stephanie jones

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Away From Competition and Toward Peace

In Uncategorized on December 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm
Words fail me when I hear of violence in schools, and the unspeakable events that unfolded yesterday in Connecticut seem like a horrible nightmare – a dream gone terribly wrong. Children and adults – likely trying to protect the children – victims of the most horrific kind of events we can’t even imagine. My cousin’s 4th grade child was in a nearby school under lockdown. Some of you may have connections to this devastating event too, but even those who have no concrete ties find themselves weeping or staring silently – some things we do when our language fails us.
 
This morning I received an Open Letter to the President of the United States (see below). The letter might hit home for some of you like it did me. How can we make school about creating “winners” of all children and youth? Why is competition so much a part of the schooling experience, and what values are we indoctrinating young people into when we hold competition up as a way to reward a very small number of “winners” and create massive amounts of “losers” at the same time? What kind of humanity do we want in the world, and how can we model that in schools? If a child’s world ended today, what do you wish you would have done differently in the classroom with him or her?
 
All my best,
Stephanie
 
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
 
December 14, 2012
 
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
 
“Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.”
 
Dear Mr. President:
 
Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to review the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.
 
Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?
 
Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.
 
That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.
 
Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.
 
Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.
 
Case in point: a recent year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and legacy featured middle school children in a “Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Writing Contest.” Where is the wisdom in turning the many children into essay writing losers in the name of Dr. King? I suggest there is none. When did Dr. King ever stand to make anybody a loser? I suggest he never did. An Essay Writing Collaboration in which every student would aim to contribute to every other student’s success and joy in writing would have been a far more fitting celebration of Dr. King’s birth and legacy.
 
Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.
 
Once they have destroyed children’s intrinsic motivation and trust in school sufficiently, albeit unintentionally, educational leaders have only extrinsic motivators — ironically, more competition, reward programs, motivational speakers, role models, school reform, high expectations, zero tolerance, accountability, etc. — to address the problem.
 
Heavy reliance upon extrinsic motivation reflects a failure to understand that children were born motivated to learn. To see this, go get an infant, anybody’s. Then risk blindness by peering deep into the fire in child’s eyes. Wonderfully amazing, those neurons firing!
 
Educational leaders need only learn what the educational systems for which they are responsible have been doing to gradually put out the inborn fire in children’s eyes and stop doing it. Hence, high on educational leaders’ list of obnoxious utterances should be “every child can learn” and such.  Of course, every child can learn. That should never be an issue.
 
On the one hand, invariably, the few winner kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to perpetuate win-lose behavior as normal behavior, the way the “real world” works.
 
On the other hand, invariably, the many loser kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to take on self-protective behaviors generally not conducive to anybody’s well being, including their own. The continuing epidemic of school shootings exemplifies this behavior, in the extreme.
 
Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.  Neither have the many school shootings been senseless violence; in each case, the shooter acted quite rationally in devising and carrying out a plan to “win.”  Thus it is quite silly to continue blaming parents and teachers and otherwise holding them accountable for the damage being done to children by our educational system itself that reflects adults’ win-lose value system, however benignly or well-intentioned.
 
An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published a while back, opined: “Responsibility for education should rest with the parents.” As supporting evidence, the article’s author related: “[A parent] was commenting after [the parent’s son, 13,] defeated 100 other contestants from across the state to win the Georgia Geography Bee ….”
 
Now, how many once budding geographers, geologists, and maybe lexicographers have since turned their interests elsewhere in order to shake off the “loser” label bestowed upon them during the pursuit of just one winner?
 
The author’s words can be revealing. Cut away the context words then some of the win-lose thematic words that exemplify the scourge upon K-12 education, public and otherwise, become clear. “Defeated.” “Contestants.” “Win.” These are concepts and behaviors about competition imposed upon students by the educational system itself. These are concepts and behaviors for producing far too few winners and far too many losers, by design. These are concepts and behaviors that reflect the value system whereby children, of all people, must be beaten down and demoralized before being deemed worthy to rise. Nonsense.
 
Clearly, today’s world demands as many winners as possible, not a many losers as possible. By managing them as athletic-style competitions with attendant rankings and such, our K-12 educational systems cannot possibly help produce the many winners the world needs.
 
Sincerely,
 
Ed Johnson
 
cc: Open distribution  
 
Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
(404) 505-8176 | edwjohnson@aol.com
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Reggio Wishes – Expanding Literacies/Horizons

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2012 at 2:05 am

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On Expanding Literacies

To be literate is to live a wide-awake life in this world – wide-awake to the tiny details that come together to create the predictable and unpredictable. To be literate is to know you are a meaning-maker and a world-maker, and you use all the creative tools at your disposal to make life more humane for yourself and with others. To expand our literacies, then, we need time and space, we need to dwell with others cultivating their artistic/literate lives, and we need to tend to – and deconstruct and reconstruct – the literacies we’ve learned that use us to perpetuate injustice (classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, judgment, hatred, and the list goes on).

My wishes for slow-schooling, ateliers and aesthetics, and dignity for all could certainly set us on a path toward expansive literacies and fuller, wide-awake lives.

Reggio Wish #3 – Dignity for all

In Uncategorized on December 6, 2012 at 2:00 am

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Dignity for all children, youth, and families (and other creatures of the earth)

 

My third Reggio-inspired wish is simple and could be granted tomorrow – even today – with no policy changes, no major cultural shifts, just basic humanity. While it was clear that many children attend Reggio schools from working-class and poor families (some even attending for free or a very small fee), no school was ever described by its socioeconomic and/or racial demographics. What would it mean to drop the “this school is 75%, 99%, 100% free- and reduced-lunch” or “majority minority” or “you fill in the blank” as an introduction to a school? What if we erased from our language practices the statistics we use as code for so many unspoken indecencies?

 

Reggio Wish #2 – Ateliers and Aesthetics

In aesthetics, anti-bias teaching, class-sensitive teaching, creativity, critical literacy, Education Policy, literacy, politics, Standing up for Kids on December 4, 2012 at 1:59 am

Ateliers and Aesthetics

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 “When we speak of aesthetics we speak of our bodies. From this point of view we can have a better understanding of what is meant by art. The work of art is to create antennae. Antennae which perceive all that is intolerable, discomforting, hateful and repugnant in the universe that we ourselves have created.” (Vecchi, 2010)

Vecchi writes about the radical move Loris Malaguzzi made when he positioning the atelier – and the atelierista – in Reggio schools. The atelier’s central location also positions it as the lifeblood of a school, a space where all things flow out and flow in. This conception of aesthetics as central to human life and necessary for children’s daily experiences is so different to see in person than the way the arts sometimes get integrated into projects even in some Reggio-inspired schooling and writing in the U.S. Arts-integration is sometimes reduced to making things, painting, drawing, or even a dramatic performance. Rarely do I hear educators articulating the fundamental purpose of aesthetics (or “art” as we usually call it) in education as “creating antennae” for our full bodies to perceive the beautiful and mundane and unjust in the world.

Inviting a non-educator artist to play a central role in curriculum and pedagogy is brilliant. Too often in educator preparation programs, the focus is so narrowly aimed at all the wrong things – controlling bodies (aka classroom management), controlling minds (aka disciplinary knowledge), and controlling futures (aka assessment, labeling, and tracking). A serious commitment to aesthetics and its role in life would mean not only inviting non-educator artists to the table and school, but also immersing future educators in antennae-making through deep and full-bodied engagement with aesthetics.

I wish for children, youth, and teachers to live their daily lives in schools saturated with the sensibilities of artists to make sense of the world, and surrounded by massive amounts of diverse materials through which to make that sense. This would no doubt create problems in the fundamental ideology of U.S. schooling and society, however, where most people believe there is one right answer and one right way – or at least “best practices” – and the ambiguity that comes along with art-making and living through aesthetics would challenge that ideology to its core.

Vecchi writes, “An aesthetic sense is fed by empathy, an intense relationship with things; it does not put things in rigid categories and might, therefore, constitute a problem where excessive certainty and cultural simplification is concerned” (Vecchi, p. 9). We are certainly in a time and place where “excessive certainty” and “cultural simplification” are highly valued, and ambiguity and aesthetics are deeply suspect. How might we individually begin to make ourselves more pliable? If I settle into a body/mind/way of being that embraces ambiguity, uncertainty, and a creative sensibility that cultivates my antennae of the world, what impact would that have on the people with whom I interact every day? What impact will it have on me? On the world? What if children and youth and teachers were encouraged to cultivate such uncertainty? I wish for the collective courage to take such a worthwhile risk.

the CLASSroom project

In Uncategorized on December 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Check out this video of our project. Mark Vagle and I began the CLASSroom project in 2010 with a dozen or so practicing teachers in a 2-day workshop about social class, classism, anti-classist practices and policies, and a vision of classrooms and schools as amazing, creative, empowering spaces where one’s class background doesn’t determine opportunities in school or the kind of education and treatment one receives.

Now we’ve worked with more than 1,000 educators in Georgia, and we are constantly inspired by what people are doing to make sure schools don’t mirror the unjust society that we live in. Mark is at the University of Minnesota and beginning a parallel project up in the blustery north – and we can’t wait to see where this unpredictable and exciting journey takes us to next.

Reggio Wish #1 – Slow Schooling

In class-sensitive teaching, communities, creativity, Education Policy, high-stakes tests, inquiry, Reggio Inspired Schooling, teacher education on December 2, 2012 at 1:53 am
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Slow Schooling

Five minutes pass, then ten minutes, then twenty.

Thirty.

Forty-five.

Has it really been an hour?

A young girl and boy wander around the schoolyard taking turns experimenting with a camera that offers new and unusual ways of looking and seeing and living in the world.

A close-up of grass, part of a tree, a swing, and a friend provide material for curiosity and wonder and laughter and play.

The two children spend at least an hour on their own. No adult checking on them wondering about their task and whether they’re on it, no expectation that some kind of share out will hold them responsible for an adult mandated lesson they were to put into practice, no interruptions or calls to the carpet or lights flipping on and off or shushes or claps or public celebrations of other children who are doing a different task.

To be in a place of such peace where  children and adults work/play for long periods of uninterrupted times pulled me into the slowness of being, the rhythm of the present, and the quiet of curiosity. To be in a place where time is supplanted as the governor of activity by the meaningful movements of people is really stunning given that I spend so much of my time in educational spaces that are marked by the minute.

When a society (or any sub-culture of a society) becomes so compelled by narratives of efficiency and accountability, it is inevitable that measures of time will begin to rule human lives. And if measures of time begin ruling adult lives, it is inevitable that the same restrictions will soon be forced upon children – perhaps with even more force given the assumptions from most perspectives that children are to be controlled in their stage of only partial humanity.

I am struck by the ease with which children and adults populate the spaces of the Reggio schools. Bodies seemed natural and relaxed. Talk flowed without a sense of urgency. Conversation happened. Wondering, wandering, play, work, and smiles interacted fluidly as if everyone was in a time machine. A time-standing-still machine.

What long-term effect would a commitment to a slow school movement have on the quality of children’s, youth’s, and adults’ lives? If a school is not governed by time passing, but instead governed by the present and tending to our joys, curiosities, needs, and togetherness, what would happen in that school? How would we recognize it?

With the U.S. policymakers and education reformers persuaded by “time on task” and “preparation” for a hypothetical future of “career and college,” most schools become spaces where fluidity is outside the lexicon. Where present is only here to prepare for the future. Like the grassroots slow food movement that challenges all the efficiencies and speed of fast corporate food and the culture-changing impact it has had on nearly everyone, I wish for a slow school movement that parallels in commitment to the local and present.

I wish for a school movement where two children can wander around for an hour taking photographs of objects and people they find curious, and their explorations won’t be disrupted by clapping hands, flipping lightswitches, teachers calling out, or threats of losing their 10-minute recess for not being on task.

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