Sunday Smorgasbord: Design

By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m playing around with the formatting of these weekly roundups. Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. UPDATE: looks like links in pictures weren’t working, so I added embedded links to each article.

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A nice overview of the relationship between architectural design and well-being from The Guardian’s Cities.

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“One, two, three, four!” they counted in Finnish. (For good measure, I jumped into the ditch, too.) The teacher, Pelo, explained that this experience represented how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.

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Smart stuff, as usual, from Amanda Ripley.

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It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” Today it’s an enforceable legal standard in Norway. One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.

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“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

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In the Philadelphia school district, 37 percent of the system’s 144,000 are chronically absent. Among high-school students, the figure shoots up to 51 percent. The districts in Baltimore and Milwaukee have similar numbers. For Cleveland and Detroit, the chronic absenteeism rates are around 50 percent, and more than 60 percent of Cleveland’s high-schoolers missed more than three weeks of school a year.

The report’s authors write that one common denominator linking these cities is the “nearly 100 years of historical actions that aimed to segregate African American populations in sections of the city with the poorest housing, greatest proximity to industrial pollutants, greatest exposure to violence, and highest unemployment rates, resulting in widespread inter-generational poverty.”

Students need classrooms that inspire them

Students need to be in classrooms that inspire them—spaces that are light, airy, and filled with examples of work that they aspire to do. Each school will have a variety of spacious classroom settings. Some will be more traditional in the way that we envision classrooms now, but others might be set up outside or within an atrium or amphitheater. There might be desks, cushions, or benches arranged in rows or circles—however the teachers want them, as not every classroom will follow a template. Each classroom will be set up based on what is necessary to meet learning objectives. But schools will prioritize configuring classes to inspire learning first and foremost, and, where appropriate, reflect the diversity of environments that students are exposed to outside a school setting. Students will have beautiful spaces that make them feel good to be at school—with art, living plants, music where appropriate, comfortable seating, and fast internet access.” [Bold added]

Rita Pin Ahrens, the director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, in an article on The Atlantic, “Reimagining the Modern Classroom

Your Environment Prevails

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In short, the researchers found that environment prevails. For children who were raised by their biological parents, the correlation between parents’ wealth and a child’s eventual wealth was strong—calculated to be 0.33. (A correlation of 0 would mean parents’ wealth has no bearing on children’s wealth, and a correlation of 1 would mean they are identical.) For children who were adopted, the correlations were much different: Between adopted children and their birth parents, it was weaker (only about 0.13), while between children and their adoptive parents, it was in the middle (about 0.23). These numbers suggest that children who are raised wealthy owe their future financial success more to the household they grew up in than any inherent ability they possess. [Bold added]

—Joe Pinsker, “Rich People Raise Rich Kids

Highways Destroyed America’s Cities. So Let’s Tear Them Down

“…highways also created problems, some of which have become much worse in the years since. Urban freeways displaced communities and created air and noise pollution in downtown areas. They made it easier for suburban commuters to “zip to their suburban homes at the end of the work day, encouraging those with means to abandon the urban core,” Ted Shelton and Amanda Gann of the University of Tennessee wrote in a paper about urban freeways. . .

“Where urban highway construction did occur, in urban design terms, it was highly detrimental to the urban fabric; creating physical and psychological rifts that are extremely difficult to bridge and introducing a substantial source of noise and air pollution,” Shelton and Gann wrote. “Cities across the country continue to struggle with this legacy.”

The quote above comes from Alana Semuels’ article on The Atlantic, “Highways Destroyed America’s Cities” which pairs well with her prior piece on Syracuse,”How to Decimate a City.”

I find this relation between highways and segregation to be illuminating, especially when I consider a local area I used to work in, East Tremont, and how it has been impacted by the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Some connections, like highways, are not universally beneficial — it depends upon whom is being connected, and how. Highways provide a clear short-term benefit to those with means, while further isolating others. The tragic irony is that in the long term, most everyone ends up further disconnected. Witness the standing lines of cars each morning and evening, commuters sitting bathed in fumes, stressed out, paying exorbitant fees for parking and maintenance of a vehicle no longer a luxury, but a burden — and a dangerous one at that.

I take the public bus to work each day. It might be stressful sometimes when it’s most crowded and the doors won’t close because of that last desperate commuter trying to cram in. But I’d take that bus over an isolated, stressful, dangerous commute in by car any day.

And while there is always a part of me that craves escape from my noisy nook in this city, and envisions my own backyard, in some quiet haven where there’s no panhandlers, and no loud music, and no pollution, and lots of trees — I also know there’s a cruel trade off to such an escape (assuming I could even afford such luxury). It means losing access to the riches in diversity of connections, cultures and experiences that this city affords me.

Maybe I’m just strange, but I believe that I am a better person, that I am enriched, when I’m able to interact, live, and work with people who are different than me. It’s why I love working with children, why I love working in the field of special education, why I love working in the Bronx, and why I begrudgingly love NYC (though this former Californian misses — sometimes achingly so — the vast spaces and mountains and coast of the West).

I’m thankful to live in a city where there are many public transportation options, and while I miss California, I don’t miss the general lack of public infrastructure there. I like driving just as much as anyone, when the roads are clear, but being stuck in traffic and driving around a vehicle I don’t know how to fix myself is not how I wish to spend most of my money and my life.

But I’m going off on a navel gazing tangent. The point is that building highways to ease the flight of well-off suburbanites damages our greater social fabric. In fact, building more roads even makes congestion worse, not better. Rather than establishing routes for middle and upper class people to “escape” the city, Semuel’s presents a sensible solution, in the case of Syracuse in “How to Decimate a City“:

“What Syracuse needs, more than anything else, is a way to knit back together a region torn asunder by the construction of an urban highway and the outmigration that followed. That means more affordable housing in the suburbs, more access to transportation to outlying areas, and better jobs and housing in the urban core.” [Bold added]

These ideas parallel ideas for fighting desegregation. I would also add to that list “better schools.”

Forget building highways. Let’s tear them down, and build more parks, profuse protected bike lanes, and Googleplex-style schools that act as centers of their communities, flooded with natural light, greenery, and fresh air. Let’s ensure affordable housing is available everywhere. And let’s design our schools and admissions processes to include, rather than exclude.

The Deficit of Wisdom On the Common Core

Counterclaim

I’ve publicly made the case for Common Core standards on a number of forums (The Core Knowledge Blog, Chalkbeat, VIVA Teachers, & Impatient Optimists). I view the standards as an opportunity to align better practices and stronger content, though how the standards ultimately play out is dependent on how we elect to interpret and implement them. Unfortunately, most leaders are opting to play political theater, and too many teachers and parents use the standards as a proxy for problematic state policies or district decision-making.

I’ve since ceased writing about the standards, mainly because I’m too darn busy planning curriculum and developing IEPs (using the Common Core standards as a guide)—but furthermore because the constant barrage of feigned outrage at the standards has caused me to tune out.

But this morning while on the way to work, I read this piece, “The Wisdom Deficit” by Michael Godsey on The Atlantic that seriously got to me, to the point that I feel compelled to write a rebuttal. Here’s why this piece upsets me:

  • It’s written by an experienced ELA teacher who has his heart in the right place: he cares deeply about engaging his students in the wisdom gleaned through the study of classic literature.
  • It points to real problems in how the Common Core are being misinterpreted at the ground level.

After framing the “so-called ‘College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards’ in a dismissively perfunctory manner, rather than analyzing the standards themselves further for evidence of the problems he outlines, he instead points to an “adjunct faculty member in Secondary Education at San Francisco State University” as an appointed spokesperson for the Common Core:

Kate Kinsella, an influential author who consults school districts across the country and is considered “a guiding force on the National Advisory Board for the Consortium on Reading Excellence,” recently told me to “ditch literature” since “literary fiction is not critical to college success.” Kinsella continued, “What’s represented by the standards is the need to analyze texts rather than respond to literature.

As a teacher working within this regimented environment, my classroom objectives have had to shift.

Wait a second. I’ve never heard of Kinsella. She may be influential in California, perhaps, though even that’s questionable given the size and political dynamics of my mother state.  Her “advice” is ill founded, nor supported by a closer examination of the standards themselves. I’ve addressed this before in my post on The Core Knowledge Blog in 2013:

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

Another thing that really gets me, though: what in the world does Kinsella have to do with “this regimented environment” that Godsey refers to, and why in the world has his “classroom objectives … had to shift”? There’s something seriously wrong in Cali if this kind of misunderstanding is translating into such perceptions of edicts from on high.

Godsey then goes on to suggest that this shift is tantamount to a loss of values (“I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values”), and that as a result, he no longer is able to teach wisdom:

When I recently shared a poem that included the phrase, “Let there be light,” hardly any of my students, who are high-school juniors, could identify the allusion. As a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, I don’t feel comfortable delving into the Bible’s wisdom.

Here’s the irony: the Common Core actually makes it fairly clear that students will require knowledge of the Bible in order to determine allusions made to it. Here’s Reading Literature Standard 9, Grade 9-10:

“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).” 

Arguably, therefore, Godsey is not heeding the advice of the standards because he is not “comfortable” teaching his students to understand that allusion.

He later states that “there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature.” Yes, there is. Yet though the Common Core only explicitly references Shakespeare and Ovid in the standards themselves, the standards have made a push for “authentic” and “complex” texts, a dramatic shift from what had been generally prevalent in schools driven by a “test prep” or “leveled book” mentality, in which bland passages were provided to students based on their independent reading levels.

The Common Core standards are not to blame for our nation’s problem with classic literature. Can you imagine if the standards had in any way attempted to dictate what type of texts students needed to read? Yeah. And even as carefully crafted as the standards have been to be politically neutral, they have become so volatile that they are said to threaten Jeb Bush’s candidancy for president (which I think is preposterous—if he sticks to his guns he can reach independents and center-left liberals willing to cross over, but whatever).

Godsey then delivers what I consider the most disturbing part of his piece:

I remember when, 10 years ago, my students spent an hour sharing their favorite lines from Father Zossima’s sermon in The Brothers Karamozov and how and why it affected their own lives. One student was visibly moved by the idea that suffering for a loved one might be a blessing available only in a life on Earth, not in heaven. A few different students called it “their favorite class ever.” This morning, my student-teacher—a college student I’m training to be a classroom educator—used a hip-hop poem as a primary text and started the class by saying, “Today we’re going to practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” in reference to the anchor standards that the students had on their desks. If this sounds a little dry, I’m partly to blame—for a month, he’s been watching me ask the students to explicitly reflect on their progress in each of these technical areas. In any case, with habits like these, he’s sure to land a permanent job in the fall.

Who decided to ask students to “practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” and provided the “anchor standards that the students had on their desks”? Big brother?

At least Godsey acknowledges some of his culpability (“I’m partly to blame”), but he attempts to redirect it towards blame of some obscure “culture” that he just can’t seem to resist paying heed to.

Being transparent with our students about goals and how they are getting evaluated is fundamental, yet asking them to parrot anchor standards strikes me as a colossal waste of instructional time. It’s up to us—the educators—to interpret and apply the standards in our classrooms in a manner that aligns with our knowledge and expertise and with the intent of the standards themselves.

The Common Core are not responsible for poor instructional decisions nor for poor educational consultants nor for poor administrators. The Common Core are an opportunity for educators to fight for better curriculum for all of our children. Let’s stop blaming the standards, and start using them to better teach the values and wisdom and literature so fundamental to our commonweal.