Quote of the Day

The Necessity of Art

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.” —Ernst Fischer

My Own Personal Film Festival

As I am in the process of building a project to shoot a documentary, I have been watching as many films as I can get my hands on and have the time to watch. There are a few nominated for the Oscars. I got to watch 3 this weekend, but the best by far is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Being that I am an artist who has lived outside of all the contemporary movements, I found the documentation of the Street Art Movement fascinating. But the bigger question the film poses is what is art in today’s world and how much hype is involved in creating perceived value for art.

The filmmaker Thierry Guetta, who is a bit off the charts mentally, is an obsessive videographer who stumbled upon a movement through a chance meeting with a cousin in France. The cousin turned out to be an artist who was known by the tag “Invader.” His art involved creating small mosaics which depicted different characters from the 8 bit video game Space Invaders. He would place these small tiles (about 9″ x 12″) at random locations in and around Paris. Thierry began video taping his cousin in action. But then he became hungry to get more of this on tape so he began follow other artists. Most notable was Shepard Farley who gained fame through his famous image of Obama-Change poster.

As Thierry began to accrue a lot of film time of many of the artists in this burgeoning movement, there was one artist who still eluded him. Bansky. This artist became notorious for placing his own artworks in museums and galleries alongside of known masterpieces. It was a boon for Thierry to actually be given permission to film this highly secretive artist. As the film progresses, the film becomes more about Bansky. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Bansky created an inflatable Guantanimo Prison doll and placed it near a ride in Disney World. Thierry ends up getting taken into custody and interrogated for 4 hours. You get the sense as the filmmaker is telling his story of the dark side of Disney. Something that as a student of animation I have always been aware of. It is no surprise that brand Mickey Mouse has totalitarian side.

Bansky began to feel that Thierry was incapable of putting together a coherent film (based on his first effort) So Bansky tells the Frenchman to go make art, while he takes the footage to redit into the film we now see. Ultimately, the videographer begins to believe that he himself is an artist and soon embarks on creating his own show. This part of the film makes one question “what is art?” The man has no experience as an artist, but is able to create such a hype, and is so obsessed in his approach, that his show turns into a financial success, despite the fact that the work is highly questionable. It is a bit disheartening, although it is also a reminder of what kind of culture we live in. I highly recommend this film, even if it did not get the nod from Oscar.

The other nominee that I watched was Restropo. The film covers one year in the life of an army company, dropped into a dangerous valley in Afganistan. The title refers to the camp which was named for their first comrade to die in combat. The documentary does not draw judgements, but makes one wonder what our armed forces are doing there, and what, if anything can be accomplished in Afganistan.

The last documentary I viewed may have been the best anti war statement of all. Yes Sir, No Sir! gives the historical background to the anti war movement that took place within the ranks of the military during the Vietnam War. From this standpoint, you can see that history has indeed been rewritten since the Vietnam war. With interviews with soldiers who were court-martialed for refusing to orders, or active duty. The army was known to cover up the killings because they used the death toll (body count) to justify their progress to Americans at home.It was their way of saying that we are winning the war.

An interesting note here is that one of the researchers looked into the story where soldiers claimed they were spat on and called baby killers when returning to San Francisco airport (sampled by the speech by Rambo at the end of First Blood.) There was no evidence whatsoever that such an incident ever took place. Not one soldier he could find could substantiate this story. It seemed to be a myth embellished by a propaganda machine. Subsequently, Reagan and G.W. Bush, twisted these stories to make us feel that if we did not support a war, we do not support our troops. This film is a must see, especially for Vietnam vets. It is a form of redemption for those who were involved, and who still have not recovered from what happened to them over there.

I intend to continue my quest for good documentaries. My own film project, Beyond Schooling is in the early stages of proposal writing. I have had some very positive feedback from many in the field. But there are some hard realities I will have to deal with as I move forward in trying to raise the money. If any of my readers might help in pointing me in the right direction, I would be most grateful.

No Homework and Recess All Day

Just before the winter break I grabbed a few books off of the BFS shelf. I had forgotten that our friend and president of AERO, Jerry Mintz had written a book on Democratic Education. Being that I have been scheduled to give a presentation on this philosophy at the Park slope Food Coop in April, I thought it would be a good idea to bone up on some of the facts.

Jerry’s book No Homework and Recess All Day, is a very good introduction into the basic concepts that guide a Free School. His plain way of telling a story keeps you engaged while he lays out the positve results and experiences that take place as a result of this approach. He feels strongly that children need to be listened to, and how this can create some unexpected situations. He also makes it clear that when the balance of power shifts away from adults, the kids tend to step up and have some incredible solutions to daily problems.

One more point that I found unique to this book is that he he asks the question “Where do adults fit in?” This has been an interesting aspect of being involved with BFS over these years. It has had an affect on me as well as other parents. When a parent, whose child is enrolled with us, tells me that he/she still does not quite get it or trust it, my response to them is that they need to take the time to attend a democratic meeting. It is in this venue, as Jerry points out, that the most progress takes place. How children conduct themselves in the meetings. How it teaches them to listen to each other without interrupting (A feature in adults I find difficult to bare.) It builds confidence in a way that results in the students taking more responsibility for how their school is run.

The book is available at the AERO website. It is a quick read and lays out some of the many dimensions of a Free School. It lists many of the innovators who helped to build the education reform movement and lists many of the schools still in operation (as of 2003.) And the straight out story telling gives you a front seat into the adventures of the Shaker Mountain School which Jerry ran for 15 years in Burlington, Vermont. A must read for Free School afficianados.

States Unable to Secure Race to the Top Funds Scramble to Implement Plans

It seems that state legislators, in their attempts to comply and join the frenzy indicated by Obama to improve our education stats are like rats in a maze. Race to the Top is truly a race to nowhere. All this scrambling will just burn more cash and achieve nothing. Business as usual, with increasing dysfunction. The original story is here from PND News Alert.

More than a dozen states that did not win Race to the Top funds are planning to implement their ambitious education reform proposals without federal funding, Education Week reports.

According to a report released last week by the Center on Education Policy, States’ Progress in Implementing the Recovery Act Education Reforms (28 pages, PDF), at least sixteen states that failed to secure Race to the Top funds are forging ahead with their plans, though they acknowledge it will take longer to accomplish their goals. Still others are asking whether they can — or want to — fulfill commitments made as part of the federal competition.

Illinois, which sought a $400 million grant from Race to the Top, has turned to private donors to back its education reform plans. To date, the state has secured $1 million each from the Chicago Community Trust and Teach for America to improve college preparation programs for teachers and school leaders and $50,000 from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation to help pay for a kindergarten-readiness assessment. “The money helps get things started,” said Robin Steans, executive director at Advance Illinois, an education advocacy group that helped develop the state’s Race to the Top application. “But you cannot support a kindergarten-readiness program statewide on private dollars [alone].”

Colorado, which applied for a $175 million grant, admits that implementing its plan without federal funding will be difficult. Indeed, recently elected Democratic governor John Hickenlooper proposed cutting $375 million earmarked for K-12 education as part of his $7.2 billion budget. However, state education officials remain determined to implement the plan, much of which has become law. To cover its costs, the state is looking to collaborate with other states and is seeking support from private donors. To date, the state has secured $1.9 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other foundations.

According to Nina Lopez, a special assistant to Colorado Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond, the states that failed to secure Race to the Top funds did not just miss out on federal dollars; they also missed a chance to attend technical assistance workshops with federal officials that are designed to help winning states carry out their plans. “I’m sorry there aren’t better mechanisms to aggregate what we’re doing,” said Lopez, “because we’re all doing a lot of the same things.”

It is going to be hard for our massive education system to embrace another mode of thinking. People are afraid to listen to the requests of children. The pundits are correct in warning us that a new vision is needed to move forward. But if we do not have the answers, then what is all this scrambling around all about? Is it possible to accept that I do not have a solution at this moment and then allow myself to remain in the unknowing state so that possibly, a solution may appear. This is something I consider for myself as a matter of practice. I do not have the answers. But by remaining with the problem, something new makes itself known. Doing this as an individual is already difficult and takes discipline. What can we expect from an entire bureaucratic system?

BFS As Part of a New Film

A new film in progress that speaks to the idea that our schools are behind in their approach.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/18531894″>Trailer</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user3031884″>Kaoru Wang</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools

By Joanne Barkan

To see an MSNBC interview with Barkan about this article, click here.

THE COST of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher. Other foundations—Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few—often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement’s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.

Read the full Article.

Sunday Diary

The March wind blows in February outside the window. We fear for the tree out in front of the house. The kitchen drain is clogged and nothing seems to work. We hate calling the landlord up here because he sends his sons who are bumbling fools who make a mess. But I may have to, or buy more natural drain cleaner.

This is exactly what Froggy looked like.

The last frog died this week. He may have fallen victim to a cleaning of the tank. It was not cleaned since July, and he seemed quite okay with it. But we were getting grossed out by the build up of algae on the glass, so I finally relented. But Froggy did not seem to like it much and he slowly became listless. I found him frozen in stillness. A position that he seemed to like a lot. I think it was his form of meditation. He would just float in suspension, staring into nowhere. A state of sublime stillness. That is the position he died in. It would seem he went in peace. At least I like to think so in order to fend off the guilt that my actions led to his untimely death. He was about 6 years old. The normal lifespan of an African Dwarf Frog.

I do not have much to write today on my main topic. I have been a bit off. In truth, I have been so involved in doing things for the school, I am out of steam, although only temporarily, to write about activism. I did find the energy to call for an attack on earth by extraterrestrials, but I do not think they heard me, so I will have to hold out for another form of hope.

Friday, the sun moved into Pisces. I have nothing against the sign of the fish, but it always portends a certain type of moodiness in me. I can trace this back many years. I remember being aware of it when I was back in art school. Sitting in the School of Visual Arts student lounge drawing in my journal. Being depressed over the rejection from some girl, who I had for one reason or another, become infatuated with. This feeling of sadness and rejection seemed to coincide with the last throws of winter, which coincide with the sun being in Pisces. Maybe I was imprinted, and forever have associated this time of year with depression. As I am now much older, I have become astutely aware of this phase and have made a resolution to work with it. I am trying to make this a time of action. The forces of the universe are mysterious., and must remain so.

So in light of that I have begun to step up the action on getting my film on a moving track. This past week I was able to put my proposal before the board of trustees at Brooklyn Free School for fiscal sponsorship consideration. It is important that I get some kind of sponsorship for my project because most, and I mean most, foundations will not fund an individual. The money needs to flow through a 503c (non profit.) The sponsor benefits by taking a percentage. We just need to know more about the liabilities. In any case, this is only one of the steps I have taken this week. I have also put in my first grant application, sent a request for submission to another foundation and wrote a short note to Michael Moore this morning. I believe that when you are engaged in a process of trying to get help, you need to put a lot of psychic material out into the universe.You never know what is going to come back. Hopefully not a piece of space junk.

I am also in the process of building a board of advisers for the film. I have already enlisted the help of Humble Films who have been advising me through the early stages. Once some money comes, we will be working together to conceptualize and schedule shooting. But I am also gathering some of the pundits I know from the democratic education movement. Jerry Mintz has offered up his vast knowledge as he has been involved in this form of education for decades. I am currently reading his book No Homework and Recess All Day which I find quite informative. In truth, when I read books about the movement, I tend to get a bit bored because I have already been recruited to the cause. So many of these books by people I have the utmost respect for, tend to preach to the converted. Jerry is a bit different. He tends to talk plainly. So in telling me of his experience, I find myself interested, because he is bringing an original perspective. He has been a big help with the school and many schools like it. His organization AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) can be accessed on this site in the links at the right of the page.

I have a few others whom I will be speaking with in the next week or so and I hope to do a lot of networking at the upcoming Democratic Symposium at Medgar Evers College on March 2.

Although I have been in an economic funk, I have been busier than ever. The graphic design business has been on the down swing for too many years. I have been looking for the past decade for the kind of activities that will take me into old age. Things I can do until the end. Be active always. So besides stepping up my writing input on this blog, I have been drawing, creating new digital illustrations (which I hope to develop into animations for the film,) playing music a little and just trying to be engaged as much as possible. I am not much of a potato. Although I am no longer active in sports, I still like the daily walk, and I feel that being involved is a way of keeping the brain lucid.

On top of all this we have Noah home for a week. Winter recess. What are going to do with that kid for a week? The computer is off limits to him during working hours so he is going to have to find friends to occupy his time. He has been learning some free software on game development. I was able to have a brief conversation with Marc Prensky this week, who is also a game designer. He gave us some leads to help Noah find his way into the thing that interests him right now.He found a program called Atmosphir which gives him the ability to create his own levels.

The last thing I will leave with is a few pictures. Last night, while looking at Huffington Post, I came across a contest call The Justin-Bieber-As-Politician Photoshop Competition! I am not sure if my images will make it in, but I wanted to share them with my devoted readers. They may be a little over the edge and could be deemed as a bit offensive. My son stood over my shoulder as I created these, so at least he approves.

Bieber at JFK Funeral

Bieber as Oswald in the famous Backyard photo

2nd Democratic Education Symposium at Medgar Evers College

The 2nd Annual Democratic Education Symposium will be held at Medgar Evers College, 1650 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn on March 5, 2011, 9am to 6pm. The theme of this year’s Symposium is: Extending Our Roots to Find Common Ground and Taking Action to Change Education. The keynote speakers will be noted NYU professor Dr. Pedro Noguera and BFS students Semeo Doe and Naya Streeks.

The event is a one-day conference that will center on how various stakeholders are bringing change to education in their classrooms, schools, districts, to make them more democratic-fostering greater input and involvement from students, teachers, and parents in the educational process. The symposium invites scholars, researchers, educators, parents, and students to examine and transcend the boundaries that divide them by participating in activities and discussions.

Some of the activities scheduled:
* Becoming Activist: Collaboratively documenting the work of urban youth organizers through the design of ethical-political educational research.
* ALAS (Association for Latino Studies at Medgar Evers College): Creating a Democratic Student Space at a Public University
* Two panels composed solely of students; one from a public middle school and the other from a democratic education school
* Promoting democratic decision-making as a lifelong process for success.
* Freedom Schools and Free Schools, Hip Hop Culture and Democratic Education: Understanding our Concepts and Roots to Reach Common Ground
* Bringing democratic education methods into non-democratic schools and classrooms.
* Making the case for LGBTQ inclusion: Making Connections, Building Common Cause

The conference is free and breakfast and lunch are included.

Dr. Noguera is an urban sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. He is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.

Medgar Evers College is part of City University of New York (CUNY). It was founded on the philosophy that education has the power to positively transform the lives of individuals and is the right of all individuals in the pursuit of self-actualization.

BFS is part of a grassroots movement formed in the early fall of 2003, offering a true educational alternative to the traditional orthodoxy of education now dominant in most public and private schools in New York City. In January 2010, the school acquired its own building at 372 Clinton Avenue in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. BFS was recently featured on a segment of the NPR radio broadcast of This American Life. For more information on this groundbreaking educational option, you can visit the website at: http://www.brooklynfreeschool.org

WHAT: 2nd Annual Democratic Education Symposium

WHERE:  Medgar Evers College
1650 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11225

WHEN:  Saturday, March 5, 2011
9 am – 6 pm

Quote of the day

The seeker is he who is in search of himself

Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I?’ After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.

To know what you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.

Discover all that you are not — body, feelings thoughts, time, space, this or that — nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.

The clearer you understand on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realise that you are the limitless being.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
April 17, 1897 – September 8, 1981

Waiting For Superman-Finally

Well it finally arrived. Released Tuesday, I was lucky enough to have Netflix give me first look. Finally I got to see what all the hub bub is about. And as I suspected, there were no surprises.

There is no disagreement among everyone that our school systems are in disarray. Broken is the word used in the film. But as I have commented before, we seem to have different ideas on how to cure this disease. Administrators and parents say it needs to be fixed. My stance is that this system needs to be obliterated.

The main thing that Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman (WFS) poses to us is that good teachers do good things, and bad teachers do worse than nothing. There are many voices in the film that speak to this point of view. They show us the rubber rooms (which have since been closed) where the bad teachers sit in exile waiting for hearings. But the main point made here is that because of tenure, bad teachers cannot be fired. One of the main issues expressed by administrators who want to “fix” the problem is to get rid of tenure.

Also shown are the better performing schools, which are mainly charter schools. To get into these schools, parents from poorer communities have to enter a lottery in order to win the few seats that are available for their children. As the film shows in heart breaking detail, many of the main characters  in WFS are not accepted. Their number did not come up so it is back to hopeless prospects they have for their children getting a good education.

My contention starts with asking why we are condemning teachers for this mess. No one interviewed the “bad” teachers to see what it was that happened to them to make them that way. It was pointed out by an earlier Guggenheim film, The First Year, that many teachers come into the system enthusiastic and ready to make an impact. So why is not anyone curious as to what happened along the way? What made them despondent and no longer enthusiastic? What would happen if we completely restructured what they call “drop out factories?”

The answer lies in looking at the system itself. The odds are already stacked against the teacher and the students from day one. It was illustrated early in the film that the passing of “No Child Left Behind” had a negative impact on our test rankings. It took a bad situation and made it a thousand times worse. By testing and measuring every child by a test or a grade, we are diminishing even more, the individual potential of every child. We are essentially saying that if you do not fit in this box, go to the garbage heap, or prison. You have no value.

Last week I sited an article by Marc Prensky about how Obama is leaving our schools back in the past (The Reformers are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century.) WFS even agrees that the system is no longer adequate for the present or the future. It is a product of the past, and it can even be argued that it did not work very well then. I had a chance to speak to Mr. Prensky on the phone earlier this week. His comment was that he would wish to strike the entire curriculum away and start again from zero. I often think in the same way about a lot of things. What would it be like if we start from a place where we had no idea how to do it. Would it not be better to have parents, teachers and students all in the same room discussing what education is? Are we afraid of hearing what kids want?

A democratic free school is exactly that. It is a giant pow wow. And as the years go by at our school, I feel more and more a part of a growing community. A truly intelligent community that empowers everyone to participate as an equal. And watching children engaged in this process has astounding results over a period of time. Math and science are not the focus of intelligence in this condition. But what you find is thoughtful consideration for the impact of one’s ideas.

This week I got to attend a BFS board meeting. And though I am bound by a non disclosure agreement to say what went on there, I will say that I have never been part of a more caring community in my life. And I have participated in many things that are artistic and spiritual and the one thing that often comes up are people’s personal agendas. But at this board meeting, the table was surrounded by adults who really care about this form of education. I could see how all of us have been affected over the years by this democratic process. What Waiting for Superman—as well as many of the other films that portray the critical situation schools find themselves in fail to address, is that there are alternatives out there that work from a completely different point of view. These solutions do not want to fix the system, they go ahead and create a new one. One which adapts to its participants. One that is not founded by administrators or politicians wishing to get a photo-op while signing a paper, but by people.

The last thing I want to address about the film is one of the short segments found on the extras section of the DVD. It shows the success of such schools as Kipp, Seed, Harlem Success to name a few. The thing that struck me was that each teacher interviewed spoke with enthusiasm as to what was needed, while their name is listed with their title of CEO. Now I may be getting picky here, but the title CEO applies to a corporation. Are they telling us that privatizing schools is the answer? Are teachers who motivate children to recite back to them rote facts considered good? I am confused. My view is that a good teacher will motivate a child to seek out what they feel an inclination towards. They will assist the student in using that interest to generate knowledge. And through the support of the community, they may discover understanding. This would develop a human being with a conscience. One who cares about their environment. In a world governed by specialists, which in my opinion only serves self interest, a caring individual who feels the need to give something back is what is needed. And I do not think Mr. Guggenheim would disagree. I just think we have completely different ideas on how to achieve that and what exactly we are shooting for. My wish is to get children away from the desks, get rid of the blackboard, evaporate the notion that a teacher needs to stand in front of the group like a general and bark facts. Give the child some breathing space. Let them play. Make ALL people feel part of the process. Rich or poor. They all need to be invited to the table. We need to break down the walls that divide us. The conversation needs to go a lot further and much deeper in order to understand the real problem of what we are dealing with. If poorer neighborhoods show higher dropout rates, then what is it we are missing here?

I feel that Waiting for Superman has opened a conversation. I do not agree with its’ answers. But the fact that the film exists and has gotten a lot of attention is a good thing. We need to keep this process going. There is not one solution, but many. The amount of solutions is equal to the amount of people who are curious and wish to take action. In that there is hope.


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