11 December 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn

Heros for our children

I can’t claim to remember the specifics. Yes, I’m old enough to have been in school, but there were a lot of other things going on during those school days.

Still, by all reports I was obsessed with astronauts and space. I’d spend hours with the pictures in Life magazine. I had coloring books and sticker books and a paperback version of You Will Go to the Moon. I was a major Alan Shepard fan, but John Glenn was mighty cool too.

But if I can’t quite remember I still know the scene exactly. My gigantic elementary school had a thousand-theater-seat auditorium, but that wasn’t nearly big enough for the whole school. Across the main hall from that giant room was a smaller, more ‘spartan’ space — maybe 250 seats without cushions, but still an auditorium — though we called it the “General Purpose Room.” It’s is that room that I have in my vision.

An enormous — black and white of course — television on a huge rolling stand has been wheeled to the center of the stage, and tuned to Channel 2, WCBS-TV, and Walter Cronkite. And we would watch, waiting for the moment when we could shout the countdown along with — was it Chris Kraft? — as soon as we got to “T minus 10.”

Once upon a time we were surrounded by heros. Listen, I could add the postmodern spin here — John Glenn was the third human to orbit the earth and the fifth to be launched into space, not exactly Columbus — but my point is the opposite. So, once upon a time we were surrounded by heros.

I came to world awareness surrounded by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, The American Astronauts, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Robert Kennedy, Walter Reuther, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax… a pantheon laid on top of the heroic narrative of our fathers and grandfathers who had crushed Nazism, defeated Imperial Japan, tamed the nucleus of the atom, and beaten the Great Depression.

Heros matter.

About five years ago I stood outside the White House fence in Washington DC. On my right was an African-American mother and perhaps 10-year-old son. And I realized, in that moment, the power in the face that that little boy knew that the President inside that mansion looked like him. Just as John Kennedy’s election had meant so much to my father — and thus, by extension, to me. I had hoped this January might bring a similar effect for our girls, but…

Heros matter

And we don’t offer our children heroes any more. We offer celebrities, but that is different. There are some really nice sports figures these days, but where is the heroism of Curt Flood — tossing away his career for a point about race and labor. Or even a Sandy Koufax — refusing to pitch a World Series game because of his religion. I sort of hoped that LeBron James would walk the small cities of Ohio campaigning for what he believed in, risking his home state popularity for a cause… but that didn’t happen
There are some good politicians, but where is the John Kennedy going into Protestant Texas to talk about religion? Or Attorney General Robert Kennedy going into fully segregated Georgia to demand and integrated nation? Where is even the Nelson Rockefeller actually getting things hurled in his face as he tried to stop his political party’s roll to extremism? Where are the political leaders marching at the head of anti-racism protests, daring the police to hit them first?
Where are those who take enormous personal risks to take a stand or do a job?

Heroism matters.

Heroism takes many forms. But I just want to be clear, heroism is never the act of being unafraid. If you are unafraid and do something incredibly risky you are either uninformed or just dumb. Heroism is doing that risky thing despite being terrified.

"Most people admired Koufax for putting his religion before his job. I’m sure there were others who were furious, saying that he wasn’t that religious -- and I don’t think he really was -- but that didn’t make any difference. It was his decision and everyone respected it. They understood."
- Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully

Yuri Gargarin was afraid. John Glenn was afraid. I’m damn sure John Kennedy was afraid when his PT boat was cut in half. I sure know I was afraid many nights when I was a cop in New York. John Lewis was afraid when he stood in front of protesters and faced police clubs and dogs. Curt Flood had to be afraid as he tossed away the only career he knew.

For the record, Flood gave up the $100,000 the Phillies would have paid him for the 1970 season to challenge the reserve clause. How many of those who vilified Curt Flood would have given up their jobs to fight for a principle? Not many.”

And this model is important.

Kids need to know that risk is ok. That high risk is ok. That fear is ok. That overcoming fear is, dare we say? Noble.

And if this is important, how do we bring this to our students?

The Hero Model

Is the hero model still possible? I think it may be but we need to build it carefully. We have children in our schools whose parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins may be in heroic professions — combat military, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical services — and that’s great but it should never be our job to raise one family’s choices over another’s when talking to kids.

We of course have those same people — not directly related — within our communities and we can ask them to be present and to talk — in age appropriate ways — about risk and fear and responsibility.
And we have history. How do we talk about historical heroes in ways both real and yet effective. I’m not talking about ancient history, like the heroes of my youth necessarily, though they’re included, but any heroes. And maybe that begins with how do we find heroes…

Not all acts of heroism need to have a global effect to be defined as brave or courageous. There are many people who, in a variety of ways, have taken up causes in their daily lives. Their efforts show how simply getting involved can open doors to bigger projects involving human rights or rescue opportunities.” — Teaching Tolerance

A few years ago I worked with some high school students on John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. It’s a hard book to read now, with not just an academic writing style but a curiously mid-century moral neutrality as to purpose. And yet, it got the kids thinking about political courage. Who demonstrates it now? I suggested a few unheard-of people to them. I asked them to look at Robert Schuman, a French politician who had already been disgraced because of his decisions, who risked his very fragile post-World War II government to make a radical kind of peace with Germany — a peace that has grown into the European Union, and which turned the blood-soaked continent of Europe into the world’s most peaceful, prosperous, and democratic place. Then I presented Everett Dirksen, a right-wing Republican, war hawk, opponent of the idea of ‘one man/one vote,’ who nevertheless joined liberal mid-1960s Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Acts over the opposition of Southern Democratic Senators.

So, one man who briefly collaborated with the Nazis occupying France but who risked all for a united Europe. Another, who thought big city voters should have less of a vote than rural voters (as Trump Republicans do, the idea has not gone away), but who helped pass the most significant civil rights legislation since the US Civil War. Heroes? How do we decide?

Does one act, like Dirksen, make a hero? Do a few flaws, whether Schuman or Mickey Mantle or John Kennedy, deny hero status?

I think about two recent “heros” from my own home town. Mariano Rivera, Yankee relief pitcher and a transplant, employed people, supports kids, built a church. Ray Rice, now disgraced Ravens running back and a born native, worked tirelessly with kids and generously supported the schools. How do we help kids distinguish?

If we want our kids to have heros we must reclaim the heroic narrative. We need to stop focusing, especially with our younger kids, on the historic figures of a disconnected past, and start looking at heroic action and heroic lives in the world our children know.

John Glenn is a hero to my generation because he risked his life not just for his nation but for a belief in science, a belief in wonder, and, we discovered later, for a deep love of his wife, of his community, of his nation and its most vulnerable citizens. He lived a model life through a series of historic moments.

Who is out there today being that kind of person? Let us find them, celebrate them, and abandon our willingness to accept much less in our leadership.

“We tend to think of heroes as being those who are well known, but America is made up of a whole nation of heroes who face problems that are very difficult, and their courage remains largely unsung. Millions of individuals are heroes in their own right.” — John Glenn
  • Ira Socol

30 May 2016

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

crossposted from medium

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

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

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

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

OK then. Nostalgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ira Socol

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

crossposted from medium

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

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

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

What happens next?

Now stop right there.

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

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

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

Piano music in hospital lobbies does the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ira Socol

29 January 2016

All Means All, and why we say that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ira Socol