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#mozfest: Open schools for open societies

2012's #MozFest began a conversation about schooling that I hope continues over the course of the next year. I hope that in our care and commitment to raising a generation of webmakers who write the world, we increase kids’ access to writable experiences inside school, as well as outside school.

While it’s mostly true that to a teacher every problem looks like a school, it’s worth noting that 81.5 million children are enrolled in schools in the United States alone. These kids are spending massive amounts of time inside a system that works to sort, punish, and colonize them through acculturation to external rewards and a kind of grade- and score-based gratification that, if not instant, is largely disposable.

Paradoxically, this institution of schooling is full of people who genuinely care for our kids. These caring educators are in a precarious position: they are in a daily Catch-22 that pits their economic well-being against kids’ genuine holistic and neuro-specific needs for learning.

Public school teachers want to inspire democracy and agency in their students; however, their livelihood and the only positive self-image our society holds up for them – that of the test-certified, highly-effective teacher of 30 students per class – depend mostly on other adults’ perception of those teachers’ work. Very few people inside schools actually look at authentic student work as a measure of learning.

It’s a terribly discomfiting thing to be a teacher right now. If we can say that teachers inside the system of school are complicit in replicating the worst parts of that system, we should also say that in many cases we are complicit for writing these schools and teachers’ roles into our societies.

I am absolutely convinced that a huge number of teachers would walk out of schools tomorrow and take up positions with the kinds of youth programs that we are hitting out of the park around the world. However, I’m not sure those programs can absorb all of our students at once or all of the teachers willing to join that work – for some compensation – at once. We could disagree on whether or not such a scenario is at all desirable, but my point is that a significant number of teachers will teach in an alternate, more humane, and more student-writable system once space exists for them in it.

So while the role of school in an open society is debatable – and while I’m hopeful for and working towards a future that offers a much more robust ecosystem of learning than school does now – the change event that shifts our societies from schooling to something else (even if it’s called school in any language) will be a prolonged one. There will be no single extinction event for schools. Some portion of those 81.5 million children in schools in the United States will remain in school most of the time for most of their lives until they drop out or reach adulthood.

So there is hospice work to be done in our schools, and those of us willing to subvert the system from within and without can do it.

That work can be made easier and be better protected in an open society with your help.

We are great at celebrating our small successes in learning outside school. For example, we now have badges for linking and using divs, but more importantly, we have this community of people dedicated – line-by-line – to helping one another launch new initiatives, products, services, and tools at a heady and purposeful pace.

Can we really imagine teachers as learners? Can we afford them – in our own imaginations – the possibility that with the right support, some of them might change their operations and create more open classrooms – wherever they are – despite the pressures of school?

Can we imagine kits, programs, tools, and badges for the people turning their classrooms into Coder Dojos? For the people turning their libraries into Hives of student activity in the face of institutional droning?

Can we imagine offering the best of what we’ve learned back to teachers who are ready to democratize and open their rooms for their students and societies?

If we can, we’re not going to write “the plan.” There will be no manifesto or revolution causing overnight change. There will be nothing to scale beyond an openness to learning how to make our classrooms – and, by extension, schools – incrementally more free places to learn and create than they are now. Whatever we imagine will require the same willingness to fail and persistence and ambition to succeed that we bring to the generational project of webmaking and writing an open society.

If we have a badge for troubleshooting code, can we imagine a badge for elegantly sidestepping an institutional requirement that harms kids in our classrooms (such as rank-ordering)? If we have a badge for composing and embedding audio in a webpage, can we imagine a badge for teachers who create classrooms in which student bring their own content to embed in their learning?

If we have summer code parties, can we imagine year-long open-teaching parties? If we publish kits and lessons to help makers make, can we write field guides to relinquishing control of the read-only classroom?

Can we imagine a future in which students and parents can choose to “use” a classroom based on its publicly-recognized and documented openness?

I don’t mean to suggest that we need any kind of one-to-one, concrete correlation between every open society initiative and a nascent open schools initiative, but I do mean to say this:

We should be bringing the same passion we have for an open society to our schools while they exist because “our” kids are in those schools – and our teacher allies are, too.

Our teacher allies are in a bad place, full of unsavory compromise. Given our freedom outside schools to work on what we believe, we sometimes struggle to find the resources that can make our visions into realities. Teachers own a variation of that problem in that they are “given” what school thinks should be adequate resources to make kids pass tests, and then those teachers are held accountable for using the materials to make kids pass tests. However, teachers’ acceptance and begrudging compliance with the wrong materials and the wrong vision does give them the opportunity to work with a huge number of kids per day, and harmful rules can be overcome.

If the question is, “Why don’t teachers quit if they don’t believe in the work that it seems like they’re doing?”, then the question is also, “Why aren’t we infiltrating schools to turn them into design and learning studios full of day-long dojos and camps?”

Between those two questions, afloat in a sea of ambiguity, is the answer – the possibility – that we are all in a position to help one another and our kids write the future.

If we can help teachers open their classrooms, their practice, and the kinds of work that students can produce, then those teachers, students, and the students’ parents can forge a new social compact and enter into a new kind of trust over authentic, joyful, and purposeful learning full of obvious worth. We need to support teachers, students, and parents in creating these new relationships for so long as school and society insist that we only trust teachers with good test scores.

This is call for those of us in schools who are ready to change to change; this is a call for those of us who are ready to help teachers and students inside schools to help them now.

We should think about the small first steps we need to take and we should celebrate them. Can we identify the teachers who can bring us into schools? Can we identify the teachers for whom we could code? Can we articulate the cultural practices of our communities – and can we articulate how we learned them – to create “handbooks” and “workbooks” for incremental teacher action?

In our right insistence that we are all learners, in our right insistence that all people can learn, and in our right insistence that all people want to learn, we cannot exclude teachers from our community learners just because of their association with the institution of school. It is not all cut and dry as the Pink Floyd song, our media, and our politics would have us believe.

When I am at a loss for what to do next in my own teaching, I go to my friend who asks me, “As a child in that same spot in your classroom, what would you have wanted from your teacher?”

I want us to ask ourselves, what do we want for our kids in their schools right now? How can we identify and partner with the teachers who are willing to make that happen? How can we help all learners in the classroom write for themselves something the system will never imagine for them?

I’m not entirely sure how to begin; I’m not nearly as networked alone as we are together; I’m not even sure of whom to ask for what – so I’m just going to ask for your help.

Will you help open schools for open societies, regardless of whether or not you are in those schools? Will you help counter the increasingly corporate and closed curriculum and disciplinary practices of our schooling state?

And the obligatory follow up: is there a better hashtag than #openschools that we could use to begin?

I don’t want school to last forever; I would much prefer school to be more like the programs we love outside school. I am unwilling to give my time and my students’ time to the system as it is for so long as school takes to expire.

I know we are all unwilling to give up on our kids like that and I know that we are all engaged in work we love so that we can do something – many things – for our kids right now.

As Vincent Harding might say, we are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist, but we are writing it, and we can write it inside schools despite them.

Yesterday we began a conversation at #mozfest about what schools could be. We came up with beliefs that we would have to own if we wanted to create open schools. Can we imagine how to help teachers operationalize these beliefs? Can we imagine how to recognize them for doing so?

If you’re a teacher, student, parent, coder, youth programmer, or other caring citizen and this all makes sense to you, please join us at theOpen Schools for Open Societies Handbook for Teachers 0.1. We can definitely use your help! 

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