Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Ike Taught Us . . . and We Promptly Forgot

Why in the world, you ask, would anyone care what Ike taught us, and not a few of you would ask, "Who is Ike?" Indeed. I only came to this thought the other day when I happened upon this graphic, quoting from a speech made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (oh, that Ike!) sometime in the halcyon days of the 1950s when I was a little kid.  I knew vaguely even then who he was because my father loved telling war stories (World War II, that is) and General Eisenhower figured in some of them.  Back in that day, the Republicans were honorable people who thought that, well, people, were important; the Democrats were the hard-to-sell intellectuals, as Ike's long-suffering but brilliant opponent, Adlai Stevenson, demonstrated. 

:Those days are long gone, of course, but take a look at the photo at left and read carefully the words and, when your amazement abates, compare those thoughts of a reigning General and conservative commander-in-chief with what the recent election told us the Republicans and Democrats stand for now.  No one among them would dare to voice this anti-military idea in today's world.  It was also Ike who warned us, in his farewell speech in 1961 to beware of the military-industrial complex that would sap our resources and take our money and our attention away from what the people need: hospitals, schools, roads.  These days, the consequences are even more dire:  People right here in America need food, housing, medical care, and still the schools.  Yet the military-industrial complex is thriving, having created such powerful lobbies that the U.S. government is hiring defense contractors, security consultants, yes, even mercenaries, to do what the regular armed forces used to take care of themselves: Take a look at the top twenty defense contractors in this article from Defense Systems, noting that with even a 10% cut (the austerity measures from the Pentagon in 2010), defense contracting would still be the largest market in the world  (Those numbers in the right column are BILLIONS, by the way.).  And that's not counting the tertiary market of arms dealers who spread the "wealth" to developing countries where tyrants and dictators make war on their own people (read a history of Africa for apt and recent examples).
Don't get me wrong.  I am glad to be protected by brave men and women; I'm happy that they have the equipment they need to do that.  I am a patriot of the old school.  But, somehow, over the past half-century, America has witnessed a slow but inexorable slide to the Right, keying off our most horrific decade, the 1960s.  Shortly after Ike's farewell speech, John F. Kennedy was sworn in and all of us who were young then, even if we couldn't vote yet, were enthralled with his optimism and his call for taking action to change the world.   Yet, after the terrors of one assassination after another, JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, a stunned populace faded gently away from enthusiam for change and public service and became enthralled with an emerging narrative, skillfully controlled by those with the money.  (Please read this excellent essay by the prolific history professor Akim Reinhardt, who calls himself The Public Professor, "America's Move to the Right," for a detailed accounting of this trend.)
For those of us who lived through it, the decade of assassinations will always be the critical turning point of the 20th century, in ten years turning a nation thrilled to be moving forward and making change to a nation listening to the Big Lie Technique so well used by Richard Nixon and pretending that things would turn out all right anyway.  The narrative of the ensuing decades became a slow discrediting of "liberalism" (or concern for social programs) and a rapidly escalating celebration of money, culminating in the deification of an actor as the hero of the modern world, President Ronald Reagan.  Again, having lived through it, I am amazed every day that Reagan, who gave us the travesties of conspicuous consumption, the absurdities of "trickle-down economics," and the idiocies of rockets in space can be imagined to have been a great President and a great statesman.  Nothing is a greater testament to the ability of money to control the narrative than Reagan's ascendancy and climactic role as the savior of the free world, an image carefully crafted by multimillionaires who used the simplified world of television to sell messages that made us all feel good about keeping our heads down and spending lots of money.
The point is this:  Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat oversimplified ideas from spinmeisters.  When we talk about the "dumbing down of America," it is not the schools which are to blame, but the facile work done on our minds by 40 years of television and its insatiable need for sound-bites and imagery.  Those who have the money determine what people will see--and ingest and believe.  Thus, more and more these days, I feel like one of the characters from the ending of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the people who became books, each memorizing a particular text to save it for the world, a scene scarily immortalized in the 1966 Truffaut film of the novel.  In my case, however, I am alone on the desolate shore, telling and retelling my history of the America I experienced, mumbling to myself, no doubt, but looking through the mist for other Baby Boomers and our elders who lived through it all, hoping they will also be saying, "Really, we were there." 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

P.S. : The Last Last Word

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
--William Butler Yeats

In a nutshell, this quotation inadvertently capsulizes the conflict between quantitative and qualitative measures of learning. Students in the U.S. are told and retold by the numbers on their erroneously named "standardized tests" that their pails are nearly empty and they need to work harder at filling them with such drivel as "how to take tests," "how to get into a great college by upping your SAT scores," and other slogans of the corporate culture. After all, if it's not about numbers or the "bottom line," how can it count at all? This is the absurd end result of the corporate double-think that has consumed what we used to consider "public" education, once one of our most treasured institutions. (Read all the details here: "How the Corporate Culture Warps Our View of School Reform.")

Teachers who used to love their work because of their ability to "light a fire" and watch the lights go on behind a student's eyes are now bludgeoned by national policy to narrow the curriculum, follow the party line, find a way to explain this absurdity to parents, and stop spending time on "frills," i.e. music, drama, art, discussion, experimentation, group projects, peer feedback, coaching, and all the other ways that excellent teachers make valuable contact with students and parents every day.

Thus, as the infographic in the previous blog entry (The Last Word on "Testing") aptly demonstrates, the corporate culture that spawned our current love affair with numbers as measures of "worth" is enriching Pearson and the other Big Five testing companies (and their lobbyists) while draining both the spirit and the funding away from real learning. THANKS, designers and Accredited Online Colleges for helping us visualize what is really a complex argument in a very elegant form. I will be posting it on my Facebook page to promote its message and help disseminate your illuminating work!

P.P.S. After being gone from the online scene for a couple of months while relocating from Southern California to Central California (giving up the ocean for the foothills at the doorway to Yosemite, a good trade, all things considered), I am delighted to see that more and more people are becoming smarter and smarter about how to approach the testing question and how to create positive change in spite of the education bureaucracy that wastes money so lavishly. Please take a look at FairTest.org for the latest and most authoritative information on high-stakes testing, and do sign their resolution (click on the first bullet point at the above link) to abolish these punitive testing practices in our schools. School is not a business, not a numbers game, and it's about time we all got together and SAID so!

The Last Word on "Testing"

Thanks to a design group dedicated to linking visualization to learning, Accredited Online Colleges was able to put up a fabulous graphic on their blog, detailing the effect of testing, retesting, and overtesting on U.S. schools. Take a look at the elegant use and display of the statistics below and the overall impact of the concise information presented in this infographic to get a real answer to all of those naysayers who keep denying the detrimental effects of "standardized testing." Just follow the money, of course, as noted below: Pearson and its cohorts in the Big Five of national testing companies are making BILLIONS from state and national policy while the kids, teachers, parents, and communities that support and work in our public schools remain underfunded and underloved.

Check it out for yourself:

standardized testing infographic

Thanks to Allison Morris and the rest of the design team that provides these infographics for Accredited Online Colleges and other resource sites. The clever way they have combined easy reading, visual cues, and sourced statistics demonstrates the precise method for teaching that suits the 21st century learner: quick, one-stop assimilation that shows CONNECTIONS among ideas. Hey, we're ALL visual learners now!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What the Activist Said . . .

In a new online feature, and a clever idea by communications entrepreneur Jocelyne Rohrback, VENTURA 101 spotlights real people and gives them the opportunity to tell their real stories.  Here's VENTURA 101's latest interview, with a local school activist (that's me!):

"When it comes to K-12 education, at least one thing can be agreed upon among teachers, unions, legislators and parents; change is a necessity. Depending on who you ask, how to best execute that change in our schools vary significantly. This week as part of Ventura101′s 10 Questions with a Ventura County Local, we speak with someone who has not only dedicated most of her professional career to public education, but to advocating change within the system as well. Patricia Kokinos (pronounced ko-keen’-us), is a Ventura resident who believes that how we choose to educate our children speaks volumes about what type of society we want to become. We talk with her about what she means by “exploding the paradigm” and developing a “New Vision,” how she paved her own way in self-publishing her book ANGEL PARK, and what parents can do to improve the homework experience."

Patti's Career Summary, in her own words:

A few years ago I took a break from being an educator so I could write a novel, which became ANGEL PARK, a book that was very well received by reviewers and won several awards. Early on I gave lots of talks at the local Barnes & Noble and spent many hours making presentations at Clarey Rudd’s Bank of Books on Main Street in downtown Ventura. In fact, a friend and I did a whole series of workshops at Clarey’s store about self-publishing that resulted in several of the participants completing their manuscripts and getting published. Recently, a local radio host, Kelli McKay, who does a great job with Locals Only on KVTA-1520, told me that ANGEL PARK seemed so radical only five years ago, but now it’s practically mainstream. That seems to be the story of my life, just about five years ahead of the curve so I always feel a little bit out of it, but still determined to lead the way!
Now, my self-publisher, iUniverse, has put out a second edition of ANGEL PARK on their own dime, as part of their STAR program, complete with an interview with the author (that would be me) and discussion questions. The authenticity of the book, which readers and reviewers immediately notice, comes from 25 years of hands-on experience as a teacher, school administrator and devoted change agent in both California and upstate New York. Scarily enough, the plot of the novel is based on actual events that happened to me during my long dance with school change–as well as the deep realization that we have to do much more than tweak the system if we want to make improvements that count!

This has become an important and popular attitude over the past few years, so I have done lots of radio all over the U.S. and Canada, talking about deep school transformation and offering both new ideas and practical help about the kinds of changes we need to make in our thinking to create schools that nurture and empower kids, parents, teachers, and communities.

People from all over the world have joined in the discussion on my Facebook page, representing Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, India, Norway, Spain, Turkey and many other areas. But the whole idea of what I think we need to accomplish and what I think is coming, not only for schools, but for our society, and, in fact, for the world, is the progress talked about on my website–HUMAN progress.

Jocelyne asks: You have spent over 25 years of your professional life advocating for, and making change in public education as a teacher, school leader, and curriculum expert. Many educational advocates were raised by educators or by parents who truly valued the prioritization of education. Is this true for you? Did you grow up with parents who “brought home” this important message?

Daughter Lynn Campbell
and Aunt Artemis Kokinos
Quite the opposite, actually. My Dad always told me that I didn’t need to go to college because I was just going to get married and have children. Plenty of us women who grew up in the 60s got that same message and had to fight for every scrap of advancement we earned. I found my way to UCLA on scholarships and only after getting my Bachelor’s degree in English/journalism did I get married and have children (pretty much a requirement for my generation!). My teaching credential, my two Master’s degrees and my work in school administration all happened after that point. But I think it was my aunt, Artemis Kokinos, a long-time elementary and reading teacher for Fresno City Schools, who influenced me most. She had me reading by the age of three or so and by the age of five I was helping her “mark papers” for her second graders. I actually started out as a journalist, never intending to be a teacher, but after I had kids and got involved with their schools and their friends, I knew I had to help make some changes, however I could. Teaching turned out to be a genetic imperative, after all!

In your opinion, what’s the largest challenge public educators face or are forced to overcome?

The largest challenge facing educators today is the same one I faced 30 years ago and the same one we’ve all been struggling with for the past 40 years: The system itself is set up to separate, isolate, and keep people in line, as well as to shove kids into pigeonholes already determined by their race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Our 20th century drive to educate everyone was a noble effort, but by the 60s we realized that everyone was not getting an “equal” education, and that realization certainly continues today and fuels the raging debates on how we need to reform our schools.

Teachers who manage to circumvent the system by creating collaborative, creative, personalized experiences for kids are the heroes of today’s school wars. It isn’t easy and the bureaucratic, corporatized system–especially now with our small-minded emphasis on test scores–burns out good teachers and allows mediocre ones who don’t make waves to keep going on and on. That’s why parents are screaming about bad teachers, homeschooling, and charter schools–when what we really need to do is change the STRUCTURE of public education so it allows us to educate all kids at a highly intelligent level and to support teachers, parents, and communities at the same time.

There’s been a recent push for the implementation of privatizing public libraries. In your opinion, why or why not is this a good idea?

Like the idea of privatizing the education system, privatizing libraries is another attempt to solve by corporate means a problem that needs to be part of a restructuring of society and our expectations for new public institutions. Over the past 30 years in particular, more and more money has been squeezed from social programs and funneled into military and corporate coffers so that we are no longer adequately supporting institutions that serve our social and personal needs. The better solution will be to reorganize our priorities and change our minds about what is important in our 21st century world. I am optimistic that this is exactly what’s going on now with nationwide and even worldwide movements to change the balance of power and to return to communities the funding to support essential public services, such as public schools, public libraries, public parks, and more. We have to stick up for our libraries if we want to save them, the same way we have to stick up for our schools! National Library Week (April 8-14) is a good chance to thank a librarian for protecting public knowledge and to explore what the library has to offer these days.

Finish this sentence. “I can’t start my day without _______________.”

I can’t start my day without an hour or so of silence (and coffee) when I can write in my journal, all by myself.

Your book, Angel Park, is a fictional tale that explores a new vision for public education reform. Can you explain what that new vision encompasses?

First of all, ANGEL PARK drops the reader into a specific place and time where the inner life of schools is exposed as a compelling human dilemma. I decided to write my ideas about school and life as fiction so the reader could be emotionally involved with a process that has become more political and more adult-oriented than we ever intended. As the heroine, Constance Demetrios, fights the system, she begins to realize that we have created a factory where kids are moved down a conveyor belt, filled with information, and pushed off at the end, ready or not. When she escapes her absurd situation, she discovers just how deep these antiquated ideas about learning really go, right down into the roots of Western civilization. That’s a LOT of mind-changing we have to do to catch up with the new millennium.

Those specific ideas about change, that new vision of exploding the paradigm and creating a new STRUCTURE based on a new SYSTEM of human interaction are discussed on my website, particularly on the “New Vision” page and in the numerous articles and the video by Sir Ken Robinson on my “Articles/Video” page. We will only make effective changes to school, and to our whole society, by CHANGING OUR MINDS and coming to more progressive expectations of what we want our schools to accomplish. That’s really the theme of my Facebook page, which I hope everyone will join. As it says there, “How we educate and treat our children determines what we want our societies to become. To change the world, we can begin by changing our schools, into the human-friendly, creative, collaborative, supportive venues they need to be . . . .” How to do that in specific terms is further elaborated in the “campaign manifesto” on both that Facebook page and on the New Vision page of my website.

When you welcome people from out-of-town, what do you suggest they see, do or eat before leaving the county?

The beautiful beach, all the way from the Harbor to the county line, is my favorite feature of Ventura; we love Emma Wood beach and walk there often, despite some pretty scary erosion over the past decade. I also want to make sure people go downtown because Ventura actually has an historic main street, with the Courthouse and wonderful old buildings that have been beautifully restored. I like to say that Ventura is one of the last small California beach towns, which is what makes it so great!

What’s your opinion on homework? Do you think elementary school children should be doing more than an hour of homework per night? Why or why not?

Homework is as much an outdated concept as test scores, and kids are experts at determining what is useful and what is merely “busy work.” Elementary school kids need to be PLAYING during their time away from school and certainly doing some practice with their computers, including the huge number of learning games that are available today. The problem with my concept, of course, is that all kids do not have access to computers, so this is the first aspect of public education that must change. Let’s figure out how to get a notebook, at least, into the hands of EVERY child in America (then we can work on the rest of the world). That way, “homework” can serve some useful purpose, especially if it is working with friends or parents on a school project that has some meaning to the students. I read a statistic the other day: “The Pentagon is buying 2,443 F-35 joint strike fighters, sleek, $133 million supersonic jets for battling a weapon that hasn’t been imagined by an enemy that remains unknown. If we bought just seven fewer F-35s, we could buy a handheld computer tablet for every first-grader in America.” And this is from the usually conservative opinion section of the AARP Bulletin, surely a major sign that times and priorities are changing!

If Aladdin gave you one wish to enact any change at our local public schools, what would be your wish?

Frankly, our local public schools in the City of Ventura are the best run I have seen in a long time, thanks to excellent leadership and creative development. That is not the case for a lot of other school districts in Ventura County, however, or for most places in the rest of the nation. I would ask Aladdin’s genie to give us new, open spaces for learning with all the latest technology for every teacher and child. This alone would change the dynamic between teachers and kids and require everyone to adapt to a new, more open, more personalized, more collegial, and more transparent approach to learning. At the bottom of my website page entitled “Be An Advocate” is a chart of BEST LINKS, including a place called DesignShare that shows how architecture can shape and change what goes on in schools.

If you had not spent most of your professional career in education, what would you be doing?

I originally thought I would be a foreign correspondent, helping to change the world, but kids came along and that idea went out the window. I have been and would have continued to be a journalist, I think, but my latest dream is to be a novelist–you know, actually to make money selling fiction, beyond the serious commentary of ANGEL PARK. I am the world’s greatest defender of fiction as an instrument of change, simply because it opens our minds to new ideas in engaging ways and helps us exercise our emotions in a safe environment. So, I am working, slowly, on my next novel, moving my protagonist on to her next big adventure. Tom Clancy, that mega-military-best-seller, of all people, says it best: “The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.” But my favorite quote is from the king of absurdity, Franz Kafka, who said, “A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Thus, change happens . . . .

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Deja Vu All Over Again

"Retrospective" seems to be the key word in art, music, movies, media and even schools these days as we look back fondly on our imagined idylls in the 20th century and pay homage to the past in remake after remake.  This is natural, I suppose, since it is only after some time has elapsed that we can form an intelligent perspective and decide what it all meant.  
Walking Mural (1974) by Asco, a Chicano conceptual
and performance art group from East Los Angeles.

In this spirit, the Getty Institute in Los Angeles spent ten years researching, organizing, and coordinating a mammoth art happening that involved 60 installations from Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, heralding postwar art in LA, Pacific Standard Time.  The website itself is a work of art, documenting the vast richness of cultural and political statement from an array of artists working in every imaginable medium.  For sheer immersion in a disturbing zeitgeist, my favorite experience was Under the Big Black Sun at the MOCA Geffen Center in Japantown, where the fractured '70s came alive in the work of 125 far-out artists from every LA microculture, viewed to the beat of video loops from the Vietnam War, Watergate and Nixon speeches, Reagan election hoopla--a cacophony of absurdity.  If we survived the '70s, I thought, and the birth of post-modern cynicism, can't we find our way forward from here? 

It was no surprise, then, to discover among these displays a series of stark black and white photographs documenting the visual absurdity of industrial plants in the South Bay juxtaposed to interior shots of short-haired students with blank faces lined up at proto-computer monitors or standing at conveyor belts, learning the new languages of modern media, the skills of modern manufacturing.  It was regimented Big Brother stuff, of course, but what blew me away were the comments by the artist, talking about the "factory mentality" of our schools, the lack of individuality in our teaching, the lock-step learning schools expected from the students and, most of all, the clear separation of young people from low socioeconomic classes into menial, repetitive, simple-minded tasks.

Wow, I thought.  An artist of the '70s could clearly see what we are still having trouble conceptualizing 40 years later.  Despite all the new bells and whistles of the computer age, the tweaks to the curriculum, the concerted effort to move minority kids forward, we are still dealing with a system that defeats us at every turn.  As John Goodlad is fond of saying, "The system is not broken.  It is working perfectly."  It's just doing something that we no longer agree with sociologically.  Thus, all our cosmetic efforts to improve a program or buy more computers or train better teachers or pour more money into old ideas are doomed to failure if we do not engage with the crux of the problem:  the STRUCTURE of the SYSTEM.

Yet, all around us, the retrospective continues:  We were doing personalized learning in computer labs in 1982; why haven't we progressed from there?  We were doing technology for teachers with hypercard stacks in 1988; why haven't we progressed from there?   We were doing magnet/special interest schools in the '80s; why do we still think they are an answer?  We had a huge push for science and math teachers and students in the '60s and again in the '80s.  Do we have to go around that wheel again, too?  We fought out phonics vs. whole language in the '90s.  Can't we figure out how to do both?

I never thought I would be around long enough to be one of those old teachers who used to say to me, "Just watch.  It will all come around again."  And, amazingly, it does, as though none of us is smart enough to see the bigger picture and to say, "Wait a minute.  We have to do something radically different!"  All right, I'm exaggerating, because many people are beginning to say exactly that these days, and their voices are growing in number and having more clout:  The homeschoolers, the charter schoolers, the alternative schoolers--They all understand that something radical has to happen.

And they're right.  I'm just stuck on the idea that the radical change we need to make must be for EVERY child, that we need to be smart enough to agree on a SMARTER SYSTEM that will produce new, open structures where every child, every teacher, every parent, and every community will thrive.  What do we do, you ask?  How can I help?   I invite you to reams of articles and an animated version of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on my Articles/Video page and then join our campaign on Facebook, where Change the Schools becomes a function of changing our minds . . . .

Sunday, January 29, 2012

So, What's the Point, You Ask . . .

Do you just love banging your head against a wall? That's only one of the provocative questions that other writers and readers, too, have asked me about ANGEL PARK and my obsessive need to write a novel about SCHOOL, as if THAT were worthy of fictional attention. "I just couldn't stop myself," I usually say, and when they go on to ask, "What's the point?"--well, I'll just quote Jonathan Franzen, the Gen-X national fiction darling: "Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money."  Nothing wrong with money, of course, but sometimes the frightening story just needs to be TOLD!

At the same time, I have an enormous issue to reveal in all its glaring cluelessness, that we aren't running schools for kids, but to satisfy "the system." Wrong. Kids need something different. Here's what I say to the media about kids, schools, and . . . my point:

What do kids want out of school, particularly in high school? High school kids want some meaning and purpose, beyond “it’s in the curriculum.” They want what everyone else wants from their work, a sense that it’s useful and that it will make a difference to someone. No one is more attuned than high school students to what they perceive as “busy work.” And they are perfectly tuned lie detectors. They want the truth; they want to know what’s really going on. They want to know what they’re good at, and what they’re going to do with their lives. They want some freedom to explore and, even if they don’t know it yet, some freedom to grow--even some time to interact with their teachers and coaches on a more personal level for the kind of guidance every kid needs. That all implies a much bigger and better mission for high schools than we currently hold, and the opportunity for high school teachers to employ all the creativity and inspiration they can muster to keep kids involved and productive. All of that is going to take a rethinking and reinvention of the system as we currently know it.  (See http://changetheschools.com/ for articles and video that answer the question, "Like what?")

How do you think your novel, Angel Park, can have an effect on an issue this big? My novel can help with the most important first step, which is opening readers’ eyes to a new way of thinking and providing a new perspective not only on school systems but also on how we live our lives. You’re right, this is a big issue, and one of the most important ones we will face this century: How can we create schools that will inspire our students to be productive and happy contributors to their own lives, to our collective way of life and to the world? Isn’t that really the main question?  To that end, I have created a companion website, http://changetheschools.com/, which takes up the issues of Angel Park and provides information about school change.

The theme of my site is “Changing the Schools Can Change the World,” and that’s also the title of my Facebook page (http://Facebook.com/ChangeTheSchools), where educators, parents, students, and others have gathered from numerous nations, including New Zealand, Norway, India, and Ghana to support a broad concept of cultural and school change. In the U.S., we need new national policy, not only to rescue the American Dream, but also to join with other nations to use the power of that dream to inspire and help children all over the world.  The beginning of a better world, of global change, is right here in our schools and how we change our minds about what we want our kids to experience, how we want our society to change, and what we can contribute to the world.