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 . . . .

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