596 Acres — Organizing the Organizers to claim public land

596 Acres was launched in 2011 when its founders set out to identify all parcels of public land sitting vacant in Brooklyn, mapped the results, and calculated that there were no fewer than 596 acres of publicly-owned land in that borough of New York City alone. Continue reading

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Bum Rush the Vote

Bum Rush the Vote is a grassroots “PAC” launched in Brooklyn, New York, whose mission it is to erode the money-fueled corrupt political system in the United States by dint of supporting political campaigns that run candidates from the general population, that are propelled by volunteer power, and that put forth platforms that answer, without compromise to established interests, the need for social justice in a post-consumerist society. Continue reading

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Bubble up change and the public school system

Web Activity Flower Graph

Web Activity Flower Graph by saintbob on Flickr

Given the unlikelihood that, anytime soon, public schools will make significant moves away from teaching anything other than conformity and a childish relationship to the state that does not emphasize the power of the individual nor of communities to create change… how, then, to teach civic literacy and motivate the sort of citizen engagement that might truly change things? How to restore to each individual in our society their squelched belief in their dreams and their repressed motivation to act? And, as a parallel consideration, how to remodel the education of our youth?

In “Deschooling Society” (1970), Ivan Illich defined two general types of institutions: the “manipulative” institutions that not only define and control production but also manufacture demand and enforce consent, and “convivial” institutions that foster dreams and ideas, exchange, interconnectedness, and personal growth, or that simply provide services (such as drinking water) that people use “without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so.”

The degree to which convivial institutions need to be regulated for safety and efficiency or have grown beyond an intimate circle of collaborators and constituents, and the degree to which individuals and groups can pressure manipulative institutions to respect and support our humanity rather than pursue ideology and pure profit, are what determine where each institution sits across a spectrum.

Given its assembly-line standardized “Pre-K through 12” enforced lifespan, its rote curricula and quantitative view of “success,” and its entrenched role as a manufacturer of workers useful to a post-industrial oligarchy (or, as the case may be, its role in assuring an over-supply of such workers so that many remain under- or unemployed, and the rest must work for a shrinking share of the wealth), our system of public education sits very close to the “manipulative” extreme of the institutional spectrum.

So are we to tear down the concept of public education so as to prevent the children from being numbed, dumbed-down, mentally sequestered, and creatively stymied? Perhaps in some future age, society as a whole will be sufficiently deinstitutionalized so that we no longer depend upon state-sposored public education as the primary source of learning literacy, mathematics, history and so on. For now, though, in the current world, under the current economy, and given the day-to-day realities faced by parents of school-age children and by adults wishing to continue their educations, certainly we cannot throw public education out the window.

Furthermore, universal, free public education — in the shape of a system that supports creative and independent thought, encourages interconnectedness, and truly facilitates the progress of each individual to their fullest potential according to their own strengths and passions — remains, to my mind, an ideal worthy of pursuit. But it is corrupt in its present form, and top-down “reforms” fashioned by the same class of bureaucrats that designed the system to begin with will never move this system closer to such an ideal. Meanwhile, we must send our children to school.

Change is in the wind

For decades there have been educational theories put forth (e.g., Waldorf/Steiner and Summerhill), and put into practice in private schools (and thus of very limited benefit to “the rest of us”), that honor the learner, teach critical thinking, are designed to nurture the natural strengths of each student, and in some cases (as with Summerhill) confer on the students democratic decision-making power.

Among public schools, there are also examples of educational organizations (e.g., CCE) and “alternative” schools that offer (to whatever degree possible within the system) relevant, child-centered, parent- and community-inclusive education. Such schools are often founded by visionary principals, teachers and/or parents. In spite of having to contend with Department of Education bureaucracy, state-imposed standards, limitations in funding, and restrictions imposed by teacher unions that have themselves become entrenched, top-down institutions, many of these schools are exceptionally successful. They nurture curiosity, self-esteem and mutual respect, critical thinking, active citizenship. Thus they begin to demonstrate what is possible.

There has also been a movement afoot in recent years among parents and some school administrators to seek exemption from, or even to boycott, the standardized tests by which the educational system measures the quality of the product it rolls off its assembly line.

But further improvement, a broadening of vision, is still necessary. To graduate a self-determined, rather than manufactured, public, schools must also connect learning to current events, to the social-justice, economic, technological and environmental issues of our times. Furthermore, the spirit of competition and the methods of quantitative scoring that currently define student “progress” must be revamped into a model of collective inquiry and collective achievement. We need to replace a system in which each individual sinks or swims with one in which we all help each other stay afloat. (Else what sort of future do we expect?)

The more that educators and parents insist on thus remodeling the whole educational paradigm and re-envisioning the very goal of education, as time goes by the more upwards pressure will be brought to bear on evolving the larger system. Parents, community members and educators must continuously push against the system, and clamor for improved curricula in their children’s schools and in their own universities. Citizen stakeholders must demand a say, demand that schools graduate not just college-ready youth and skilled workers to satisfy the job market and pursue personal gain, but that they graduate flourishing communities who are ready to work in concert, are able to innovate, are aware of and willing to tackle the changes that need to happen, and who understand that they are in this together, and who will exercise their own voice within our democracy.

We can expect change as a result of such an upwards push on the educational system to unfold slowly. The forces of true school reform, compared to the clout and immovability of the monolithic system, are made up of very small, underfunded groups. Schools and educators who mount an alternative approach within the system can only chip away, bit by bit over time, at the current shape of public schooling to bring about their vision of broader change.

But, outside the school system, much can be done right now to build on new ground, to create parallel systems of teaching and learning that are not subject to the forces of suppression, conformity and control. And this sort of movement is already bubbling up in cities and towns and neighborhoods all over the country and around the world.

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Curricular Design vs. Reality

Apart from the fact that the Social Studies standards designed by the Board of Regents in New York State  omit a picture of the students themselves as being actors and influencers in civic life, and emphasize obedience to power rather than ownership of power, the Board does prescribe an integrative, broad, Connectivist K-12 program for exploration and learning. The curriculum encourages examination of the connections between history and present-day life, between public policy and the impact on the populace, between groups of citizens with shared or opposing beliefs and needs. The design of the standards is predicated on inquiry and expects as its outcome students who have learned to apply original, critical thinking to the questions that confront us in society, in our democratic society in particular.

But what actually happens in the classroom? How completely and successfully are the standards applied? Continue reading

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Voting as a tool for change in America? Not soon enough.

The original Constitution of the United States laid the foundation of a document, as flawed as it was with regard to voting rights, that – after having been amended a couple of times – ended up ensuring and protecting the right to vote by all legal citizens of the country. This core value of our Federal government speaks to the original vision of America as a country governed by We the People.

Fast-forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For many reasons the power of the vote has been seriously eroded: Continue reading

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Civics as taught, for example, in New York State

Social Studies educational standards as designed by public education systems, and the civic participation and citizenship topics therein, might on first examination look well-done. But there are some serious omissions in what is taught, omissions that seek to prevent students from shouldering the mantle of power that it is their right and even duty to wear as Americans. Continue reading

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Song of a Citizen

Song of a Citizen is a group of political thinkers and artists concerned with the lack of civic engagement and political literacy in the United States.

From the About page on their website:

“Song Of A Citizen” is a non-profit, non-partisan collaboration of prominent thinkers and artists producing innovative films and web videos designed to spark a national conversation about what it really means to be a fully engaged and effective citizen in modern times — how we-the-people are measuring up — how we can do better — and why we must.

We have two main goals.  One is to inspire fellow Americans to acknowledge that we all need to start taking our jobs as citizens more seriously — much more seriously — as the only way we’ll ever fix broken government, and our dangerously dysfunctional democracy.

And we also seek to help relieve the frustration most citizens feel by showcasing proven methods that ordinary people are already using to engage with each other across partisan divides in a highly productive way.

Founded by writer and documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Abelson, other “Friends and Supporters” are listed here.

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Civic Education (or not) of young Americans

photo by muckster on flickr

When I was a suburban public high school student in the early 1970s, as we neared graduation (which put us at or near the newly lowered voting age of 18) we were given a several-weeks-long unit in Social Studies that covered “Civics.” We were not invited to contemplate our own roles as citizens, nor so much the history of the electoral franchise in our country, nor — as might be expected from fearful authorities after the student protests of the late 60s and early 70s — the question of citizen dissent and civil disobedience. Continue reading

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