May 20, 2010

Answer: Charter Schools, What-If's, and The Cranberries Debut Album

Question: What seemingly random but really connected stuff is flowing through my brain tonight?

I know what you are thinking: Alex Trebek just awarded me 200 under the category, "I have been eating crazy cakes while reading educational theory again." And now you are thinking of his mustache. Don't worry, it's natural, everybody does it.

If you are a Gen X’er like me, then you probably have heard of the Irish rock band The Cranberries. Their US debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, hit the charts in a big way in the early 90’s. At that time I was just entering my 20’s and I remember often wondering at the story behind this particular LP title.

Almost 20 years later, I am again thinking of The Cranberries and that album title. This sudden reminiscing is the product of my recent visit to an urban charter high school. In Indiana, charters are still considered “alternative.” Basically, this means that in some way, shape, or form, these schools are different than our traditional township public schools. They are public, they are schools, but they are not playing follow-the-leader when it comes to education.

And because there is money involved, and it is tax money, there is a lot of controversy surrounding charters, especially in the Midwest. On this issue even a liberal educator can't count on tried and true political teams to help determine which side of the debate is right, left, or independent. It's kind of like this: imagine liberal and conservative lawmakers, teachers, administrators, and the unions as represented by the the main cast from the Gen X defining movie The Breakfast Club. I don't know who is what, you figure it out. In the final scene, everyone is lined up on the statehouse steps picking teams for a kickball game. First, the socially unacceptable and dirty poor kid gets picked by the popular cheerleader girl. Next up, the hottie quarterback picks the wallflower with bad hair, combat boots, and a serious nutritional deficiency. Finally, the nerd, custodian, and detention monitor dude decide to form some weird third party independent team. Anyway, they start out by playing what seems to be kickball (cue a Cranberries soundtrack that has not yet been recorded) and then, all of a sudden, and right before a vote is called on educational funding, they randomly start running in circles, yelling and screaming, creating new teams, and playing rugby. And through all of this, the public (who is, of course, the spectators) act like nothing weird is going on. No wonder I am visiting charter schools and loosing my mind. This kind of stuff is like the flame to my moth.

Usually when I go on these site visits, I get excited and energized and inspired. I covet the flexibility to create progressive learning spaces, course work, assessment practices, and scheduling options. On the flip side, I am always, without fail, depressed and disappointed at the lack of a school library or a good school library/information literacy program. If they even attempt a library, it kind of resembles an extra study hall room or a neglected supply closet. That kind of thing is not good for learning.

Think of what a library represents: equitable access to intellectual, academic, and interest based information, in multiple media formats, and provided regardless of a person's education, age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Now, think of the role of a teacher-librarian: information and knowledge organizer, user needs specialists, digital information expert, intellectual freedom advocate, defender of First Amendment rights, copyright and intellectual property knowledge base, professional researcher, avid reader, and teacher of information literacy. Think about it: what type of message does a school send when there is no library, or a neglected library, and no school librarian on staff? What would a school rather invest in anyway? How do these "other" things help foster an ongoing love of learning? Does a love of learning and the ability to independently think matter in this school?

I can't help it. I have to verbally paint a caricature of this scenario or I will explode. Behold, the picture of a school that does not have a solid library program.

In this scene, you will see a group of teachers who are both unknowingly and intentionally swapping copyright protected music with their students. Now they are running a full-length film festival themed around how Walt Disney got history all wrong in his movies. Clever, but dangerously illegal. And while they escape notice by the Feds for these activities, for now, something else wicked, and not so enjoyable, lurks just around the corner. Watch as this teacher runs to the staff workroom during the 11th hour to frantically copying class sets of material for today's course readings. Oh, but the school only owns a single copy of this textbook. Oh my, now the copyright police have show up, and the teacher is screaming something about fair use to plead his innocence. But it seems that only the intellectual property attorney know what "fair use" really means.

Watch the court proceedings now and how the defense attorney is laughing hysterically at the client before entering the court room. Why, what's the joke? It seems that the class set of illegal copies were made from a textbook full of outdated crap that no one wanted to buy in the first place. Clearly the teacher would have been better off letting the students using Wikipedia in the first place. Oh shoot, the judge just ruled in favor of the Texas based textbook company who will now use the summary judgment funds to build a new fundamental church of squeaky-clean, America-first ignorance (ouch, that one will get me some all-American hate-mail for sure).

In our next scene, we are back in the school where kids are having regular, unprotected, and simultaneous relationships with Facebook, Wikipedia, Google's search engine, and, (shudder) Fox News online. Everyone is "doing it" because the topic of informed prevention is uncomfortable for the all knowing adults. Without a school librarian, the school's "soft" policy becomes one of avoidance or abstinence, or both. Let's watch as these teachers passively avoid the subject, and the problem, by saying "the kids know more than we do about computers anyway, so what can we do." Can anyone say, "gag me with a cop-out?" And over in this classroom, a teacher who knows she does not have the resources or expertise to teach relevant and productive online strategies is afraid to admit it, begins a righteously preached sermon of Google abstinence.

Focus again on those darn young folks. No matter what, they are still finding ways to engage in promiscuous online research and social networking. Well of course they are gonna do it, they are teenagers for the love of Pete. And besides, if you look closely, all of the adults are all doing it too! Now for a commercial break about how mind-numbing anarchy leads to an information illiterate nation.

And don't even get me started on the print collection. Sigh, OK you got me started. Now we will take a tour of the school's supply closet, I mean, library. Here we see dogs and cats, living together, beside battered copies of "Go Ask Alice", and "Alice in Wonderland"on the "New Arrivals" shelf.

If you look over to your right, you will see that the full print set of World Book Encyclopedia circa 1991, donated by the principal's grandmother, is now being used to level some dangerously cheap bookcases. All of the set, that is, except for the "B" edition, which is missing, as if anyone would know anyway. This book was just cited as an authoritative source for a report on the 2000 presidential election. After all, the article did state that George Bush was in the running at the time of publication, but unfortunately no one noticed the lack of a W in this entry. To add insult to injury, the 24 year old new teacher who later saw this missing volume B laying on the floor next too the boy's restroom, decided to recommended it to a different student who was doing a report on the war in Iraq... You know, the Freedom one, not the Storm one.

And, no, please don't take this little vignette as permission to eliminate the need of a print collection. Ignoring the need to invest in paper books may sound cyber-savvy and fiscally conservative, but it does not help students become more information literate, for many reasons, but mostly because of digital equity.

What about digital equity? What does that even mean in a school without a strong library media program? What do teachers really know about digital equity? Are they thinking about this when they construct curriculum? Ok, one more scene before we wrap it up.

Let's take a closer look at the two students who used the outdated print World Book volume for research. They really only did this because they did not had a reliable computer or access to high speed internet at home. But you know those crazy teens, they like to pretend they have what everyone else does to avoid embarrassing social labels. Why do they have to be so darned predictable?

One of the students is allowed to leave the building with a school provided laptop, let's see him find free Wifi somewhere in the community. Great, he is resourceful! Watch as he sits at a McDonald's and starts to research the 2000 presidential election. One hour and one billion Google hits later, long after his large fries and coke are gone, the manager comes over and starts to provoke our poor student. Someone complained about a loitering teen boy, and that is just not good for business.

The other student finally talks a neighbor into giving her a ride to the public library. All of the public computers are full for two hours. When she does finally gets one, it kicks her off after an hour of searching wikipedia. But she just doesn't know enough about her topic yet! Another resourceful student, she tries to get a library card so she can check out the latest book on the Iraqi war. After all, she has been told by a teacher that the card is free! Due to budget cuts, the public library had to tighten their policies on borrowing materials. She is told that in order to get a card, she needs three forms of ID plus a parent present to sign for her, and they need three forms of ID as well, including a birth certificate that proves she is really their child. And yet, she is 17 and 6 months old. Oh well, so much for this public service.

Without at strong library and information literacy program, run by a certified and trained school librarian, you will find between the cracks, under the rocks, and in the dark corners of the school, intellectual Armageddon. Some charter schools are so darn close to getting it right, but for some reason, information literacy, libraries, and the importance of both, never make a blip on their radar. Charters will not realize their full potential, or even their potential half-life, if they don't invest in these programs.

I know, I like to sugar coat things rather than tell you how I really feel.

As you can see, these visits are pretty much bad for my mental health. I go a little bipolar and a lot manic for days afterward. I start writing crazy long blogs that look more like a treatise on educational socialism than an article. Being a teacher-librarian you would think that this feeling is old hat by now, but I have not become desensitized.

To cope with my discontent, I let myself get lost in questions, the kind that keep me up at night. Specifically, I start asking myself those great and terrible "what if’s." At least this last mess of questions provided material for:

Brunner's Bullet Points
(cue The Cranberries music as my theme song today...)

  • What if a secondary curriculum was specifically designed around inquiry-based teaching and learning, not some artificial linear method dictated through scheduling software, textbooks, and teacher-in-a-box programs?

  • What if the assessment of student mastery in new concepts and skill development was based on individual growth and not some ass-backward design founded on the bell curve model?

  • What if the curriculum reflected an organizational understanding of knowledge as abundance instead of knowledge as scarcity?

  • What if schools were not trying to get students to trample one another in a metaphorical “race to the top” (of what I don't know, the top of a bunch of scan-tron sheets and number two pencils?), but instead were thoughtfully and methodically trying to guide students forward as they embark on a lifelong journey that will be fully discovered and explored along the way?

  • What if there was a school defined purpose of education supporting global cooperation in learning and problem solving instead of a purpose that is based on some unfounded political blabber that we must prepare children to compete for vital, life saving resources in a terrifying cut-throat global marketplace? And BTW - if you believe this than you must also believe the collective political mindset that only scientists and mathematicians are important and will be able to finesse their way effectually through these difficult social issues (see also: sputnik circa 1950'ish) so if your student is a liberal arts major, they are screwed.

  • What if creativity, cultural intelligence, authentic learning, social justice, and progressive intellectualism were valued above obedience, quotas, standards, sociopolitical power, natural physical abilities, and short term memorization skills?

  • What if all students were expected to learn how to independently organize, find, and creatively apply information through problem solving instead of being expected to learn how to finish a series of preordained tasks quickly within strictly measured time frames?

  • What if students were encouraged to communicate and negotiate with adults while learning to choose their own academic goals instead of being expected to compliantly fail when they don’t agree with or understand goals set before them by people they don’t know?

  • What if secondary students were not only given a choice in where they learned, but also how they learned, what they learned, and who taught them?

  • What if the collective needs and expectations of the school, township, state, national, and global communities could somehow be balanced with the need to empower and honor the individual learner?

  • What if the school was a living, breathing part of the community, not an isolated series of brick and limestone buildings that lock the kids in and the world out?

  • What if the local community knew that the best secondary education ensures teen students will be seen and heard in the community on a regular basis, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.? What if teens believed they were expected, supported and welcomed in their communities?

  • What if the school building was a sacred learning space, a physical sanctuary, and was open and available to students based on their real world schedules?

  • What if intentional social and academic learning did not stop after the school doors were locked, but continued on in a safe and authentic virtual learning space?

  • What if teachers were practicing administrators and administrators were practicing teachers and everyone had direct responsibilities for teaching students and no one at in a closed office most of the day?

  • What if schools were run like a democracy, and administrators, teachers, and students shared power and decision making responsibilities?

  • What if the teachers were trusted by the politicians, the community, and their administrators and were given academic freedom like their colleagues in colleges and universities?

  • What if professional development, quiet reading time, original research, and collaborative planning were required to happen during the regular work day instead of being something “extra” and expected to be accomplished outside of a teacher's job description?

  • What if building and maintaining relationships with a manageable sized group of students that stayed together for 4 to 6 years was not only a “good idea” in secondary education but part of the school’s best practices?

  • What if a school defined a “highly qualified teacher” as someone who could articulate and demonstrate how they have succeeded in fostering a classroom culture that loves and respects learning for the sake of learning, instead of giving that title to those who are assigned to students that will naturally produce the highest test scores, achieve the best attendance rates, and collect the least amount of discipline referrals?

  • What if a school community could take for granted that they would always have an excellently funded print and digital library, managed by a teacher-librarian who provided equitable and free access to library materials while teaching students, teachers, and staff how to find and use information?

  • What if being technically literate was an expectation for everyone in the school, and in turn, the school was expected to continuously support the ongoing development of technical literacy by investing in up-to-date hardware and software?

  • What if a school was built on a foundational layering of social justice, democracy, tolerance, collaboration, and individual freedom for each and every person in the building?
So, what if?

Most charter schools around me were organized and are run from a business model perspective. Others are run on a social platform and tied to the NFP or service agency who founded the school. I only know of one specific charter in my city and state (although there may be some I have yet to discover) that was founded, organized, and is currently run by professional educators. I know of none, anywhere, that have been founded, organized, and run by teacher-librarians.

So, this is how and why the title of The Cranberries debut album came back to me after my recent visit to a charter school. I use it here as a question for progressive educators, and especially progressive school librarians.

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?

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