Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Thoughts on the Purpose of Education


I recently had a great time chatting with Doug Belshaw, a colleague over in the UK, about the purpose of education. Among many other roles (including recently joining the Mozilla Learning team), Doug is the co-kickstarter of the purpos/ed project which aims to create a broader conversation around what the purpose of education is. This, in my opinion, is a fantastic project – so much of the discussion in the education world has baked in assumptions about what the purpose of education is, and too often these assumptions go unexamined. We can only do well by bringing them to the surface and engaging in robust debate around them.

Check out the post over on the purpos/ed, or listen to the interview below. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what you think the purpose of education is, or should be.

Getting Clear on Priorities: Save the National Writing Project

It’s true. I haven’t blogged in six months. So this had better be important, right? You bet. I’m writing because we need to get our priorities in order when it comes to this great experiment we call democracy. And that has everything to do with the fact that the National Writing Project has been defunded.

Let me work it backwards. I started working in public schools ten years ago, at the ripe young age of eighteen, as a tutor and mentor. I’ll be honest – for many of my early years in schools I was not inspired by the teachers I observed or worked with. There were a few though that were clearly dedicated to the youth, to the practice of pedagogy, to figuring out the best way to be an educator. These people played a role in my own choice to become an educator. I chose though to work outside of schools, in the spaces on the fringes where innovation seemed more possible, in afterschool programs, libraries, museums, on the internet with emerging collaborative communities.

And for years into my professional experience I had experiences in schools that echoed my early ones – not necessarily just with individuals, but rather with cultures that seemed reactive, unsupportive of those that worked within them, that seemed to be allergic to learning and changing themselves. To be clear – this was my own limited experience in a very limited number of schools. I have no doubt that there are many out there that don’t fit this bill. And I point to these experiences here mainly to provide a contrast to so many of those I’ve had since I came into contact with the National Writing Project.

I had the opportunity to start working with NWP in 2009 through their Digital Is initiative, where I and my (then) colleagues shared some of the work our organization had been doing experimenting with pedagogical approaches that meaningfully incorporated new media. And while I went in to share the practices that I’d developed, I ended up very much being a learner in the many interactions I had with the people involved in NWP. Immediately I saw a culture where teachers were constantly working to push their practice, share technique, reflect on student work and experiment with new approaches in a way I’d never seen in the schools I worked in. This was not singular individuals – it was a culture of learning among teachers, national in scope, vision and participation and highly specialized to the local contexts in which it worked.

As my friend Paul Oh, a friend at the NWP describes, the Project is both an infrastructure and an idea. It’s both about supporting local chapters (over 200) and partnerships between teachers in the network and local colleges, as well as about a broader idea of, as Paul puts it, “Teachers Teaching Teachers” and trusting in the expertise of a group of people dedicated to their craft and to young people’s expressive capacity.

That this and so many other literacy programs are getting cut is astounding to me. As my friend Bud Hunt, also a teacher in NWP, says, the budget of the organization, when viewed in national federal budget terms, is a rounding error. The effects defunding might have on actual youth, on the other hand, are not. Just so it’s clear that this is not only a personal issue of having friends and colleagues that are effected, NWP has consistently shown through research the efficacy of its work for student outcomes.

Cuts to a program like NWP are problematic on many levels. On one, they set a precedent for future cuts to social programs that reflect an ideology that says the role of government is to get out of the way, rather than to assure that those most vulnerable in society are able to succeed. On another, it plays into a very disturbing current trend in the educational world to strip teachers of support (look no further than Wisconsin for evidence of that). A culture like NWP’s takes time and resources to develop, and losing support will have major impact on the ability of that culture to continue to provide a space where teachers can reflect on their practice. Finally, and most importantly, these sorts of cuts indicate that we now live in a country unwilling to invest in having a future generation prepared to engage in the democratic process in an informed way, the basis of Jefferson’s vision for how this country would work. Without informed citizenry, we don’t have democracy. Education is at the heart of that, and if, when the going gets rough, we decide to stop investing there, well, we are shooting only ourselves in the foot.

Many people are blogging this weekend in support of NWP, check them out, and, if you’re inspired, contact your state representatives to save NWP and put them back into the coming year’s budget.

Silently starting a conversation – Reflections on 24 hours of Public Meditation

Photo by Frances Yang Martin

My fellow meditators in the windows of ABC Home

When I signed up to be part of the Interdependence Project’s meditation marathon, to sit for 24 hours in the windows of the most sheeshy home furnishing store in New York City as part of a fundraiser for the organization, I knew it would be intense.  I just didn’t know what the nature of that intensity would be.  I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or preparing for the sit, as I didn’t have much context for this kind of experience to base any preparation on.  I mostly considered that I’d be sitting for 24 hours (with of course walking meditation mixed in), and the only context I had for such an extended period of meditation was meditation retreats, usually about a week long, that I’ve been going on for some time now.  Those retreats are, naturally, very intense from an internal standpoint.  Generally retreatants, or yogis as they’re often called, are in idyllic surroundings with delicious food and lots of silence, but are so intimately engaged in focused meditation that they tend to experience euphoric highs but also debilitating lows, with plenty of peacefulness and straightup boredom mixed in.  And so when I was thinking about what to prepare for when sitting 24 hours, I largely thought of it in these terms, as a subjective experience.

What I basically forgot about was that I’d be sitting in an *extremely* public space, a street level storefront window that’s meant to highlight things to otherwise uninterested passers by.  And wow, were the passers by  interested.  I guess it isn’t everyday that you see about a dozen people meditating in window, but wow.  The fact that our 24 hours included a Friday night in a pretty busy part of New York City probably helped in terms of the amount of attention we got.  Here are some of the general sentiments I heard, paraphrased:

“Are they for real?”

“Are they real?”

“Wow, those people are incredible. That’s discipline!”

“I wish I could do that.”

“I used to meditate, I should really start again.”

“What a waste of time.”

“Get a life!”

“How much do you cost?! I want to take you home!” (Note: not a paraphrase.)

Continue reading ‘Silently starting a conversation – Reflections on 24 hours of Public Meditation’

Just in time learning, local politics and potentials in informed citizenry

Voting LeverSo I, like about 15% of New Yorkers, went to the polls today to vote in the Democratic Primary for a number of city wide as well as borough-specific elections.  Among them were the office of Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, City Council seats, etc.  AKA, the kind of stuff that most of the public just doesn’t care about enough to vote on, let alone get informed about (especially since the Democratic mayoral candidate will likely get squashed by Bloomberg).  In my years of becoming more civic minded, I’ve begun to vote regularly in these “smaller” elections, and have come up against a bit of a hurdle.  While I’m motivated to vote in these elections, realize that my vote will make a real difference in deciding who gets into office, and understand that these politicians have probably the most impact on the issues immediate to my city ranging from education and real estate development to local environmental laws and criminal justice, I just can’t seem to get motivated enough to actually follow these races.

And so tonight I found myself in the familiar situation of arriving at the Brooklyn Museum (best polling place ever) not really knowing much about the people on the ballot.  Last time this happened I figured that I should use the resources I had at hand to become an at least somewhat informed voter, so I sat down on the floor, took out my iPhone, and painstakingly reviewed various articles about the candidates on its small screen.

Times Election Page

This time, I thankfully had my laptop with me, and using the museum’s free wifi, was able to do critical last minute research to inform my decisions.  I checked the sites of various local organizations that I know to see who they endorsed, as well as the local section of the Times to get their take on who would be best for various offices.  Armed with a much greater understanding of who the people on the ballot were and where they stood on various issues, I entered one of those classic New York polling booths, made my selection, and pulled the lever with a sense that I had not only done my civic duty by voting, but didn’t waste my vote as a result of being entirely uninformed.

Continue reading ‘Just in time learning, local politics and potentials in informed citizenry’

On Obama’s Speech to America’s Students

Obama Speech to America's StudentsRecently on our family listserv, we had a little back and forth about Obama’s recent speech to students across America, with most giving positive reviews.  I thought it was fine, but had a bunch to add, and to critique, so I thought I’d share here as well.

I agree that the speech was really wonderful, and important, but do have a bone to pick with Obama on this one.  Hear me out.

Throughout the entire speech the predominant theme was that youth need to take responsibility for their own education.  Don’t drop out.  Don’t disrespect your teachers.  Do the work even if it may not seem relevant.  And above all, it’s ultimately up to you whether you succeed or not.  Generally good messages, but really only good messages for students.

For society at large, we know, however, that “it takes a village”, to quote an old African proverb, and that the village that was put in charge of education has failed.  It has failed because it was designed for a different world, and has been ornery in the face of adaptation.  It has failed through cutting costs, it has failed through irrelevant content, it has failed by favoring teaching methods that are at best boring and at worst antagonize young people to the idea of learning.  It has failed to realize that it needs to teach attitudes and orientations as opposed to facts and figures.  And it’s a failure that Obama didn’t mention a word about, glossing over this ossified aspect of American society using a fail safe mantra of rugged American individualism when what the education system really needed was a serious jolt about how this is a problem of communities and systems, of parent involvement and teacher training and of fear in the face of special interests that control testing and textbooks, as opposed to just giving a pep talk to kids saying that they should take their studies more seriously.  After all, if you were given the system that they were, would you?

When taken in the larger context, Obama certainly said some nice things, but no where near enough.  This was a fine thing for the president to say to young people on their first day back to school, but if this President wants to make any impression on me when it comes to education, he’ll have to say, and do, much much more.  This was his first day of school to me, and he did alright.  An A for effort and showing up.  We’ll see what his grades are like, though, at the end of the year.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist

As some of you know, I’ve been in the process of researching the life of my grandfather, John Santo, whom I’ve written about before on the blog.  As I engage in this process I’m getting a unique opportunity to experience history in an a new and somewhat more personal lens, and recently had the opportunity to reflect on how personally impactful events that happened years ago can be when taken in the small context of a small family’s history.

In short, my grandfather was an Hungarian American Communist who was one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union, became a high level official in the Hungarian Communist Government, and eventually defected from said government for a host of reasons not least of which was total disillusionment with Communism as it manifested in its brutal and paranoid form in cold war Hungary.

As I conducted initial research about his life, one of the key books that I found was called In Transit, a great read that documents the history of the TWU.  It’s by a labor historian, Josh Freeman, who teaches here in New York at the City University of New York Graduate Center.  I figured that since he was so close, literally blocks from my office, I’d try to contact him and see if we could meet to chat and possibly fill in some blanks I had in the story of my grandfather’s life.  Luckily, Josh is a really wonderful man and sat down with me for a long conversation where he was able to give me some historical context within which I could better understand what I’m coming to realize is an even more fascinating and complex political and personal history than I imagined. Continue reading ‘Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist’

Don’t Divorce Us.

I came across this amazing video via a friend of mine, and just wanted to/had to share it. It breaks my heart to live in a country where people are able to vote to take away the rights of others, to oppress fellow citizens and deny them the liberties they’re granted based on our constitution. Regardless of religious or personal views, the law here is to me clearer than day. Please, don’t divorce my moms. Don’t divorce my sister and sister in law. Help by signing your name to a letter asking the supreme court to overturn prop 8 here.

Civil Society on Your Computer, Police State in the Streets

This week’s New York Times Magazine has a well done article about the role Facebook is having in the formation of civil society in Egypt. While the internet and social media’s potential for civic engagement is certainly large here in the West, in places where there are larger amounts of censorship, where it is illegal to organize publicly, where people are dragged off to jail in the middle of the night by secret police, the implications of its presence are likely to be more dramatic. The article gives a hint of both this potential as well as its limitations.

On the one hand, places like Facebook will provide a place to organize groups around issues in a way that the government can’t simply shut down. The article quotes Ethan Zuckernman, of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and founder of Global Voices, on why it’s important that activism and organizing are happening on sites like Facebook in Egypt:

The April 6 movement illustrates what he calls the “cute-cat theory of digital activism.” Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the “American Idol” fans and cat lovers as well. “The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,” Zuckerman explained.

This is incredibly important, and represents a shift in how regimes that censor are able to quiet inconvenient voices on the internet.

On the other hand, the article ends with a dose of reality about how far Facebook activism is going in the country. It seems that while there’s a great amount of excitement online for organizing against the authoritarian government in Egypt by its citizens, when groups attempt to bring people to the streets consistently, they are often met by police who are monitoring those same online forums that were used to organize actions, or simply by poor turnouts which might be attributed to fear or apathy. “What does it mean to have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in the street?”, the article asks in its closing paragraph. Watch Egypt carefully and we may find out.

A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election

Recently on our family listserve, my grandfather Irving shared an essay memoir he wrote to the Obama campaign.  It’s a moving recollection and reflection on his own involvement in the civil rights movement, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.  After asking to see if he’d be ok with it, I’m now happy to share it with you.  Enjoy!

A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election

Irving M. Levine

One month after the dramatic election of Barack Obama, I celebrated my 79th birthday with renewed hope and considerable glee.  The day, December 7th, always evokes vivid memories of my 12th birthday in 1941. There wasn’t much to celebrate, of course, as I sat by the radio, hour-after-hour, hoping and praying that despite massive losses at Pearl Harbor, we might still prevail as a nation. Thank god that we had chosen FDR as our President. His indomitable spirit, inspirational character, and transformational leadership rallied us to victory against truly evil forces seeking to dominate the world.

From those times of dark shadows to today, my life’s journey has been a good and lucky one. Born into poverty, two months after the stock market crash of 1929, I grew up in a neighborhood largely populated by Jews, Blacks, and small enclaves of Italian and Polish families. We lived in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn—home to Murder Incorporated—and our fates were up for grabs.  For my three brothers and me, poverty and high-crime would not prove to be a knockout blow. A close family, mutual aid, the WPA, and our parents’ good character got us through the worst of times. But for many of my street-corner buddies, their lives went the wrong way.   Dozens ended “up the river” or died of drug and gang activities.

Continue reading ‘A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election’

Differing social media strategies of the Israeli Government

A video of air strikes in Gaza, from the Israeli Defense Forces Youtube Channel

In what might be the next iteration of government public relations during wartime, different parts of the Israeli government have recently created a range of social media sites. An IDF Youtube channel highlights videos from air strikes it is undertaking in the Gaza Strip, interspersed with clips showing humanitarian aid deliveries. Its blog contains posts about recent operations it’s engaged in and statistics on rocket attacks towards Israel, among other things. Following the US government’s embedded reporting program during the Iraq War, this is a logical step in information warfare, essentially cutting out any intermediary between the public and a government’s message.

I’m dubious, though, as to whether the Israeli government will have a net gain in its information war by moving into the social media sphere. Its success or failure will be dependent on it having a deep understanding of the environment in which it’s now experimenting, something I would definitely not assume of any government bureaucracy.

Continue reading ‘Differing social media strategies of the Israeli Government’

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Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.