“it’s just violence”

Those words were uttered by a 17-year-old Vietnamese-American student in response to what has been described as racially motivated attacks against Asian students at a South Philadelphia High School in December.

The following month, in South Hadley, MA, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after incessant physical, verbal and emotional abuse from classmates at her school. (Full disclosure: the superintendent of schools in South Hadley was my superintendent when I taught in a nearby district several years ago.)

Both incidents are horrific. Both have been labeled, in the media, as bullying.

I can’t help but think that “bullying” doesn’t adequately describe what was at play in both tragic incidents. No, I was not present in either case. But from what I’ve read, both involved teenage victims who were immigrants: Phoebe Prince had recently moved from Ireland; the students attacked in South Philly were recent immigrants from Southeast Asia. The hatred directed at Phoebe was so virulent that even after she died, she was being taunted via her memorial page on Facebook. The Asian-American students in South Philly say they’ve been the victims of a “much longer pattern of anti-Asian/anti-immigrant violence at the school.”

If these were in fact anti-immigrant, bias-related attacks, it wouldn’t surprise me. Growing anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be a national trend, notes Gabriel Arana in an article in The American Prospect. One recent example: during an immigrants-rights rally in Washington, DC, there was the much-publicized incident of Tea Party followers shouting racial epithets and spitting on members of Congress.

Arana also points out:

Since the 2006 protests, membership in anti-immigrant groups has increased 600 percent. The number of these groups has also risen from around 40 in 2005 to over 250 today.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a new phenomenon in this country. And neither is its consequences. As Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in 2007:

Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the “huddled masses” emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.

As we celebrate another Fourth of July, this picture of American intolerance clashes sharply with tidy schoolbook images of the great melting pot. Why has the land of “all men are created equal” forged countless ghettoes and intricate networks of social exclusion? Why the signs reading “No Irish Need Apply”? And why has each new generation of immigrants had to face down a rich glossary of now unmentionable epithets?

Using different terminology to describe what occurred in the high schools in South Hadley and South Philadelphia – anti-immigrant bias versus bullying – doesn’t bring back Phoebe Prince or dispel the physical and emotional pain experienced by the students at South Philadelphia High. It may all be, as the 17-year-old Vietnamese-American boy pointed out, simply unfathomable violence.

On the other hand, putting the right label on what happened, understanding the broader societal forces at play in addition to the local context, may provide insight into how we work with our students to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.


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flying together

Driving across the plains of Kansas the other day, I noticed hundreds of geese in V formations flying north from their wintering grounds. A beautiful and amazing sight. Which got me thinking: what is the biological imperative that causes geese to fly in these formations? And what happens during their long trek if one goose can’t keep up?

Well, according to the Library of Congress, the V is extremely efficient, allowing geese to expend less energy. Because each bird flies slightly higher than the bird in front, they benefit aerodynamically, beat their wings less often, and in fact exhibit lower heart rates than birds flying alone.

But wait, there’s more.

When the bird in the front of the V tires – because flying in front means assuming the least advantageous position aerodynamically – that bird will move to the back and another bird will take its place. The birds each take a turn at leading, with birds in back honking encouragement. (That’s right, they honk encouragement to one another.)

As for my second question, about those unable to keep up, I found this pdf which includes an answer, written by Anne Muller, president of Wildlife Watch:

when a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, a few other geese will drop out of the V-formation to follow the bird down. They help and protect the injured bird. They stay with the goose until he or she dies or is able to fly again. Then, they take off with another V-formation or catch up with their own flock.

I thought about migrating geese, and their practices, coming on the heels of the wholesale firing of an entire staff of teachers at Central Falls High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Along with Race To the Top funding decisions expected to be announced soon, funding that will target only a select few states.

You can probably guess that I, as author of this piece, believe we should fly together. That we should take turns leading. That we should support those unable to keep up until they can rejoin, or until they’re able to form another group. With all of us heading toward a common destination.


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social networks are so NOT post-racial

A friend who is Asian-American and a moderate user of Facebook mentioned the other day that she didn’t participate in Doppelganger week. Why not? She pointed out that there are barely any mainstream Asian-American female celebrities, let alone one she resembles.

What’s the big deal, you may be wondering. After all, this was simply a fun exercise in the viral, democratic nature of the web. Posting your celebrity doppelganger on FB was only interesting and relevant as long as a critical mass of people found it to be so. In the end, my friend missed out on at most a few days of hardcore activity.

Framed that way, as an isolated event, it probably wasn’t a big deal.

On the other hand, the whole doppelganger exercise could be viewed as just one of many examples of how social networking – unless we’re careful – replicates the inequities that exist in society as a whole. And the reification of these inequities is potentially more insidious in social networks because it’s easy to believe that the opposite is true: that this life online, enmeshed in free platforms, where everyone is able to contribute, is as post-racial as it gets.

In fact, the reality could not be more different. A recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University found that you could reliably predict which social network – Facebook or MySpace – a college student used most often based on that student’s race, ethnicity and parents’ education. The author of the study, Eszter Hargittai, goes on to state:

Everyone points to that wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the dog at the computer telling a canine friend by his side that ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’ In reality, however, it appears that online actions and interactions should not be viewed as independent of one’s offline identity.”

In researcher danah boyd’s draft of her soon-to-be published article, “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook,” she discusses her work examining the social media practices of teens, and the fact that more affluent white students tended to flock to Facebook while less affluent Latino students tended to prefer MySpace. Race, class and ethnicity were intertwined in students’ motivations in making the social networking choices they did, boyd writes.

Neither social media nor its users are colorblind simply because technology is present. The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, making visible many of the issues we hoped would disappear, including race and class-­‐based social divisions in American society.

Just to be clear, I myself as an Asian-American, college-educated man, definitely demonstrate my own biases. I joined Facebook, for instance, soon after it was opened to the public. I never even remotely considered having a MySpace account. I should be compelled to examine and re-examine these choices which, I’m sure, were the result of what boyd says is an intermingling of class, race and design preferences. Examine them not for the sake of hand-wringing, but because to be aware is to be able to effect change.

We’re at a critical juncture. As social networking matures and becomes the established norm in our lives, we need to be ever more vigilant – not less – that what we are doing is creating new opportunities to participate for those who have been otherwise marginalized. Rather than simply replicating the offline practices that, consciously or not, ultimately lead our students to segregate along class and racial and ethnic divisions. We need to push ourselves and our students to consider who is part of our social networks, who isn’t, and how we can use the potential of online communities to truly transform our society.


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quiet is ok

I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can defend Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, a blog post that’s receiving a tremendous amount of attention in the blogosphere and on Twitter.

Basically, Shirky says he knows what success looks like among academics – and in our society generally – and he knows how it’s achieved. It’s a formula that women don’t currently have a handle on but better master otherwise they’ll be overlooked, passed by, doomed to obscurity. And what is that formula? According to Shirky:

… women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

I’m an Asian-American. And I’ve heard similar arguments made about Asians – that we are quiet, unassuming, unwilling to draw attention to ourselves. Though it’s impossible to generalize with any kind of accuracy about the various cultures that fall under the umbrella term “Asian,” it’s true that in some Asian societies self-aggrandizement is frowned upon. So, would Shirky have then felt comfortable writing a post titled “A Rant About Asians”? Would you have felt comfortable reading a post with that title? Would you have felt Shirky’s was a defensible position if you had read the exact same piece by him but everywhere you find “women” now you found instead the word “Asians”? If your response to any of these questions is “no,” then you can probably understand why I’m dumbfounded that anyone sees Shirky’s generalizations – and, understand, I have great respect for much of his work and in fact have held up his thoughts as dead-on elsewhere in this blog – as shedding light on the plight of women writ large.

So, in essence, Shirky believes that the solution to the problem of women not receiving their fair share is to have them take on the mannerisms of the dominant group. Shirky writes:

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what?

He goes on to explain that we as a society have essentially conditioned men to act more like women recently, so where’s the concern? But Shirky misses the point. We shouldn’t ask women to act like men in order to succeed. Just like we shouldn’t ask Asian-Americans to act like white male academics in order to succeed. Instead, we should ask ourselves: What is it about the landscape that unfairly dictates who will succeed and who won’t and what can we do to change that inequity?


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disorganized sports?

I had a recent conversation on Twitter with Ira Socol about the Jets at the start of their improbable march through the playoffs. It began after Ira reminisced about seeing THE Jets-Raiders playoff game at Shea on Dec. 29, 1968.

That brief exchange got me to thinking about growing up playing football with my friends in Flushing, former home of the Jets. In elementary school, we tried to get up a game each Sunday morning on a grassy field near the local Y. We each had gotten our families to buy us a football helmet and shoulder pads – no small thing, especially for those of us who were poor. I had a purple and white Vikings helmet – I followed my brother’s lead, and he liked the Vikes – and a sky-blue LA Rams jersey. But no one of us had the same uniform or helmet. We were a small, motley crew, playing on a small patch of grass and mud which, during Jets’ home games, had a view of the tops of Shea’s tall halogen floodlights about a mile away.

Once in a while, we’d get the urge to walk to Shea and “sneak” in after halftime, when the gates would be thrown open, ostensibly to allow ticket-holding fair-weather fans to leave. (Because at that time, the Jets were pretty bad.)

During the week, after school, we’d play two-hand touch in the asphalt-covered parking lot at the Hebrew school, eschewing the heavy equipment of helmets and shoulder pads. All we needed was a ball and a sliver of space. The parking lot was generally empty, but you always had to watch out so as not to collide with the random parked car. David, Charles and Mark would sometimes join us after Hebrew school was over. I’m not sure if we looked completely odd, this racially mixed group of kids playing football in the synagogue parking lot. Or whether Flushing was so used to this kind of integrated tableau that no one gave us a second look.

Later, in high school, I played touch football with my friends on a small strip of concrete in the West Village, in the front courtyard of the NYU graduate family housing complex. No first downs because the length of the “field” was too short. It was vital to stay on your feet because the concrete was unforgiving and staunching bloodflow during the long subway ride home back to Queens was annoying, to say the least. My friends and I from Stuyvesant would play with kids who lived in the buildings. We never had a scheduled time – the games formed organically.

Of course, disputes often arose. Rules were argued – “You said the car was out of bounds.” Roles were vied for. Scores were contested.

But in the end, we worked things out ourselves.

All this – the helmets and jerseys, the nearly daily football games, the walks to Shea – all this happened and not one of my friends was ever killed or kidnapped or maimed. Maybe we were lucky. But maybe being in charge also made us slightly more careful and caring of one another. In fact, I’ve always been mystified as to why adult-supervised sports, like football, are referred to as “organized.” As though what we kids were able to do in the synagogue parking lot and on the concrete at the NYU towers was the opposite, or wasn’t based on organization. That somehow adult supervision equals better, safer, less chaotic – a demeaning of what kids are able to accomplish on their own.

I say let’s stop using the term organized when referring to sports leagues for kids. Unless we distinguish between “adult organized”and “kid organized.” Because  kids can be very organized when it comes to the things they care about.

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blurred lines

I listened to a fantastic discussion this week on the webcast, Teachers Teaching Teachers. Paul Allison, who through sheer determination and, frankly, stubbornness, has kept this program going has hosted conversations with influential educators from around the world. This past week was no exception.

Folks from Global Kids, along with NYC teachers and educators from Oregon discussed games and gaming.

I plugged into the iTunes feed, participated in a chat that included students and tweeted some of the salient sound-bite-able portions.

I loved listening to the discussion surrounding the educational potential of games and game creation – the promotion of systems thinking, for instance – and how the teachers on the program implement gaming in their classrooms.

As someone who grew up playing games, analog (Risk, Monopoly, Life, Battling Tops – you name it) and digital (I went to college with the Ms. Pacman champ of Connecticut), and as a teacher who used game-playing as a teaching strategy in math with 2nd graders, I was deeply engaged by the topic.

Afterward, as I tried to synthesize the rich conversation, my mind touched on the obvious idea that introducing games and gaming in school is one step towards the blurring of the line between in-school and out-of-school. I thought back to the seminal Pew Internet and American Life study from 2002, “The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their Schools.” Nearly 10 years ago, we were facing the dilemma of students arriving in school aware that the ways in which they acquired knowledge outside the classroom wouldn’t be open to them inside the classroom. At the time, my response as a technology professional development specialist was to help teachers bring the Internet into the classroom, and therefore put the Internet into the hands of students.

But what I’m thinking today, right at this moment, influenced by the blurring of lines for me professionally and personally as I engage more with Twitter and read the book “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out” is that I need to have greater nuance in my understanding. That my framework of the issue – in-school/out-of-school – may be wrongheaded. That instead, what I need to do is honor our students’ already-existing personal learning communities, which have lives in school and out of school and sometimes in and out of school, and, additionally, help them figure out how to foster new ones so that they can access more and different kinds of knowledge.

It’s a different type of blurring of the lines between in-school and out-of-school, one that is holistic rather than linear. It is a Venn diagram of multiple overlapping circles, circles that represent a student’s many learning communities – sports, music, TV, books – rather than a flowchart of back-and-forth arrows between home and school.

(As an aside, who knew there was a LOTR version of Risk? I may need to buy a game tonight …)

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fence posts

My colleague Paul LeMahieu is the former superintendent of schools in Hawaii.

During a recent conversation, he recalled that in Hawaii his schools often dealt with huge influxes of students moving in from out of state. In order to be proficient in the Hawaii high-stakes tests, these recent transplants had to learn Hawaiian history which was a mandated part of the curriculum. This despite the fact that they may have learned a different state’s history in an earlier grade when they lived elsewhere. (I believe it’s often the fourth grade curriculum that focuses on state history.)

Parents and guardians, he said, would complain. Why must my child learn yet another state’s history? they would ask. He didn’t have a good answer.

During our conversation, Paul came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why not ditch the current learn-about-your-own-state navel-gazing curricula nationwide and in its place have each state decide that its students will learn about another, different state?

Better yet, why not give each kid the opportunity to learn about whatever state he or she wants to and then test them, if we must, with some kind of analytical essay question or questions, perhaps even a hands-on demonstration of knowledge?

I like this option best. For pedagogical reasons. But, to be honest, for self-absorbed reasons, too. When I was a kid I had a minor obsession with South Dakota. The reason? It’s capital, Pierre. I knew the name of South Dakota’s capital because of a little red rectangular pencil box I owned. Two gear wheels that sat just under the lid of the pencil box. One wheel had the names of the states, the other had the names of the states’ capitals. They were aligned so that when you turned one wheel, the other spun appropriately; the corresponding names then appeared in little windows on the lid.

Low-tech, but effective.

I loved my pencil box. I also loved the Maurice Sendak book Pierre and was amazed to find out that a state had a capital with the same name. Who names their capitals after stupid kids who annoyingly say “I don’t care” over and over again? I wondered. Of course, I never as a young kid found out much about South Dakota, it’s rich history of Native resistance, the Badlands. I learned about Mount Rushmore and dimly recalled being told it was in South Dakota. But that was it.

As a professor I once worked with described it, I learned history in grade school and junior high horizontally – survey courses strung together, like a long fence, with each fact a rail and the connections between the rails only vaguely understood.

I was exposed to lots of rails.

What this teacher of teachers of history encouraged, instead, was giving kids the chance to dig fence posts. Spread far apart, perhaps, but drilled down deeply, with authentic purpose and primary source material as the foundation. With fence posts, kids bring their inquiry to one particular moment or episode and then try to interpret and analyze and ultimately make sense of a time period.

Fence-post history might have been hard to manage back when I was a kid, when we had World Book encyclopedias for our reports (use the encyclopedia but don’t copy word-for-word, our teachers told us – so, does that mean we can copy every other word, we fifth graders asked each other? every third word?), when we relied on mechanical-wheeled pencil boxes. Now, though, I have the ability to do a google search of Laura Ingalls Wilder and find primary source documents about her life in the Dakota Territory and examine those while I read the Little House on the Prairie series.

I say we give kids a chance to learn about South Dakota … and Alaska and any other state they want to know more about. Knock over the fences. Sink down the fence posts.


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