Friday, March 8, 2013

Education reform is talking among ourselves

I have been privileged to learn from Peter Block. My favorite among his many books is The Answer to How is Yes.

Here's Peter's take on what transforms education.
We were saying earlier, most of the conferences we go to are all about content. We get called in all the time to give a talk. Then we have time for a Q and A, which is the interactive element of patriarchy. In some places they won’t even let you stand up and speak the question. You’ve got to write it in, as a screening device against disloyalty. I did with Bell Labs once – and so they kept handing a little card with a question, and it was piped into other locations. After it was over, I said, “Any questions you didn’t give me?” And the guy said, “Yeah one.” I said, “What was that?” Somebody wrote in, “Where did you get this guy?” Which was the only interesting question. 
So that is the invention, the social invention you’re participating in. It is to devise alternative structures, which honor the peer to peer conversation as the place where all transformation occurs – Not some of it, not most of it. The idea of a master teacher piped into seven locations, it’s a defense against reform.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Are you a bandit or a band-aid?

Paul Komarek and Dominic Barter
"Are you a bandit or a band-aid?"

Dominic Barter starts his lectures with this quote from a Brazilian street kid. Barter had walked into a favela, a dead-poor, gang-ridden, poverty-stricken shanty town on the side of a mountain above Rio de Janeiro, and told this kid he wanted to help. The street kid wanted to know if he was going to be exploited again, or given a handout and abandoned. In that kid's experience, it was always one or the other.

Barter refused to take either role. He stayed and invented a new kind of justice process called Restorative Circles. It is a full-body experience sort of process, focused on everyone being heard and everyone working things out. This is a process that is community-embedded. It happens within the system. You don't haul in an outside facilitator or expert to rescue you or solve things for you. Restorative Circles work when everyone "checks their name tags at the door," and addresses each other as people. Practically anyone can learn to run a Restorative Circle process.

Imagine your school, with justice built into its very DNA.

Here's a great TEDx video about conflict and about how Restorative Circles play out.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What's the justice system in your school?

We have all met teachers who think they show up at school simply to deliver math facts. They are technicians of the flash card, masters of  the smartboard. The drama of the kids is just distraction to the content-specialist educator.

I think the the drama, the social environment, is the important part. Teachers who ignore the socialization function are doing half a job. Kids benefit from the culture of the school community as much as they do from the designed curriculum. Sure there is stuff to learn, but kids are also at school to find out what they are good at, and how to hang out with others. The conflict that shows up is normal to life. And as events are processed, kids build their internal model of justice.

I've seen all sorts of justice systems in schools. They range from zero-tolerance, which works as badly in schools as it does in civil society, to hands-off, an unsafe variation on deliberate ignorance. There is trapdoor justice, where school officials throw up their hands saying that they control what happens in school but kids are on their own when they leave at the end of the day. There is also Justice Compartmentalization, where school trouble is the exclusive territory of disciplinary professionals and the psych staff. This lets content delivery specialists wash their hands of responsibility for troublemakers the minute they write out the referral slip.

As parents, we want the justice culture of the school to reflect our own ideals. Safety. Respect. Kindness. Self-reliance. What about capacity to mete out vengeance? Do we think about how we want the school to manage the mechanics of the Pecking Order? What should happen when conflict gets out of bounds, when there is deliberate victimization?

I favor a restorative justice approach to trouble in schools. Tough incidents create a network of obligations involving the person who authored an action, the person who received the action, and the school community at large. Dominic Barter's Restorative Circles process brings all three into the room, to work out the effects of what happened and sort out a way forward.  It's a whole-body experience, with people very close to each other experiencing the full emotional load surrounding the event. It's not a tribunal, where people can half attend, pay the fine in suspension days and plot an escalation. Barter developed his system in the favelas (shantytowns) of Brazil. Schools there are built with conflict rooms. It puts justice in the center of the school community, creating safe havens where conflict is addressed safely, even in a culture overflowing with poverty and violence.

Bullying situations test school justice cultures. What might happen if everyone at your school treasured and exercised their capacity to influence culture, address justice and protect children? Would we have the situation in the video that follows, where even parents who are experts find themselves greatly distressed by the school's failures to address the bullying affecting their child?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Education everywhere

Education is the whole world now.

The education work I do is mostly at the periphery of the formal educational system. I've designed programming for after-school youth centers, helped start up child care centers, and advised a network of child care centers about how to meet the expectations of state regulators, local funders and United Way agencies. I've helped squirming fifth graders improve their math skills. I've done fundraising, grant proposal writing, lobbying and legislative advocacy. And beyond that, there's the work I do around mental health and special education.

I'm even more invested in education for adults, I am working with workforce development experts on a project in Cincinnati's Winton Hills neighborhood to help just a handful of public housing families achieve real success as they define it. I'm helping another client develop protocols, administrative procedures and training material for an agency that serves high-risk adult clients with developmental disabilities, mental health problems and histories of violence. I've taught law enforcement, judges, mental health professionals, addiction treatment workers, youth program workers, and community college students.

Most of this was outside formal schools. The high-stakes nature of today's education systems creates a kind of gravity that attracts money and stimulates conflict. Consider all those education reform movies. Some are pro-union, others anti-union. Some favor public schools, others support charters. I have heard a lot of loose talk about innovation and vision. I've seen plenty of educational disappointment too.

I prefer to work with the learning that happens outside the formal school day, outside the school year, when classrooms are mostly empty or hijacked or repurposed. After-school and post-school are interesting spaces and times. You can bring in non-experts to sit with a couple of children to figure out math that is hard for everyone. You can work inside the culture and outside the curricula. You can have two dozen fifth graders measure the school gymnasium with measuring tapes and rulers. You can bring in whole families, and let everyone who shows up show off. You can design experiences for parents just returning after prison. You can work in the least formal settings, and focus your effort on what keeps people safe, Because people never stop learning, you can almost make utter chaos work teach lessons.

So thank you for checking in.  As we move ahead, expect to read posts from inside and outside the educational system. We may occasionally complain about this or that, but complaining is not our focus, We would rather show off what is possible, and what is known to work.