Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Month: April 2011

Respect in the Real World: A Case Study

In my last two posts to this blog, I made the argument that we need to replace what I see as a Paradigm of “Control” in our schools with one of “Respect.”

The title of this cartoon by Colby Jones is “Tolerance?”

“Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect, ” I wrote.  “I mean mutual respect–that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

But it’s one thing to ask for respect, or discuss it in the abstract.

It can be quite another in practice, especially when you are being asked to respect someone from another culture who is doing, saying, or wearing something you don’t understand.

I received an example of this via email, just yesterday. It came from a person who often sends me emails that might generously be described as “culturally insensitive.”  This one very rudely mocked the young, African-American subjects of several prom photos.

When I spoke with the sender, the reply was essentially, “Oh, come on. Those outfits are clearly not in good taste!”  Perhaps not, if you are looking at them through the “cultural lens” of a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety.

But that’s not the way the kids looked at them.  I know this, because, I have known many young people from a similar cultural background.  They have very little connection with a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety–but they are very creative.

So here’s a small challenge for you.  Suspend your preconceptions for a moment, and join me on a short photo tour.

All I ask is that you look at these beautiful young people, arrayed in their best finery, participating in a “milestone” event they’ll remember all their lives.  Just to keep you alert, I’ve included a few photos from a couple of other events that have been in the news lately.

Young women in extreme dresses

I think it is likely only one of these young women is wearing a dress she did not design herself (that includes Victoria Beckham in the upper left corner).  

Young men in unusual outfits
All of these outfits include interesting or extraordinary accessories, but I couldn’t find a single young prom-goer wearing spurs or carrying a sword.
Young ladies wearing creative hair styles
I’m guessing the young prom-goer at left could have a future as a hairdresser for Fashion Week.  What do you think?
You still may not like some of these fashion statements.  But I hope I’ve made my point that “weird” or “bizarre” is in the eyes of the beholder.  I hope you’ll also agree that the young prom-goers truly didn’t deserve to have their personal photos and homemade finery turned into the laughingstock of the Internet.
Educators must never forget respect.  Especially when we are relating to young people who are at an extremely vulnerable moment in their emotional lives, I think it is of absolute importance to ask, “where are they ‘coming from’?”  “What is their goal?”  It truly isn’t always to “get to us” (surprise: it’s not all about us!).  Sometimes it is simply to look their own personal version of fabulous.

PHOTO CREDITS: This post presented more than the ordinary challenges, when I tried to figure out how to attribute the prom photos.  I used the TinEye site to do a reverse search for them, but encountered a long list of joke sites.  Many of these photos have indeed been made the laughingstock of the Internet, on blog after blog.  I have no intention of boosting the circulation of any of them by adding a link here.
I do, however, want to thank Colby Jones for his cartoon, “Tolerance?” which I found on his SirColby website.  
The British Royal Wedding photos are from The Daily Beast. They include the work of photographers Pascal Le Segretain and Odd Anderson, AFP for the Young Women in Extreme Dresses collection, and Peter Macdiarmid and Ben Stansall, AFP for the Young Men in Unusual Outfits collection.  All are associated with Getty Images.  
Setting aside the girl with the “helicopter hair,” whose joke-site source shall remain in nameless shame, the three middle photos in the Young Ladies Wearing Creative Hair Styles collection are from Fashion Week, January 14, 2011, courtesy of the Onjer Hairstyle site (photographers not credited); the Crimped Hair Hat on the right end is the design of John Galliano, from the Christian Dior Show of Paris Fashion Week, Sept. 29, 2008, courtesy of The Frisky (AP photographer not credited).

How do the Paradigms of “Control” and “Respect” Differ?

19th century factory in Toronto

In my previous post I said, “if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison.”  I went on from there to assert that respect is the key ingredient missing in today’s schools.

But what do I mean by that?  Respect . . . for whom?  And how do the Paradigms of “Control” and “Respect” differ?

First of all, I mean mutual respect–that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

There are many contrasts we can draw between the two paradigms.  None of the thoughts I list below is complete: I intend to expand upon each in future posts.  But here are a few “snapshots” of some of the differences, as I see them.

Traditional school bureaucracies are by their nature “top-down” affairs.

Traditional school bureaucracy would have to stand on its head.  Years ago, my father told me that in his long education career he had observed an immutable order of things: that administrators set rules to suit their needs, teachers add rules to make their lives easier, and students are at the bottom of the heap.  In the graphic you’ll note I’ve added a few layers to that hierarchy, based on recent trends, but the principle remains sound.

This system by its nature cannot prioritize the students’ or their families’ needs first.  No matter how fervently or genuinely the adults in the system may protest that they’re “doing it for the kids’ benefit,” the actual truth is that the system serves its own needs first, and acts upon students–who have no input in the decision-making.

A master teacher and a student
from Tufts University work
together on a challenging problem.

The answer to “what is a class?” would change.  Public education systems in the U.S. have a long tradition of treating students kind of like standardized production runs, considering each class sort of like a “lot” produced during a specific time frame.

We all know that people learn at different rates and with different levels of capability, but in traditional classes all students are somehow (magically?) supposed to finish the same material at the same time.  In practice, this means some students “get” it right away, and then have to wait for all the others to come straggling in . . . while some never quite figure it out, but hope they can “fake it” well enough to get by.  This process doesn’t respect the students at all, in my opinion.

A better approach–one that respects the student’s time and needs–would take these natural variations into account.  The best motivation for learning is a moderate challenge that can be met with some effort.  Students don’t succeed too easily (and therefore get bored), but they also are not completely baffled and defeated by demands too far beyond their skill.  They work at what they’re learning until they master it, then move on to the next challenge.

Anyone who has played a well-crafted video game will recognize this approach.

It also is similar to the guiding principles of what educators call “standards-based” education.  Some schools have begun to try this idea.  Our own Kansas City (Mo) School District began phasing this approach in during the 2010-11 school year, on a trial basis in a few schools.  I believe this is an approach that should be explored more widely.

Parents in Tampa FL pick up their kids after

Schools’ daily schedules would become more flexible. You may be surprised to learn that school bus schedules normally dictate when schooldays start and end.  This is an outstanding example of the bureaucracy meeting its own needs first, with little regard to student needs.

Because of this priority alignment, most school schedules are radically out of sync with many students’ natural circadian rhythms, and often create a “latch key” situation for young children whose parents’ work schedules are different from the school schedule.

Under a Paradigm of “Respect,” much greater effort would be focused toward scheduling school days and events at times when students are alert, and on schedules that are in harmony with working parents’ job demands.

Passing period can be hectic for older students, and it is a
poor substitute for a break, in most cases.

The lengths of activities during school, and the number of distractions and time-wasting interruptions, would change.   Large portions of each school day are wasted on things that have little to do with education and a great deal to do with administrative needs.  Bell schedules enforce an unnatural sequence of work interruptions for students, with no regard for their individual learning processes.  They exist almost entirely for administrative convenience.

For example, being required to think about algebra for an arbitrary period of time, then abruptly being interrupted, forced to move, and next being required to think about something completely unrelated, such as history or language arts, is an unnatural and impersonal means of ordering students’ time that completely disregards their achievement of understanding, need for practice, or experience of “flow” in their work.  No system based on respect would do this to someone.

Young footballers in Northbook, IL
get some healthy exercise in a physical
education class.  Unfortunately, recent
budget cuts threaten art, music, and P.E.
most of all, despite their benefits.

Students’ needs would be respected, and recognized as important.  In many schools, preparation for standardized testing eats more and more of the school day, while recess, even for the youngest students, is being systematically cut shorter and shorter.

For older students there are very few breaks at all, other than passing periods, when they are expected to secure any books they need, get from one classroom to another (even if it’s several floors away), take care of restroom needs, and also do a little socializing if there’s time–all in 3-5 minutes.  This is scarcely on a par with the mandated break times at many workplaces.

Budget cutbacks and increased emphasis on subject areas targeted by mandated tests also have contributed to nationwide cutbacks in art, music, and physical education classes–thereby cutting back opportunities for students to switch up their routine, express themselves, and get some exercise.  A system that respected students’ needs would never make this tradeoff.

Students take a math exam at an
unidentified school.

Testing would be done for legitimate, learning-related purposes.  Testing doesn’t really need to be a high-stress, high-stakes affair that requires massive amounts of money, effort, and time, although a good deal of today’s “testing experience” is precisely that.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has mandated sweeping standardized testing programs that (1) are not pedagogically helpful in any way, and that (2) in practice have functioned to penalize ever more schools throughout the US.

A classic “bell curve” shows a
normal distribution of results.

Logic alone should tell us that the NCLB Act’s requirement for all children to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by an arbitrary date (the 2013-14 school year) is an impossible goal, a fool’s errand.  Unless we can somehow find a way to turn the bell curve into an L shape on the “high” end, or unless we move to Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” no school with actual children in it can achieve 100% “proficiency” (whatever that is: definitions vary).

Real testing–respectful testing–focuses on the goal of discovering what the student has already learned, and what s/he still needs to know.  This keeps the teacher from wasting the student’s time with things s/he already knows, and helps focus lessons on things the student still needs to know.

Pedagogically valid tests help teachers evaluate what should be incorporated in the lessons to come, so the student can achieve mastery of the topic under study.  Ideally, the teacher should write his or her “final” first, based on the learning objectives for the class.  All the lessons should be structured to help answer the question, “how can I help the student learn what s/he must know to meet these learning objectives (and, incidentally, ace this test)?” The best test is all about the student, and helping the student learn.

It’s radical, I know.  And the practicality of some of the things I am proposing raises serious questions.  I hope you will continue to read along with me, as I attempt to outline ways that we might just be able to pull this off.

PHOTO CREDITS: The image of the 19th century Abell Street factory in Toronto, ON is from the Heritage Canada Foundation. The “Top-Down Hierarchy” chart is copyright 2011 by Jan Sherrell Gephardt, created for this post.  The photo of the Tufts University student and her mentor in the STOMP program is from Teachers EFGI.  The photo of the hectic passing period is from the +Plus Magazine . . . Living Mathematics website.  The photo of soccer-playing kids in Northbrook, IL is from the Northbrook School District.  The photo of the math exam is from The Situationist blog.  The graph showing a classic bell curve is from the University of Kansas Medical Center website.  

If Not “Control,” then What?

It’s enough to make a principal commiserate with Moammar Gaddafi.

Fires in trashcans
at SWECC have
occupied the
Kansas City Fire
Dept. many times
since August.

All too many of our schools are teetering on the edge of violent anarchy, these days.  In Kansas City, we have kind of a “poster child school” in regard to school chaos. Southwest Early College Campus was conceived as a college-prep magnet, but last fall it was merged with another urban high school during a massive consolidation in the district.

It is fair to say the merger did not go smoothly.  Since August we’ve seen multiple fires, countless fights and arrests, and a sad procession of principals who arrive full of plans and leave a few months later in defeat.  They’re on their third one now, but he’s already announced he’s leaving at semester’s end.

So, honestly.  DO I still really think we need to move away from the Paradigm of “Control” that I identified in my April 2 and April 7 posts?

School can erupt into a place of violence with shocking ease.  L-R: a student is arrested in the library at the University of  Montana; students in India join a revolt against a professor; the aftermath of vandalism in a Wyoming school.

You bet I do.  I think the Paradigm of “Control” is the taproot feeding this whole contemporary downward spiral of violence and low achievement.  This is because the Paradigm of “Control” was born of fear and loathing, and it continues to be perpetuated by fear and loathing.

Remember that back at the dawn of US public schooling in the mid-19th century, one of the most compelling reasons why industrialists backed the public education movement was protection.  Rich white people genuinely needed protection from roving gangs of juvenile delinquents.

19th century gangs of juvenile delinquents in Northeastern cities were possibly even more numerous and dangerous than the gangs we have today.  Because everyone lived near each other in cities then, they also posed a more immediate threat to rich white people.  This inspired influential support for new laws mandating compulsory universal education.

The uncontrolled bands of young people that vandalized and stole things were offspring of the workers who toiled all day and half the night in the mills and factories of the time.  Their parents couldn’t supervise them, because they weren’t free to do so.

Factory owners already controlled the parents’ lives.  Confining and controlling the kids probably seemed like a logical extension, and a good idea.  Better yet, it served multiple purposes: it sounded benevolent, it taught children basic skills, and–not incidentally–it kept them off the streets.

And really–what’s wrong with that?  Educating kids while keeping them out of trouble hardly sounds like a Work of Evil.  I’m not saying it is.

What I am saying is that if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison.

I believe there’s a key ingredient missing, in the Paradigm of “Control”–a vitally important element called RESPECT.  Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect.

And without feeling respected and affirmed, it’s hideously difficult for a child to confidently try new things, expand his/her vision, or explore the fearsomely wonderful world of learning.

PHOTO CREDITS: Trashcan fire demo by the National Fire Sprinkler Association; University of Montana student arrest from Indy Media; student mob attacking professor from the Times of India Online; vandalized school library in Wyoming from Muskegon News Archive of MLIVE; 19th century street gang from The Young Campaigner blog; 21st century gang members from Gang’s Dangerous Life website; “Respect” graphic from Jemima’s Journal blog, by Jemima Kameyo.

Of Form and Function: Exploring what the Paradigm of “Control” looks like

There’s an old saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

As teachers, we know that  children seldom are fooled when adults’ actions do not conform to their words.  In my last post, I discussed the 19th-century connections between schools, child labor, and the juvenile justice system–and the way in which I believe this history predisposes schools to follow a paradigm of “Control.”

We all know the good things that we want to do for children in our schools.  That is the “What I say” part.  Now please suspend your objections for a few moments, and come along with me as we do a purely visual comparison, to see what we do:

The women at left are seated at punch presses, working sheet metal in a St. Louis factory around the turn of the 20th century.  The images of kids at computers come from a library and a school in California.
L-R: British child factory workers in the 19th century; a contemporary math class, and a contemporary science class.

L-R: A 19th century sweatshop; a contemporary civics class, and a contemporary elementary classroom.

L-R: A minimum-security prison in Oregon; the former Central Junior High in Ames, IA, and a contemporary hallway in an unidentified school.
Walk-through metal detectors look much the same, whether they are in a school (L) or a prison entrance (center).  And surely the student spread-eagled against the lockers feels his school is a safe place to learn.

No matter how nice the man wearing the gun in the school library, or the one using the handheld metal detector on the elementary student may be, they, their tools, and their uniforms still look a lot like the prison guard at center.

L-R:  “Rikky” the Labrador is a member of the security team at Lubbock-Cooper ISD, Lubbock, TX.  At center, an unidentified prison guard and his dog search for bombs.  At right, “Dutch” is the newest drug-sniffing dog for the Nampa School District in Boise, ID.

Please understand that I am NOT saying our schools are “just like” 19th century factories or prisons.  But perhaps you’ll agree with me that some of the visual parallels are a little eerie.

I think it is certain that many alert students have not failed to notice, as well.

PHOTO CREDITS: I have a lot of people to thank for these images!  Click the links to get context for each:  “Factory/School #1”: Women at punch presses-Northern Illinois University; Library computers-City of Huntington Beach, CA; Classroom computers-Brock University.  “Factory/School #2”: British child laborers-South African History Online; Math class-Moving with Math; Science  Factory/School #3: Sweatshop-Fundamentals of Finance; Civics; Elementary classroom-Paladin Post.  “Prison/School”: Prison hallway-The Oregonian; Historic Central Junior High-Ames Historical Society; unidentified school hallway-Parent Society.  “Metal Detectors”: Walk-through at school-American Studies Wiki; Robben Island Prison entrance-Charles Apple; NYC metal scan-Gothamist.  “Uniformed Officers”: SRO Officer Psilopoulos-Johnston Insider; Unidentified British prison guard-The Daily Mail; Unidentified officer with schoolchild-“Snippits and Slappits.”  “Police Dogs”: Rikki the Lab-Lubbock Online; Prison guard and bomb dog-K9 Pride; Dutch the drug-sniffer-KBOI-TV.  

A Thought Experiment Begins

I recently looked back over my last several posts to this blog, and thought, “Woman, you are such a whiner!  Why don’t you write something positive?”

It is true that I find much of today’s education news deeply depressing–but my nature is to be optimistic, which is probably why I went into teaching in the first place.  So I’ve decided to start a series of posts that explore some of the ways we can make schools better.

Education has been conducted on much the same paradigm
since this engraving was made in 1826. I think it’s time to change
the paradigm, if we want to improve our 21st-century schools!

Why should I be able to do any better than the Gates Foundation and the Secretary of Education at prescribing the best recipe for education reform?  Well, I’m not sure I can!

But I’ve been playing with an idea for several years that I haven’t seen widely discussed, and I’d like to share it here.

I think the only way we’ll manage to have meaningful educational reform is to change the paradigm.  I don’t mean moving away from the goal of providing the best possible education for our kids.  I just think we’re going about it from the basis of an unhelpful paradigm–the paradigm of “Control.”

What does that mean?  To explain, I need to go back to the 19th century, when the whole idea of universal public education was just starting to gain traction in the United States.

No one should dispute the fact that reformers such as Horace Mann wanted to help improve the lives of children. But schools also developed as they did for several other reasons–and those don’t often make it into the history books.  Understanding these origins, however, is essential to understanding the current paradigm.

Public education pioneers got powerful backing from industrialists in the northeast during the middle of the 19th century.  These businessmen had found that they really needed as many minimally-educated, compliant, dependable factory workers as they could find.  There was a chronic labor shortage that continually nagged the effort to keep the mills and factories humming.

Children turned out to be unreliable, easily-killed factory
workers, although mill owners tried for years to use
them. These little girls are depicted in a British textile mill.

At first, it seemed that child labor would be a partial cure for the labor shortage, but employers and floor bosses discovered that children actually made very poor factory workers.  They were distractible, too weak, way too easily injured or killed, and generally unreliable (see David Bakan’s 1971 article, Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact for details.  Unfortunately, the article does not seem to be available online, except for a price through JSTOR).

But the unemployed children of factory workers caused problems in the burgeoning northeastern cities, too.  They became a growing public nuisance.  Unsupervised by their factory-worker parents, who were busy working 10- and 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week, they had nothing to do.  There was no farm work to keep them busy, as there would have been in earlier times.  They ran in gangs of street urchins, sometimes begging for work, and other times shoplifting their lunches from food vendors, vandalizing or robbing people’s property, and generally causing trouble.  A new term was coined: juvenile delinquent.

Urchins on the loose in northeastern cities caused many problems.  The boys in the little gang at left were a danger to themselves and a traffic hazard, running the streets unsupervised.  At right, children begging for work were such a common sight in New York that they inspired this cartoon in the humor magazine Judge, a spin-off of the more famous Punch.  Click on the image to make it large enough to read the joke at the bottom.

It is no coincidence that Massachusetts and New York were the first states to make compulsory school attendance laws.  Similarly, the innovative New York House of Refuge was established by early reformers in 1824, ushering in the start of the juvenile justice system.  Reformers wanted to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents through education, rather than throwing them into jail with older criminals.  The juvenile justice system developed parallel to the public schools.

Nineteenth-century schools were specifically designed to keep students off the streets, and to turn out cooperative, dependable factory workers.  They were all about control and conformity.  This beginning profoundly affected the nature of the schools that resulted.

First-graders at Lakewood Elementary in Houston,
TX learn to walk quietly in a line during the first
week of school.

Consider the industrial “form” of schools, which lingers still today: they are designed to run kids through their programs in uniform “lots” called “classes.” Their norm is to teach everyone the same, mass-administered lessons.  They follow a strict schedule, and have stated production goals (“students will learn these things by the end of the semester”).

The paradigm of “Control” is evident in many aspects of daily school life.  From this point of view, the most important thing is to control students at all times.  Often, this means they are made to do innately unnatural things.

They must walk quietly in line.  They must sit in rows.  They must raise their hands for permission to talk.  They may not eat until the teacher allows it.  They even have to ask for such basic essentials as permission to go to the bathroom.

They are told what to think about, where to go, and when they have to be there.  They must adhere to adult-imposed schedules that may be wildly out of sync with their own natural circadian rhythms–or face punishment if they don’t.  Large portions of their lives are consumed by forced participation in activities they do not choose, and may not like or see any reason for doing.

The adults may enthuse about what a wonderful, nurturing place of learning the school is, but most of the kids are not fooled.  In my years of teaching, I have had many conversations with students in which I tried (sometimes unsuccessfully) to get them to believe I did not go into teaching just so I could gleefully and ruthlessly oppress children.

If school reform is to succeed at the high levels our policymakers profess that they want, it will mean that vast numbers of currently-unwilling students must embrace the entire school experience with an enthusiasm we have heretofore not seen, or even realistically imagined.  Students who are doggedly resisting our efforts to teach them do not learn as well as students who cooperate.

For most of our students to embrace education with enthusiasm, we will first have to convince them that our primary goal is not child-oppression–and we will have to show them we mean it with action, not just words.  All but the very youngest have heard all the words before.

We have no choice.  We have to change the paradigm.

PHOTO CREDITS: The 1836 school image is from Teach US  The Victorian child mill-workers are from Lisa Waller Rogers’ blog.  The New York urchin band are from the Street Children website, and the cartoon from Judge came from Mike Lynch’s blog about cartoons.  North Forest Independent School District proudly displayed the image of first graders in line on their Lakewood Elementary webpage.

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