30 May 2016

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

crossposted from medium

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

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

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

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

OK then. Nostalgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ira Socol

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

crossposted from medium

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

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

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

What happens next?

Now stop right there.

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

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

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

Piano music in hospital lobbies does the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ira Socol

29 January 2016

All Means All, and why we say that

On the night I learned of the murder of Deven Black a series of images flashing through my mind kept me awake. I thought of Deven presenting with Pam Moran and myself on Library Transformation at an EduCon long ago. I thought of Deven sitting with us in a Herald Square restaurant as Hurricane Sandy approached New York talking about securing grants to help support the kids in his school.

Of course, perhaps I can blame my experience as a New York Cop for this, I saw the unseen murder of this gentle gentleman. Grotesque imagery that will haunt many of us for a long, long time.

But then, finally, some other images came into focus. I saw a late July evening in the lobby of our County Building as the Albemarle County Public Schools held a graduation ceremony, music, speeches, cap and gown, refreshments, for the one student who had completed high school during summer school.

I saw the Daily News story first
 And I saw a meeting in one of our high schools, with a half dozen adults including our superintendent sitting around a table trying to build supports around one kid, a homeless emancipated minor, so he could be safe for his senior year.

And I saw Becky Fisher and I - yes, two school system director-level people - heading a dozen miles down Route 20 to help work out a laptop plan for one seventh grader who needed help. We went together twice, or maybe three times. We needed to make sure we were doing the right things for that one child.

And so, I felt guilty and good in one terrifying mix.

Where I work, in the Albemarle County Public Schools, we say, "All Means All" a lot. We say it when we work so hard to make sure that every child has the chance at the experiences that open their world, and create the greatest possible opportunity. We say it when we work to build out our own 4G LTE network so our students, wherever they live or wherever they go in our 726 square mile area, have access to broadband. We say it when many of our "Gifted Resource Teachers" push in to work with every student in our schools, or when our most vulnerable high schoolers are offered a program design that matches that offered to our academic "stars."

We say it, and we mean it... and yet... there was Deven, who was in many ways a part of our family, struggling on the streets of New York, living in homeless shelters, his gifts as a teacher, as an advocate for children, locked away where he could not use them.

We were not there for Deven. And maybe we could not have been. Maybe no one could have been. But... how is that possible? For it is not only Deven - an adult far away - who eludes us. For all my warm scenes of us working for that one child, we cannot pretend that there aren't others we are missing. Even here, where we say, "All Means All."

We shared our theories at FETC 2016, and we genuinely strive for this, yet...

All Means All isn't something one person can do. It isn't something most people can do. It isn't something one family can do, or even a whole school system can do. I've lived a complicated life, and I've seen our streets and communities as a kid, as a designer, as a cop, as an educator, from an office in a homeless service agency, as a friend trying to help, from our schools, from New York to Michigan to Virginia and beyond: and I know this. We all know this.

And so we might give up, the impossibility of the task before us. We might descend into depression ourselves, overwhelmed by the hurt.

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

So I have no real answers. I guess when I am at work I pretend that I do, but that is what we do. Those of us who are in public education, those of us who work in those "Statue of Liberty Schools" - schools that welcome every child that comes to our doors - do what we do because we are committed to the idea that every child matters. And where I work I do believe we do as good a job as any place at really working to make that true... but we fall short. We all fall short.

All Means All would need everyone on board. We'd need universal health care and mental health care. We'd care for all of our children, no matter what we thought of their parents. We'd stop letting people fall into desperate poverty, and we'd do everything possible to close the opportunity gap. We'd pay public servants better than we'd pay corporate gamblers, and no one could work full time and find themselves hungry.

In short, we'd be in a place without homeless children, and without Deven Black walking New York's streets, his talents wasted. But we do not live in that place.

Yet... a long time ago I wrote that we needed to "know" students less, and "see" them more. In other words, to stop believing all that we "hear" - in reports or in the teachers' lounge - and to begin to see these students anew each day. That is a suspension of judgement, a willingness to believe in the possible, and as Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, "reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."

We will see Deven Black buried this Sunday, and yet amidst our mourning, I hope we can maintain that "infinite hope."

"So we beat on, boats against the current," doing what Deven told me in early December 2015 that he was doing. DMing me from a lower Manhattan shelter, he wrote of reading to those he shared rooms with, pushing his fellow shelter inhabitants to get library cards... he thought he was "making a little difference again."

I hope that I can do the same. And so every day, I say, we say, "All means all."

- Ira Socol

02 August 2015

Kitty Genovese and the kid in the classroom next door

False correlation, you will say, and you will be right. But my mind is nothing but a random connector of things, so here I am...

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding cit­izens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned ‐ the po­lice during the assault; one wit­ness called after the woman was dead." - The New York Times, March 27, 1964
On a Saturday morning - I'll admit a Saturday morning at the end of a frustrated, angry week, I began to throw out challenges to educators on Twitter: 
9h9 hours ago
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's doing a lousy job?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's punishing kids for nonsense?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's boring kids to death?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's blocking kids from using contemporary tools?
It's time to stop being part of a wall of silence and fight for kids in every room in every school.
I've been a cop and an educator - and cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to do the same  

http://gvshp.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/new-york-times.pngAnd as I threw these out, and got a flood of responses...
Hubby's a cop... That insight is so interesting and true. Sad considering both can destroy people.

The New York Paywall Times chimed in with the story of a new film being made called "37" - about the legendary 1964 Kitty Genovese murder case in Queens, New York.

As a former New York City Cop, as a native New Yorker,, the name "Kitty Genovese" can begin a world of conversation and argument. Few stories seem more depressing about how people come to see others as statistics, simply because this story seems to have been - at least in legend - the beginning of something awful.
"The socio-psychological phenomena that were studied after the killing — notably the “bystander effect,” by which individuals pass the buck to other witnesses when present at an act of violence — are universal and ongoing..." - John Anderson in The New York Times
And with these two streams connecting, I went back to my Tweet: "I've been a cop and an educator - and cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to do the same."

Austin Street, where the crime took place, in 1964. (Photo: Edward Hausner/New York Times)
Austin Street, Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, in 1964

When I first went to work in a high school I thought two things, or maybe it was three. First I thought - I even said it to people - "I think lighthouse keepers have more peer-to-peer interaction than teachers." Exaggeration certainly, but teachers seemed stunningly isolated to me. They locked themselves in their classrooms, never watched each other "practice their craft," rarely discussed what worked and didn't work. I'd worked in many fields on my way to education and I was shocked.

Second I thought, "I know who the great teachers are and I know who the terrible teachers are." And I knew that within a couple of weeks of hearing kids talk and walking the corridors looking into classrooms. Then I realized that pretty much everybody even slightly observant in the building knew the same. And then I said, "Forget that 'blue wall of silence' crap. Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers."

Drop a dime... the anonymous call
Cops do turn in bad cops you know. In the NYPD the phrase was (perhaps still is) "drop a dime" on someone (though phone calls had long, long before ceased to be a dime in my day - please). To turn them in anonymously to Internal Affairs. It happened, it does happen, quite a bit. There's something about working day to day with bad cops - people who hurt people - people who ignore people's rights - that gets good cops (in good departments) to break through that blue wall.

Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers

Why? Is it because the stakes seem lower?

The fourth thing I realized - back in that first school - was that bad teaching professionals do more damage every day than bad cops and bad doctors. Really.  
"Now I know what you are saying, no school would ever do something like this. I mean, we now know that emotional abuse is bad, and we know that isolation, rejection, and public shaming is emotionally abusive, and we would never allow our teachers to engage in it. Shockingly however, emotional abuse is a problem in school. As a parent I have had to go to bat for my kids several times. For example, my son’s teacher put his name on a board and publicly humiliated him for not doing his work properly. When I told her that her public humiliation was making him feel bad, all she could say was that if he wanted to avoid the bad feelings, he’d have to perform to her expectations." - The Emotional Abuse of Our Children - 2013
I know that teachers know teachers who do things like take away lunch periods from kids who haven't gotten work done. Teachers who reduce grades for kids who 'move too much' in class. Who take away outside play time because of minor non-compliance. Who yell and humiliate, or who just humiliate. Who strip adolescents of their evenings because they think homework is a great thing. Who will keep children uncomfortable for hours on end - day after day (wasn't that a CIA torture technique?). I know teachers who know teachers who are bullies every day - but we hide behind the ideas that they are simply "tough" and "old-fashioned."

I know something else - maybe many kids will survive those teachers, but in every school there are kids in the classroom next door who will be permanently damaged - whose allostatic load will be pushed into the breaking realm - by teachers like that. These children are usually our most vulnerable from the start, and they will be most damaged - for life. And I know that those kids are calling for help, just as Kitty Genovese was, and what are we doing?

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the characteristics that create education's Bystander Effect. These offences, these psychological assaults are:
  • Rationalized by offenders.
  • Normalized by students.
  • Minimized or ignored by colleagues who remain silent.
  • Enabled by inaction of school systems.
  • Undetected by outsiders.
Undetected by outsiders because, as on that night 51 years ago in Kew Gardens, nobody picks up the phone, nobody makes the call. "Colleagues may know about the behavior through rumors or persistent complaints, but think there is nothing they can do. School officials may have reason to believe it is occurring, yet fail to act. Almost without exception, offending teachers mask their mistreatment of students as part of a legitimate role function, using the rhetoric of “motivation” or “discipline” to justify their actions."

Extreme, but... how many teachers in this school knew about this? C'mon...

Bystander Effect is Bystander Effect. Whether its a dark night on an urban street or in the bright lights of a middle school. And crime is crime. Is a pursesnatching ok enough that we don't call 9-1-1? Is simply abusing children over homework ok enough that we don't go to our principal? We either step up and hear calls for help or we choose to not do that. Stepping up has risks in every case, even calling 9-1-1 can lead to real issues down the road. "Dropping a dime" on a colleague seems as risky an employee behavior as possible. But do we have room in our schools who will not step up for children?

The cops in 1964 New York City were horrified by the Kitty Genovese case. So horrified that they could hardly not talk about it, if the account I read in the book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair And The Transformation Of America is anything close to true. It represented such of break in the social fabric - the social fabric that cops know is the only thing that makes their job possible (see Baltimore today for what happens when that dissolves) .

So no teacher in this school knew what this child was talking about? 
Or only the kids?

That social fabric is what wraps our children and let's them grow into healthy, safe adults. It is really just that, and we cannot let that fabric fray. The SPLC notes that, "There is typically a high degree of agreement among students (and colleagues) on which teachers engage in bullying behavior," and that, "Teachers are perceived to bully with impunity; they are seldom held accountable for their conduct."

How do we finally begin to change that? What will you do?

- Ira Socol

31 July 2015

Writing for Empathy

Close your eyes... imagine one of your students... happy, sad, engaged, frustrated, angry, excited... or see yourself in school at the age of the kids you teach or lead...

Can you see that kid?

Now, look out through their eyes. Feel every sense. What do they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, taste? What matters right now as they sit in your class? Walk through your halls? Eat in your cafeteria? Stare blankly out your windows? Play on their phone?

Writing can be hard. Writing from the point of view of another can be really hard. Writing to communicate emotion can be risky - even shame-inducing - Can I really describe what a seventh-grade boy is feeling right at that moment? - and let a peer see it?. Writing to communicate senses other than sight and hearing might make us look weird.

And writing from personal memory can just seem dangerous, especially among professional peers.

But, how else might we engage ourselves with our students? Truly engage ourselves.
"When I was your age..." "You were never my age."
- Rebel Without a Cause

We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won't turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the "how" our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.

And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That's true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths - and those are important, and it has a committed caring component -  but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.

 We asked our building leadership teams, and we asked those Principals and Assistant Principals to ask their teachers, to experience a bit of "writing for empathy." Medical educators have discovered that when doctors write from the point of view of their patients, empathy increases and the quality of care increases. We thought it might be worth seeing if this applied to our educators as well.

So we began, and told them not to be limited by structure - choose any writing mode you'd like - or grammar or spelling or where or how to write - on the floor, standing up, on paper, on phone, on computer - to just find the emotional path and write.
We so often stop our students from writing... we tell them that everything from how they sit to how they spell is more important than communication... and we thus raise children who hate writing.
This became powerful. People not only chose every and any place to write, every and any device to write on, they chose modes from poetry to an email exchange between high school students in class, from narrative to internal monologue to dialogue in the corridor. From tweet and text to song.

It is remarkable what happens when you stop telling people how to write and start encouraging them to write.
"Our kindergartners and first graders are natural writers," one principal said, "and then we tell them to stop and worry about handwriting and spelling and punctuation, and they never really write again."
And then we asked these leaders to share with another, and it became magical. The excitement of reading to each other, of listening, of wondering. People leaned into each other, with genuine smiles - smiles of recognition - and heard. The room was filled with the kind of excitement that - yeah - is mighty rare at Principal Meetings, that is - sadly - often rare in Language Arts classes.

To build the school our children need we must understand the User Experience they need. And in order to create the User Interface that makes that User Experience possible, we must begin to look at school not through our eyes, but through the eyes of those we serve.

A thought as the start of our school years looms once again.

- Ira Socol

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)
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.

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.

"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 

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.