In August 2018, I delivered the opening keynote address at the Constructionism Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. When invited to speak at the conference nearly eighteen months earlier, I felt pressured to share the topic of my address quickly. Since I do some of my best work as a wiseass, I offered the title, “Making Constructionism Great Again.” Over the ensuing months, my tongue-in-cheek title began resonating and formed the basis for what I believe to be one of my favorite keynotes ever. (Sadly, I will unlikely ever give the presentation again. Therefore, I will not have the opportunity to improve upon my performance)

Despite the title I selected, I accepted the sober challenge of making an important contribution to the conference. After all, this is a community I care about, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to, in the home of my ancestors. Due to a family emergency, the speaker scheduled before me had to fly home and my talk got moved earlier in the schedule at the last minute. That meant that some of the people I hoped would hear my message, missed it. I rarely write a speech with specific audience members in mind, but I did in this case.

A bit of background

The Constructionism Conference is held every two years, almost always in Europe. The conference prior to Vilnius was in Thailand, but that was the only time the conference was outside of Europe. For close to three decades, the conference was called, EuroLogo, and was a biennial event celebrating the use of the Logo programming language in education. In 2008, the long-time organizers of the conference worried that interest in Logo was waning and that shifting the emphasis to constructionism (1) would broaden the appeal and attract more participants. It has not. Communities begin to die when they become self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with “preaching to the converted.” There are quite successful institutions that preach to the converted. Its members find strength, nourishment, and purpose in gathering.

In my humble opinion, the problem lies within the fact that the European Logo community, and this is a generalization, focused more narrowly on the fascinating mathematical or computational aspects of the Logo programming language separate and apart from its more radical use as an instrument of school reform, social justice, and epistemology. Logo’s father and inventor of “constructionism,” Dr. Seymour Papert was a noted mathematician and computer scientist who did invent the first programming language for children, but limiting the enormity of his vision to that would be like one of his favorite parables about the blind men and the elephant.

To me, the Constructionism/EuroLogo community has been focused on what is measurable and earns academic credit for those seeking job security in university systems proud of their ongoing medieval traditions. Although I have great friends who I love, respect, and adore within this somewhat dysfunctional family, I am never sure what they make of the loud American kid who works with thousands of teachers each year and doesn’t give a damn about publishing journal articles read by 3.1415927 people.

I go to the Constructionism Conference every two years because it is important to sustain the community and ideally to help it mature. If it became more popular or influential along the way, that would be a bonus. This speech was intended as a bit of unsolicited tough love, but love nonetheless. In fact, love is a big theme in this address. That is one of the most important lessons I learned from Seymour Papert and this Constructionism Conference was the first since his death.

I hope you will watch

Thankfully, I grabbed the SD card out of the video camera sitting in the theatre pointed at the stage following the talk so there is a video documenting a talk I am proud of and wish I could give many more times. The audio quality isn’t perfect and there is no camera work (except for a couple of quick edits I made). That said, if you want to understand who I am and why I do what I do, I hope you will watch this video. It was quite an emotional experience.

If you wish to listen to it while deep sea folk dancing, please WATCH from about the 46 minute mark. You need to see, hear, and feel what great teaching and learning look like.

(1) For those of you interested in learning more about constructionism, you could read our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom or Edith Ackermann’s splendid papers, her Constructionism 2010 paper, Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies or Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Why the tech movement is on life support
January 2005 issue of District Administration Magazine

The educational computing movement, once led by educators inspired by the transcendent power of the personal computer to revolutionize the learning process and transform schools, is near death. The sad state of affairs is based on a profound lack of imagination and issues unrelated to the goal of offering the greatest range of learning opportunities for every child.

My diagnosis transcends the boundaries between private and public, rich and poor schools. There are too few models of excellent practice. This column will attempt to support my strong generalizations while next month’s edition will offer prescriptions for nursing classroom computing back to health.

When many of us first worked with children and computers two decades ago, we were excited by the renaissance of learning demonstrated by all sorts of learners. At-risk kids exhibited extraordinary mathematical intelligence and shy kids found a voice through all sorts of expressive media. Teachers awoke the learner within and collaborated with students on mutually interesting learning adventures.

Why do we celebrate computers most trivial, mundane and incomplete usage?

In the 1960s Alan Kay invented the personal computer with the desire for every child to have a knowledge machine. Nobody could have predicted that in 2005 the computer would be touted as a prop for teachers masquerading as game show hosts or for data disaggregation. The classroom has co-opted the computer, rather than the computer transforming the classroom. So, where are we now?

I recently keynoted a national conference on educational technology. The corridors of the convention center had display boards featuring student work. The majority of samples on display consisted of three or four bubble mind maps. What do plants need? Light, soil and water.

I agonized over asking my audience about these displays since I did not wish to impugn the efforts of teachers or kids, but I was compelled to bring it up. “Is this the best work done with computers in your nation’s schools?” The exhibits were the high-tech equivalent of publishing the first three words of a writer’s outline.

Countless trees have given their lives for innumerable volumes of tech standards. These standards are unimaginative, unnecessary and unenforceable. Ohio’s K-12 technology standards are 350+ pages and list 74 authors.

It requires students to demonstrate that they know how to turn on and off the computer; prioritize and apply appropriate safety measures when working with agricultural and related biotechnologies; calculate quantitatively the resultant forces for live loads and dead loads; etc.

A document so broad and verbose easily descends into self-parody. Teachers are frustrated and confused and any reasonable action plan is impossible. The result of unattainable standards, limited computer access and over-zealous policies: most American students touch a computer for just a few minutes per week in school.

Conducting surveys must not be confused with educating children. Pennsylvania recently published the results of an exhaustive study of how computers were used in its classrooms. If we stipulate to the principle of NCLB, “you teach what we test,” then Pennsylvania, like most states, teaches very little with computers.

All five of the student survey questions are concerned with seat-time, communication and information retrieval. The dominant paradigm for classroom computer use seems to be finding answers to simple objective questions and then displaying the “research” in four slide presentations.

Our public school systems are littered with Potemkin Villages labeled “schools of the future.” In far too many cases, hanging plants and carpet represent the future. Most of these schools are indistinguishable from schools 100 years ago, except for the addition of computers and an increasingly vocational curriculum.

It is easy to sell this mirage. The November 2004 issue of Wired features an ultra-groovy account of IBM’s top- secret design for a school of the future. In it children sit at desks, arranged in rows while responding like rats in a Skinner box to multiple-choice questions displayed on high-tech blackboards. The school also hopes to take attendance via handprint scanners. Yippee!

We can do better. We must.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

Letting the Sunshine In
We need to decrease class size and increase expertise now
November 2005 issue of District Administration Magazine

It’s hard to improve schools and make them more receptive to the needs of each student, but it is not impossible. Unlike finding a cure for cancer, there are things we know about creating more productive contexts for learning. Ted Sizer knows how. Deborah Meier knows how. Herb Kohl, Howard Gardner, and Seymour Papert know how. Dennis Littky, the “comeback kid,” who has led successful school innovation for decades, demonstrates in this issue that he knows how. Best of all, these folks have written books sharing their wisdom and experience with anyone willing to read. Plus, nearly every community has a brilliant educator or 12 who know how to make things better for kids.

There is no excuse to not learn from such innovators and do something. Inaction is a sign of retarded professional growth and a symptom of neglect. One of my students just reported that she could not do an assignment the “right” way. I replied that if you can’t do it right, do it wrong. In the words of that great philosopher Nike, “Just do it!”

Now what is it? Schools are incredibly complex organisms, where would I start?

Most educational leaders, and even some enemies of public education, agree that class size matters. The importance of class size is inextricably linked to the need for students to have complex intimate relationships with adults. Whether you call this mentoring, apprenticeship, internship, parenting, teaching or living in a community, it should be our primary objective and first step along the road to progress.

The Pete Wilson approach to class size reduction is not what I have in mind. Decreeing smaller class sizes from on high without adequate personnel, resources or physical space is mischievous. Smaller class sizes crammed into broom closets with under-qualified teachers delivering the same old curriculum does not represent improvement.

If you cannot arrange outside internships for every student, you still need to increase access to expertise.

Our students cannot wait for us to reduce class size by producing three times the number of certified teachers and building tens of thousands of new schools. We need to do it now, but how?

Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools have solved this dilemma. You reduce class size by increasing the number of adults interacting with children. The Big Picture schools view the world and its inhabitants as experts whose students may learn from. Occasionally, these experts mentor students in traditional school subjects, but more often they open a much wider world of knowledge–skills, experiences, concepts and perspectives–for their interns. If you cannot imagine letting students learn outside of the classroom two days each week, let Littky’s success suspend your disbelief.

If you cannot arrange for outside internships for every student, you still need to reduce class size and increase access to expertise. This is accomplished by opening the doors to your classrooms to competent committed members of your community. Volunteers may work as teacher’s aides, but can offer so much more. They can share their passion, skills and life’s work with interested students. They can ask good questions of children engaged in project work. At the very least, classroom visitors make an invaluable contribution to your students by listening and engaging in conversation.

Every child has the right to spend quality time with as many adults as possible. Schools need to rebuild such relationships lost over the past few decades.

There are countless ways you may identify adults to “co-learn” in your classrooms, but you need to keep your eyes open and your head above paperwork. I recently had the privilege of leading a workshop for a group of principals from “troubled” schools. One principal told me that he was from a school that shared a name with a famous university. I asked if his school did anything with the university, he said, “No.” How can you complain about a lack of resources, class size and an expertise shortage if your school is next to a university?

If we are serious about parental involvement, we need to involve them-perhaps on their terms to share what they love. Parental involvement has reduced parents to ATM machines or homework police in way too many cases.

We cannot afford to insulate our students from the world and the adults in our world from our students. Let’s open the doors to our schools today.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

From the April 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine
By Gary S. Stager

Angus Solomon sighed Ms Lowry. ‘Is that a penis you’ve drawn in your exercise book?’

Angus jumped, startled, and remembered where he was.

Ms Lowry was standing next to his desk, staring down at the page. Other kids were sniggering.

Angus felt his mouth go dry and his heart speed up. For a second he thought about lying. He decided not to.

‘No, Miss,’ he admitted, ‘it’s a submarine.’ Ms Lowry nodded grimly. ‘I thought as much,’ she said. ‘Now stop wasting time and draw a penis like I asked you to.’ She pointed to the one she’d drawn on the blackboard.

That’s not fair, thought Angus. I wasn’t wasting time.

He took a deep breath.

‘Excuse me, Miss,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t wasting time. I was working on my pirate character for the school play. He lives in a submarine and “

‘Enough,’ interrupted Ms Lowry. ‘You know perfectly well play rehearsals aren’t till tomorrow. Today we’re doing human reproduction. I don’t want to hear another word about pirates.’

Thus begins the best-selling children’s book, Bumface, by one of Australia’s finest authors, Morris Gleitzman. Bumface has won countless literary awards and is a regular poll winner anytime Australian children are asked to name their favorite books. You would be hard-pressed to find an Australian fifth grade classroom without a copy of the book.

Why does this matter? It matters because those radicals at the American Library Association just presented the Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. The book joins the likes of Sounder, A Wrinkle in Time and Johnny Tremain in the pantheon of outstanding American children’s literature.

However, the New York Times reports that school librarians are banning the book from coast to coast. School libraries haven’t witnessed this much hysteria since Captain Underpants saved the day.

The Higher Power of Lucky tells the story of a “scrappy” ten year-old orphan girl who hears the word “scrotum” through a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues, “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

The use of a clinical term describing a part of the human anatomy has apparently shocked some school librarians while countless others are  refusing to purchase it, regardless of the book’s literary value or appeal to children. This represents another milestone in schools’ contribution to illiteracy.

Do encyclopedias include scrotum? (link to the World Book Encylcopedia entry) You bet they do! Will schools lock up the encyclopedias? Many of them have already banned Wikipedia. In fact, just last week, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska proposed legislation banning all interactive web sites, including Wikipedia and blogs.

If teachers don’t wish to read anatomical words aloud, can’t the books be available in the library anyway? The author’s livelihood is threatened by this censorship and our students may be deprived of a great read.

Children go home to Maury and watch “I had Sex with My Mother’s Boyfriend! He’s My Baby’s Father.” (February 12, 2007 program) How do we serve students when teachers are afraid of words like scrotum? Isn’t it the responsibility of educators to speak with candor, clarity and calm? Scrotum isn’t half as funny as an adult who can’t say the word aloud or phonics texts in which every word begins with the letter B.

I realize that this country has a long tradition of banning books, despite our professed belief in freedom, but shouldn’t we grow up a bit? Are our Aussie counterparts that much more sophisticated and less neurotic?

Stop the Insanity
Simple strategies to address the growing epidemic of at-risk learners.
October 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine

When politicians shout and headlines highlight underperforming schools and children left behind, they are referring to the growing number of students labeled “at-risk.” The phenomena leading to this designation include poverty, behavioral disorders and the rapidly growing epidemic of learning disabilities. “Atrisk” has really come to mean, “Not good at school.” Consider the possibility that if a student is not good at school, then that school is not good for the student. Perhaps the school is at-risk.

From 1999 through 2001 I worked with MIT colleagues Seymour Papert and David Cavallo on the creation of a high-tech, multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens within the troubled Maine Youth Center. Students in a person often represent the hat trick of being at-risk-poverty, social problems and learning disabilities.

My Ph.D. dissertation documents the remarkable work of dozens of these students and shares details of constructionist learning theory, which was supported and validated by the learning environment we created. Subsequent work with large populations of at-risk students in the United States, Canada and Australia leads me to share the following, some might say radical, proposals for serving at-risk learners.

Some define insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If a student is underperforming or not learning, subjecting him or her to more of the same, perhaps louder or for longer periods of time, will not achieve a different result. This is a punitive approach to teaching that increases student alienation.

The state of Maine freed us from all curricular and assessment requirements. This made it possible for us to focus on each learner. At the very least, every school can try fresh approaches to see if new interventions reduce the severity of the at-risk population.

Treat all new students as welcome guests in your classroom. Leave their umulative folders in the file cabinet so you may get to know them without prejudice. Do not allow colleagues and past teachers to poison your relationship with students before you even get to know them.

One student, Michael, was absolutely brilliant at engineering. He could assemble, test and improve a dozen robotic machines in the time it takes most people to get started. He could converse at length with MIT professors about engineering principles. Yet everything in Michael’s permanent record indicated that he was illiterate. We had clues that this was a misdiagnosis,since Michael programmed computers and garnered information from books around the classroom but never made a big deal about it. Instead we focused on Michael and his current work. We provided assistance when asked and when we observed a teachable moment. A spirit of collegiality and trust was formed between us. Such a bond is critical in any productive context for learning but is often lacking in the lives of at-risk learners.

A few weeks before Michael was going to be released from the facility on his 18th birthday, he quietly sat at his computer for long stretches of time busily working on something important to him. Upon completion of this project, Michael presented us with a 12,000-word autobiography.

My colleague feigned amazement and said, “We were told you were illiterate.” Michael replied, “Oh, I could always read and write, but I wasn’t a very strong reader and I didn’t like reading about puppies.” Then his voice trailed off and he said, “I liked reading about NASA,” as if to suggest that nobody cared about what he liked to read and tossed him in the illiterate bin. Michael and so many other at-risk learners suff er from what Herbert Koh calls “creative maladjustment.” We found that students proud of their work maintained secret portfolios, even if they refused to produce such documentation for us.

Here are a few additional suggestions for better educating at-risk students.

1. Move the goalposts

It may be unrealistic to believe a student years below grade-level will catch up in a few months, regardless of a teacher’s brilliance. The goal needs to be what football coaches call forward progress. We need to take individual students from where they are and move them forward.

2. Be honest

Prioritize and have honest objectives. If a child is disruptive, teaching him or her Algebra 2 may be unrealistic since your real goal is for the student to behave. Institutions give grades for academic subjects, while society just worries about the student being a behavioral problem.

3. Imagine the impossible

If student discipline or behavior is your primary concern, think about the places where such problems do not exist and study them. Reflect on why such activities as summer camp, organized sports or afterschool jobs don’t suffer from the same pathologies, and identify variables you may integrate in the classroom.

4. Remember that less is more

We may need to do a lot more of what we know about effective primary school teaching. Integrated studies, thematic teaching, a centers approach or storytelling as teaching offer models of engaging students without overwhelming them with different rituals and teachers and giving them insufficient time for doing quality work.

5. Stop the name calling

This one is a biggie and extends beyond blaming students for their predicament. Make a concerted effort to refrain from labeling students at-risk, under-performing, etc. Their status is not a surprise to them, and labeling them only harms their self-esteem. Other labels, often considered positive, such as “multiple intelligences learning style” also have a deleterious effect by placing students in a new set of boxes.

6. Eliminate academic competition

While competition may be human nature, it’s highly destructive in the learning environment. It is only possible for students to make steady personal progress if one may comfortably read Dr. Seuss while a classmate tackles James Michener. Th e typical high school classroom sanctions ridicule and rewards degree of difficulty. This is counterproductive for at-risk learners.

7. Create authentic experiences

Disengaged students need to work on long-term meaningful work they can take pride in. Whether you embrace projectbased learning or something akin to the apprenticeship model used successfully by the Big Picture schools, students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in authentic experiences.

Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

8. Offer greater curricular diversity

The biggest mistake made in an effort to increase test scores is doubling up on reading and mathematics at the expense of the other subjects, especially electives. At-risk students may already dislike school. Depriving them of opportunities to learn something they like by killing-off electives, social studies, science and the arts is a recipe for disastrous dropout rates.

9. Have material rich classrooms

Learn from great kindergarten classes and make classrooms material rich. Not only should there be abundant constructive and computational technology and art supplies, but every classroom needs a wellstocked classroom library of fiction and nonfiction books at every reading level.

Allowing one of our 18-year-old students to “read” a book on tape led him to say, “This is the first time I ever saw pictures when I read.” Access to such materials may quickly lead to literate behaviors. Ubiquitous access to computers may offer a opportunity for at-risk students to demonstrate expertise in a domain not dominated by teachers.

10. Let go of the checklists

Great teachers know that once interest is generated in a story or topic, connections may be made to any other subject. Your scope and sequence is less important than children learning.

11. Talk with the students

While this sounds obvious, I meet highschool-age students regularly who have never had a conversation with an adult. Sure, adults have talked at them or yelled at them or told them what to do, but an alarming number of students have never engaged in an actual intergenerational conversation among equally interested parties. Without reversing this trend, students will never be able to be productive citizens. Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

12. The “worst” students need your “best” teachers

We all know the tendency to assign the best students the finest teachers. While we may quibble over a defi nition of “best,” the most flexible, creative, compassionate teachers need to work with your least successful students.

13. Keep the students engaged

The one rule in our Maine classroom was that every student needed to be doing something. Children understand this, and it’s good, simple advice for educators of atrisk students as well. If one strategy isn’t working, do something else.

14. Don’t put students at risk in the first place

Can you imagine how much effort and suffering Michael invested in being illiterate? Wouldn’t asking what he liked to read when he was seven have saved a great deal of hardship? It may take decades to overcome today’s earlier and tougher calls for accountability, which result in the conditions that breed at-risk students.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

(www. districtadministration.com/pulse).

For decades, I have marveled at the vehemence with which seemingly reasonable adults defend not teaching kids to program computers. Aside from the typical (and often dubious) justifications popularized by politicians, Hour of Code, and the Computer Science for All community, I know how learning to program in the 7th grade was an intellectual awakening that has served me well for more than four decades.

So, when #1 Canadian, Dean Shareski, posed the following tweet, I decided to take “his” question seriously and offered to speak with him about the top online. Then another person I don’t know, Shana White, called in.

I hear some suggest everyone should learn to code. Ok. But should everyone learn basic woodworking? electrical work? cooking? plumbing? automotive? Those are all good things but is time part of the issue? How do all these good things get taught? Just thinking out loud.— Dean Shareski (@shareski) September 10, 2018

For what it’s worth, some of y0u might find the conversation interesting or just use it to lull yourself to sleep.

You may listen to or download the podcast here.

#basta


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?

Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discreditedmanifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.

Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™ would never tolerate for children they love.

If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.

Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.

In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!

Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.

No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.

The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.

MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differencesblog.

The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools should be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.

National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.

Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.

There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.

Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!

Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

America once again is in mourning over the 18th or 19th school shooting of 2018. Surely, common sense gun safety legislation is necessary, but educators also need to look in the mirror and ask why kids feel so alienated and aggrieved by schooling that they choose to shoot up their classmates and teachers.

Earlier tonight, I tweeted, “Can we please cool it with the irrational mean-spirited bullshit about banning cellphones in schools? They quite possibly saved lives today.” Immediately, I received a supportive response about the pedagogical potential of cell phones. With all due respect, this issue is much simpler and more fundamental than whether cell phones have a place in the curriculum,

There are two reasons why schools should stop banning cellphones.

  1. It is wrong to be arbitrarily mean to children. If learning is to occur, educators need to do whatever they possibly can to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children.
  2. The school has no right whatsoever to endanger my child or cut her off from communication. 

This has nothing to do with standards, teaching, or curriculum. It is a simple matter of human decency or common sense.

Then I remembered that I wrote about this very issue in the long-defunct Curriculum Administrator Magazine back in its November 2001 issue. For those of you playing along at home, that is nearly 17 years ago.

In 2001, I wrote the following in my column, Back to Rule:

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Read the rest of the column for other examples of callous authoritarian school assholery and then be extra nice to some kids.

Thankfully, NYC students are no longer being robbed to store their cellphones outside of their schools

You might also be interested in my 2014 column, Why the NYC Schools Must End the Student Cellphone Ban.

One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine


A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

 

At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another school year each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of  during my school years. What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? No, it was Disney films.

Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.

My Daughter the Rodeo Clown

Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, “Career Day” had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.

Which is most pathetic?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day

The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! ”

The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.

If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ”  At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.


Notes: *My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game. Somewhere in there’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Active
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.