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books I’d like to be reading

In no particular order:

The Teacher Wars — Dana Goldstein (I’m about 3/4 of the way through, but haven’t found the time to finish.)

Creative Schools — Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica

Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman (I’m somewhere in the middle of this brilliant book.)

Three by Cain — James M. Cain (I’ve finished one of the three short novels in this compilation.)

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education — Christopher Emdin

How We Learn — Benedict Carey

The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead

How to Win Friends & Influence People — Dale Carnegie

Mathematics in Western Culture — Morris Kline

Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty — Morris Kline

Something by Elmore Leonard

The Round House — Louise Erdrich

Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won — Tobias Jacob Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim



best practices for teaching with emerging technologies


Michelle Pacansky-Brock had my attention from the first paragraph of the introduction, where – in response to comments like, “Students today are so unmotivated,” “Students today don’t care about anything but their grades,” and “Students today feel entitled and aren’t willing to work hard” – she asks, “Are our students the problem? Or is it our [higher education’s] instructional model?” By shifting the responsibility to us, teachers and colleges, she wins an ally with me.

The foundation of her work is the idea of moving from “teaching to learning,” a phrase taken from a 1995 article by Barr and Tagg that, in part, means students learn more when they are active participants in their learning, rather than passive listeners to their professors. In addition, Pacansky-Brock leverages John Medina’s Brain Rules, focusing on three that she believes are “relevant for 21st-century college educators”: exercise boosts brain power; sensory integration; vision trumps other senses.

Not only, she argues, can technology help make learning more “brain-friendly” through strategies like those, it’s also the language that today’s college student speaks. Citing numerous statistics – like, 85% of 18-29 year olds in the U.S. have a smart phone – Pacansky-Brock supports the idea that “’online’ is a culture to young people. Yet to most colleges, it is a delivery method.” In sum, teaching with emerging technologies makes sense on a lot of levels and most colleges are behind the curve.

What follows is mostly practical advice for getting on the technology bus, based in experience and experiment. As a classroom teacher at both community college and state university levels, Pacansky-Brock been willing to try a lot of things. Readers benefit by learning from both her successes and failures.

Chapter one discusses the basics of preparing your students for a participatory classroom that uses significant technological tools. Because “students are trained to expect” a hierarchical classroom environment, “when an instructor embarks upon an instructional model that assumes a flattened relationship between student and instructor, like the flipped model, the must be communicated and discussed so it’s clear to students.” They need to understand why you are doing what you’re doing and how the pieces fit together to create the community of learners that you are trying to create.

This first chapter also includes issues like classroom philosophy, community ground rules, student privacy, copyright in the electronic world, and even a bit on the linking versus embedding in your online materials. Chapter two spends more time on participatory pedagogy and some basic tools you can use to foster it. In chapter three, she spends time on the “essentials” – smartphone, webcam, microphone, screencasting software, online content hosting, and more. Chapter four goes into more detail about tools for creating compelling visual content, from infographics to video conferencing to a “liquid” syllabus. Chapter five delves into the tools for participatory learning, including social media, online bulletin boards, online meetings, digital polling, and more on content curation. Through it all, Pacansky-Brock shares what she does, elaborates other options, and discusses the pros and cons of both. Her ideas, tips, and stories make what might seem like a list of apps into something like an annotated bibliography.

The book’s last full chapter is an extended argument for the potential of the internet to innovate and create new and better learning opportunities for students. Pacansky-Brock advocates against using your college’s Learning Management System (LMS) and describes her own evolution on this topic:

When I started teaching online in an LMS, I was disappointed in the quality of the learning environment I had developed for my students and felt constrained by the features available to me. By experimenting with new tools, I discovered different ways of engaging my students and opportunities for being present in their learning. But I still felt the need to use an LMS, largely because of concerns about violating the license for the images included in the textbook I was using, as well as my (former) institution’s expectation for faculty to teach with institutionally supported technologies. I imagine many instructors can relate to that experience.

I certainly can. But there is more. The extensive use of the LMS in higher education, she writes, “may be contributing to a gap between the skills college graduates need and the skills they have.” The LMS provides privacy, control, and less distraction, but it cannot keep up with the speed and scale of innovation on the open internet. Using an LMS also prevents students from developing a professional web presence. In fact, content developed by students during the course disappears when the course is over – essentially, their work inside the LMS is disposable. Working in the open internet can motivate students to produce higher quality work, because after all, “the internet is forever.”

Pacansky-Brock does not think the internet is a panacea for educating students. She sees the advantages and disadvantages of learning through the internet and believes that technology can be used to make learning more human and more participatory. She is thoughtful and thought-provoking – as a teacher, I was constantly taking notes for my own classes, sparked by ideas and stories in the book. I will be referring to it frequently as I continue to refine my teaching practice.

You can find out more at: http://teachingwithemergingtech.com/

disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns


Only one of the authors of this book come from an education background. The other two study and write primarily about business. Their idea is to take the insights they have about the way businesses change and apply them to education.

To me, their most useful insight is that big breakthroughs in innovation first develop in a markets that were not previously being served or were being served poorly. In an example they use a few times in the book, the first makers of the minicomputer didn’t try to market their product to the government or businesses that were already invested in mainframe computers. Instead, they marketed to smaller businesses and individuals who could not afford and didn’t have the space for mainframes. Trying to compete with the mainframes directly would have been a losing cause, since the companies that made the mainframes were already good at it and already had large market shares. In addition, even though the first minicomputers didn’t have all the power and functionality of the mainframes of that day, the early minicomputer users were happy with the product because without it they didn’t have access to computers at all. That is, people in new markets are willing to accept some less than ideal circumstances, because they had no service before. As time goes on, and people become accustomed to the new product, they expect higher and higher levels of service — note that minicomputers got increasingly powerful to match those expectations.

The same is true for educational reform. Educational innovators are going to have a very difficult time being successful while fighting against a well-entrenched system. Unless you serve a new market, your innovation is almost certain to function mostly at the edges and to last only as long as you have “extra” money to pay for it. You aren’t going to truly “disrupt” the system.

The book’s authors believe that educational technology can serve previously unserved or underserved markets and eventually change education as we have known it and they believe that the unserved markets are in places like: small schools that cannot afford to offer “enrichment” courses; credit recovery for students who have to take regular classes, too; providing individualized instruction for students who do not learn well in traditional classes.

The authors think the last example is especially important and suggest that, as the software improves, much of school can be transformed into an individualized environment for students, with teachers guiding and assisting as needed — improving education for all students because they are being taught in the style in which they best learn, rather than in the relatively monolithic, one-size-fits-all methods that most schools employ. Based on their observation of disruptive innovation in other areas, they predicted (when they published the book in 2008) that “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.” Whether or not this is accurate remains to be seen, but the vision they provide is of a student-centric learning environment that is enabled by technology, while remaining very much human and humane.

Disrupting Class is at it’s best when talking about the potential for change and how that change could happen. It’s much less compelling when talking about educational research and policy. I appreciate the authors’ vision, if not always their specific recommendations for moving toward it.

video games and learning: teaching and participatory culture in the digital age


As Kurt Squire notes in the forward to Video Games and Learning, educators and gamers don’t often talk to each other — “game people think educators are lame, and educators think that game people are hyperviolent misogynists destroying all that is good in the world.” Squire and other educator-gamers (see, for example, Keith Devlin) are trying to change that, because they believe that gaming not only has something to teach educators, but that gaming may be a significant part of the future of education. Squire asks not, “Can you learn from games?” but “How do we make good learning games?” and “Can games help transform education?”

Squire is pretty critical of the current educational culture in our country. He argues that it is based in “passive knowledge reception,” with a structure that isolates “students by age ability, filters all information through the teacher, and features few opportunities to interact with experts, much less to become one.” He sees school as all too often full of failure that reinforces the idea that students know little or nothing – stand back and let “the experts” tell you how it is.

By contrast, gaming communities “don’t survive by selling players the fantasy of being incompetent, powerless, forced to follow arbitrary rules, and impotent in the world.” Instead games give the opportunity to “become leaders, teachers, or authors in the domains they are studying.” Games clearly communicate “what players must do to become experts” and regularly give the opportunity to interact with people who are more advanced. They are engaging and motivate learning in a wide range of fields for the purpose of doing something (albeit, usually scoring more points in the game), not just learning because your teacher told you to. Games, Squires believes, can be a meaningful part of, and can influence, a curriculum that also includes, people, books, homework, and all the other things we’ve come to associate with education.

This all might sound pie in the sky. Squire acknowledges that “such a change would require revolutionizing across the entire education system – from the professional development of teachers (who themselves are treated as recipients, not producers of knowledge) to the assessment system.” But he’s not just theorizing; he’s gone out and worked in “low-performing” schools, introducing a gaming curriculum in collaboration with teachers on the ground. Together they have learned what can work and what can’t, adjusting their approach on the fly. The stories of these experiments are some of the most compelling parts of the book.

Squire does not pretend to have all the answers. While he is a reformer, he is not concerned with scaling the interventions he’s helped pilot. He sees education reform as a process, not a product. He wants to spread “reflective teaching practices that engage kids in advanced design thinking about themselves and their communities.” In this he has succeeded.

the new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness


In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.

Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.

The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”

Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.

“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”

After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”

Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today [2012].” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”

This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.

Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.

Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.

Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.

When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.

As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.

between the world and me

images.jpgThe pursuit of consciousness about the nature of society in the United States and our role in it is a process that never stops. For me the quest led to Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning book written for his teen-aged son. As a letter, it is personal. As an essay, it is powerful. In sentence upon beautiful sentence Coates describes the deep insecurity he feels, an insecurity founded in the reality that his body, like the body of all African-Americans, is and always has been at risk in our country.

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.

One only needs look at the news for proof. The Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Eric Garners speak to us about the value we place on black people’s lives. Now that they are not literally property in our country, we either incarcerate them or kill them with impunity. Their killers are not held to account.

For Coates, this is all in service of what he calls the “Dream” that “people who think of themselves as white” live in and support, whether consciously or not. The Dream is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”

The Dream is embedded in our mythos and founding documents. Coates admits that “for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been and option because the dream rest on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. . . . You cannot forget how much they took from us and how the transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

The wealth of our country was founded in the theft of land, in the killing of the previous inhabitants, in slavery, and in the exploitation of poor people and the natural world. Everything must submit to our Dream, and we cover those crimes by calling the victims “savage,” “uneducated,” and other euphemisms that mean we believe they are less human than ourselves.

We are captured brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of American. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.

Even education – close to my own heart – is not spared from the light of Coates’ analysis:

It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistake were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.

But, “this is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

I take this to mean that struggle is important, whether we think will see justice in our society in our lifetimes or not, and I am reminded of words spoken by Cornell West in a speech I saw him give, years ago now, in Oakland: “I am hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”

I do not pretend to truly understand what West meant when he said those words, but I do know what they mean to me. They have become a refrain that I have spoken to myself as both mantra and motivation in the face of the persistent injustice I see in the world. They mean that I don’t expect the world to improve; I don’t expect our country to truly recognize the humanity of all its people and all the world’s people; I don’t expect my people – who we call white* – to stop exploiting the people of the world, including each other, and especially those we call people of color.

So I’m not optimistic, yet I have decided to remain hopeful. I get up each day because I hope to create a little more love. I strive toward justice and humanity for myself and for everyone around me, even as I fall short of these ideals. To stop trying would be giving in to the worst of humanity. For me that would be oblivion, a life I’d rather not live.

The story Coates tells is important for all of us to understand, especially at this moment in our nation’s history when many people feel powerlessness and fear as they look at the world around them. For some, the response is blame and hate. I think Coates’s answer is to look carefully and without illusion at the violence and injustice of our society, both past and present; to acknowledge the apparent impossibility of change; and nevertheless to struggle forward toward change with as much humanity and love as he can find. How much he finds is up to each of us.

I do not mean that we, as individuals, must stop being racist. Coates is not writing about the individual racism he and all black people face every day. He’s writing about the structural racism that is endemic in our educational system, in our justice system, in our economic system, in the foundation of our country. So our responsibility is not just for ourselves, but for the society as a whole. We must look for and root out the systemic injustice that hides in the procedures and policies and ordinances – and, yes, in our hearts.  It feels overwhelming and impossible. But we have seen that change, though difficult, is possible. That is the struggle.


* To be clear, whatever ethnic culture my family had was erased in the maw that we call whiteness. I know now that I come from Swiss and probably English and German stock. My mother’s parents immigrated from Switzerland and settled in Chicago in the early 20th century. My grandfather was a second son without inheritance and earned his living as best he could, exercising a hard frugality that stayed with him to his dying day. My father’s people were farmers in Indiana, and before that Ohio, but we don’t know when they first came to the US. My grandfather ran a general store at the crossroads a quarter-mile from his home. Both my grandmothers were homemakers and child raisers. If they ever worked outside their homes, I have never been told of it.

trouble is my business

images.jpgPhilip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s most famous character, is something of a mystery. He muddles his way through investigations, doing his best to make sense of an unfair and world, but what we know about Marlowe the man fits in an ash tray in a two-bit bar somewhere in the L.A. basin. Trouble Is My Business pulls together four stories that, read together, uncover some of Marlowe’s character.

In the title story, Marlowe is hired to reveal the gold-digging nature of a woman chasing a rich man’s son. Though he doesn’t trust her, he’s also sympathetic to a woman trying to survive in a complicated world — and by the end things get way more complicated than they first appeared. In the second story, Marlowe agrees to help a friend make a little money using a quasi-legitimate scheme. His friend ends up dead and Marlowe’s framed for the murder. The third story sees Marlowe working with another friend, this time a woman on the trail of some insurance money for stolen pearls. Finally, in “Red Wind,” on impulse he helps a woman escape the police and ends up shielding her from her dead lover’s perfidy.

The moral code that emerges from these vignettes is one that says you do a lot for friends — even when it sounds like a bad idea. It assumes women are innocent or at least deserving of protection, never asks for more than fair compensation, and often gets less. Sometimes Marlowe’s pronouncements clang against modern ears, but I don’t think he (or Chandler) cares. He lives his life as he sees fit and expects no sympathy.

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