone looking out their window will call 911 when you need help."

I mourn many this season. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, and too many others. I mourn the Las Vegas cops shot by right-wing wackos, and African-American kids too numerous to even begin to list. I am one of - I might suggest - the few who never visit Washington, DC without stopping by, and being brought to tears by, the Law Enforcement Memorial. I fully understand the risks taken by police officers every day - by men and women who are never thanked daily "for their service," by men and women who don't get priority boarding at airports when they are active or free doughnuts and dinners when retired, by men and women whose families worry about them every minute. And yet I also fully understand that whether you are grocery cashier or Barack Obama or Bill DeBlasio, if you have African-American sons or nephews, or grandchildren, you will worry about them any time they might be approached by police officers.

National Law Enforcement Memorial. The lions.
 Both things are horrifically true.

At Grand Valley State University I used to discuss police ethics with future officers, and I would ask the students, "If you were a black male, why wouldn't you run from a cop even if totally innocent?" It was a serious question a dozen years ago... and it remains a serious question.

Michael Brown died because Darren Wilson was too afraid of black males to be a police officer. "A demon"? You must be kidding. Former Officer Wilson,  I fought for my life a number of times but never imagined that I was fighting anyone but a human, and never hoping for anything more than that we'd all come out OK. It is hard to do sometimes, but if you can't do it, you cannot be a cop.

Eric Garner died because of two things - first, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was a disaster who thought enforcing economic rules was more important than human life - and second, because a cop ignored both his training and his humanity. Yikes, in the Police Academy a lifetime ago we were taught about chokeholds - I can still recall the scene - that "we have rules in New York, we're not Philadelphia or Los Angeles - so just don't do it."

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu died because media inflames everything, and when media inflames everything it especially inflames the insane, and because everyone in America, anyone in America, can go get a gun anytime they want.

May 2, 1992
Cops die because people are assholes, and people are sometimes dangerous criminals, and people are sometimes dangerously mentally ill in a nation where treatment is expensive and beyond reach, and because people do not appreciate cops - I can't think of another way to say it. And black kids die at the hands of cops because, yes, many cops are racists, and yes, many cops are too afraid to have this job, and sorry, yes, our community leaders want black males to be afraid of cops - something I wrote about in The New York Times back in the Rodney King days.

Nightmare of the 1980s - revisited - and it hit me very hard yesterday

But there is something else. There is a fundamental disrespect on one level, and a fundamental lack of understanding - all too often - on another.

And maybe there is a place to begin, despite everything...

We need to stop the fear. And we need to insist that our leaders, all of our leaders, stop encouraging the fear.

One of the reasons my partner and I rarely ate lunch out in a restaurant while in uniform was that, at some point, some mother with a misbehaving child would say to the kid, "if you don't sit down I'll have those cops arrest you." Really!? We'd often get up and walk over and explain, clearly, that "no we won't."

Why would anyone want to make their children that afraid of police?

Police: Stop letting Politicos portray you as scary
On the other hand, police need to stop making themselves scary. This begins with the "rules" Jerry Murphy shared so long ago, and it goes all the way to hoping that New York City's cops will quickly fire their union president, Patrick Lynch, who last night, in a moment of irresponsibility qualifying him to lead North Korea, said, "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor. When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable." He added that the blame also goes to "those who incited violence on the street under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what NYC police officers did every day."

When I was in the New York City Police Academy I took 12 university credit hours of constitutional law, so I know that Americans have a right to protest, but I'm guessing Lynch was absent during that part of his training. Oh well.

Dressing this way doesn't help you talk to the community
And cops need to stop letting elected officials making them look scary too. From stupid threatening billboards to using police to suppress political discontent. From being too quick to put on riot gear to being too happy to carry heavy weapons. Police need to demand better from their superiors. Not by being disrespectful to someone like Mayor DeBlasio who is trying to bring them together with their community, but by engaging in open conversation about who police need to truly work for.

Cops also need to stop alienating the middle class with traffic citations for stuff a warning would almost always suffice.

And police need better training, everywhere, to work better with everyone. Its not easy. Especially as police hirings continue to grow further and further away from the kind of people who live in policed neighborhoods. Back in my day we said that suburban kids who became inner city cops suffered from "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome." Today, pushes for requiring college before police work might actually make this worse, not better.

On the other side, people need to give cops a bit of credit, even a bit of love. This is a dangerous job, a tough job. A job which wrecks marriages. A job which leaves PTSD scars. It has awful hours and bad pay. Might one tenth of at least the language and tiny perks offered to active duty military and military veterans - even non-combat veterans - be offered to cops and retired cops? Maybe? Appreciation always needs a two way street.

Finally, well, my last police-community nightmare rolled out last week in the rural community of Greene County, Virginia. It illustrates everything that can go wrong - even in the hands of only "responsible adults."

Alrighty, then...
"...a [4-year-old] child at Nathanael Greene Primary School allegedly threw blocks, climbed over desks, hit, scratched, and kicked the principal and the director of special education. A sheriff’s deputy assigned to the schools was summoned, and his boss -- County Sheriff Steven Smith – says the student was handcuffed.
'"The boy was out of control, basically, throwing his arms around and kicking-- trying to kick the deputy, trying to run away, and the deputy felt that putting the handcuffs on him was for his safety as well as everybody else's.
"The child's mother, Tracy Wood, was notified, arriving at school soon after she got the call.
"When you call a parent to get their child, when they get to the school, you expect the child to be there-- especially when you arrive in a timely manner." Instead, she was met by the principal who said the boy had been transported to the sheriff’s office.  Wood went right over and found her son’s legs in shackles."
Well, here's a school and a police department conspiring to make just about everyone hate and fear police, in a sleepy little place where cops should be everyone's best friend... and doing it in a way which builds fears of cops everywhere.

I won't even get into the question of the shock at a four-year-old throwing a really bad tantrum. Wow, we're all surprised. Or the stunning inability of a school knowing what to do in this case. But my problem here is, (a) the school's willingness to expect the police to solve a 4-year-old's behavior issue, and (b) the willingness of the police to play along, damaging their reputation permanently and hurting every cop's relationship with their communities.

Having held completely out of control high school and middle school students while calming them, I know that this is, sadly, part of the job of an educator (or parent). It is what we have to do because we care for children. Having done it as a cop as well... I know things I would never have done... including anything involving handcuffs or shackles.  Again, we just have to better than this - everyone of us.

I guess it is our misfortune that we need police in our communities. That we aren't just all good and skilled neighbors all of the time. But if we need police, we need the police to be fully part of us, with us, and we need police who feel that they are part of us, and with us.

Long ago...
Can we work on that?

- Ira Socol

11 November 2014

those who think less of Dyslexics while claiming to love them...

"Dutch designer Christian Boer created a dyslexic-friendly font to make reading easier for dyslexics like himself.

'“Traditional fonts are designed solely from an aesthetic point of view,” Boer writes on his website, “which means they often have characteristics that make characters difficult to recognize for people with dyslexia. Oftentimes, the letters of a word are confused, turned around or jumbled up because they look too similar.”

"Designed to make reading clearer and more enjoyable for dyslexics..."
     - Slate 10 November 2014
So says Slate. And here's DeZeen from 9 November 2014...
"Although it looks like a traditional typeface, Dyslexie by Christian Boer is designed specifically for people with dyslexia – a neurological disorder that causes a disconnect between language and visual processing making it difficult for the brain to process text. Dyslexia is estimated to affect 10 per cent of the world's population, according to UK charity Dyslexia Action."
...linking an unrelated authentic charity quote in a bid for validity.

Of course we can go back to TED, the late night infomercial of faux intellectualism. Here's Mr. Boer hustling his font... "now you can cook your fries with no oil, cure baldness, satisfy your wife, and, yes, cure dyslexia..." Yup, if you order now...

TEDxDubai2011

OK, if you've watched you will say that he is a Dyslexic, so how can he think less of Dyslexics? Well, its confusing. He's a Dyslexic but really he's a missionary. He is not doing research, he is taking a personal experience and selling it to all as a "personal (and universal) savior." It is not just that he gets the science wrong - though he is right about "thinking in pictures" for many, but he is far off at thinking its about a visual processing issue... but that's not the problem. For many dyslexics reversals and upside-down letters is no issue at all. In fact, no matter how you might describe the underlying issues of reading issues, you will find a scatter plot across any graph.

It is like the colonial subject in 1910 seeing his or her personal issues solved through an interaction with a priest or a minister and assuming that interaction is what the world needs. And at the heart of this is desired ignorance, it is ignorance built of desire not to understand people, to actually believe that people do not count if they are not just like you.

Honestly, at a younger age, I almost made similar mistakes. I found myself arguing for Times New Roman for text, and for WYNN as way of reading. But fortunately, I noticed this absurdity on third person I talked to. He liked Helvetica and Kurzweil 3000, and he wasn't wrong of course, he was different from me. The next person I spoke to found no font useful, no keyboard useful. The next wanted Garamond at a certain size in a certain color combination, though color - within boundaries - had little effect on me. She wasn't wrong, she was different.

So I didn't develop a system for dyslexics, I worked out a way of thinking about choice, because I did not want to rate people according to their distance in similarity from me. I called this idea Toolbelt Theory and I still like it, because I think it respects the people around me.

2009

So in a lifetime of being a Dyslexic, in 20 years of researching Dyslexia, I have learned that there is no best font for this, no best reading method, no best technology choice, no best color combination, no best anything... not even for me across a week or even some days, and I've heard that variability matters for others too. So we need to learn to choose from a menu of what works, to set defaults in browsers but to have other choices, to have a range of technologies.

I choose between 4 fonts, none are designed to look like bubbles being held to the ground because - well - that's not my issue. The computers the students have in our schools come with WordTalk and Balabolka and to in-browser Text-To-Speech system, and there are bookmark links to many others. My computers usually have at least five systems for TTS, my phone has three. But I never, ever, expect any other Dyslexic to choose the same combination.

I have learned that my experience is not "data" because I do not think those different to be outliers or "Children of a Lesser God." So please stop saying what Dyslexics need. And start talking about what choices humans need.

- Ira Socol

23 September 2014

Getting to Making, Getting to Education which actually Works

"He was a kid with a lot of issues," our teacher told a crowd at the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) last weekend, " you know, getting into trouble all the time, real crazy stuff." We were discussing a summer school for Middle School - not often the happiest place on earth - but one of our summer schools converted into a Maker Camp, with all content taught through student generated projects.

"Now he couldn't pass math, he had never coded anything, he really didn't know how to use any tools, but he did love baseball. We told him, we told all the kids to just find a project and start it. This kid built a pitching machine which used an Arduino and lasers to determine pitch location. He did that in three and a half weeks."
Our teachers and a MakerEd leader
OK, what did this child learn? And how might that learning be compared with his learning in a traditional educational setting?

We are trying to go "all in" on Making because we believe it is the right way for kids to learn. "Learn to Make, and Make to Learn" is what we say. In doing so we are trying to undo a century and a half of education designed to filter kids out, to stratify, to limit, and to train compliance.

We think that our children all need to have the opportunity to succeed. We think that in these times our nation and our world need everyone contributing to our society to their highest capability. Our school board has declared that we have just one strategic goal, to "unleash potential" of our students through helping them achieve our "Life Long Learning Competencies." And we aim to unleash that potential by following our "Seven Pathways" to a new form of pedagogy.

Unleashing Potential
The day after the fair, as our teachers sat with the "informal educators" of NYSCI discussing Maker Education and debriefing the fair, a fourth grade teacher told of a building project designed to generate improved writing skills in a class of mostly rural kids who, "can tell you every kind of story, but froze when asked to write it down."

So with thick cardboard tubes and all kinds of junk and lots of hand tools, her kids built creations of their own imaginings. As they built they used Google Forms to answer simple questions, requiring one, two, or three word answers at first, then moving up. From "are you finished?" to "what do you want to do next?"

This "making" filled the reading/writing time in her class, and more, and might have seemed like a 'wasteful diversion' to some less observant observers, but after a couple of weeks, when the kids had created their creations, they began to write stories about what they had made. Now, to quote one of the NYSCI team, they already had "skin in the game." Unlike most school writing assignments - whether in fourth grade or twelfth grade - which are essentially meaningless exercises disconnected from any student's actual existence - kids who had spent a couple of weeks making something fully theirs had stories they were quite anxious to tell, and to tell to a wide audience, so they wanted to write.

So, she said, they wrote and wrote. In pairs or as individuals they grabbed laptops and wrote, and as they wrote and edited, they gained all kinds of skills - from what we refer to as "text entry" - not touch typing but feeling confident that you can get text on a page one way or another - to the basics of grammar - and they did that without anyone sitting at a desk staring at a teacher in front of a board. She ended by noting that one of her 'cognitively challenged' students wrote a full three-page story about her construction.

All of our student computers combine a full suite of accessibility tools
with multiple ways to do everything... creating student choice.
We came to the World Maker Faire because we believe that it is an extraordinary professional learning opportunity, not just for those who can make the trip, but for the teachers those teachers can influence. We see learning opportunities in this kind of event - or similar trips to places like the Chicago Children's Museum - that simply seem impossible at 'education conferences.' Here we see how informal educators educate - which is essential for us to learn. I know that I often ask: "Why would children come to your school if they didn't have to?" And informal educators work in a world where they must get children to voluntarily come to them and participate.

Why would kids come to your school if they didn't have to?
(World Maker Faire 2014)

So when we talk about engagement we probably won't find it in canned programs from educational consultants who offer us classroom plans. Instead we need to look at, and adapt, ideas from people who literally have just seconds to grab attention, and who must continuously hold engagement through individualizable experience. It's not that we can throw a massive party every day like Maker Faire, but we are learning that Making to Learn allows the children themselves to create their own engaging context.

One of our high school teachers told the story of our summer "Pop Up MakerSpace" in a borrowed doublewide in, umm, a "socioeconomically challenged mobile home community." Also a community where speaking English can be a rare thing. We honestly didn't do much planning, he told people, we borrowed the space from a church, we hired someone quickly to add electrical capacity for lighting and computers, we borrowed a variety of tables and seating from the closest high school - also a laptop cart. We brought in lots of cardboard, lots of tape, lots of scissors, some wires, some soldering guns, some hand tools, oh, and a MiFi. And we began. "C'mon in and make stuff," we told the community, and the kids came. Kids 4 through 19, including he remembered, two kids who came within 12 hours of their family arriving in the country. And as they "made" they learned vocabulary - "you're making a house? that part is the gable." "you're making a circuit, let's talk about the wiring..." They learned the mathematics of measurement, the science of geometry and the physics of electricity. "And the kids loved it so much, their parents started coming, and learned to use the sewing machines we had borrowed, and in the end they took over one room of the trailer and started their own cooperative business making things."

Later, with the NYSCI group, he described how his computer science class operates. They work on what they want, from video games to Android Apps, and essentially his curriculum is that students create their own internal Stack Overflow database, which grows each year, so each group of students builds on the knowledge base of those before. Making has a simple role in schools, my friend and colleague Chad Ratliff says, "it is putting content into student-created context."

NYSCI lobby during Maker Faire. What's in your school entry?
Whatever we do, from learning to edit those words that matter in a seventh grade middle school room...


...to developing language skills, engineering skills, and math concepts in a music studio...


...that's the high school principal on the far right...
the music studio cost us about $5,000 including construction - it filled an old computer lab

...to putting science and engineering and entrepreneurship together, or learning history through reverse engineering historic technologies and printing them on a Makerbot, we see Making as the path to engagement, and engagement as the only way to get kids on the path to learning.

One of our middle school teachers, whose engineering/shop students collaborate across the curriculum, and who have made everything from a reimagined 1837 electric motor to sound amplifying stands for their phones, told the story of a sixth grader coming in and saying, "I want to build a batmobile."

"Why would you want to build a batmobile?" the teacher recalled saying, "isn't Superman better? He flies, he doesn't need a car."

The child considered this for a few moments, then said, "Maybe I'll design and build my own kind of car." "Now we're going someplace," the teacher responded.

And if we can't teach every middle school subject through a student's desire to build his own car, what kind of educators are we anyway?

- Ira Socol

03 September 2014

Why Choice? Why Comfort? Why Student Control?

If you are in North America or Europe school has just begun, and in hundreds of thousands of classrooms things have gotten off on the wrong foot. Teachers and administrators and introduced themselves as "enemies" of students, and students responded in kind.

In those classrooms seating charts have been introduced. Students have been expected to sit for long periods in brutally uncomfortable furniture. Odd rules have been announced - limiting children's ability to use the toilet for example - or to get a drink - or required forms of "paying attention." Punishments have been announced before any rule has been broken. In schools where computers or has limited the functionality, and has screamed to the students, "We don't trust you!"
similar devices have been distributed the set up of those devices
Why?

OK, disclosure. I was one of those students who, faced with a classroom environment like those described above - right up through graduate school, would leave that class and never come back. Most students don't do that, they either shut down or revolt in ways big or small. They do this in third grade. They do this in middle school. They do this in high school. And teachers often sit there and wonder what went wrong, or they grade on a curve, admitting publicly that they cannot help more than a third of their students do well.
"I don't understand this boy," a math teacher said to a librarian at the first high school I worked at. "He'd rather get detention and go to Saturday School than come to my class." "Well," the librarian responded, "I guess you have to think about that."
Learning is all about trust. If a learner doesn't trust the source of information, very little good happens. That's one thing if the learner is at home or in a coffee shop online, and can choose another source. Its something else again if this is "school" and "we," the educators, are being paid to support this knowledge gain.

High School Library Music Studio
Student-created content and context
And trust is always a mutual concept. If Americans don't trust their government - their government doesn't trust them - and spies on everyone while complaining about a lack of trust. If the police in Ferguson, Missouri don't trust their community, and go out into as if dressed for a foray into the Afghani mountains, the people of Ferguson do not trust their police, and presume all of the worst. And if a school won't trust a 16-year-old to use the toilet when they need to, the 16-year-old will behave as if an aggrieved prisoner.

Aggrieved prisoners are learners, but they sure ain't learning what you want them to be learning. They learn how to distract themselves. How to ignore you. How to excape your class. How to annoy you. I'm always amazed be educators who begin a class by listing the things that upset them most... "coming in late, chewing gum, talking in class, leaning back in the chair" ... and are then shocked, shocked, that students do those very things.

'nuff said...

If only we began from the idea that students - that children - are humans. If only we realized that there is only one moral universe and one standard of behavior, not "us" and "them." If only we started with the thought that if something - say, a rule - is "school only" we need to wonder why school cannot operate like the rest of the world...

Imagine if, at your home, you had to ask to go use the toilet and had to first get a pass. Imagine if you were told that you were not allowed to add a program to your computer or an app to your phone, or that you couldn't change a setting. Imagine if someone filled your house with traditional classroom furniture. Imagine if - as a teacher - you were docked pay if every student didn't learn every lesson on time. Imagine if you - as a state legislator - had your pay held back if every third grader didn't read at grade level. Imagine if you, as a principal, were required to sit in your standard student chair all day long.

Becky Fisher - my colleague - challenged schools to loosen up on technology controls recently in a
Every day my email brings me ideas from
profiteers suggesting how I can limit
student opportunities.
brilliant blog post
. And her post has inspired me to ask you to treat your students as humans - as you would like to be treated - on everything.

It's not just about what also applies to you, its about - because education is about our future - how you would like to be treated. Because in a free society we must learn to be free, and learn what it means to be free.

Where I work we ask our teachers and administrators to ensure that students have choice, are comfortable, and have control of their environment, their technology, and their learning, every day. We do that because we believe that we are helping our children become happy, healthy, successful adults who can thrive in their future, not just comply in our past.

So today, take the shackles off. If you want students to trust you, to be willing to learn what you feel is important, you must trust them.

It is really that simple.

- Ira Socol

14 August 2014

Leadership in Education?

I've seen many kinds of leadership in education across my life. I've know many directly, I've observed far more. At the far point on the scale I've watched the Chicago Public Schools and their leaders create one of the worst places to attend a public school on the planet, and its hard to believe that there has been anyone in charge of that system over the past 40 years who didn't really really want poor children to suffer, and to begin life as far behind as possible. They (Paul Vallas or Arne Duncan or Rahm Emanuel) can certainly argue with me, but I'd love to see any of them produce any actual evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Jonathan White, a real mentor to me, on leadership

At the other end are school systems like the one I work in now where the entire leadership, from the school board on down, is willing to take informed chances to continually do what is right for children. (That system is not great because I am in it, I have chosen to be in it because it is great.)

In between there are places like Detroit - a weakly led system sabotaged by a vicious anti-school state political agenda (pdf). And New York - where political style points over a 20-year-period have taken precedent over what children need.
I listened one day as Dr. Jesse Turner, the principal of our Monticello High School, explained to visitors from Australia and Michigan why he always calls his students "children." "My children don't always have a chance to be children," he said. "They go home and they need to work at jobs, or as caretakers, or sometimes to really be parents. So when they are here I want them to get to be children. I want them to play and explore. That's why I call them children, and they understand that."
And there are places like New Rochelle, New York - where I grew up and a system I continue to observe - which always seems to find ways to keep most kids - and, in contrast to Chicago, the full socio-economic range of kids - coming to school for the right reasons. And the Godfrey-Lee Schools in Western Michigan where great leadership is hamstrung by the horrendous inequality of resources for childhood we casually accept in the United States.

So I've watched for leadership. I think my elementary school - no matter what I thought about it - had pretty damn good leadership when I was a student there. It was a place of teacher innovation. I know my "junior high school" had terrible, unresponsive leadership which left students to fight for themselves. My high school had great leadership despite a tough place at a tough time. It was risk-taking leadership which greatly expanded opportunity across the spectrum of students and which began a tradition of trust in students - the open campus among others - which continues to this day.
"Of course there are other reasons why the 3Is [My alternative high school] is falling apart: the Steering Committee doesn't work (does the U.S. Congress do any better?), tutorials don't work (do you want them to do anything? If not, get rid of them; if so, do it), some classes don't work (complain, complain loudly and insistently or make some constructive criticisms or stop going to those that don't work for you). [Alan Shapiro wrote to students in the mid-1970s. Alan founded this school-within-a-school with Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Don Baughman in 1970.]

That sage, Kurt Ochshorn (also a non-classtaker, by the way) once said ["See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year"], "The 3Is isn't a program. The 3Is doesn't have a program. You can do whatever you want." Kurt did. And he discovered what anyone discovers when he/she can do what he/she wants. T. H. Huxley, a 19th century biologist and teacher, said it well: "A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes."

Now you may not be able to do exactly as you like, but even if you could, you wouldn't be satisfied. The problem with doing whatever you like is that first you have to discover what that is. That's a real problem. And further, assuming you do discover what you want to do, how long will it be before you don't want to do it anymore and recommence the search? Partial definition of a human being: a creature who is chronically dissatisfied (see Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents).

Nevertheless, Kurt was at least partly right -- 3Is is less a program than an opportunity. Admittedly one that has its limitations. Probably because the restless fires of youth no longer flame in me (wow), I don't mind the limits much, but am thankful for the opportunity. What that opportunity has been for me I discussed as well as I could at last year's graduation. (Those who missed this remarkable address, gnash yer teeth.)

So when I return this fall I expect to be greeted with an inadequate orientation and cries that 3Is is falling apart. But in my 25 years of teaching, I haven't found any group I like to fall apart with as much as you."
I saw meaningless leadership as an undergrad at Michigan State University long ago - a leader who wanted a different kind of job. I saw stronger leadership at two other schools I attended, Pratt Institute's School of Architecture and the New York City Police Academy, where there were clear, defined missions and yet a general respect for diversity. At Grand Valley State University I saw great leadership both where I worked - in Academic Computing - and where I studied - in Social Sciences. In Academic Computing we were groundbreakers in serving students - especially vulnerable students. In Social Sciences I watched a Dean take care of student needs above all other concerns, and I watched him lead in new ideas, such as digital curriculum (in 1998).

Unfortunately at Michigan State University a second time, I found no leaders at all, save a retired professor named Cleo Cherryholmes (Rest in Peace), in the College of Education - just gatekeepers and status builders. That's a terrible thing to say, but I'll defend MSU by noting its pretty universally true among US schools of education.
This July we ran Professional Learning seminars for about 750 educators (this August we got the other half of our professional staff). I led sessions on our "Seven Pathways" (with Meg Franco) and on "Design for Learning."  In two of those sessions I had wonderful elementary school principals - Kendra King and Lisa Molinaro join us. They both led by example - joining their, and other teachers, in committing summer hours to this work, and they led by effective conversation. Lisa gave examples. Whenever a teacher doubted that he or she could "make this work," Lisa waited through the conversation and then gave an example of similar transformation in her school - crediting the teacher involved, not herself. Kendra was quieter, but she raised essential questions at key moments. When we were talking about classroom rules such as "make eye contact" or "sit still," she spoke up. "Whenever you make a rule," she asked in moment I won't forget soon, "ask yourself, who am I leaving out?'
What I've learned is that leaders protect those under them, but not at all costs. And that real leaders most protect those risk takers who try to make things better for those served. That was true when I was in the NYPD, it is true in any school. That leaders constantly challenge those they lead to do better, and expect them to do better.

I've learned that leaders never accept the status quo, one who does that may be a "boss" but is not a leader. And I've learned that leaders never have double standards or differing moral systems. In schools that means that adult behaviors need to match expected child behaviors. If they don't, well, kids know exactly what's going on.

Management by Walking Around
Mostly I've learned that leadership is about listening and watching. It's surely not about talking and sending out directives. When leaders listen they enable conversations which have impact. When they don't listen, neither does anyone else.
My boss at GVSU Academic Computing listened one day while I told him that an Ed Psych prof had recommended that I investigate Text-To-Speech computer systems - this was early 1998 - and he looked at me and said, "huh, if you need that I bet a bunch of other people here need that." Without my asking a thing he gave me a year to investigate what we'd need to make the university computer system universally accessible and a budget to "buy one of everything and see what works." I loved that year, but that was hardly all I did. I'd do anything the department needed. I was the most loyal, productive person there. I'd finally really been heard and understood.
- Ira Socol

24 May 2014

Trained Immaturity, or, the Problem with Reading

There are scenes in films, on television, on the internet, and in books, which can deeply disturb me. I have actually walked out of theaters, once less than ten minutes into a film, because the soundtrack accompanying killings made it impossible for me to stay. There are books I had to pause in the listening, often, before I could resume reading - one of those comes immediately to mind, Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil in his Different Seasons collection, another was Robert Daley's Prince of the City- because, yes, literature is a powerful thing.
Bailey Loverin, sophomore at the
University of California-Santa Barbara,
committed to "trained immaturity"
[Photo, The New York Times]

So I know, and you know that I know, what Oberlin College dean Meredith Raimondo is trying to say when she tells The New York Times, "I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up. That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously." But I know that dean Raimondo also completely misses the point when she suggests that - thus - all literature read on campus should come with "trigger warnings" about disturbing content.

Authors have a right to surprise and shock. We might even hope that they have a duty to surprise and shock. That's a duty which converts a simple "story" - the completely predictable world of, say, a Tom Clancy, into "literature," something which forces the reader to see the world anew.
"Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

"Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

"The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools." (The New York Times)
A variety of issues collide here. Feminist Theory collides (perhaps) with Queer Theory and Disability Studies. The norms of Social Media collide with the purpose of the university. Individualism (and maybe Reader Response Theory) collides with the purpose and intent of literature and its authors. Attempting to become an adult collides with the contemporary American middle class/upper class norm of the prolonged childhood. Community Rights collide with Individual Preference.
"Trigger warnings, which originally started in online feminist and activist spaces as a way to warn community members that the topic being discussed might “trigger” unpleasant memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, etc.," says professor Jade E. Davis on her blog, "have done that culture-jumping thing where they are no longer used in only those spaces. They are now somewhat ingrained in Internet culture as sort of the anti-troll, and they have become a standard that is used at times when the actual thing being discussed is not traumatic, but rather simply an uncomfortable encounter.

"What I find fascinating, and a bit odd, is that rather than entering the realm of popular culture, a place where a trigger warning might make sense, they’ve entered the realm of the university, a space where people are supposed to be challenged, pushed, and learn to think and understand in new, different and more diverse ways."
One of the biggest concerns I see is that certain issues seem to be afforded "Trigger Warnings" while others do not - a politically determined list created by elites. So, sexual assault, yes, the use of the term "Nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, probably not. Certain forms of violence, "Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans," but probably not the kind of street violence not experienced by "many" on a University of California campus. What about a story of absent mothers? What about, I wonder, a book like mine? What might I need to label... since none of it deals with Ms. Loverin's "many"?

The next biggest concern is the academic/political. I did not work within Feminist Theory, but I did/do work within Queer Theory and Disability Studies, or even a far left version of Disability Studies I have called "Retard Theory." In those there is a commitment to the challenging and the shocking. Those "Trigger Warnings" would compromise 'our' ability to attack the comfort of the status quo.
Man in his underwear. What do we censor?
National Geographic

Then there is what I might call, the "Trained Immaturity," the expectation of the eternal protection of perpetual childhood. This has changed dramatically since I was young, as I realized recently when I saw a librarian censoring National Geographic magazines before offering them to students, something unthinkable in the 1960s or 1970s. This problem comes from many things: the corrosive effects of helicopter parenting, television and film age-warnings, limited open play opportunities, and, yes, of the limited canonical reading list of many American Advanced Placement English teachers on not just their own students but, via the 'prep for AP mindset' which exists in many US high schools, on all the middle class children in those schools.

We screen for the "acceptable," we screen to "not disturb," we screen, all too often, to make the adults comfortable, to let the adults not have to deal with complex conversations. Oh how easy to let the concerns of 18th and 19th century wealthy white male novelists dominate our classrooms than to struggle with issues which challenge today's children.

But we do not have to. I have closely watched a seventh grade language arts class this year as they have read about the Holocaust, about American racism, about cancer and amputation - surely deeply disturbing topics for 12-13-year-olds, but I have seen them all rise to the complexities of the occasion. And I do not think, no matter what their personal issues, that they will need "Trigger Warnings" in their futures. First, they understand literary complexity. Second, they have enough Google skills to enable them to check out a book before they begin reading - at least to understand general themes. Third, they know how to advocate for themselves. Fourth, the are learning how to control their own learning environments - and thus know how to 'step outside' if they need to. These are all skills I wish those students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara and elsewhere had learned in their K-12 school experiences.

As Dr. Davis says, "I would never give my students a “Trigger Warning,” but I do tell them every semester that we will be going over things that they might find disturbing, uncomfortable, angering, or upsetting. If this is the case, they are free to leave the classroom. The rule is they have to engage respectfully and openly, but only in the classroom. They can think whatever they want outside of the space, but inside the space, they are vulnerable, and I work with that. If things are too much, they are free to step out of the classroom as well. I only require that they email me and let me know why so we can make sure that the course will be okay moving forward."

So I guess I don't believe in "Trigger Warnings." Instead, I believe in  students learning the skills of mature adults, and I believe in the process of literature.

- Ira Socol

10 April 2014

When "Education" is Used as a Weapon

I began watching the 1968 movie Charly last weekend. I thought, at first, that I wanted to see it again. But as it began to play I remembered the first time I'd seen it, in New Rochelle, New York's Town Theater, when I guess I was 13 and trying very hard to impress a young woman.

Charly 1968.(YouTube) It only took about two and a half minutes...
So I went to this film with this girl and a few of her friends, kids who were not in any of my circles. They were Honors Classes kids at Isaac E. Young Junior High School, and they had parents who were doctors and lawyers and stuff. They were also, being both African-American and professional-parent middle class, two unusual circumstances for kids in that school at that time, were keenly aware of their status. So, I was uncomfortable at the start, but then, the film began. And before three and a half minutes had gone by, I heard, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira."

The Town, towards the end of its existence
Five years before that afternoon I might have cried. Three years before I probably would have hit someone. At that moment though I did neither. I guess I retreated into a silent stare and watched myself be compared to a white rat. The other kids knew the story, honors English kids read Flowers for Algernon, my classes didn't, so I didn't, but it hadn't taken me long to figure this out.

Dumb kids can get bullied and its all fun. Dumb kids don't get the girl. When you're "smart" life is good. Being dumb, becoming "dumb" again, is tragic. And how do we know Charly Gordon is dumb? He plays on a playground, and he writes like I write, or, as my "friends" pointed out, better.

There are many ways to feel superior to others, and to make that supposed superiority apparent. There are, I suppose, "natural" ways, you might throw or hit a ball further than most others can, or you might draw pictures others cannot, or play music in ways few others are able. And then there are invented ways. Games are one of those, constructing a specific, invented experience at which some can excel and others fail (I know about this too, in high school I was on a basketball team that lost 107-30, no sh**). And much of the academic experience is traditionally another of those specific, invented experiences. In school you get belittled for expressing yourself the wrong way, taking in information the wrong way, often sitting the wrong way. As I've often said, I began school with them telling me I was making my fives wrong - they could tell they were fives but I wasn't following the "correct" order...

You're making your fives wrong. I mean, really?

...and I ended school with people telling me that my citations were wrong. They understood the citations well enough but I wasn't following whatever nonsensical protocol was in fashion. (I believe that the only valid citation these days is a link to your source, otherwise, honestly, nobody will check up on your sources.)

Of course I didn't just make my fives wrong, I made all my letters wrong. And not just in the wrong order, I made them backwards and upside down and often fully incomprehensible. And I couldn't read either. And in the world of "school" that meant that it didn't matter that I could take in stories - fiction and non-fiction - or that I could tell stories - fiction and non-fiction - effectively. It didn't matter that I could work in math in real life. All that mattered was what I couldn't do.

No, that's not quite it. It wasn't just what I couldn't do... it was who I couldn't replicate. I couldn't do things the ways those "in power" wanted them done.

What made me "dumb" was not what my brain might be able to do, or what my abilities or capabilities were. What made me "dumb" was that I didn't write, read, sit, or even persevere like those in power wanted me to. I was "dumb" because I couldn't, and wouldn't, comply.

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Non-compliance will cost you

With that in mind I found endless Tweets about a story about the decline of "serious reading" in the Washington Post. "Serious reading," if you can believe the pretense that this is somehow a technical term.

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing," said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain," in this paean to the sad level that academic research has seemingly sunk to in America.

The best selling author of the 1920s?
Dr. Wolf imagines a world which never existed. A world where everybody read like she does. I've met many academics who think like this. These are people who actually believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the best selling author of the 1920s. In fact, I'm quite certain that it was Dr. Seuss's original work, "Quick Henry, the Flit!"

These are the same people who railed against the "Dime Novels" of the 1890s, against film, radio, comic books, television, computers, the early internet... whatever didn't look like the kinds of information and story intake these "leaders" had found comfort in.

"Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading," says the Post in a completely unsubstantiated assertion, "was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. ...“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.” Ahh... I say, wanting to give both the professor and reporter failing grades in research methods. Dr. Wolf begins research not with quality observation, and not with a developed research question, but with a Seinfeldesque random anecdote. "I was riding the subway the other day and noticed someone reading a TV Guide with Al Roker on the cover, and from this I became determined to write a book about the decline of intellectualism in America."

So, my personal anecdote cancels out Dr. Wolf's personal anecdote,
Why doesn't the Washington Post report that?

Do people read with in-depth processing? Sure, sometimes. And they do that whether they are decoding ink on paper symbols or listening to the radio or watching a film or television or listening to a friend talk. And mostly they don't, whether reading - say, Tom Clancy - or watching a James Bond movie, or listening to simplistic music. Is CNN worth deep reading? Was that Washington Post article? No, of course not. Is listening to my friends tell stories? Then, probably. But its always been that way. I also watched The Americanization of Emily recently, an amazing 1964 film that's surely demanding of serious attention. On the other hand, the current Cosmos TV series had me wandering off within 20 minutes. What can I say? Is that a web problem? A text messaging problem? A mobile phone problem? No, if those things weren't here I'd still stop paying attention to stuff without sufficient interest.
"You American haters bore me to tears, Ms. Barham. I've dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old Cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We over-tip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I've had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town." - "Serious Reading" in The Americanization of Emily
The research Dr. Wolf and others quoted in the article is so bad, it is laughable. "Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.," Wolf says proving how little she has actually experienced of even literature - missing everything from poetry to DosPassos to the beats to all postcolonial literature, but, there you go... research and knowledge are not Dr.Wolf's, nor the Post's, purpose here.

The purpose in that article is the snarky over-educated equivalent of, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira." The purpose of Dr. Wolf's book is to humiliate all who do not read like she does, so she can project her own superiority.

We'd simply laugh at her, and I guess eventually feel sorry for her incredibly limited life, if she was just making these assertions over cheap brandy in the faculty lounge ;-) - but what she and the Post are doing is incredibly dangerous - incredibly harmful - to a hundred million kids in America who may get branded as being "less intelligent" and "unserious readers" because they read more like, I don't know, Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than Maryanne Wolf.

Maryanne Wolf is doing "research" into why more people aren't like Maryanne Wolf - which might be a legitimate question for her, but she has no right to demean others who might struggle with Hermann Hesse's writing, who might jump around when reading things of little interest.

"They're reading texts and watching TV and jumping around," people will say, while labeling them failures.

So here's my answer to those who want people to be like them, who think the way they do things is superior. It's the same answer I should have said way back when in the Town Theater, "Shut the F*** Up." That's a clear answer and anyone can read it really deeply, really seriously.

Because I am finished hearing about those "good ol' days," about how much better things were "back then." You know, "back then" our schools sucked for most kids. They were bored and frustrated. They read no better then than now. Many fewer graduated from high school, many, many fewer went to college. People chose bad movies and third rate books then, and now. Zane Grey for God's sake. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did very well in 1966, but if you add up Grand Prix, Lt. Robinson Crusoe, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, you'll see an audience three or four times as big. The same would be true today.

Americans chose to fight a worthless war against Spain in 1898 and a very questionable war in Iraq more than a century later. Our media is still targeted at the 6th Grade reading level, now, as then, because that's where most people are. It was that way the first time we gave a standardized reading test in 1867 (pdf), it is that way on every NAEP result since.

So I'd rather find what works for people, in their worlds, instead of criticizing them or humiliating
When was the last time a five paragraph essay
was ever written outside of school?
them. I don't want to talk about "serious reading" or "slow reading" or "deep reading," I want to talk about effective reading which I define as getting information and stories into your head in ways which are useful to each individual.

I don't want to talk about inattention and divided attention and shallow attention. Nobody cares. We don't have the time. We need to help each other find ways to focus when we need to and how to be "ADHD" when we need that, and we need that a great deal. Because while you're doing your "serious reading" the world might be changing, and those changes might change how you understand what you just read.

And I don't want to talk about writing - of course - because your writing rules are tied to antique technologies. From your citation rules to your sentence structures - which, frankly, John DosPassos was tossing out over 80 years ago because they were already antiquated, from your use of pens and pencils to your grammatical limitations, from your belief in required lengths of certain works to your five paragraph essays... its all nonsense. What matters is communication, what matters is empowering voices.

Life is a real thing. People are real people. They all have different needs, differing abilities, capabilities, interests, and they change day-by-day, minute-by-minute. They want to play more than they want to work, but they want to do the things they want to do well. So let's stop telling them how they must do things and making them feel bad about what they do, and let's let them be human.

- Ira Socol