Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why and How K-12 Students Should Buy and Sell Their Own Books (Even and Especially in Poor Schools)

Schools are strapped for cash.

Textbooks and other resources are expensive to purchase and replace. Nobody is really held accountable for mismanaged books.

Students are protective of their own property (see what happens when you try to take their phones away).

Students are destructive or careless with school property (walk into any public school classroom and check the condition of the laptop keyboards or the ask the teacher how many textbooks are lost every year).

US public schools currently employ a model for purchasing resources something like this: department chairs, principals and superintendents make purchasing decisions for books and computers. Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent, usually at the beginning of a fiscal year (summer) or end of a fiscal year (to spend down slack in the budget or take advantage of a windfall). Resources arrive, usually weeks or months later. Teachers receive the resources, often times with little or no training. They take the resources to their classrooms, and may or may not set them up. An administrator may or may not check on their usage. Class sets of textbooks are probably given out, and students may or may not sign liability forms, cover the books with paper or laminate, write in the books, or forget the books when the bell rings.

When the student gets home he or she drops the bookbag with a *thud.* The textbook binding and corners take their first blow. Each day, if the book is carried, it is battered and maybe even soaked by spilled beverages and freak rainstorms. If it is left at home, it may remain unread, or disappear under the bed, or get used as a snack tray in front of the TV. At the end of the year the teacher runs around trying to collect textbooks, match numbers and names to spreadsheets and lists, and inspect the books' condition. Unless the book fails to appear or appears as though it barely survived a fire, the teacher probably doesn't bother to comment on significant wear and tear. Even if the book never appears, the student may still end up getting a pass. Respect for school property and authority are damaged along with the books. 100 books purchased in one year disappear 10 at a time, and after two or three years, the school probably only has 50-70 usable books.

In some schools, when students clear out in June, don't be surprised if the janitors end up sweeping books off the floor and throwing them in the trash.

What if there was a different way of doing all this? A way that encouraged students to cherish books? Gave students the option to interact with their texts, even writing in the margins? A way to save schools money? Reduce stress between teachers and students? Teach responsibility? Allow schools to innovate? Force schools to think harder about the value of the resources they choose?

Here's my program. It will probably never happen, but just imagine:

  • Public Schools have a book store, just like college. When the curriculum requires certain texts, the store will stock enough books so all the enrolled students can purchase the books.
  • Students can purchase the books at retail price at the bookstore, or go elsewhere. At the bookstore, 0% interest payment plans are offered to any student who needs it, unless they previously failed to make monthly payments. In that case they can pay up front, offer collateral (a cell phone or pair of sneakers might do it), or complete some form of community service to earn the books.
  • Students can apply for subsidies for books. They would fill out a short application and/or complete an interview. Why should you get books for free? Will you take care of the books? Academic or community service achievement can qualify a student for such support.
  • Students OWN the books. If lost, too bad for the student, (s)he need to replace it. More importantly, students are encouraged to KEEP the books. We tell students: "Write in them. Highlight them. Build a personal reference library. Use books from the previous grade in that research paper. Pass them on to younger siblings. These books are VALUABLE, even more than money."
  • Students can resell the books to the school. Books in like new condition get 100% of the purchase price back. Lightly worn books get 90% back. Books in good condition but that have notes and highlights get 70-80% back. Books that are heavily worn will not be accepted.
  • Provided books are used the following year, used copies will sell for the same price they were bought back for. If bought-back books are discontinued in the curriculum, they can go in a used book store that the school runs, and they sell for 50% or less of the cover price. Proceeds from the used book store fund library and technology resources for the school.
  • Since schools are presenting the cost of resources transparently and up front to parents, they need to think carefully about what they purchase. Is that $120 history or biology textbook the best way to teach that subject? Maybe field trips, copy machines, microscopes, primary sources or after school programs, NOT paid by the parents, would be a better bet.

Whenever we set up a system in a school, we need to think about what habits and lessons it reinforces. Our current system infantilizes and belittles students and families, and wastes public resources. I believe my proposed system would go a long way to reinforce discipline, choice, and the value of knowledge. Maybe someone will test it?

What do you think? Could this work? If it did, should this system be applied only to books, or other public school resources as well?

[Note: I support equitable funding of schools and think our school funding model overall is a disaster. I am not positing this as a solution to poor schools, just a solution to battered books and the disdain for reading.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Myth of Continents Commentary 1: Continents are Stupid (Just Look at Russia)

(This is the first in a series of commentaries I am doing for the Teach for America private community of history and geography teachers. The series is on the book The Myth of Continents by Lewis and Wigen. I will be reposting each commentary here so it is available for the world at large.)

The Myth of Continents opens asking a seemingly simple set of questions. What is a continent? Why do speak of continents? Are continents intellectually or empirically valid units of geographical measurement?

At the beginning of the first chapter, Lewis and Wigen share a conventional definition of the continent and follow with their damning assessment. “In contemporary usage, continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water. Although of ancient origin, this convention is both historically unstable and surprisingly unexamined; the required size and the requisite degree of physical separation have never been defined.”

Looking back at history and the origin of the continental idea, we should closely examine the Greeks who provided us the names (Africa, Europe, Asia) that would forever after function as a core part of the world’s vocabulary. The Greeks themselves argued about the meaning of these terms. Herodotus questioned the system and called for “empirical cartography.” He noted that “Asia and Africa were actually contiguous, both with each other and with Europe.” (22)

During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the unresolved question of continents underwent new forms of distortion due to the centrality of religion in every ideological paradigm. St. Jerome argued for the three continent system based on the story of Noah (23). Maps were even drawn in the shape of a cross. “Classical precedence joined here with theological necessity, converting an empirical distortion into an expression of profound cosmographical order” (24). With the growth of the Ottoman Empire pushing Christianity back into Greek’s “Europe,” and secular humanism seeking self-designation, a more modern definition of Europe emerged (25). Ironically, the region that gave birth to the continental lexicon, southeastern Europe, was pulled out of the “orbit” of Europe during this early modern period.

With the European discovery of the Americas, it took nearly a century for Europeans to accept the existence of America. A debate that had lasted for two millennia experienced a major rupture. The old idea of a single “world island” split into 3 continents by relatively minor geographic barriers could not define the world properly when enormous oceans separated equally enormous landmasses. While the original idea of a “continent” stems from “continuity,” isolation soon became the dominant pattern of thinking (26).

With the growth of exploration, imperialism and modern industry, new political and economic interests came to shape both the mental and physical map of the world. Empirical attempts to standardize divisions between continents continued to elude scholars because there is no division between Europe and Asia compared to the clear divisions of Africa and the Americas.
The context of an expanding and “Westernizing” Russian state helps us understand the causes of our modern geographical confusion:

“by the late seventeenth century, one strategy was to divide Europe from Asia along stretches of the Don, Volga, Kama and Ob rivers…Only in the eighteenth century did Swedish military officer, Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg, argue that the Ural Mountains formed the most significant barrier. Von Strahlenberg’s proposal was enthusiastically seconded by Russian intellectuals associated with Peter the Great’s Westernization program, particularly Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev, in large part because of its ideological convenience. In highlighting the Ural divide, Russian Westernizers could at once emphasize the European nature of the historical Russian core while consigning Siberia to the position of an alien Asian realm suitable for colonial rule and exploitation.” (27)

This solution to dividing Asia and Europe was gradually integrated with antiquated ideas of continental division, forming a complex, confusing, and culturally inaccurate border.  Nonetheless this jagged border is widely used in Atlases, maps and references, even today (28).

What is a continent? Do we do a service or disservice to students by teaching them about these units? If continents are about separation, why isn’t Madagascar a continent? If continents are about size, why is Europe a continent, or Asia two continents? If continents are about culture, why is Mexico in North America and not South America? If it’s about politics, how on earth do we deal with Russia, Turkey, Japan, Australia, or Egypt?

We need a more empirical geography, a more critical professional discussion among geography educators, and a more informed discourse on world geography in classrooms. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

12 Thoughts for 2012

Yesterday I sent out my first newsletter from my new homepage. 2011 brought many big changes for me, including a long hiatus from the blog (for the second time...sorry) where I adjusted to 1) being newly married and 2) launching my first business. Below is the newsletter I sent out, and I encourage you to read it, visit my personal homepage, and subscribe to my mailing list. I am planning to resume blogging during this month of January, with some increased focus given my entrepreneurial interests. However I will maintain my continued commentary on the big picture, given this is a presidential election year, and the year some people predict doom (I say doom is always possible, but so is salvation: it all depends on how we all decide to act). 

The Question: What does 2012 mean for… ?
  1. The Planet: This is probably the make or break year for carbon emissions and climate change. New policies, technologies and attitudes can steer us clear of catastrophic consequences, but time is running out.
  2. US Politics: The GOP field is depressing, though I most interested in Ron Paul’s campaign. Some of his stances are posturing and others are simply wrong, but overall he has a coherent and honest philosophy of government that is unwavering. If he could win the nomination it would mean America could finally debate at the presidential level some important issues. 
  3. US Politics: Mitt Romney might be the best candidate on the GOP side from the standpoint of managerial skill, but I don’t trust him. He panders and shows no ethical compass on issues like torture or wealth inequality. 
  4. US Politics: Obama’s recent decisions, NDAA withstanding, show signs he may be learning how to lead. He will get my full support this year if he can finally demonstrate the proper combination of pragmatic, visionary and courageous leadership.
  5.  Social Movement, Protest, & Revolution: 2011 brought us the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These events emerged from long-standing and growing dissatisfaction with social and economic injustice. In the US, we must contribute to these movements by maintaining pressure on elites to address these injustices, lest we find ourselves with armed rebellion or a police state on our hands. Around the world, we must make sure these movements stay peaceful and constructive, so that opportunities, like the fall of Qaddafi or Mubarak, can be quickly seized for building a more fair and sustainable world.
  6. Economics will be dominated by uncertainty. “Disruptive innovation” is now the goal of every respectable start-up and even many a Fortune 500, so expect to see the unexpected. Resource management, in a world now with more than 7 billion people, will continue to produce shocks due to scarcity and waste due to inadequate accountability systems. We will see plenty of both positive and negative consequences from advancing globalization. 
  7. Social Class, Consumerism & Family Values: Americans, rich, poor, and middle class alike, are on the cusp of a social transformation. While the middle class is disappearing, people everywhere are being forced to realize the shallowness of consumerism and material accumulation. However, the rapid pace of media saturation and the resentment over lost, vulnerable or unreachable social status are the main obstacles to our culture reclaiming the lost values of family and community. If we can highlight the value of family and community, we can strengthen democracy and ease the pain of economic volatility.
  8. Entrepreneurship: I am starting my own business, and learning how much of a career switch I have made. Transitioning from a “job” with paychecks and bureaucracy to the lean, nimble and uncertain path of steering my own ship is exhilarating. This is now my life, and I invite you to join me in seizing your inner-entrepreneur (if you haven’t already). Start something. Design and build a system. Solve a problem. Own your destiny.
  9. Education: The reform movement is confused. Easy fixes continue to crash against the reality that building knowledge and growing good people is extremely hard. Government elites and private philanthropists need to spend more time on the ground, and smart, hard working people with experience in the trenches need to spend more time involved in building system wide changes. I have little hope for promising national transformation in 2012, but some of the foundation for change is laid with the common core. Some ideas are getting refined in public debate, and some disruptive innovations, such as my very own Fate of Civilizations will improve outcomes on a broad level.
  10. Communication & Social Media: Tablets, 4G, “sign in with facebook,” facetime, 4square, Yelp, and a million other new tools continue to reshape how we work, think, and most importantly, interact. The most important “technology” that everyone can adopt, however, is free. Customize your own system for leveraging and controlling your communications systems. Own your inbox, own your time. We probably won’t hear “crackberry” mentioned in 2012 (unless someone is referring to RIM’s new lowest stock price), but people are still cracked out on communication technology. In 2012, make sure you are early adopter of some technologies, but thoughtfully pass on others. Make sure to value real face to face interaction with people and unplugging on a regular basis. And make sure to enjoy exercise and nature. There will always be a new widget or app to try out, so do it, after you have dinner with a loved one, or take a hike through the woods. 
  11. My personal life is going well. I am so thrilled to be starting the year happily married to a wonderful woman, and with plans to spend another year in New York City with so many family, friends and opportunities. I am looking for new ways to teach, learn, and improve myself, my station, and my community. This year, through entrepreneurship, activism, writing, studying, sports, relationships and adventure, I am excited for the possibility for enrichment, enlightenment and success. 
  12. This newsletter is an experiment. As a committed absorber and processor of ideas and information, I feel I have something to offer the world in a newsletter. This is the first email I am sending you, and I hope you enjoy it. I currently plan on writing newsletters quarterly, since this is new to me and I don’t want to overpromise on frequency. However, at times, I may send out other emails, and I hope you will let me know what you think, and share them if you like them.