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April 22, 2012 / glencoyote

Conundrums

How does one write about life’s hard times without lapsing into either pollyanna or whining? My wife has an as yet incurable illness that may or may not be responsible for the hip problem that has her walking with a cane and waiting for an MRI, and I have a neck that may or may not require surgery but which, anecdotally speaking, clearly does require loss of sleep. I may or may not lose my job – having been RIF’ed along with 11,000 or so other LAUSD employees as my Superintendent pursues his vendetta against teachers under the dogmatic commitment to reform that has perversely turned so many against precisely the group that needs to be nurtured if reform is to occur.

I attended a professional development session, giving up a Saturday – which, as it turns out, would have been much better spent with my wife – in order to sit through six hours of canned material. I think I do appreciate the need to execute a pedagogy that reflects my student population of english language learners, many of whom are grade levels below standard. So I am perplexed as to why those who organize PDs address educators as though they were all the same. After all, doesn’t differentiation require you to take into account the skills and experience of your audience? So how is it possible that I can be asked to sit through a PD that doesn’t once provide me with a resource, a bit of research, or a reference that I feel compelled to write down? Why should conversations with my colleagues feel like furtive efforts at redirection?

Anger and frustration are not always the easiest companions for reflection. But if one can avoid the cheap thrills, there is a certain clarity that arrives when you are done slinging your arrows and tearing your flesh. As I sat in the acoustically challenged school cafeteria with the other teachers I felt estranged. How absurd it was that those with the money to assemble resources and command the attendance of teachers, did not have an effective way to connect their idea for a PD with the needs of their audience, while we – the consumers of the PD – had neither the time or money to assemble resources for our own needs?

Of course, at the conclusion of said PD the grandest pooh-bah in the room assured us that we were the pioneers, breaking the new ground that would save the school system. Yet to the best of my knowledge, not a single member of the non-classroom educational elite running the toxic PD has ever convened a frank discussion with a representative sample of teachers who are actually wrestling with the identified challenges on a day-to-day basis – because being a bureaucrat means never having to say that reality matters.

Lest there be any confusion, I do not think that any of the referenced bureaucrats are in any way consciously evil. On the contrary, I believe them to be well meaning people – our world would be better if everyone was as well meaning.  But however well meaning, they either don’t know what goes on in actual classrooms, or they have come to believe that their personal and institutional survival requires them to act as though they don’t know. The question is why is it so hard to provide professional development that begins with teacher articulated challenges and school level visions of success?

So in my present reality I go to work everyday, trying to redirect my attention away from my wife’s illness, the pain in my neck, the uncertainty about my future employment, and the despair I feel over the realization that my latest attempt at authenticity has enmeshed me in an organizational morass worthy of Brazil. And everyday – although not always effectively – I try to see my students, and I try to figure out why what I am doing is not fully meeting their needs. If not for my colleagues I would surely lose my mind.

March 13, 2012 / glencoyote

I am a public school teacher

“I love this concept of “a personal micro-culture” — what an eloquent way to capture the most important aspect of who we become, as creators in any medium and as human beings. Design legend Paula Scher knows that. (“[A design is] done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” she said.) Artist Austin Kleon knows that. (“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” he said.) The blossoming of our combinatorial creativity hinges on a cultivation of our personal micro-culture. How are you cultivating yours?” – Maria Popova

If your concept of education is centered on the learner and embraces the notion of the rising generation, then this concept of a personal micro-culture works very well as the point of education. A school can be thought of as an environment that encourages  the creation of a personal micro-culture. I think this concept correctly privileges the particular reality of the learner, effectively giving priority to time and place, and fully capturing generational difference, while also requiring a conscious relationship to other wisdom and continuous negotiation with broader circles of culture and experience. But sometimes the personal micro-culture takes us outside the traditional school space.

I am a public school teacher. Have been for the past ten years. Sad to say, there are people in this country who are intent on destroying public education. Some of them are acting out of the best possible motives. Some of them. If you care about public education, if you think that a democratic society is inconceivable without it, and you are not reading Diane Ravitch you need to begin. The “Bridging Differences” blog is a good place to start. If you want to understand why I and many of my colleagues are angry, frustrated and demoralized read “How to Demoralize Teachers.”

On a good day my micro-culture is being refreshed and reconstituted by interaction with my learning community, my peers, my students, and the extended professional support network that I rely on for encouragement, helpful reminders and new ideas. And its foundation consists of my many years of life experience and ongoing reflection. But increasingly, the budget cutbacks and ongoing attacks on public school teachers have been drowning out other voices.

The anti-education animus has expressed itself in the presidential primary and takes in higher education as well. Apparently the commitment to prepare working class kids is just another uppity idea.

Why isn’t Larry Rosenstock shaping educational policy in America? The public is created one person at a time through a social, interconnected experience, and that is how we create citizens for a democratic society.

And why do I have to go into work tomorrow thinking about this?:

“Over UTLA’s strenuous objections, LAUSD is sending more than 9,500 reduction-in-force notices to UTLA bargaining unit members, affecting more than 25% of all the teachers and health and human services professionals districtwide who work with students every day.” –UTLA

February 29, 2012 / glencoyote

Poetic Interlude

Life Path

My life starts and stops,

Holding my breath moment to moment

even as the accelerating commuter rush

sweeps me toward the unexpected

beauty of sunrise over Los Angeles.

 

To start in cold and dark,

Traveling hard from birth to death

Profligate of body, penurious of soul

Always hardened against the fear

 

Ready to turn a dark face against the intruder

Tolerating no tentative footfalls

Replacing intimacy with pain

Punishing the failure to move on.

 

But tired now and more neglectful than hard

Alone and not truly menaced

Tears an attempt at reconciliation–

body moving, the heart softening.

But afraid still in the night.

 

Identity

Korean adoptees at a wine party

so hard against the softening grape

expelled at a tender age thousands of miles ago

a band of travelers whose lives start and stop.

 

Can you become American like cabernet?

Conceived on foreign soil but grown strong in domestic dirt

a sturdy bouquet, dark color, tasting of fruit

worth more than a swirl and spit.

 

Can you be more American than apple pie?

Identities shaped by the effort

the fear sweat on our Asian peels

smelling of strange soul dislocations.

 

We are well met on this coastal plain

Our alcohol red complexions

anticipating rosy fingered dawn

found in this swirling glass that feels like home.

 

Love Poem

Memories of lobster and clams

eaten in salt air and shore sun.

Sweet warm muffins melting butter

in a university town café.

Relaxed feet walking and

always the talking

throughout the day.

No faithless yearning

inside those simpler times.

 

Is this faster stuff somehow less?

Complexity a maze of loss?

Some times I despair it is so,

but I look into your eyes

and abundance returns.

 

Washed and rolled over

Smoothed by caressing moments,

We are a singular hard softness,

Stone, flesh, water, and fire.

 

And in the quiet a chuckle,

A thirsty man drinking,

A coyote howling,

Peace at the center,

In the glow of a wolf moon

we share love and survive.

 

Happy Birthday, Valerie!

This journey keeps us busy,

swooping and soaring,

climbing and cresting,

diving and ducking,

so take a breath,

the air sweetened by our scent,

take your ease,

the space scoured by our tears,

take in the view,

the future a custard of love and hope,

inviting, opaque, delicious.

Happy birthday, my love.

 

Phone Call

I am listening to your words

Thinking of you

Searching for the connecting thread

That in your absence

Will remind me of love.

 

As I sit

Translating sounds into flesh

I want the words to fly out of my mouth

Rising into the sky,

Imprinting themselves on an airy page

With a grace beyond my stumbling voice

And my stubby fingers.

 

Floating there before me,

Rotating and reassembling

Incandescent at every turn

I will read them

And they will tell you who I am.

Vibrations on a silent drum.

 

To Nick

I told you that it pained me still

That I could not run with you

That you would never understand

How sad it made me

That I could not run.

 

My legs were at the heart of who I was

They are the legs that your mom loved

As I ran up and down the soccer field

They are the legs that carried me to victory

In competitions that didn’t care

How big I was or where I was born.

 

I was proud, but they betrayed me

When all I wanted was to run with you

And I couldn’t, not for long, not very far.

You heard the disappointment in my voice

Maybe it helped to hear that there was something

That I had needed very much

So later you asked, want to have a catch?

 

And I know that this I can still do

This I can feel in my body

The pop of the gloves

The line of the ball

The smooth delivery

Real and imagined

This I can share with you.

 

And here we stand in sun and shadow

And my shoulder is only a little sore

And my legs are under me just fine

And I am young and old together

A father who loves his son.

 

Naming

Standing in a cavernous space

vision distorted by anxiety’s mask,

shrouded by memories of destruction.

Sky shot out to conceal us in a blanket of darkness.

 

Sheltered by imagination, dreams and memories,

powerful bones lay broken on the ground.

Soft findings gathered in piles by quiet people

intent on red, brown, mauve, and sand.

 

My heart returning now – where have I been? –

there is work to do helping distant knots of people

illuminated by lights

whose energy urgently charges the night.

 

But warning cries send us to cover

when rocks fall from the sky,

and wild animals run past us

called by another, different percussive thought.

 

In this chaos I am lost but they are approaching,

bearers whose hands hold an attempt at peace.

Forms too idealized, too romantic, too detached,

unable to keep despair from shaping their work.

 

They search for expression,

as I withhold my understanding.

While my eyes focus on the shoes in their hands

noise fades and there are words meant for me.

 

You are Daniel, the poet of decay.

In this hollow space

There is the comfort of tattered shoes–

And the poet of decay steps forward

seeking words of hope.

 

Are You Seeing This?                       

Sitting at the counter

anticipating breakfast.

Watching many fires burning,

practiced rhythms

knives slicing

arms shaking

pans sizzling.

Are you seeing this?

 

Thinking of you on the road,

driving to attend to death.

Singing spirits on their way

with luminous soft sadness.

Slow enough to step into spaces,

holy habitats of grief,

for those reduced to silence by unknowing pain.

 

Soldiers in places with names

we are forever learning to pronounce.

Incompletely armored

with politicians’ words.

Losing arms and legs and lives

through rockets red glare,

because we can.

Are you seeing this?

 

A possibility of transformation,

patterns of variegated strands.

Dreamt by women,

who overwhelmed by comings and goings

weave future memory

in a geometry of grief and hope.

 

Cloth Coat

Offer me the cloth coat

in neutral shades of brown

needing to go with too much.

No flattery intended even when new,

But old so quick,

worn in many ways but no disguise,

No replacement in sight.

 

What neutrality is possible

when shame and pride mix

in a muddy way that

affords scant barrier from care?

 

Offer me the cloth coat,

the one that caught on the door

thwarting all attempts

to cover humiliation with scorn.

 

Offer me the cloth coat

and I will know your love

and I will wear this coat

always seamless in the ways

of revealing truth.

 

Leave the Pills

The songs anesthetize me,

ethereal bits of joy embedded in freedom.

But sad more than sweet

from outside that circle and beyond the pain.

Am I strange or do we all want to be alone in the way

That goes on forever without limit.

 

From the loss of never saying what I feel

when my light blue shirt and linen pants turn me

into a cloud in a soft blue sky

pregnant with sweetness,

not knowing myself the limits of dreams.

 

Except when the words are ill-fitted

and the mouth speaks with a twist.

The mouth that waits to kiss you again to feel

the promise of pleasure that is not mine

no matter how much I stretch to meet it.

 

I’ve left that promise in cowardice

unable to sustain the hands that have borne me,

that would enfold me still if I could step into their grasp.

 

Where did these expectations come from

that rise up at me like a hill burning my legs,

that look at me like a child wondering why

a sister wanders still waiting for a brother

or a mother waits to hear from a son,

a lover wondering how deep the loneliness goes.

 

Leave the pills on my desk.

Please remember to refill the water bowl

because I don’t have the strength anymore.

 

On the Beach

I am alone walking barefoot on the beach.

My feet step along the line where water meets shore,

a shifting space where waves and sand come to dance.

 

My feet tease my soul,

wandering a little deeper,

provoking a gentle terror,

beyond my depth.

 

Rivulets of sand run out

but the waves put more time back on the clock.

I think of my feet teasing your soul,

the possibility that deeper may help us both

float away.

 

Facebook Epitaph

You have no friends at LAUSD.

There are 1,288 people in the LAUSD network.

 

You have one friend at Brown.

There are 12,663 people in the Brown network.

 

You have 12 friends in Los Angeles, CA.

There are 1,648,778 people in the Los Angeles, CA network.

 

Fifty-five and fifty-seven

Fifty-five and fifty-seven

in the desert summer

draining aquifers that should last for 200 years.

 

Trickster heat embraces and desiccates,

held at bay by cool air, or so it seems

buying time for love and memory

and for hope, mostly.

 

We have been here before

with children and desire

and in some ways escape is always the same.

 

But this love

which believes in infinity

will trade half of forever for a little more now.

 

Illumination

Red light – power on

Green light – you’re connected

Moonlight – still awake

Glow light – love infected.

 

Hope

The heart too often seems an insensate drummer

built for one billion beats and beyond

birthdays passing like smug mile markers

leaving shrews and rabbits in the dust

 

But there are bigger hearts

unimpressed by inverse relationships

committed to expending and embracing until tired

 

And that orneriness in the center of your soul

turns out not to be the mainspring of who you are

but merely a hitch in your swing.

 

Not the tick tock of the entropy clock

just a temporary jerk in the works

because when that fear suffused light goes out

the darkness does not blind you

 

The shaman dreams of hummingbirds and lions.

and the middle turns out not to be the center at all

because peace will not be contained.

 

Amazement

At the vertical intercept

where our souls met

our life rays overlapped,

an incandescent tracing,

a bold line marking movement

from there to here.

 

Racing through that constellation,

we saw starlight ignited

from mere embers of difference

revelatory explosions

splashed against the sameness.

 

At the edges of the dance floor

stand all those who fear

men becoming women,

white becoming black,

human becoming earth,

the known becoming strange.

 

As we whirl in this silent vortex

the only puzzle is why

we have not yet burst into flame.

 

Recompense

Lost in the darker moments,

when shunning passes as tact,

even earned goodbyes can go unspoken.

Later when much seems settled,

the past comes again

cascading down upon you.

If I did not penetrate your body

before flesh fled to bone,

can my late embrace wholly erase old neglect?

If my body searches you

for the pain we share,

will your wrapping womb be shelter or shroud?

And if you have me

will it make a peace, invoke a spirit,

open a pathway for the tears we endlessly shed?

 

Childlike Hope

Tell this tale melding child and adult:

Bobby Jansen was bigger than us

but we tackled him nonetheless.

Fourth graders, we ran and we screamed.

Swarming chaos and churning legs moved the ball

even through fear of suffocation

when not crying out was the hardest call.

 

I still wish to pursue the horizon

tumble after it like rolling down a hill

arms askew and Bobby in my peripheral vision.

 

Coastal Drift

Wandering along western shores

tracking a zephyr, a thought.

Through temples of mountain and ocean

every moment reworked for tone and meaning

pursuing solitude in the grim time

shadow of evaporating matter.

 

Along an improbable ridge

wind blows particles of sand

unfurling into space along a line

drawn against blue sky

an endlessly slipping edge

resisting the infinite field.

Watching as rivulets

released to gravity’s embrace

undergo strangely perfect geometric inversions

resistance and release tracing the architecture of life.

 

Naked

Desire scuttles under stones.

Sex is a slithery thing hiding in dark corners.

In the early hours of the unborn day

self-pity masquerades as thought.

 

Pour a drink, for joy is a vapor

and all victories are false.

But when cock crows,

the sun will rise.

 

Touching skin to heated skin reminds us

that all the ways we are fucked are metaphorical.

Vulnerability a talisman,

this is no time for shame.

 

Eagle Rock

Striations of blue sky over distant water

framed by gray clouds weighted with dark accents.

A painterly hand unencumbered by pigments

altering depth intensity and mood

creates shifting backdrops for the hopes

and troubles we bear along the trail.

 

Swifts mock our presence with darting ease

while the hawk pretends predatory indifference

wrapped in the elegance of its silken flight.

But together our leavening presence

invokes the subtle creature spirit that binds

companions in an effortlessly receptive dance.

 

From any vantage point but our own

we are nearly imperceptible on the hillside.

But close in our movement and breathing

alter the lines and spaces between us

the span of our strides measuring

distance intimacy and time.

 

If we can lean against each other

beneath this low-ceilinged sky

then our tears and yearnings will

mark us each to the other as

transient bearers of dark and light

in precious unnoticed lives.

 

Fuck the Empire

Just want to say fuck the empire,

not original but then I am not

wired for vocalizing creative

expressions of collective pain.

Let me hear the protest music,

rock and roll or angry techno,

no margin in holding anything close,

just give it a kick and a scream and I’ll know.

Let’s light out for places unknown,

out there on the plains of hope.

 

Happy Anniversary

Mao died but the revolution lived on

and we’d have socialism in America

if we hadn’t been distracted by each other.

It was Providence and a leap year

in this one of many possible universes.

 

Many years on we walk the streets blessed

warm memories testifying to past tenderness,

we hate war and love each other.

Our orphan souls cultivate roses

In this one of many possible universes

 

An inexplicable path has brought us here

our love overdetermined in an age

when philosophy is dead and war is forever.

I’ll love your subatomic particles forever,

happy anniversary, Valerie.

 

Labor Day

Seems workers have disappeared into the morass

yet I think I still see some of them around

and like them the worker in me refuses to fade away,

so on this labor day when less than 12% of American workers

belong to a union and real wages suck more

even than they used to I want to puff up my chest

on behalf of everyone still working

who can’t pay their bills, who knows the dream is not theirs

and who still feels a little bit pissed off about that.

 

My father dropped me off at the bottom of the hill,

the clubhouse is up there, good luck,

but no matter how uphill the walk there is no peak

when your first job is carrying some

rich guy’s toys around a manicured playground

for hours, for cash money

that they take out of their pocket

so your sweaty hand can put it in yours

so you know what a worker is.

 

My second job was busing restaurant tables

Where I learned to be gracious even when hours

of sweating and spilling melted butter on my clothes

while hauling dirty dishes on a tray

with an aching shoulder made me bold enough

to eat the leavings off the plates

of strangers whose tips had the power

to make me smile from the bottom

of another service relationship.

 

Thankfully my next jobs were in factories

where I operated machines and turned

some metal in ways that made it clear

that a worker was more than a mule with a smile

and the contract was like an armistice

signed on dignity day and the confetti that filled

the air allowed me to look directly at the boss

like a guy on the playground who knows

that somebody big has his back.

 

Of course that didn’t keep me from getting fired

for speaking my mind, or stop me from walking

off the job because who the fuck can show up

at the same time everyday to do the same thing

when there is so much else to do

like hanging around and not working,

or being with your girl who is so much more

inviting than the foreman who gives no evidence

of knowing the first thing about what pleases you.

 

Valerie is 58

We caught the tail of an Elderberry sunset

A blood orange streak pressed by a frail indigo sky

You feel passion heavy on your breast

Scary like Old Indian Wild Cherry Bark Syrup

But you don’t need Ying Chiao to extract my love

Horehound, Licorice Root and Rhizome, may boost your immune self

But there is no protection against my healing power

I come to you all Honeysuckle Flower and Echinacea Purpurea,

Eucalyptus Australiana, Lavender and Peppermint

Stick stirring in the honey pot

There is no need for Emergen-C, you have me.

Happy birthday, Valerie

January 29, 2012 / glencoyote

Imagine a School

Let us design a learning environment. Start with a large physical space. I imagine an aircraft hangar or a mid-sized convention hall, but any large rectangular building with high ceilings that can provide four hundred or so teenagers and adults space to move and congregate, with lots of flow and flexibility, will do. Let’s have a curved roof that can let in natural light; maybe an interior courtyard or green space, and lots of nooks and crannies around the perimeter. I’m envisioning a very large room that combines the sturdiness of L.A.’s Union Station and the ethereal quality of Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light – an interior environment suffused with a secular sanctity.

This idea of starting with the physical may seem very 20th century, but we still have a need to get everyone out of their homes. We need a space dedicated to collective learning, with all the resources that implies. And, if we design it properly, the space will dissolve, becoming a simple boundary or limit. But for now the physicality makes it fun – a place to play. So let’s approach our school. Walk up to its large front doors above which, in large neon letters, is the name: Design, Media, and Social Change Community, and underneath in smaller letters, Human Solutions for Human Problems.

In education Design thinking is hot. TED hot, HBR hot, save the world/design gunslinger/OpenIDEO hot. But what’s great about it is that it teaches and celebrates creativity and funnels that energy through an iterative – that is, mistake filled – collaborative process of learning through solving problems. Media, of course, adds the challenge of self-expression for an audience. Digital, written, oral, visual communication that shares news, knowledge, culture, opinion, humor, reflection, and story with communities at various scales.  And social change introduces power and a framework for analyzing the causes of the problems that need to be tackled, the reasons why media companies communicate the way they do, and the difference between media that dominates and media that liberates. The focus on social change turns school into a process for injecting the energy and perspective of the rising generation into the public space, into citizenship, into the soul of society, into ownership of the world.

As we pass through the main doors we are already thinking that this is a pretty heady brew, so we are not too surprised at the seeming chaos inside. Think the New York Stock Exchange with fewer people (and not so single-minded), mostly younger, more diverse, and with more skateboards and body art. The large open floor stretching into the distance is dotted with kiosk/modular type structures around which small groups of students and teachers are clustering. Similarly, along the walls there are spaces, some looking like cafes, some glassed-in for quieter conversations, all with groups of people working and talking. As our eyes become accustomed to the overall pattern we notice the details that reveal that many of the work areas are equipped with the resources suited to specific subjects or activities. We can now pick out laboratory modules, a video editing cluster, art and music studios, reading and discussion spaces, and small libraries with books, periodicals and exhibits relating to various fields of study.

Running above our heads along the walls are electronic displays that are scrolling all sorts of information. There is a breaking world news feed over there, above the snack bar. There are event listings with times and locations of lectures, discussions, screenings, study groups, live performances, visits by community partners, and so on scrolling on a number of screens around the hall. But as we study the screens we realize that most of them carry student-generated content that is embedded in the school’s digital online newspaper. Only later, after speaking with a number of students, do we realize that the DMSCC online paper serves as the digital hub for the community.  Called The Globe, the digital hub is a community center through which students stay connected to one another, a repository and display space for student work, a platform for blogging, for forums and debates, and the portal by which the DMSCC engages the global community. With The Globe at the center, the school becomes media.

Although the accoutrements of individual students – their ubiquitous headphones, smart phones, and personal tablet computers – gives the appearance of disengagement from the larger group it is clear that these are tools for staying connected while constantly seeking new inputs. Through the use of personal electronic devices the students stay connected to the digital hub, to their changing study groups, and to wider digital communities. As students select or create projects that both interest them and also meet their academic requirements, they submit their personal profile along with the number of people and the types of skills they are hoping to attract to their team. The Globe, using the same type of software that multiplayer online gaming communities use, identifies possible partners and facilitates the creation of a team. It is these work groups that are seen meeting with teachers, gathering in study rooms, or moving about foraging for resources, that contribute to the seeming constant motion within the hall (aided and abetted by the sometimes scary, always hilarious, role playing games that are often taking place).

When we ask students what they are studying, the response is not a list of courses. Instead they tell us about the particular problem that they are trying to solve right now. They are perfectly willing to explain the problem, describe the team they have assembled, which teachers are advising them, what outside organizations and resources they are connecting with, and what they have learned so far and what they still need to figure out. And when we ask them whether they are at all concerned about whether these various projects add up to a solid education, they pull up their digital portfolio on their iPads and take us through their cumulative personal record of learning, illustrated with the work samples that demonstrate their accomplishments. We begin to see more clearly that the design of the school grows out of, and reinforces self-directed learning in a collaborative environment.

As we pass through the great doors again, this time to leave DMSCC, we realize that the personal digital tools, unstructured space, and unscripted movement only seem chaotic to observers who do not yet understand that the key to managing the enormous flows of information, analyzing the complex problems challenging our world, and to creating the amazing products, ideas and experiences of the future, is the sophisticated filtering ability that can only come from combining mastery of digital tools with the connectivity of a conscious community focused on solving real problems. With great power comes great responsibility.

January 17, 2012 / glencoyote

Windows and Boxes

I recommend A New Culture of Learning, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown to anyone who needs to think about how digital tools are transforming education. Thomas and Brown argue that the enormous resources of the internet and the creative power of digital communities is challenging the traditional role and authority of the teacher. Traditional education, conceived as an information delivery system in which knowledge is transferred from books and teachers to students within the physical structure of the classroom, is being displaced. In the digital age, knowledge is constructed in imaginative learning spaces “of information and experimentation” that transcend the classroom. Authority emerges out of the process of creation, within communities that embody “the new culture of learning”(117).

I nurture a memory of public education as a window onto the world. My working class parents never attended college and our home had a television and few books. By contrast the facts within textbooks, the sophistication and knowledge possessed by my teachers, the perceptions and aspirations of my classmates, and even the physical resources of the classroom with its atlases, posters and workspace all represented seemingly boundless vistas. Thomas and Brown suggest that my quaint window has closed and school has become a box, a shield (albeit increasingly porous) protecting the traditional educational process from the perceived disruptive effects of the digital world. That the rapidly changing digital world creates a fluid infrastructure that swamps the conventional infrastructure of books, teachers, and classrooms, not simply in quantity of information, but even more importantly in the unlimited imaginative potential for engaging that information as part of self-motivated learning communities. In my gauzy memory engagement with school was easy because school was a window onto wonders, today the school is too often a boring box that kills student engagement by demanding their disengagement from what is truly wonderful in today’s world.

A colleague recently mentioned that one of our students had arranged for a former teacher at our school to serve as the outside mentor on the student’s senior project. This mentor had spent one year as a technology teacher in our program and then left for a private sector job. As a teacher he had experienced all the challenges typically faced by new teachers, with the attendant classroom chaos, and his short tenure was neither unusual nor cause for particular concern. Yet in discussing his subsequent usefulness to this student’s project we found ourselves wondering whether the traditional institutional framework that we use to evaluate teachers might impose limits on our ability to see teachers as resources and facilitators. Is it possible that the classroom management/lesson planning skill set so essential to 20th century classrooms is losing its efficacy? That what we need from teachers in the digital age is the passion to work with students to create learning experiences in the digital space? Is it possible that the institutional frame through which we view teachers is unsupportive of the fun, creative, flexible, and collaborative energies needed for digital learning?

Teaching in an urban school whose students are low income and living segregated lives, it is hard not to be disillusioned by the ongoing debate between traditionalists and so-called reformers over what is wrong with education. The traditionalists correctly point out the limitations of standardized testing and the debilitating impact of poverty and social trauma on student performance. The reformers note the general lack of accountability within public education and are right to see institutional barriers to change as an important part of the problem. But the focus on learning gaps and their causes, on both sides of the debate, might also be distracting us from the transformative potential of the digital learning culture described by Thomas and Brown. While pre-school programs, supportive social services, motivated teachers, and committed school cultures all have their value, the discussion tends to assume that there is one educational path that students must follow. The focus tends to be on the student’s location along the path and whether or not there are methods for accelerating progress along that path. The alternative culture of learning that Thomas and Brown are describing highlights not one path, already constructed by the educators, but rather the possibility of many paths, all waiting to be constructed by the learners. Is it possible that disadvantaged students, rather than running faster in a race of someone else’s choosing, can more effectively find personal success through creating digital communities to create their own challenges and develop their own learning path? Is it possible that the real reward of diversity is in the social benefit of learners liberated from the tyranny of one path?

Institutions do not change easily. Any entity that involves power and rewards, experiences change as a reordering of winners and losers. Change engenders resistance and, absent intervention, inflicts pain. But schools are transforming. They must change if students are going to place school at the center of their learning experience. They must change if talented people are going to be persuaded to help students create a future for our society. The learning experience can no longer be thought of as a scripted process.  Education delivered through canned materials in a learning environment pre-imagined and maintained by adult authority is a failure of imagination and a betrayal of our students’ potential.

January 4, 2012 / glencoyote

The Mind Without a Voice is a Black Hole

Finished reading The Information, by James Gleick and it is terrific. An astonishingly clear exposition of the information age filled with odd people, interesting stories and big ideas that will make you forget to close your mouth. Through the gauzy sensation of intelligence bestowed, you might emerge having only the most ephemeral, if tantalizing idea of what your newfound knowledge consists. Except that metaphor is seductive. In that spirit I will proceed with my ignorance unshackled.

Time Magazine declares that the “2011 Person of the Year” is the “Protester.”

 “Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.”

Well of course it was human. Understanding the crucial role of communications and information technology does not require the use of robots. The drone is the provenance of empire. But hearts need to beat as one, and minds need to share information, if emotion and insight are to be converted into power.

“All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” – John Archibald Wheeler (Gleick 10)

What would an information theory of democracy look like? If we assume that the heart of political theory is information theory then power can be measured as the robustness of the network. Prior to the rapid spread of personal digital communications control of the state implied command and control of information. Political hierarchy as a one-sided, unidirectional information flow. But the combined effect of WikiLeaks information extraction and social media driven information sharing, although far short of leveling the playing field, has at least brought into play a broader, more swiftly moving democratic community. Building the network becomes central to building democracy, the network itself seeking to morph into the institutional form of democracy.

Conflict is the way a political system communicates that information flows are blocked. Social change occurs when the impeded information flows prove to be more useful, richer, and more powerful than the blocking forces.  As digital communications – social media – progresses the organizational possibilities emerge and, perhaps converge in the way that Paul Hawkins suggests. Meanwhile, Fox News and mainstream media are seen as rearguard actors, vamping the old information, desperately attempting to subvert the new.

The self-awareness of citizens, whether of the corruption of ruling elites or of increasing economic inequality, galvanize national actions and global connections. That we are still very much at the beginning of this process is evident in the tension between community and liberty in U.S. political discourse. Is the global gateway an opening to enlightenment or an unguarded doorway to terror? Is Facebook our friend or is the loss of privacy our ondoing? Who are the philosophers of the digital age?

Cory Doctorow has given the thumbs up! My tabs have Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, YouTube, Ted, and Reader open so the command post for revolution is ready for business: Build the Network – Manage the Information – Change the World!

December 26, 2011 / glencoyote

Brokenness: Analog and Digital

I’ve been thinking about the pathways of our lives: the one we are on and the ones not taken. Specifically, how Frostian branching imagery feels too limited, too controlled, too much like traditional narrative. I want an image that incorporates brokenness. Like cinematic earthquakes, I want the path to be able to disappear beneath our feet and leave us – where? – on a new path, unselected, uncontrolled, and unconnected to the previous one. In other words, I want pathways that describe broken lives. The movie Hugo and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, both explore the paths of broken lives. In Hugo the hero seeks to heal brokenness and his courage leads not only to his own salvation but also the healing of others. In Steve Jobs, the abandoned child dies before his time, having lived a life of great accomplishment and acclaim, but leaving behind the wreckage of a life lived in denial of brokenness.

Go see Hugo. It is a sweet-sad movie about the ways people can be broken and how they can be healed and it is filled with visual magic and deserving of much more than its current $42 million in box office. In both storyline and cinematic presentation it combines surface innocence with poignant, complex undergirding. Hugo sweeps you into a world that is dreamy and crystalline, tender and hard. Scorsese has created a masterpiece of sentimental filmmaking.

At the symbolic heart of Hugo is the storyteller’s use of the mechanical clock – the analog world of gears and levers – to provide a metronomic pace that captures the inevitable flow of real time, while using silences and framing (literal and figurative) to create the counter flow of loss, hope and regret that allows the story to step out of the narrative and into memory time. Much has been made of the film’s homage to Georges Melies but the tenderness in this movie is not only for a forgotten pioneer of moviemaking but more broadly for the brokenness of people who can only be repaired by the connections made by those willing to see past their wounds.

When Hugo (a sad eyed, melancholy Asa Butterfield) communes with the broken automaton that is his last connection to his dead father, his orphan desperation is the voice of all who have ever hoped to regain what was lost and who suspect that their continued failure is rooted in their own brokenness. The Paris train station that Hugo lives in serves, on a grand scale, as a protective fort – the kind that all children construct – a place both to hide and pretend.

Being a Hollywood story, Hugo finds people who are willing to claim him and so he lands safely on a new path that might bring happiness. He is still young so we cannot be sure. And in any case, what are the stories that are not being told? What of the orphans who are never claimed? What if being claimed is not enough? What if needing to be claimed is the greatest weakness?

Steve Jobs is a different story. Great fun for anyone interested in the history of the personal computer and the story of Apple’s enormous success. Also, for anyone of Jobs’ generation, his story is also the story of how we have been shaped by the digital world and how Jobs’ take on technology reflects our own roots in a more visionary time. Isaacson wrote this book during the last couple of years of Steve Jobs’ life and its immediacy is another strength – Isaacson doesn’t over work the structure and the judgments are mainly in passing – everything feels fresh.

Despite a personal interest in the life of Steve Jobs, I have nothing to say about his actual biography. For all my enthusiasms he is more a fictional character, because Steve Jobs also tells the life of an abandoned boy and effectively conveys the messiness of punctuated life paths. It is a story of heroic single-mindedness, extraordinary business success, and of a life lived with a monastic commitment to shielding the present from the past and the hero from the people who might wound him, even as he lays waste to all that get in his way. Isaacson describes the “reality distortion field” as Jobs’ ability to ignore anything that might impinge on getting the results he wanted, and that distortion field was applied most vigorously to his own life story. It is a Dickensian tale in which the oppressor and the oppressed, the adult and the child, are the same character.

The orphan in Hugo knows that he is alone because of the deaths of his parents. Although not responsible for those deaths, Hugo, not surprisingly, still carries them as though they were self-inflicted wounds. Steve Jobs was placed for adoption so he always carried the question of why he was given up. To one degree or another, all adopted children assume their wound is self-inflicted. It is not a chosen path but one imposed. Despite loving and supportive adoptive parents, it is clear that Jobs is disconnected and vulnerable from the beginning. He connects with his own purpose but lacks empathy and is manipulative in his relations with others.

In his own defense, Steve Jobs’ mantra was his commitment to honesty – and the story of Apple has many moments when honesty in defense of the product, the vision, both takes courage and makes an enormous difference. But brutal honesty that makes piñatas of people is just Jobs’ way of saying that you can’t hurt him. It is the preemptive toughness of the permanently wounded.

At the end of Hugo, it is asked whether anyone will claim the child. Hugo’s selflessness has earned him the heart connection that voices an affirmative. Steve Jobs sidestepped selflessness and would answer for himself – a defiant who cares?

December 19, 2011 / glencoyote

The Learning Meme

“We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.” – James Gleick, The Information, shared by Brain Pickings

Gleick’s”creatures of the information,” or as James Bridle puts it, “render ghosts,”  those incipient beings that look back at us from digital space, want to dance. And as we mold our bodies to their’s, the geometry of the space we define is knowledge.

A recent example is the meme that emerged out of the UC Davis pepper spraying incident. What is happening when a real person, John Pike, first loses his name – in a way that reflects his transformation into something anonymous and symbolic – becoming “casual pepper spraying cop” – and then completes his memetic arc as a digital artifact to be photoshopped endlessly as an element in new compositions?

meme  n. A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice of idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. An image, video, phrase, etc. that is passed electronically from one Internet user to another.

When the casual pepper spraying cop was juxtaposed with historical figures such as Rosa Parks or a victim of the Kent State shootings the effect was a sort of digital time travel that both connects events and encourages creative thinking about the events and the continuum.

As Bridle suggests, we are interacting with machines that have their own way of seeing. As we transform John Pike into a “creature of the information” he looks back at us from the virtual space, and he too wants to dance.

Mark Rolston talks about this process from a product development perspective.

December 17, 2011 / glencoyote

Christopher Hitchens

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” – George Orwell 1984

The death of Christopher Hitchens occurs as I am in the midst of teaching a unit on the language of democracy and totalitarianism using the Occupy movement and 1984 and Animal Farm as the context and texts. Although my familiarity with Orwell extends back forty years to my own high school English classes, it was Hitchens’ 2002 book, Why Orwell Matters, that sharpened my current sense of Orwell’s value. Hitchens’ thorough demolition of Raymond Williams is entertaining (he quotes Williams on Animal Farm: “the issue of government lies between drunkards and pigs”), but it is Hitchens’ emphasis on the opposition to ‘actually existing socialism’ and the respect that the intellectuals of those movements had for Orwell, that frames the difficult and important space Orwell occupied as an anti-totalitarian socialist.

It is with reverence that one contemplates Orwell’s negotiation of a world riven by the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin from the frustrating vantage of Tea Party America in 2011, as it is with respect that one considers the avalanche of words expended by Hitchens as he engaged in his own political and cultural wars.

The title of his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, captures the Hitchens battering ram style. In this season of Republican jesters who would be President, Hitchens’ description of the Mormon faith should be required reading.

Of course his position on the invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq was wrong and wrought out of the kind of euphemistic abstractions (“cleanup and rescue of Afghanistan”) that he often skewered so effectively in other contexts, but even then I admired the breathtakingly reckless passion that seemed to animate it – and of course the writing, the preposterously polemical and overbearing writing that was so much fun to read.

In the news today I learn that the disappearance of the 100 watt incandescent lightbulb has been delayed by brave resisters of government intrusion. A certain Mr. Miller captures the sentiments of some would be dragon slayers when he declares that, “I think I need to stock up more.” “It’s another invasion of personal liberty by our government.” There are many impulses to metaphor that must be suppressed here, but I do wish that it were possible to feed Mr. Miller to Mr. Hitchens.

postscript 12/18: Vaclav Havel died today. He was one of the important figures of the opposition to actually existing socialism listed by Hitchens when describing Orwell’s influence. Read “The power of the powerless.” And, from a source I don’t often cite, a piece that draws the connection between Orwell & Havel, albeit with a libertarian spin that makes sense.