Friday, October 21, 2011

Better Education, Better World

Change. Humane Education. Making choicemakers for a better world.

This rhetoric sounds delicious; I heard it in my social-justice-driven alma mater, and I fell in love with it there. That is, until I feel into apathy. There is only so much caring my mind can master before it falls into muck.

Zoe Weil's TEDx talk certainly stirred my soul. I agree that mere graduation and employment for all current students is not enough. I agree that if we continue education in its current mode--though perhaps more effectively--we will raise a generation too much like ourselves, concerned more with our Netflix and Cheetos than international slave trade and child labor. "I worked all day," we say, "so I can't be bothered to bother. My hair is already growing grey."

My hair is already growing grey. This 22-year-old cares too much, apparently. I try to bypass injustice by buying second-hand, using the extra to support a child in Uganda and take my urban mentees out to coffee. (Starbucks is doing better these days, I hear, but I haven't the energy to check.) Indeed, after homework and work I have little motivation to dive into something depressing, like the our food industries (70-something percent of foods in an American supermarket contain genetically-altered products) or our clothing industries (now cotton makes me cry, since I checked up on Ubekistan's unjust practices) or educational disparity, my current pet peeve. I just want to clean my house, call a friend, eat buttery foods, and go to bed.

Zoe Weil and the Institute for Humane Education suggest that we shouldn't have to spend our spare time investigating injustice; rather, it should be incorporated into our daily education. I agree; I've made lesson plans relating to KIVA (microfinancing), worked for Clean Water Action, helped Invisible Children, support a Compassion International child, refer friends to ECHO (educational concerns for hunger organization), patronize Ten Thousand Villages, and bring my own bag to the supermarkets. I learned about most of these organizations through friends and through my alma mater's mission. Politics, history, economics, and literature classes easily lend themselves to justice-driven project-assignments; in their jobs today, chemists and engineers use math and science to calculate the environmental impact of power plants and other industries. So why start in school?

What would it take, though, to integrate humane education into our current schools? Businesses might push back; their political clout is enormous. Educators might give up; their motivation will ebb as they enter the endless sea of injustice. Students might tire: their efforts to right wrongs will flag faster than Batman's fall when yet another problem confronts them.

Yet we've got to try, right? And keep trying, right? The difference between try and triumph is a little "umph"--so although the difference between a "peaceful, humane, just world" and the world we have today is a gargantuan gap, at least we can give it a go.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Pedagogy of Information Abudance

David Warlick's lecture was divine, pinpointing areas of outdated thought that mar the "new information landscape" like ruinous, empty factories. My classmates have written about some of them: Racheal sketched a compelling appeal for Wikipedia and more, while Elizabeth ran through pros and cons of the "Web 2.0 Roulette." So I'll take a different route--the path less traveled on.

Warlick asked, "Information is no longer scarce... what then are the pedagogies of information abundance?" The pedagogies of information abundance seem to circle around internet-hunts, updated MLA/APA/Chicago handbooks, and online databases condemning the wider world web of wandering. Online corkboards replace on-the-wall smartboards, side-by-side with their whiteboard and blackboard predecessors. And still our students are bored. And still we wonder why.

So often, students are more tech-savvy then their teachers. We've all seen it: the professor calling on her class to "fix the dratted thing" or wasting time to phone IT. Meanwhile, we fiddle on our phones--smartphones, sometimes--clicking and texting tandems about the smartboard. We see no power in her point; when the power goes off-line, the class goes off-topic; when the room is electric, the student's are not.

But I'm ranting; technological incorporation can be great, when it works.

And when it's done right.

Today more than ever, our students need to be trained in differentiating between facts and opinions, between bias and balance, between that which is stated and that which is the state. So often, we simply instruct our students to find content, filling their papers with (we hope) reason resources. But rarely do we show them how to, say, google the author of the article and find his post at Harvard, or her dissertation on stem cell usage in Nigeria. Rarely do we instruct them in the art of analyzing thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as they are presented in a wide context of social, political, historical, cultural, and even psycho-somatic perspectives. Rarely are they taught to think, and question their thinking.

So often, we teach our students how to be taught--how to be content repositories--rather than how to teach themselves. All know how to browse the internet for information. Most know how to reproduce information. Many know how to reformat information into coherent papers. But few know how to connect data in new and innovative ways, networking with the world at large to craft new and helpful insights, programs, or projects. Few know how to be creative and correct.

As Warlick stated, our students need to have the right kind of literacy--not school-oriented, but life-oriented. In my biased opinion, they need to have a philosopher's questioning perspective, always asking "how did we come to this conclusion? Is it possible? plausible? likely? And if followed to its natural end, will this lead to a liveable lifestyle?" Current literacy standard ask for a simple reproduction of information, not for a contextual critique of information necessary in our new information landscape.

So let's convince our students and ourselves of a new, thinking pedagogy of creative critique--networking, building, and questioning to be literate in this brave new world.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Educational Collaboration

Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.
- Henry Ford

Collaboration. Not cooperation, and certainly not coercion. Collaboration is what we long for on every level--within the classroom, from teacher to teacher, with the administration, and from the all-maligned government.

Often, coercion is the rule: THUS SAITH I, says the teacher-on-high, and the unruly students disobey. Or perhaps we shall call the students "bored" or "disengaged," which certainly more charitable and maybe more near to the truth. "We can't be measured; we rule the school; we'll break your ruler in metric bits." A CENTIMETER, says the teacher-on-high, as her broken ruler is laid by. But the unruly/vexed/bored/tired students, in practicing unruly-ness, learn unruly-ness. And thus our nation is ruled: immeasurable, we're measured by foot-long stick-in-the-muds who coerce in the workplace, in the communities, in our governmental rules.

Cooperation sometimes occurs. Interactions are sometimes synchronized in some way... teachers do sometimes, principles do something, parents do something, and so do the students. The students, more often then others, do not match expected outcomes: they are creative, or at least "original in their destructivity." The "thing" they summon is not always the "something" expected. But they live in an unanticipated world, crafting an unanticipate-able future. Cooperation--mere synchronicity--isn't enough. N* Sync is totally bye bye bye, while Mindless Behavior (a mentee's favorite band) is singing about the future -- hopefully, mindless behavior isn't our future.

But collaboration... that's the rub. Pixar models it for us: they have their own corporate university to train new and existing animators, BUT everyone who works for Pixar is invited to attend. That's right--janitors, marketing managers, chefs (think Ratatouille), EVERYONE. They interact together, collaborating by connecting disparate ideas in new and innovative ways, drawing on knowledge pools ranging from a mechanic to an artist to an advertising exec. And thusly their films are fabulous.

What if our schools were the same way? What if we worked across the curriculum to incorporate internet-saavy math with English assignments--so that students designed their own assignments for themselves and for next year's class? What if students actually felt involved in and responsible for their learning--and were rulers instead of unruly? Alan November talks about the difficulty in making this transition from ruler to faciliator for teachers, and from isolated standards of measurement to cross-cultural/disciplinary/anything for the administrators.

But let's be serious here: the kids are already doing it, pilfering information from here and there to make their own truth. Let's collaborate with them to find a truer truth, and to avoid a future of mindless behavior.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Penitentiary or Plie?

Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, a book exhorting the educational system not to “raise standards” that simply reinforced hierarchical notions that literacy and mathematics are the only intelligent subjects, but to reinvigorate the education model in ways that incorporate creativity—the innovative creativity necessary in our swiftly shifting, technology-riddled, global world.

Robinson (Sir Robinson, should I say) asks us to reconsider our evaluation of the arts. Why are art programs always the first to be cut? When we find music therapy to be invaluable in aiding special needs students, when visual art is so therapeutic and even advantageous in today’s advertising market, when theatre/film physically and emotionally convicts the soul, and when DANCE—yes, John Calvin’s abhorred and verboten art form—when DANCE can save the young convict’s soul.

I know a young man whose name is not Tyrell, but we’ll call him that, since Confidentially is King, and Tyrell is a darn good name. Tyrell has no electricity in his home, no food other than unpopped popcorn (due, of course, to lack of electricity), and no proper parenting. A neighbor highlighted his home as the location of the next shooting, since teens flock there like cougars in [or packing] heat. But play the right jams, and Tyrell will dance, and even sing, with a musical intelligence incredible for a 10-year-old.

Tyrell isn’t a savant, unlike Derek Paravicini—a blind, likely autistic young man who cannot tie his shoes, but plays piano with uncanny brilliancy. But Tyrell does illustrate Robinson’s point: there are many intelligences, and some of them—the artistic ones, especially—are disregarded or ostracized in school. When an artistic intelligence is explored through a disciplined medium, incredible results can follow. Robinson illustrates as follows:

Dance United is a professional contemporary dance company based in Bradford in the United Kingdom. The company provides a dance-based education program called the Academy, as an option for young offenders within the local criminal justice setting….The participants have included young people convicted of robbery, drug offenses, burglary, and assault….The aim of the Academy is not simply to help young people to avoid re-offending; but to help them to discover their real potential an their innate capacity to succeed. (Robinson 133)

Though many were skeptical of the Academy’s program, contemporary dance proved to be “the one thing where I’ve seen people make the most progress over the shortest period of time,” explains a member of Dance United. Within just the first three weeks of the twelve-week program—when the participants professionally stage their first performance—many have already achieved a sense of discipline and self-confidence to approach challenge with physical and emotional strength. Jim Brady, a professional member of Dance United, says that participant Daryll didn’t even speak when he first joined the program, but now

He’s physically transformed by it. He’s now concerned about nutrition and diet and general health. He’s articulate and he’s speaking. He carries himself very differently. He’s confident and that all happened in the space of three weeks. That’s quite a transformation. (Robinson 135)
Penitentiaries rarely succeed in reforming young people; prisons rarely achieve rehabilitation. Why don't we try a few pliƩs? And why not transform our educational system to start with--incorporating hip-hop, ballet, film production, pottery, miming, puppetry, and so much more from the onslaught? Let's get creative in solving educational difficulties, and solve our children's penal difficulties en route.

Friday, August 19, 2011

“In idleness there is perpetual despair.”

Today, I'm excited about an initiative from...

When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... and Ourselves

by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Check it out on if you like.

This book lays out Biblical principles and practical advice for alleviating poverty both in the majority world and in North America. Poverty, however, is not understood merely as material, but as spiritual and psycho-social. In short, poverty is understood in the context of a person's relationship to God, to herself, to others, and to the world. From this standpoint, the authors encourage their readers to (a) empower/enable the poor to work towards their own relief or development--spiritually, personally, socioeconomically, and so forth.

But I'm not here to write about the book itself, though I highly recommend it, for I am terrifically excited about the following initiative:

Sponsor the (urban) poor to work, part-time, for the ministry or members of the ministry.

A sponsorship might look like this—

· I have a friend/contact, Tiana (or Joe), who is searching for but unable to find a job.

· My church secretary (or maybe a local carpenter, etc) is willing to take her on and show her the ropes.

· Tiana agrees to work part-time—10 or so hours a week—under strict stipulations, like promptness and good behavior, for a set period of time. If she meets the stipulations, she is guaranteed help with job searching, resume writing, and cover letters, and she gains an excellent reference.

· The church pays her $3 an hour; I sponsor her for $6 an hour.

· MEANWHILE another woman could be sponsored to do childcare for the first… do you see where this is going?

Now what’s so exciting about a sponsorship? As we said at my college writing center, “we make better writers, not better papers.” In short, sponsorships enable people to work—and alleviate their own material, spiritual, and psycho-social poverty. Let’s break it down to show how!

· Principle of Inertia—Physics and psychology seem to have a few things in common: a person in motion stays in motion, and a person at rest stays at rest, until acted upon by an outside force. A person at rest (a.k.a. in a state of joblessness, and perhaps in a mental rut of shame and inadequacy) feels powerless to make a positive change, and therefore does obtain a job. But if they get a little momentum going—if an outside force offers a viable part-time job—they will feel empowered to do more things crucial for their psycho-social-economic wellbeing. This principle is well illustrated in counseling practices, when a depressed patient is encouraged to do the little things—like shower and practice dental hygiene—so that they will be affirmed by successfully completing something, and feel enabled to tackle more challenging tasks.

· To those who have, more will be given; to those who have not, what they have will be taken away—This Scripture verse (see Luke 19:26) always scared me a bit, but we see this principle in real life. Those who have things, like money or connections, can easily acquire more via interest and networking. Get ‘em a job so they can get a job!

· Alleviate the poverty of the human spirit—Each person will not be working in a hostile environment, but in a place where others are genuinely invested in their success. Christian companionship will not only tutor them in the ethics and skills of the workplace, but also in the greater work of knowing and serving God.

· Kill the God-complex—Corbett and Fikkert remind us that we middle- and upper-class Americans are also impoverished. We also lack a perfect relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the world. Sponsoring someone takes an act of faith; I currently only have a part-time job making $10 an hour. Yet Scripture tells us,

You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God… Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else” (2 Cor. 9:11-13).

My friends, you now know what I’m excited about. Get excited yourselves in the service of the Lord—and keep me accountable to put my passion into prayer, and my prayer into place, so that sponsorships might become a reality in Pittsburgh, PA!

Send me your comments and critiques, buckeroos! Becca is signing off.