It Was 50 Years Ago Today: Looking Back On My Summer of Sgt. Pepper’s

Sgt. Pepper’s Band Album Cover, 1967

 

If you’re a person of a certain age, you likely remember where you were the first time you heard the breakthrough Beatles’ album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  In June of 1967, I had just turned 15 and completed my freshman year of high school. Since I’d first heard them in 1964, The Beatles had been my favorite band. I couldn’t wait to listen to all of the new songs and look at the artwork on the album cover. Back then, we played the album on a record player and spent hours looking at the cover art and analyzing the images.  I first heard the album while attending a party at my friend Dee’s house. The big, old Victorian had a wrap-around porch where all of us partygoers could dance and talk. I had dated Dee’s older brother, Eddie, the summer before, and still had a bit of a crush on him. But we’d broken up after a few months and he’d moved on.  That night would be the first time in a year that I’d seen him.

I wore a new, yellow, cotton dress and took extra care with my long hair to get it as straight as possible–no easy task for someone with naturally curly hair. Dee and Eddie lived less than a mile from my house, so I walked into the warm June evening, anticipating seeing Eddie again and wondering if I’d get a second chance with him.

When I arrived at Dee’s house,  the porch was full of people–dancing, eating, and talking. I heard some really weird music–to my young ears–but then I recognized the unmistakeable voices harmonies of the unmistakable Beatles. I remember hugging my girlfriends and flirting with a couple of the boys I’d gone to grade school with, all the while scouting the crowd for Eddie. The music of Sgt. Pepper’s played loudly and drifted out into the streets where people walking by could hear. Dee and I talked for a bit and she showed me the cover of the album–then everyone gathered around, pointing to the famous people who filled the crowd. In typical teen fashion, we all agreed it was the most amazing cover we’d ever seen.

I finally saw Eddie walking towards me through the crowd, smiling. Maybe he’d want to dance with me. Maybe we could go out again. My heart beat faster and I smoothed my dress and patted my hair. He kept walking towards me with that smirky smile that I’d fallen for last year. Eddie was 6’7″, so he towered over everyone else at the party as he made his way towards me.  Now my palms were sweating. What would he say? What would I say?  Butterflies filled my stomach.

And then I saw her by his side–Toni, one of my best friends from grade school.  Eddie held her hand as he said hi to me and then put his arm around Toni. Dee and Toni went to the same high school, and I guess she’d fixed Toni up with Eddie the same way she fixed me up the year before. I wanted the porch floor to open up and swallow me. The butterflies in my stomach turned to weights and a sinking feeling filled my whole body. My mouth was dry and the words tumbled out in pat phrases about summer and swimming at the neighborhood pool. I wanted to run away.

But I didn’t. I stayed and survived my encounter with Toni and Eddie, up until people started slow-dancing–and then I knew I had to leave. Not the happiest teen memory I have, but I’ll never forget the first night I heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  And over the years, I realize that I got through that night like I’ve gotten through every other tough situation–with a little help from my friends.

Reblogging: Selling Ourselves on an Empty Medium

Many Thanks to my friend and fellow poet, Michael Dickel, for giving me permission to reblog this thoughtful and provocative essay. Read the original on the Bezine
Selling Ourselves
on an Empty Medium

MICHAEL DICKEL

I advertise sometimes on social media. I’ve learned something about how it works. These are some thoughts about what social media really is about—perhaps a change of perspective, like the famous wine glass or kissing couple image, will help us to think about how the business of social media provides structure for the post-truth phenomenon.

MIchael Dickel

To be clear, what I have to say is not new or exclusive to social media. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that “news” media (as all media) are not in the business of giving its audience (readers or viewers) the news (or entertainment or other “content”). The business model sells the audience to advertisers. Newspapers used to be sold for less than the cost of printing, and broadcast did not initially charge (cable and satellite changed that, but most news and much other media content comes in the basic plans, without premiums). And, famously, Marshall McLuhan told us “the medium is the message.”

News media at least also provide(d) content gathered, written, and delivered by journalists who (at least before “post-truth”) cared about ethics, truth, and fact, and who provided an important social service (if not perfect and often shaped or biased). The ads, are often seen as a “necessary evil”— commerce to provide this service. Still, ads remain(ed) the business model and, thus, subscriptions and ratings mattered.

Audience matters more than ever, because what social-media companies discovered is the medium is not just the message. It is everything.


Audience is the only content in social media, in a sense, and the medium (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) simply holds the audience. The audience busies itself with creating its own content and, well, being social. Hence, social media. These media should not be confused with content-media. While both sell audience to advertisers, content-media create or distribute others’ content to attract audiences. Social media create a medium for audiences to inhabit.

Therefore, social media are little more than empty frameworks—pure medium, with no content. The audiences are not only sold to advertisers, they now produce the content that keeps other audiences (and themselves) engaged.

This engagement is necessary in order for the social media companies, which provide the framework-medium, to sell the advertising to reach those audiences. And the medium—computers—provides detailed and accurate measure of the impact of the ads, which makes the advertiser’s purchase of audience more effective per dollar.

The medium, therefore, pushes engagement. Think of the increased availability of emojis / emoticons on the media, including Facebooks additions to the thumb on posts and, now, on post comments. More interactions that amount to increased engagement. Even those not posting have something to do and contribute to the process, and choosing an emoji instead of just clicking the thumb shows a higher level of engagement with that particular content.

So, what significantly differs with content-media, is that the content itself actually comes from the target audiences, who engage in it through an increasing number of channels (posting, comments / replies, likes, shares / replies, emoji, etc.). The social-media companies don’t produce content, just the frameworks—that is, the medium.

We, the users / audience, produce the content for social-media companies, give it away to them, and think we’re doing it to entertain ourselves and friends. However, more important to the business model, we’re also attracting and entertaining audience that the social-media companies can sell to advertisers—and make no mistake, we also are in that the audience for those advertisers.

Many of us, myself included, promote our own projects, work, businesses to these audiences with the “content” we produce. Many of us, myself included, also advertise on social media. So any one individual, such as myself, fills multiple roles within any one social medium. The social-media companies, however, control the medium and benefit from each and every role any individual plays. The more roles, the better for the companies.

(Granted, traditional media to “keep relevant” and stop audience loss, have increasingly incorporated engagement and aspects of content creation—from reader blogs to comments and replies online, so the distinction is less clear with contemporary news outlets than with traditional outlets of the past.)

We, as users / audience, engage— “curate,” “share,” “post,” “like” —all of which keeps the audience for the ads (ourselves and others) distracted from the marketing purpose of the media while providing the audience for the ads that the social-media companies sell (to us). This “engagement” also provides the framework with the information to target our interests so that it can present ads we are more likely to respond to with a “like,” “emoji,” “click,” or “conversion” (e.g., sale for the advertiser, purchase for you). And we participate willingly.

The algorithms the companies create don’t measure truth, although I should say they haven’t up until recently, when Facebook announced one to recognize “fake news.” The companies design the algorithms to measure and record engagement and conversions in relationship to interests and content. Content that attracts attention (and ad responses) rules the news feeds, timelines, recommend-for-you links, and thus rules the media waves.


They call it “Big Data,” all of the information that can be found out about us on the internet, much of it through social media and about our social-media engagement. And the Russians have taken this all quite seriously, using social media for political purposes.

Note that the social-media companies don’t directly sell conversions—the term for sales. The advertisers do track them, with help from the social-media companies and their software. They track these for the effectiveness of the ads and ad settings. Also, the more conversions, the more valuable an audience and the more successful the medium that holds that audience.

All of our content and engagement contribute to the “Big Data” out there. And the data provides a surprisingly, and scarily, detailed picture of who we are.

One researcher found a way to connect pages we like on Facebook with specific personality profiles with some reliability. The methods he used seem to have been used by a political consulting company to shape ad messages to fit those personality types and to target the ads to those specific audiences. They also used the data to choose which audiences to ignore as unlikely to respond.

Reportedly, the consulting firm worked with the Brexit and Trump campaigns, both of which succeeded when expected not to. Whether or not the work this company (reportedly) influenced the “surprise outcomes” remains a question for debate. However, the fact that these campaigns heavily used social media is another aspect of the medium and how important the audience it holds is (and such use is not only in ads, but for tweets and posts).

For reasons largely to do with evolutionary survival, we respond to fear, anger, and (literal and figurative) loudness. We pay attention to it because for most of our evolution, these types of social voices warned us, kept us safe, got our adrenalin going so we could put out fires, defend against dangers, or run away.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that LOUD lies, SHOUTED anger, SHRIEKS of fear (or ALL CAPS) get us going, our adrenalin roaring, and our tendency to quickly respond (with more action and less thought). This responsiveness could—just possibly—lead us also to more engagement, as a sort of “action.” We respond by clicking more little icons, typing another comment (reply), sharing (retweeting) more, and yes, probably also by clicking on ads more—a less direct response, but with adrenaline flow, we go.

Those famous (possibly Russian) trolls, however, keep the lies moving, the energy flowing. Why did social-media companies not “do something” about trolls before? And why are their responses (largely) minimal and ineffective now? Probably because they “influence”—the “audience” for ads probably “engage” more on social media and with the ads themselves when trolls keep the medium roiling. As the companies sell both exposure (showing the ad) and response (click), numbers alone are the main factor. However, the higher the response rate , the much more valuable the audience.

So the more engaged the audience and the more sales (of ads, by the users) the audience generates, the more the companies profiting from the medium don’t want to limit or lose that audience or anything / anyone who keeps it engaged.

Trump has mastered Twitter for getting people riled up—it doesn’t matter for or against, his Tweets get responses, articles, commentaries, editorials in response now that he’s President, symbolic head of the vast U.S. social network. Even if you or I reject the legitimacy of his presidency, he ranks as social-influencer-in-chief, or, in other words, troll-in-chief. And most of us have probably read one (likely more) of his tweets or at the very least, read about them.

Truth doesn’t matter in this medium. Only having an audience in it and how the audience responds to each other in it. The more engagement, the more the creators of the media can sell ads—ads fed into and made more effective in the medium according the data our engagement produces. The medium and its ability to hold an audience and promote engagement matter more than anything.


I don’t have evidence to support all of these ideas. These are thoughts I’ve been working through, and may eventually shape themselves into a long-term research and writing project. So don’t take these words as truth. They are not post-truth, either, though.

Think of them as speculation and hypothesis, a beginning of a process of trying to understand something about the media that contain us as its sole purpose to exist.

However, if it is the case that the liars, haters, shouters—the trolls and Trumps—do increase audience size and engagement (clicks and conversions), then we may be destined for a post-truth social media world until we choose not to respond and engage—that is, until as audience, we choose how to respond by not reacting, how to quiet the social around the trolls, liars, click-bait artists who (want to) roil it.


©2017 Michael Dickel

Le Hinton: Cards Flash Back

This post first appeared on Michael Dickel’s blog as part of April’s Poetry Month postings. Thanks, Michael, for your encouragement and for sharing Le Hinton’s fine poem.

 

Le Hinton is a great friend and an inspiring poet. I met him several years ago when he was a featured reader in a local poetry series, and I was struck by the heart that comes through in his work. Besides Le’s ability to convey powerful emotional experiences in his poems, one of the things that I most admire is his willingness to share his expertise with other poets. Last fall, we both presented at a poetry retreat where Le did a wonderful session on playing with form in poetry. He talked about linebreaks, staggering lines, and unexpected arrangements as tools for enhancing the power of a poem. In this post, I explore a few examples from one of my favorite Le Hinton poems and urge you to give one or two of these techniques a try.

In Le’s poem “Cards Flash Back,” the reader sits next to Le as he remembers his time in speech therapy sessions as a child born with a cleft palate. Interspersed with his memories are some of the things his classmates said to him that still sting so many years later.

You sound like toilet
paper is stuck in your nose.

You’d have a good singing voice
if you were a cartoon character.

Using a few lines of dialog, Le takes us back in time to experience the pain he felt as a child who struggled to speak.

Another technique that Le uses with great effect is to stagger his lines to emphasize meaning. As you read the last three lines of the stanza below, you are commanded to slow down and let the power of his words sink in. The image of hiding in the pages—silent—almost foreshadows Le’s work as a poet—a master of words.

“I hid in the pages. Silent.
But not empty. The page isn’t blank.
Chisel a life from a sheet.
Hold tangible the words on paper
Hold something.
Be someone.
Do something.”

Finally, Le brings the reader into the present where he has triumphed over his physical and psychological challenges and reaches back in time to embrace and kiss the baby smiling and the little boy who sang alone. He triumphs over the bullies of the past and brings us into his circle of celebration where he stands as an adult who has not only mastered his speech, but also the power of the spoken word. He ends where he began, playing with the words apple, book, and thumb and the idea of flashcards in his memory.

“I’ve learned to speak out and still write.
To hold the little boy whose voice sings alone.
To kiss the tiny baby whose lips still smile.
Write the poetry and shout the words
Small no more.
Now without pain,
without bullies,
without fear
or a cleft palate.

Apple. Book. Thumb. I remember.

Here is Le Hinton’s poem in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it.

Cards Flash   Back ~ Le Hinton ~ The Language of Moisture and Light, 2014

Apple, book, thumb. I remember
each card with three pictures.
Pronounce each one, slowly,
precisely. Initial consonants.
Final blends.
Open vowels.
b’s, th’s, o’s. Each carefully articulated.

You sound like toilet
paper is stuck in your nose.

You’d have a good singing voice
if you were a cartoon character.

I learned to be quiet, I learned to write.

On our way to the clinic there was always time
for breakfast at the Cameron Street diner
or a stop for hot dogs after we arrived in Lancaster.
The corner of Lime and King.
A town full of fruit and royalty.
Lemon, Lime, Orange.
Queen, King, Duke.
All streets seemingly one way.

One way to speak.
One way to sound.
One way to turn.
This clinic in this town
with its one-way streets
and hope dressed in white,
doctors dressed in smiles.
Surgical cuts to open a future, to open a life.

Once, it rained so hard getting there, Dad almost stopped.
But dad never stopped driving, never stopped caring,
never stopped steering. Not for hard rain,
heavy traffic, or an imperfect son. Dad never stopped.
I remember those drops of rain falling through a bright sun,
bouncing like marbles off 60s sheet metal,
now baring memories almost 40 years old.

I have to babysit on Saturday, so I
can’t go out with you.

You’d never know that colored boy
was smart from the way he sounds.

I hid in the pages. Silent.
But not empty. The page isn’t blank.
Chisel a life from a sheet.
Hold tangible the words on paper
Hold something.
Be someone.
Do something.

Find the words that take you in,
Find the words that love you safe.
Caress those words.

I’ve learned to speak out and still write.

To hold the little boy whose voice sings alone.
To kiss the tiny baby whose lips still smile.
Write the poetry and shout the words
Small no more.
Now without pain,
without bullies,
without fear
or a cleft palate.

Apple. Book. Thumb. I remember.

Note: I was unable to keep the original line breaks due to formatting issues. Apologies to Le. 

Reblogging:”My Response to the New York Times’ Google Article: What They Left Out. A Lot!

Morna McDermott blogged last week about the NYTimes article “How Google Took Over the Classroom.”  I’m sharing  her excellent and informative post here because there’s so much more to consider, and Morna makes the stakes very clear.

Image result for education data mining

Dear New York Times,

I know that there’s a greater chance of me winning the lottery than there is in you actually publishing what I have to say in an Op Ed. So let’s pretend for a moment this response is actually IN the New York Times and not my little blog, and that millions of readers. the people who actually need to hear this stuff, will become aware of the facts the author, Ms. Singer,  so carefully avoided in her piece “How Google Took Over the Classroom.”  It read like a blatant “paid for by friend of Google” advertisement, because unlike a serious piece of journalism, this multi-page journey into the fairy tale between schools and the tech industry, carefully left out research from the medical profession (pediatricians) or data on whether or not the technological dominance in classrooms is actually GOOD for students.

As Susan Ohanian put it in a recent tweet, the article should have been called “Public schools pay Google $30 per device to train kids to love Google.”

We know these new tech-school partnerships have been great for the tech industry. The NYT article crows about how Google, not educators, are now dominating the conversation over what should be taught in the class and how. Think about that. Tech moguls are dictating what and how children should learn, not educators, nor child development specialists. And their conclusions conveniently seem to benefit their own corporations. What an amazing coincidence that is.

Yes. It’s the 21st century. Yes, computers and tech dominate the future of labor and industry. Yes, both my children own tablets or i-phones. But using something is different than having the industry dominate our children’s waking hours out of (and now) inside of school which adds up to about 10 hours a day, five days a week, from kindergarten through ….adulthood? Reams of private information and data being siphoned out of children along the way to suite private corporate interests, half of which parents are completely unaware of. The one minor blip of critique the NYT article offers regarding student privacy is miraculously resolved in one line about how Google aligns its contracts with schools with FERPA. Phew. That’s resolved! Except that FERPA was carefully revised to open the floodgates for corporate mining of student data, and with ESSA, now promoting policies that allow third party privately managed companies to become LEA’s, well the protection of FERPA for a child’s rights and privacy as a water balloon would be in a gun fight.

So — to my readers. Let’s please do the job New York Times is unwilling to do. Call them on this bullshit and make sure that parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens have all the facts when deciding about who should “own the future” of our children’s education.

First of all, start reading informed researched pieces like every single post by Alison McDowell at in Wrench the Gears to get an honest appraisal of what the tech industry really has in store for our children.

Second, pass along these points about Google (or any tech) dominating education, to consider as well:

  • Increased risks of obesity-increased seat time
  • Reduction of opportunities to engage with multiple learning styles: kinesthetic, social, verbal, environmental…all reduced to visual screen time.
  • Loss of socialization and development of social cuing.

“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, in a news release. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.” Kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens, and it may be inhibiting their ability to recognize emotions, according to new research out of the University of California, Los Angeles.

  • Damage to eyes, hands/wrists, and neck.

One report states “Children can develop pain in their fingers and wrists, narrowed blood vessels in their eyes (the long-term consequences of which are unknown), and neck and back pain from being slumped over their phones, tablets and computers.”

  • Loss of data privacy = online platforms delivered to third party organizations who track every response and behavior your child makes in their learning process. Every bit tracked and monitored and managed.
  • Increases ADHD-like symptoms.  Some experts believe that “Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important, a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed for many jobs and other endeavors later in life.”
  • An adrenaline driven mentality to learning (like addiction). As one psychologist’s research findings prove, “As a practitioner, I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome.These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention…excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties.”
  • The monies spent on new devises is often wasted. What could have gone to building materials, hiring staff, or other supports, millions are wasted (See LAUSD) on devices that wind up creating more problems than solutions. That’s our tax payer dollars going to fund billionaire corporations instead of a new playground or library books.

And ask yourself, why isn’t the New York Times willing to put the interests of children before those of corporations?

 

Check out this resource from Center for Commercial-Free Childhood for a great graphic that explores the issues surrounding data collection in schools. Then download their parents’ guide and share it widely!

http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/parent-toolkit-student-privacy

 

Reblogging: For Mothers Everywhere

If I could un-speak all of the times that I told my children to hurry when they were little, I would. But it has taken me years of mothering my children to realize that each phase is special and that like a good meal or an amazing sunset, those moments shared with children are precious. I wish that I had a bank account where I could withdraw just a few of the moments when we hurried from one place to the next and somehow share them with my kids again.  But it is only now that all of those moments are passed that I realize their full import. And sometimes, it takes a poet’s voice to capture our folly.

Four generations of my family in 1980.

I heard such a let last week when  Marie Howe read at the Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College. The Blackbird  Poetry Festival has been presenting renowned poets for the past several years, and Marie Howe gave two wonderful readings as part of the festival. I remember hearing her read this poem on the radio a few months back, and it seemed perfect for sharing on Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone. I hope you have a grand day of celebration with your families.

HURRY

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry—
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

Poem copyright ©2008 by Marie Howe, and reprinted from “When She Named Fire,” ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009. First published in “The Kingdom of the Ordinary” by Marie Howe, W.W. Norton, 2008. Used by permission of Marie Howe and the publisher.

Source: 2008

 

Deciding When Something is Too Small

The change of seasons is here once again, and that always means looking at my wardrobe and deciding what to toss and what to keep. My philosophy is a little soft in this regard–I’ve tried Marie Kondo’s advice to only keep what makes me joyful, but I don’t always succeed.  I waver when deciding what to do with favorites that are a smidge too tight–sometimes finding a way to creatively make them fit with “design details” and sometimes keeping them as a reminder for where I feel most comfortable in my body.

But when I need to make a decision or answer a question about life’s more profound changes, I turn to a different voice–the voice of David Whyte in his poem “Sweet Darkness.” Do I leave my marriage? Do I stay in this relationship?  What should I do about my job?  And after I ask myself a question, I know that I am more than halfway to the answer when I hear David Whyte’ powerful lines reverberating in my mind: “…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

While those words provided guidance for me, they did not make it easy for me to make any life-changing decisions, especially the decision to leave my marriage, even after years of depression and verbal abuse by my ex-husband. While I was no longer a practicing Catholic, my values around marriage and family were firmly rooted in my upbringing which stressed the power of commitment and the necessity to work things out no matter what. And sometimes, to suffer in the process.

But after 25 years of marriage, many trips to the counselor, several deep depressions, and a widening gulf between how much joy we shared versus how much suffering I endured, I realized that my marriage was too small for me. I wasn’t thriving in the way I’d hoped for. I was merely surviving. And I deserved so much more. My children deserved more. And I wanted to offer them an example of choosing self-respect over tradition.

While deciding to leave my marriage was the most life-changing decision regarding what was too small for me, I’ve returned to the wisdom in “Sweet Darkness” many more times in the past 17 years. I’ve ended relationships that were less than satisfying, refusing to settle for the sake of companionship. I’ve left jobs that no longer provided a nurturing professional space. I’ve learned the signs of good fit and can more easily walk away from those things that are too small–except for a few pairs of capris in my closet! I hope David Whyte’s poem can offer you some wisdom. It’s been life-changing for me.

Sweet Darkness by David Whyte
~The House of Belonging

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Reblogging: Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

thumbnail_Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 10.41.23 AM

It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million childrenforced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?

The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

Reblogging: Global Finance Needs Our Schools to Fail

by wrenchinthegears

Yesterday Peter Green expanded on an idea I’d put forth a few months back that Competency Based Education (and really all digital curriculum) was a way of gradually turning neighborhood public schools into charters from the inside out. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read his piece “Charterizing From Within.” I’m glad this proposition is making it out into the world and finding a wider audience. However there are still many who doubt CBE / Personalized Learning / Blended Learning etc. will ever take hold. This despite the fact that adaptive “personalized” learning systems are popping up all over the country each passing day.

Doubters say virtual schools and e-learning don’t “work.” So there, it won’t happen. But therein lies the problem. Many assume that a system that “works” is one designed to serve the needs of children and society as a whole. The present system, however, is being increasingly twisted to serve the interests of global capital. When you look at it through that lens, the “failure” of CBE is actually “success” to those wishing to kill the old system and create a new one custom built for profit-taking.  That is why global capital needs our schools to fail. Comprehensive dismantling of public school districts across the nation will throw the doors wide open to a new age of social impact investing. If you’re not familiar with the the term set, please set aside time to read “Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity” carefully.

In the aftermath of the failure they have intentionally created, venture capitalists will install learning ecosystems to supplant beloved neighborhood schools. These diffuse networks of online and badge-based learning opportunities will be structured for maximum social control, surveillance, and behavior management (the nudge) as well as financialization. Children will no longer be children, but rather commodities to be managed, bet upon and securitized.

Below is a comment I left on Peter’s piece. I’ve shared it a few places, and it some found it helpful, so I thought I would blog it here today.  I fully anticipate New Profit will be a central character in the drama that is unfolding. Below is a list of grants they’ve received from the Gates Foundation since 2014, $23 million+.

New Profit Gates Foundation

“People do not yet understand the role that global finance will play in transforming public education from a human enterprise to a digital one. It’s not about creating a system that “works” for children or teachers or society as a whole. It is about creating a financial market, a market that is different from the charter school market. In my gut, I believe that this new market is going to revolve around social impact investing-pay for success and social impact bonds.

Public schools will be starved of public money, broken to pieces, and then rebuilt through public-private partnership investments where the payback is determined by growth as evidenced by data and metrics. To get to that point you have to make education all about the data. Data that will later be evaluated by 3rd party SIB evaluators doing the bidding of Goldman Sachs and Pritzker. It’s not about humans, its about finance.

I wish more people could look ten years down the road to see that. All of this started with New Profit and is looping back to John Arnold and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Sure, they’re taking their cut from the first round of ed reform via charters and the development of ed-tech software, but the big payoff is coming later; and it’s all wrapped up in evidence-based policy. I write about Pay for Success and its relationship to testing here. You can access an interactive map of New Profit here. New Profit brought SIBs over from the UK to the US.

Tim Scott has a much more expansive write up here: “Social Impact Bonds: The Titans of Finance As the Altruistic Merchants of Schooling and the Common Good.”

We have to step back and grasp this or we are not going to be able to organize to stop it in time, if that is even possible at this point.”

Understanding why global finance needs our schools to fail is key. Please read up and educate yourself and others.

Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

My first teaching job right out of college in 1974 was in the Richmond, VA city school system. I worked for a federal program called Operation Uplift, and I was assigned to four kindergartens in four different schools and one pre-school Head Start Center. What I lacked in experience I made up for with enthusiasm. I embraced my assigned schools, meeting the principals, working with classroom teachers, and arranging for meetings with parents. But having spent all of my life in the suburbs–living, going to school, and student teaching–did not prepare me for the conditions I’d find in the inner city schools.  Some of the schools were in good condition–maybe old, but clean and neat, while others were new brick boxes that hid some grim realities. That year of teaching in inner city schools is etched indelibly in my memory. I can still see some of the faces of the children I taught, several of whom inspired poems in my new book, No Barking in the Hallways.  Here is one such poem, “Naptime in the Kindergarten Room”, published in 2014 by Pif Magazine.

Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

Heat, intense as the fragrance of September hibiscus, fills the kindergarten classroom in the new brick school. Alphabet carpet tiles cover the floor. Child-sized mats stacked like lonely rafts in the back of the room. A boy rolls a blue marble from palm to palm. The curve of a smile paints his face when our eyes exchange hello. The lights in the room are cut off, a pedestal fan sweeps the room haltingly. The air still, flat, heavy. The children take reluctant naps, their damp faces resting on folded arms atop small round tables. What is the logic of kindergarten children napping at tables? Their teacher, Miss Kimberly, sees the question forming on my face, pulls up a chair for me at her desk.
This school was built over a landfill. There are roaches everywhere. I’ve even seen them crawling out of the kids’ lunchboxes. I have a mat for each child, but I’d never let them sleep on this floor. Miss Kimberly checks her watch. She knows I’m there to pick up several children for the speech class. Lucky you—with an office out in the trailer.

I don’t think we have any roaches out there.