Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pink, "Funhouse"

This is Pink's video for her 2008 song "Funhouse," from her studio album of the same name. Apparently, this album's original title was "Heartbreak is a Motherfucker," which would have made me so happy if it had stuck.

This is such an awesome video that it makes me want to light things on fire. I can't help but point out my two favorite moments, both facial expressions, at  :43 and 2:40.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Aurora Alternative High School's final commencement ceremony

Tonight will mark the final commencement ceremony for Aurora Alternative High School, a public school in Bloomington, IN, that has served its community well for 15 years.

The Bloomington Herald-Times ran a nice article about Aurora this morning. I'm pasting it below instead of linking you to it because the Herald-Times requires paid subscription to access its online content.


Seniors say tearful goodbye to Aurora
School's last class graduates tonight

331-4215 |
May 28, 2010
Expect more tears than usual, for more reasons, at tonight’s Aurora Alternative High School graduation ceremony.

Lindsay Smith, who will deliver the welcoming remarks for today’s 7 p.m. ceremony at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, referred during Thursday morning’s rehearsal to the term “commencement” meaning a beginning rather than an ending.

But everybody attending tonight will know Aurora is ending.

The Monroe County Community School Corp. will run its alternative education program out of Broadview Learning Center this fall, under a new name, with plans for Aurora’s current facility at 524 N. Fairview St. not yet finalized.

“It’s a shame it’s ending,” Aurora senior Austin Clayton said after the rehearsal. “I think it’s good that the new program will be at Broadview instead of North (as originally planned). Something is better than nothing.

“But it won’t be Aurora.”

It’s difficult to adequately convey the depth of appreciation for the school felt by the Aurora students interviewed Thursday, whose words came with clear conviction, and who talked literally of lives saved.

“When you got a chance to experience this school,” Clayton said, “you ended up feeling deeply about it.

“It’s disheartening to know it’s going to be shut down, but it did a whole lot of good for 15 years. I feel it literally saved lives. I was in bad shape when I got to Aurora.”

Annie Hackett, who intends to study photography at Indiana University this fall, said, “Aurora saved a lot of kids, from themselves and from outside forces. Without that sense of support and family, a lot of kids will go astray — and when we didn’t get it elsewhere, we got it at Aurora.

“I’m incredibly disappointed they’re shutting it down.”

That’s a clear consensus among Aurora’s 2010 graduates who, reportedly, already had some good cries during the school’s senior luncheon Wednesday.

Hackett noted Aurora’s staff is feeling it, too. “Commencement will be very emotional, and not just for the students,” she said. Aurora teacher Becky Rupert joined principal Chuck Holloway in helping guide students through Thursday’s rehearsal and said, afterward, “This graduation ceremony will be especially poignant, obviously, and it’ll stick with us. I’ve been through a lot of commencements, but I’m sure this will be the one I remember first and foremost.”

Mallie Stevens’ daughter Sophia, 3, might be just old enough to remember what it was like walking hand-in-hand with her mother as Aurora’s seniors practiced their processional Thursday. Stevens, a 2010 “Comeback Kid” honoree by the Northside Exchange Club of Bloomington, was pregnant with Sophia when she arrived at Aurora and gave birth to a second daughter, Mariah, two months ago. But she is ready to graduate and to study nursing at Ivy Tech.

“I never, ever dreamed I could make it this far, but Aurora made it possible for me,” Stevens said. “Graduation will be very emotional for everybody, but there will be pride, too, being part of this final class for this amazing school. ”

And, as Kiah Jacobs pointed out, he and his colleagues will carry Aurora on in their hearts.

“Everything comes to an end, even good things,” Jacobs said. “But it isn’t over for Aurora, really. It will continue within all of us, and positive ramifications from it will continue in the community for years. As Chuck has said, Aurora isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.

“It lives.”

Aurora Alternative High School

2010 Commencement Ceremony

WHEN: 7 tonight

WHERE: Buskirk-Chumley Theater

Number of graduates: 25, eight of whom will speak at the ceremony.

Aurora Class of 2010

William Earl Baker, Brentney Campbell, Austin Clayton, Michael A. Colussi, Steven L. Cunningham, Cody Fleener, Sarah Marie Godsey, Annie Rose Hackett, Aaron Mark Hardy Hansen, Mackenzie Janáe Harding, Tristani NaShay Hawkins, Kiah Jacobs, Tarra Raye Mayle, Cheyenne Kylie McCune, Ben P. Odongo, Haley Lynn Ramsey, Aaron Michael Rivera, Kelby Lee Roberts, Sam Malcom Schroeder, J. Micheal Sullivan, Nich Kane Watkins, Jacob M. Wicker, Mallie Carmen Williams-Stevens, Natalie Marie Wineinger, Kasie Zaayer.

a call for businesses to boycott the Bloomington Herald-Times

Tonight will mark the last commencement ceremony for Aurora Alternative High School, whose doors will shut at the end of this school year after 15 years of serving the Bloomington, IN, community.

The Bloomington Herald-Times ran a nice short article about Aurora this morning, which I'm posting in a separate post. I'm posting it here instead of directing you to the article because the Herald-Times has stuck its online content behind a paywall, a decision I oppose deeply. The paywall seems even more wrongheaded and socially irresponsible during times of community crisis, as in, for example, when an economic recession paired with terribly short-sighted and heinously pro-rich tax laws force local school boards to make excruciating decisions about which programs to cut.

The publisher of the Herald-Times, Mayer Maloney, has stood firmly behind the paywall decision from its inception, arguing that it guarantees advertisers' access to local readers who, because they live in the community, are far more likely to purchase the goods and services being advertised.

Let's analyze this stance. First, the paywall is not an effort to recruit local readers; it's an effort to keep non-local readers out. Which means that what happens in Bloomington stays in Bloomington, since the vast majority of readers live or work in the region.

Second, the economic value of a local newspaper is directly related to its community value, and community value is directly related to the newspaper's penetration into the community it serves. As I've mentioned before, the Herald-Times is pretty much the only game in town, which perhaps explains why Maloney feels justified in prioritizing the paper's value to advertisers over its value to community members. But eventually, I believe this approach will fail the Herald-Times. It's inevitable that one of the following will happen: Another news outlet will provide good (or good enough) local reporting that will be made freely available to all community members; or, in the absence of another quality news source, a community whose primary news source is sequestered behind a paywall will be a community to whom local news matters less and less. Maloney has said that subscription rates have been steady since the inception of the paywall, and this may be so; but it won't be so forever.

And even if business remains good at the Herald-Times, this doesn't justify the social irresponsibility of making news available only to those who are willing to pay. Especially during times of crisis--and let's not mistake this time for anything less than crisis--access to local news is essential for an engaged, politically active community.

If the Herald-Times refuses to stand down from its short-sighted position on news paywalls, then I call for local businesses to boycott the paper for the good of the community these businesses serve. If the Herald-Times will not heed the needs of its community members, then perhaps it will listen to the groups whose interests do seem to matter.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

the sleeping alone review of films: Robin Hood (2010)

summary: I liked it better when it played as Braveheart, The Patriot, Lord of the Rings, and Saving Private Ryan.

I wondered after watching the new Robin Hood if there was ever a point during filming when someone slipped up and accidentally referred to Russell Crowe's character as William Wallace instead of as Robin. It's also entirely possible that someone accidentally referred to Cate Blanchett's Marion as "Eowyn"--dye Blanchett's hair blond and you have a dead ringer for Miranda Otto's version of the handsome noblewoman-warrior of Middle Earth.

I swear to you that there were even hobbits before this film's end.

And that's not all: There was a beach-storming mission, complete with what appears to be the exact same landing craft props used in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. There were villagers locked by soldiers in a burning building: All of the smoke and fire, with none of the crisis of conscience or emotional gravity played out the first time around in The Patriot!

This version of Robin Hood is presented as a prequel, focusing on the details of the lives of Robin and his Merry Men leading up to their days as outlaws. Usually a prequel tells a different story than the one you already know, but this version of Robin Hood doesn't tell you much you didn't already learn from watching the previous 7,000 versions of the Robin Hood story. And of course, any details that are new to the Robin Hood canon are cribbed from the movies I listed above and probably a few other films that I haven't thought of yet.

The hobbits rode ponies when it was time to do battle with King John's orcs.

It does make a valiant attempt to be epic, and it does this primarily by plunking down sweeping shots of the English countryside accompanied by orchestral music. These scenes are, as you can probably imagine, completely gratuitous; they serve absolutely no purpose except perhaps as proof that, unlike the vast majority of epic films, this one was filmed in the actual region where the story takes place.

Bully for them, I guess. But as director Ridley Scott ought to know by now, authentic scenery doesn't equal an authentic story. An authentic story--an epic--is achieved through authentic details put together in a way that engages, surprises, and moves the audience. Homer knew this, which is why he had Achilles chain Hector up by the ankles and drag him in circles around the city. Tolkien knew this, which is why he had the smallest, simplest characters of his story raise themselves up to giants' height. And Peter Jackson knew how to pay homage to the epics that came before LOTR, including but not limited to Tolkien's trilogy itself, and still surprise and move us through the choices he made in adapting the story to the screen.

Ridley Scott knows something about how to tell a good story, as he showed in The Gladiator, the Alien trilogy, Alien,* and Thelma & Louise. And you might argue that these films are, at least to some extent, epics in their own right. But these films succeed on the strength of their characters, and because we care about the characters we care about their struggles against overwhelming odds. But epics generally tell a story through the characters that's larger than any single character--you might say that the primary character of the epic story is the story itself. Scott has not done as well in his attempts to tell this sort of story, as Kindom of Heaven and, now, Robin Hood attest.

I don't know: Maybe I'm quibbling here in my attempt to divide a good character-driven film from a good epic-driven film. I'm just trying to understand why a director who is as good at making films as Ridley Scott is can still come up with a film as gloriously, clunkily terrible as Robin Hood. If we can figure out what makes him fail, then we can just get together and tell him to stop making that kind of movie and keep making the kind of movie that proves his cinematic brilliance. Let Bartlet be Bartlet, I always say.

Robin Hood (2010) stars Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, and---oddly enough--Max von Sydow. It's rated PG-13 and contains some violence, mild sexual content, and a storyline so plodding that anyone under 13 is not likely to be willing to sit through the whole 2 hours and 20 minutes.

*Correction, 5/24/10, 8:40 a.m.: As Andres G. points out in the comments below this post, Ridley Scott was responsible for only the first film of the Alien trilogy.

VozMob: a neat project working in support of immigrant rights

I just got back from a work-related meeting in Arizona, and I'm therefore feeling a need to counteract my willingness to visit a state whose newly passed anti-immigration law is one of the most deeply and overtly mean-spirited, evil-minded, and willfully ignorant pieces of legislation I can imagine.

Here's a neat project I heard about while I was in Arizona: VozMob, or Voces Moviles, which I was introduced to by Ben Stokes, in comparison to whom I feel woefully inadequate. Here's the description of this effort to give voice to undocumented immigrants and day laborers, according to the VozMob website:
Voces Moviles (vozmob) es una plataforma para que trabajadores y trabajadoras inmigrantes en Los Ángeles puedan crear historias sobre sus vidas y comunidades directamente desde sus teléfonos celulares. Vozmob le ayuda a la gente lograr una participación más amplia en la esfera pública digital.

Here's a rough translation into English:
Mobile Voices (VozMob) is a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from their mobile phones. VozMob helps people achieve wider participation in the digital public sphere.

According to Ben, one of the goals of this project is to fight bigoted, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the sort exhibited by the site, whose members drive around looking for groups of immigrants, then taunt them, call them names, and otherwise antagonize them by engaging in incredibly juvenile and embarrassing behavior. When the targets of their abuse respond in anger, someone takes a picture and tosses it up online, using it as proof positive! that immigrants are rapists and murderers!

This is a beautiful project, one that appears to do real, important work in supporting immigrants' ability and willingness to name and claim their experiences.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

(self-)sabotaged by my email program

file under: goddammit, everything's ruined.

I discovered yesterday that my email program's settings were misconfigured, leading to this result: A subset of the email messages I've been sending out were never received by the intended recipient. They were never received by anyone at all. Worse, the emails that I know I sent simply no longer exist anywhere in my email archives, even though I double-archive everything through multiple email accounts.

I don't know how to even begin to deal with this mess.

Because god knows how these dropped emails have shaped my personal and professional relationships. How many people think I've ignored them completely, because they never received the email response to their single request? How many people think of me as basically dependable, except for the handful of times that they were waiting for something that never came? How many people think of me as the kind of friend who usually responds to email?

And this doesn't even touch on how my misconfigured email program has undermined my work at crafting my email identity. Like most people, I make decisions regularly about when and how to send email based on how I hope to be perceived by others. This is an important aspect of building a professional identity these days, and if you don't spend time thinking about how your email use colors your colleagues' perceptions of you, you damn well better start thinking about it.

So that's down the toilet for me too. I had to reconfigure my settings, which meant that every email I was holding in my inbox as part of my ongoing to-do list has also been sent to the archives. Which means that the hundreds of smaller things I've been saving to follow up on when the time's right--those have disappeared on me as well.

I can hear you techno-skeptics now: That's what happens when you rely too much on technology. That's where blind faith leads you. That's why nothing beats good old face to face communication.

Which would be fine, if digital communications tools hadn't led to an explosion in sheer numbers of personal and professional relationships that need maintaining. There's simply no way to keep up with those relationships without tools like email. I've had days characterized by dozens of email conversations maintained over hundreds of emails. Say what you will about the "richness" of in-person communications as compared to email conversations, but there are times when rich conversations are unnecessary. There are times when shit just needs to get done.

And email can be a fantastic tool for getting shit done, especially when the tool is working as we've come to expect it to work. When emails get dropped, though, the tool turns into the exact opposite of a shit-getting-done tool. It becomes a tool that complicates things exponentially.

For me, the lesson here is not that I need to rely less on digital communication tools, and it's not that I need to approach these tools with a consistent attitude of skepticism. The lesson is that effective use of digital communication tools must be supported with a critical computational literacy approach to those tools.

Because I'm the one who misconfigured my email program in the first place. I trusted the program to autoformat itself instead of using the manual setup feature. Then, when it first became clear several weeks ago that some of my emails were not being received, I assumed the fault lay with others' programs. I even wondered if someone was hacking into their email accounts, because I trusted my email program.

Even now, I think but am not positive that I've resolved the issue. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that I've never spent a lot of time learning about the language of these sorts of things. IMAP, POP, SMTP--none of those letter groupings mean very much to me (though they certainly mean more to me now than they did before I spent a day repairing my broken email program). But the email programs we use don't really bother trying to explain those terms to us. They figure it's information we don't need to know, since we can trust the programs to know how to set themselves up.

Trusting auto-configuration is one of our biggest mistakes.  I can't do much to repair the damage I did to myself by allowing auto-configure to misconfigure my email program, but I can commit to never again allowing auto-configure tools to override me. From here on out, I'm committing to always choosing the manual setup option for every new tool or program I use--not because I believe this will lead to smooth sailing from here on out (it won't), but because I need to learn how to manage the tools I use in order to maintain control over how, when, where, and why I use these tools to interact with others.

Twenty-six years ago, Apple told us it would help us stand up against an Orwellian future. Somehow, in the intervening years, Apple stopped being the solution and started being part of the problem. In fact, if we've learned anything at all, it's that no major technology-based corporation exists to help us think more critically about the tools we use. This is why it's up to us to make smart decisions. It's up to us to be the chainsaw--or, if you wish, the flying hammer--we wish to see in the world.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

principles for ethical educational research

I've been thinking lately about the burden of speaking for others.

Because I'm an educational researcher, and speaking for others is the heart of what we do. We walk into a classroom, watch some things happen for a little while, then make decisions about which stories are worth telling, and how, and why, and to whom. And this is precisely what we're supposed to do. This is precisely why we head into the classroom in the first place: to tell stories about what learning looks like.

But it can be such a heavy burden, this speaking for others. You know the burden is heavy when the simplest challenge is finding a way to represent what happened in a way that everybody would agree is reasonable and accurate. But that's not where our responsibility ends, because no research findings are politically or socially neutral. Every representation of research is an articulation of a belief system; it's an expression of a worldview; it's a document that leads people to act in ways that can help or hurt the populations we hope to represent.

And the burden gets heavier for researchers working with marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised populations, since speaking for these groups can so easily fall into a reproduction of the oppression that rains down on them from all around. Paulo Freire warns us against the "false charity" that so often comes from members of dominant groups who wish to help the oppressed:

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands--whether of individuals or entire peoples--need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.
It seems to me that false charity emerges when a person becomes too confident that she knows and understands the needs and interests of the oppressed groups she hopes to represent. False charity can therefore look like an awful lot of things: Research focusing on vocational education for poor kids. (Why would we dare to assume working class kids wouldn't want to go to college?) Research showing working class kids are capable of doing college-level work. (Using college readiness as our measure of 'success' allows policymakers to continue to make decisions that assume that college readiness is the most important goal, thereby continuing to marginalize kids for whom college is neither desired nor possible.) Research documenting the learning trajectories of immigrant students. (We're at a cultural point at which nearly anything that's said about immigrants, especially in America, can be twisted to hurt the very populations it's intended to help.)

I've been working in a small alternative high school populated primarily by lower class and working-class kids. I've seen miracles happen in this school for many of its students, and I've met graduates of the school who talk about their time in the school as the most powerful and important educational experience of their lives. Sitting in a classroom in this school, or walking down its halls, or talking to its students, reminds me of how powerfully transformative an education can be. I wish you could all spend a day at this school. You would walk out joyful, hopeful and optimistic about the future of our children. You would walk out with a renewed faith in human beings.

But you won't get the chance to visit this school, because the school board decided to shut it down. I probably don't need to tell you that I think this is a mistake. I further believe that the decision to close this school was motivated by a deep cultural prejudice against poor kids. We don't often say it out loud, but we hold a cultural belief that a child's value is largely determined by the likelihood that she will go to college; our culture is embarrassed by its children who are poor, who live in rented houses or youth shelters or foster care, who are not college-bound. Our society is built on the backs of these kids; we need their labor to keep our society running--and this need only embarrasses us all the more.

It's the job of researchers who work with marginalized populations to represent their research in a way that not only serves the best interests of those populations but also helps to rewrite the cultural narrative that keeps these populations oppressed. It's not easy work, simple work, or quick work, but it's necessary work.

With these things in mind, I want to offer a set of principles for educational research that I hope can help guide researchers in our work with marginalized populations--and maybe our work with all sorts of learning populations.

1. We exist in the service of the communities we work for. I have to believe that when we forget this, it's on accident. But we must never, ever forget that our work should first of all support the needs and interests of both the learners and the educators working inside of our chosen learning communities. This means that we have to actually talk to the learners and educators to find out what they want, and we have to take them at their word and not, for example, guess that if they knew more about the world they'd want something different.

2. We exist to serve the needs and interests of the communities we work for. It is not our job to decide whether a community's interests are good or right; it's only our job to work in service of those interests. If a researcher can't get behind the stated needs and interests of the members of her chosen research community, then she needs to find another community to research.

3. It's our job to represent our work in ways that support ethical decisions by policymakers and external stakeholders. Educational researchers serve as an important bridge between learning communities and policymakers who make decisions about the futures of those communities. One of our most essential roles is to represent research findings in a way that is clear and useful to policymakers while also representing to those policymakers findings that support the needs and interests of the communities we serve. I'm not saying this is easy. I'm just saying it's essential.

4. All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. Let me say that again: There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore do research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community's interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to represent.

Here I want to crib a quote from Jim Gee, who laid out his own set of principles for ethical human behavior in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. After describing these principles, he made this declaration:

I would claim that all human beings would, provided they understood them, accept these conceptual principles. Thus, failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human’, in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

This declaration was made in the second edition of Gee's book; if you own the third edition, don't bother looking for the quote--for reasons that are unclear to me, he removed it and instead simply asserts that we really shouldn't bother trying to change the minds of people who disagree with these ethical principles. I want to call for a return to the stronger language. Given the incredibly high stakes of public education in America, we don't have time for politeness. We're in a fight for the very lives of the students we serve, and it may be that too much politeness is what got us here in the first place.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Jay Smooth on people who act like they don't pay attention to politics because they're smarter than the rest of us

Here's Jay Smooth smacking down people who say they don't pay attention to politics because every politician is the same, nothing changes, etc.:

"You can’t be on the Know-Nothing team all season and then put on the Know-Everything jersey at playoff time. That’s your team. Stay over there. If you never pay attention to politics, then you don’t get to come over here and tell me how politics affects my life."

Get mad at ignorant people. Visit Jay Smooth's site, ill doctrine.

Monday, May 10, 2010

against 'tolerance'

I want to share with you a beautiful piece of prose I encountered via Out Magazine. The essay, "Riding in Cars with Lesbians,"  by Helena Andrews, is the memoir of a woman who grew up with a pair of painfully abusive mothers. Though they mainly directed their abuse at each other, the scars crisscrossing the writer's emotional terrain are evident everywhere you look. Here's an excerpt:
A 99-cent store dry erase board saved my life. I’d never given the thing much thought before using it to slash manic slaps of marker onto our Frigidaire. The grown-ups were in the living room arguing during the commercials, trading insults to a soundtrack about sunglasses. Frances, we need to talk about this. My name is Geek, I put ’em on as a shocker. Do whatever you want, Vernell, leave me out of it. Man, I love these Blublockers. I hate you. Everything is clear. Keep your voice down. They block out the sun. Why? Helena knows what a bitch you are. Oh, yeah, I gotta get me some.

I also love this piece because it presents a clear-eyed picture of an abusive household that happens to be headed by a pair of lesbians, though really, the author treats the gay issue as a secondary thing. Sure, the teenaged daughter is embarrassed to have two mothers--but her embarrassment is depicted as on par with the range of things our parents can do to embarrass us. A trashy car, embarrassing wardrobe choices, the fact of a mother and a stepmother with no father in evidence--it's all approximately equally embarrassing.

We need this sort of narrative.

We need people who can talk about members of the LGBTQ community in terms as human as those we've traditionally reserved for mainstream (straight) people. Gays are neither the vile, depraved and hellbound pedophiles that religious and far-right political groups would like you to believe; but neither are we the perfect angels who only have missionary sex at night with the doors locked and the lights out, who want nothing more than a house in the suburbs and our allotment of stock options and children, who pray to the Lord Our God each night before we go to sleep. Like most people in the world, most LGBTQ people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Sometimes we want to act up and act out; sometimes we want  to toss up our queerness like a flaming red mohawk:

And sometimes, like my friends Elaine and Nancy, we just want to get married:

And sometimes, as in Helena Andrews' essay, we're far less generous and kind than we wish we could be. Sometimes we can't help but talk shit about our partners, even in front of children. Sometimes we're mad enough that we can't help but take a swing or two, even at the people we love.

It's not okay to behave badly, but it's okay to acknowledge that gays could be better or worse people, depending on the day or the circumstances. It's okay to acknowledge that gays are decent people, beautiful people, sometimes heroic people, but mostly gays are just average people who are trying to live their lives as fully and kindly and with as much joy and love as they can.

I'm not a fan of the notion of "tolerance," mainly because I believe it suggests that the people who are supposed to be "tolerated" must be proven to be acting "tolerably." That's not equality; that's patronizing. That's a power differential that favors the status quo. That's charity, handed out to the trembling hand held up in supplication. That's a stunted revolution that permits only the most limited type of dancing.

I prefer multiplicity, openness, dialogue. I prefer that we strike down the cultural narrative of gays as a monolithic group walking together in lockstep, especially since that narrative is not borne out by the truth of "gay culture." I prefer--I propose--that we craft a new narrative, one that presents members of the LGBTQ community as exactly as diverse, as variable, as perfect and flawed, as everyone else in the world.

Friday, May 7, 2010

ice cold hands taking hold of me: planning for the Supernatural season finale

Next Thursday, May 13, at 9:00 ET, the season finale of Supernatural will air. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. I've spent a lot of time pretending like I don't care about Supernatural, just in case they find out and decide to cancel it on me as they like to do every time they learn about something I love.

But this is one of the best shows on broadcast television right now, and what thrills me most of all is thinking about how much this show has evolved. In the early days, it really was a show about a pair of ghost-hunting brothers who chased supernatural beings around. It didn't even appear to be particularly courageous in those early days. The first time Dean Winchester died, back in season 2, he asked the reaper who had come to claim him what death was like. "Oh no," she said. "No spoilers." You figure, yeah, nobody wants to touch that one.

I shake my head and laugh in disbelief at 2006 me who thought Supernatural would take the safe road. Since then, we've seen heaven. We've seen hell. We've seen angels and demons and we've learned God's backstory.

And you guys, this isn't even the neatest thing about Supernatural.

The neatest thing is the evolution of the relationship between the Winchester brothers. They really did have hopes and plans for their lives, and everything got railroaded by a series of events that were out of their control. They hate each other for it, and they love each other desperately. And they squabble, and they nag, and they fight the hounds of hell to save each other, and they act as if they understand each other perfectly, even if they can't see each other clearly. It's beautiful and tragic and true to the dysfunction of life.

I wish I could embed an example here, but CW, the channel that airs Supernatural, has found a way to keep most clipes unembeddable. Instead, I'll show you three clips that I can embed here: The promo that aired before ths season began, featuring Ralph Stanley's song "O Death," followed by the trailer for the season finale, also featuring Ralph Stanley's song. Then the last clip is a music video that aired at the end of an episode this season. I'm including it because it makes me happy.

And here's the music video.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: Closing remarks for the AERA 2010 annual meeting

I just got back from my first trip to the annual meeting of AERA, the American Educational Research Association. AERA is apparently the biggest educational research conference in America. I had a fantastic time (highlight: I got to have dinner with Jim Gee!) and my presentation went well (highlight: I argued with the panel's discussant over why thinking about gender inequity isn't enough if you're not also thinking about class inequity!), and I don't think I made too much of a fool out of myself.

I really enjoyed my first trip to this conference, though when I got home I learned from others that there are significant challenges to be made about the structure, format, and ethos of AERA. I am coming around to that way of thinking and will post my thoughts on this soon.

For now, though, I want to share with you the paper I had to writereallyfast when I got back from the conference. It's a final paper for a course on computational technologies, and because I was thinking about AERA, social justice, and why the conference's biggest events mostly featured staid, mainstream thinkers, I decided to write the paper as closing remarks for the conference. I am sure that once the AERA organizers read my closing remarks, they will invite me to deliver next year's closing remarks in person. I am also available to deliver opening remarks and keynote addresses.

Notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: On a critical computational literacy agenda for a time of great urgency
Closing Remarks for the AERA Annual Meeting
Jenna McWilliams, Indiana University
May 4, 2010

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, at the close of this year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

I want to talk to you tonight about the nature of urgency.

Because urgency characterizes the work we do, doesn’t it? The education of our children—our efforts to prepare them to join in on this beautiful and necessary project of naming and claiming the world—it is certainly a matter of the deepest urgency. Even more so because of the war being waged over the bodies and minds of our children.

It’s a war whose contours are deeply familiar to many of us—more so the longer we have been a part of this struggle over education. Certainly the issues we’re fighting over have limned the edges of our educational imagination for generations: How do we know what kids know? How can we prepare them for success in their academic, vocational, and life pursuits? What should schools look like, and how can we fill our schools up with qualified teachers who can do their jobs well? No matter what else, then, at least we’re continuing to ask at least some of the right questions.

Yet a deeper than normal sense of urgency has characterized this year’s annual meeting. It was a “hark ye yet again” sort of urgency: We stood, once again, on a knife’s edge, waiting for word of legislative decisions to be passed down from the policymakers—among whom there are very few educational researchers—to the researchers—among whom there are very few policymakers.

And what sorts of decisions were we waiting to hear on? The same sorts we’ve been wringing our hands over for a decade or more: Decisions over the standardization of education. Development of a proposed set of Common Core Standards whose content seemed painfully anemic to many of us. We’re waiting to learn whether teacher pay will be linked to student performance on standardized tests. Massive budget cuts leading to termination of teachers and programs—these certainly feel familiar to us, though the scope of these cuts and the potential consequences of these decisions seem to loom larger than ever before. The decision by the Texas Department of Education to pervert and politicize its K-12 curriculum by removing references to historical events and even terminology that might offend members of the political Right-—the specifics are new, but the story feels familiar.

A call to action was paired with the clanging of the alarm bells. Ernest Morrell told us that he had counseled his kids to prepare presentations that not only described their work and achievements but that also included a call to action. “I told them, ’Don’t let them leave this room without marching orders’,” he said. “We need to do better. AERA needs to do better.”

He’s right, of course. And I plan to heed Ernest’s advice and not let you leave this room without your marching orders. But first I want to explore the edges of this new urgency, explain why critical computational literacy is part and parcel of the urgency of this moment, and explain exactly what I mean by the term.

There are at least two reasons for the acuteness of the urgency that has characterized this year’s AERA conference. The first is that many of us had hoped for something more, something better, something more honorable from the Obama administration. After eight years living in a political wasteland, many of us felt a glee all out of proportion with reality upon hearing Barack Obama’s position on educational issues. We felt hope. Even a warm half cup of water can feel like a long, tall drink when you’ve just walked out of a desert.

It’s a long revolution, you know. And if Obama authorizes something that looks very much like No Child Left Behind, and if he mandates merit pay based on student performance on standardized tests, and if the recent changes made by the religious right to the Texas state history curriculum stand, and if school board nationwide continue to make terrible, terrible decisions about how to cut costs, and if we see the largest teacher layoff in our history and class sizes creep up to 40 students per room and if computers get taken over by test prep programs and remedial tutoring systems, well, we’ll do our best to live to fight another day. The other day, I listened to Jim Gee talking about his deep anger at the people who run our education system. But he also said something we should all take to heart: “I’ll fight them until I’m dead,” he said. Let’s embrace this position. If they want to claim the hearts and minds of our children, let’s make it so they do it over our cold, dead bodies.

Let’s not let ourselves begin to believe that the stakes are any lower than they actually are. This is the second reason for the urgency this year: There is the very real prospect that the decisions we make within our educational system will get taken up by education departments across the globe. Around 30 of us attended an early-morning session called “Perspectives From the Margins: Globalization, Decolonization, and Liberation.” The discussants, Michael Apple and Dave Stovall, spoke with great eloquence about the nature of this urgency. You’ll forgive me for secretly recording and then transcribing a piece of each of their talks here.

Michael Apple, responding to a powerful presentation on rural science education by researcher Jeong-Hee Kim and teacher-researcher Deb Abernathy, spoke of the far-reaching implications of the local decisions we make:
As we sit here, I have people visiting me from China. They are here to study No Child Left Behind, and they are here to study performance pay. All of the decisions we make that that principal and Deb and you are struggling against are not just struggles in the United States, they are truly global—so that the decisions we make impact not just the kids in the rural areas of the United State, but the rural areas of the people who are invisible, the same people who deconstruct our computers.

Dave Stovall, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, underscored the need to think of the global implications of the policy decisions that intersect within the realm of education:

Arizona is Texas is Greece is Palestine is where we are. This day and time is serious. When a person in Texas cannot say the world capitalism in a public school, we live in serious times. When a person in Arizona can be taken out of a classroom at five years old, to never return, we live in serious times. When we can rationalize in the state of Illinois and city of Chicago that having 5 grams of heroin on a person accounts for attempted murder, we’re living in different times. When we can talk about in Palestine that young folks have now been deemed the most violent threat to the Israeli state, we’re living in different times. And now, how do we engage and interrupt those narratives based again on the work we do?

These times are different and serious, and talking about critical computational literacy may make me look a little like Nero with his fiddle. But critical computational literacy, or indeed its paucity in our education system, is the dry kindling that keeps Rome burning.

I’ll explain why. Let’s talk for a minute about another Apple, the electronics company Apple Corp. The year 2010 marked the release of Apple’s iPad, a tablet computer designed as a multipurpose information and communication tool. Despite mixed reviews of its usability and features, records show an estimated 500,000 units sold between pre-orders and purchases in the first week after the iPad’s release.

This has been accompanied by a push for consideration of the iPad’s utility for education, especially higher education, with schools working to develop technical support for iPad use on campus and at least one university, Seton Hall, promising to provide all incoming freshmen with iPads along with Macbooks. One question—-how might the iPad transform education?-—has been the topic of conversation for months.

“The iPad,” crowed Neil Offen in the Herald-Sune (2010), “could be more than just another way to check your e-mail or play video games. It has the potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn.”

Certainly, these conversations reflect a positive shift in attitudes about what comprises literacy in the 21st Century. If you attended the fantastic symposium on Sunday called “Leveraging What We Know: A Literacy Agenda for the 21st Century,” you heard from the panelists a powerfully persuasive argument that “literacy” is no longer simple facility with print media. Indeed, facility with print media may still be necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. As the emergence of the iPad, the Kindle, and similar literacy tools make evident, the notion of “text” has become more aligned with Jay Lemke’s (2006) description of “multimedia constellations”—loose groupings of hypermediated, multimodal texts that exist “not just in the imagination of literary theorists, but in simple everyday fact” (pg. 4). Add to this the ongoing contestation of the tools we use to access and navigate those constellations of social information, and the urgency of a need to shift how we approach literacy becomes increasingly obvious.

As anyone who works in the literacy classroom knows, this is by no means a simple task. This task is complicated even further by the dark side of this new rhetoric about literacy: There’s a technological determinism hiding in there, an attitude that suggests an educational edition of Brave New Worldism. Offen’s celebration of the iPad aligns with the approach of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues (2000), who a decade ago trumpeted the transformative potential of a range of new technologies. In explaining that “certain computer-based applications can enhance learning for students at various achievement levels,” they offer descriptions of promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things” (pg. 78, emphasis mine).

More recently, the media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006) described the increasingly multimodal nature of narratives and texts as “convergence culture.” As corporate and private interests, beliefs, and values increasingly interact through cheaper, more powerful and more ubiquitous new technologies, Jenkins argues, our culture is increasingly defined by the collision of media platforms, political ideologies, and personal affinities. Jenkins celebrates the emergence of this media convergence, arguing that “(i)n the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (pg. 3).

Brave new world, indeed. But there is reason to wear a raincoat to this pool party, as a cursory examination of the developing “Apple culture” of electronics confirms. The iPad, celebrated as a revolution in personal computing, communication, and productivity—and marketed as an essential educational tool—is a tool with an agenda. The agenda is evident in Apple’s decision to block the educational visual programming software Scratch: Though Apple executives have claimed that applications like Scratch may cause the iPad to crash, others argue that the true motivation behind this decision is to block a tool that supports media production. The Scratch application allows users to build new applications for the iPad, which Bruckman (2010) suggests goes far beyond Apple’s unstated interest in designing its products primarily for media consumption.

There is no closest competitor to the iPad, so users who want to leverage the convenience, coolness, and computing power of this product must resign themselves to the tool Apple provides. Similarly, as Apple develops its growing monopoly in entertainment (iPods), communications (iPhone), and portable computing (Macbook), Apple increasingly has the power to decide what stories to tell, and why, and how.

Now let’s go back to the other Apple, Michael Apple, who argues quite convincingly about the colonization of the space of the media by the political right wing (2006). We have, he argues, politicians deciding what we pay attention to, and we have corporations deciding how we pay attention to it. This makes the need for critical computational literacy even more important than ever before. Perhaps it’s more important than anything else, though I’ll leave that to the historians to decide.

What is this thing I’m calling “critical computational literacy”? Since I’m almost the only person using this term, I want to start by defining it. It has its roots in computational literacy, which in itself bears defining. Andy diSessa (2001) cautions us against confusing computational literacy with “computer literacy,” which he describes as being able to do things like turning on your computer and operating many of its programs. His definition of computational literacy, he explains, makes computer literacy look “microscopic” in comparison (p. 5). For him, computational literacy is a “material intelligence” that is “achieved cooperatively with external materials” (p. 6).

This is a good start in defining computational literacy but probably still not enough. And please do remember that I will not let you leave this room without marching orders; and if I want you to know what to do, I have to finish up the definition. Let’s add to diSessa’s definition a bit of the abstraction angle given to us by Jeanette Wing (2008), who shifts the focus slightly to what she labels “computational thinking.” She describes this as
a kind of analytical thinking. It shares with mathematical thinking in the general ways in which we might approach solving a problem. It shares with engineering thinking in the general ways in which we might approach designing and evaluating a large, complex system that operates within the constraints of the real world. It shares with scientific thinking in the general ways in which we might approach understanding computability, intelligence, the mind and human behaviour. (pg. 3716)

For Wing, the essential component of computational thinking is working with abstraction, and she argues that an education in computational thinking integrates the “mental tool” (capacity for working with multiple layers of abstraction) with the “metal tool” (the technologies that support engagement with complex, abstract systems).

So. We have diSessa’s “material intelligence” paired with Wing’s “computational thinking”—a fair enough definition for my purposes. But what does it look like? That is, how do we know computational literacy when we see it?

The answer is: it depends. Though we have some nice examples that can help make visible what this version of computational literacy might look like. Kylie Peppler and Yasmin Kafai (2007), who by the way have a new book out on their work with the Computer Clubhouse project (you can buy a copy up at the book fair), offer instructive examples of children working with Scratch. Jorge and Kaylee, their two case studies, are learners who make creative use of a range of tools to build projects that extend, as far as their energy and time will allow, the boundaries of what is possible to make through a simple visual programming language. Bruce Sherin, Andy diSessa, and David Hammer (1993) give an example of their work with Dynaturtle to advance a theory of “design as a learning activity”; in their example, learners work with the Boxer programming language to concretize abstract thought.

Certainly, these are excellent examples of computational literacy in action. But I would like to humbly suggest that we broaden our understanding of this term far beyond the edges of programming. Computational literacy might also be a form of textual or visual literacy, as learners develop facility with basic html code and web design. It might be the ability to tinker—to actually, physically tinker, with the hardware of their electronics equipment. This is something that’s typically frowned upon, you know. Open up your Macbook or your iPhone and your warranty is automatically null and void. This is not an accident; this is part of the black box approach of electronics design that I described earlier.

Which leads me to the “critical” component of computational literacy. This is no time for mindless tinkering; we are faced with a war whose terms have been defined for us by members of the political Right, and whose battles take place through tools and technologies whose uses have been defined for us by corporate interests. Resistance is essential. In the past, those who resisted the agendas of software designers and developers were considered geeks and freaks; they were labeled “hackers” and relegated to the cultural fringes (Kelty 2008). Since then, we have seen an explosion in access to and affordability of new technologies, and the migration to digitally mediated communication is near-absolute. The penetration of these technologies among young people is most striking: (include statistics). Suddenly, the principles that make up the “hacker ethos” (Levy, 1984) take on new significance for all. Suddenly, principles that drove a small subset of our culture seem more like universal principles that might guide cultural takeup of new technologies:

  • Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better. (Levy 1984)

If these principles seem overtly ideological, overtly libertarian, that’s because they are. And I’m aware that in embracing these principles I run the risk of alienating a fairly significant swath of my audience. But there’s no time for gentleness. This is no time to hedge. I believe, as Michael Apple and Dave Stovall and Rich Ayers and others have argued persuasively and enthusiastically, that we are fighting to retrieve the rhetoric of education from the very brink. It’s impossible to fight a political agenda with an apolitical approach. We must fight now for our very future.

That’s the why. Now I’d like to tackle the how. If we want our kids to emerge from their schooling experience with the mindset of critical computational literacy, we need to first focus on supporting development of critical computational literacy in our teachers. They, too, are subject to all of the pressures I listed earlier, and add to the mix at least one more: They are subject to the kind of rhetoric that Larry Cuban (1986) reminds us has characterized talk of bringing new technologies into the classroom since at least the middle of the 20th century. As he researched the role of technologies like radio, film, and television in schools, he described the challenges of even parsing textual evidence of technologies’ role:

Television was hurled at teachers. The technology and its initial applications to the classroom were conceived, planned, and adopted by nonteachers, just as radio and film had captured the imaginations of an earlier generation of reformers interested in improving instructional productivity…. Reformers had an itch and they got teachers to scratch it for them. (p. 36)

This certainly hearkens, does it not, of the exhortation of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues? I repeat:
promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things.

Teachers are also faced with administrators who say things like these quotes, taken from various online conversations about the possible role of the iPad in education.

I absolutely feel the iPad will revolutionize education. I am speaking as an educator here. All it needs are a few good apps to accomplish this feat.

Tablets will change education this year and in the future because they align neatly with the goals and purposes of education in a digital age.

And finally, the incredibly problematic:
As an educational administrator for the last eleven years, and principal of an elementary school for the past seven…after spending three clock hours on the iPad, it is clearly a game changer for education.

Three hours. Three hours, and this administrator is certain that this, more than any previous technology, will transform learning as we know it. Pity the teachers working at his school, and let’s hope that when the iPad gets hurled at them they know how to duck.

We must prepare teachers to resist. We must prepare them to make smart, sound decisions about how to use technologies in the classroom and stand tall in the face of outside pressures not only from political and corporate interests but from well-meaning administrators and policymakers as well. There is a growing body of evidence that familiarity with new tools is—just like print literacy—necessary but not sufficient for teachers in this respect.

There is evidence, however, that experience with new technologies when paired with work in pedagogical applications of those technologies can lead to better decision-making in the classroom. I recommend the following three-part battle plan:

First, we need to start building a background course in new media theory and computational thinking into our teacher education programs. My home institution, Indiana University, requires exactly one technology course, and you can see from the description that it does its best to train pre-service teachers in the use of PowerPoint in the classroom:
W 200 Using Computers in Education (1-3 cr.)Develops proficiency in computer applications and classroom software; teaches principles and specific ideas about appropriate, responsible, and ethical use to make teaching and learning more effective; promotes critical abilities, skills, and self-confidence for ongoing professional development.
Fortunately, we can easily swap this course out for one that focuses on critical computational literacy, since the course as designed has little practical use for new teachers.

Second, we need to construct pedagogy workshops that stretch from pre-service to early in-service teachers. These would be designed to support lesson development within a specific domain, so that all English teachers would work together, all Math teachers, all Science teachers, and so on. This could stretch into the early years of a teacher’s service and support the development of a robust working theory of learning and instruction.

Finally, we might consider instituting ongoing collaborative lesson study so that newer teachers can collaborate with veteran teachers across disciplines. I offer this suggestion based on my experience working in exactly this environment over the last year. In this project, teachers meet monthly to discuss their curricula and to share ideas and plan for future collaborative projects. They find it intensely powerful and incredibly useful as they work to integrate computational technologies into their classrooms.

I’m near the end of my talk and would like to finish with a final set of marching orders. If we want to see true transformation, we need first to tend our own gardens. Too often—far, far too far too often—we educational researchers treat teachers as incidental to our interventions. At the risk of seeming like an Apple fanboy, I return once again to the words of Michael Apple, who argued brilliantly this week that it’s time to rethink how we position teachers in our work. We say we want theory to filter down to the “level” of practice; the language of levels, Apple says, is both disingenuous and dangerous. Let’s tip that ladder sideways, he urges us, and he is absolutely correct. We live and work in the service of students first, and teachers second. We should not forget this. We should take care to speak accordingly.

These are your marching orders: To bring the message of critical computational literacy and collaboration during this time of great urgency back to your home institutions, to the sites where you work, to the place where you work shoulder to shoulder with other researchers, practitioners, and students. I urge you to stand and to speak, loudly, and with as much eloquence as you can muster, about the issues of greatest urgency to you. This is no time to speak softly. This is no time to avoid offense. In times of great urgency, it’s not enough to be the change we wish to see in the world; we need to be the chainsaws that we wish to see in the world. That is what I hope you will do when you leave this convention center. Thank you.


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**Update, 5/6/10, 1:09 p.m.: I have changed this post slightly to remove an unfair attack against a presenter at this year's AERA Annual Meeting. He points out in the comments section below that my attack was unfair, and I agree and have adjusted the post accordingly.

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