Criminal (mis)readings of bodies, or multimodality gone wrong

starr-interrogation-school-690x414-1458921400

Illustration by Richie Pope, taken from New Yorker article by Douglas Star 

If “slumping, failing to look directly at the interviewer, offering ‘evasive’ responses, and showing generally ‘guarded’ behaviors” is enough to label someone guilty, then I would’ve been in trouble long ago. But the special recipe described in the article, “Why Are Educators Learning How to Interrogate Their Students?” (by Douglas Starr), doesn’t apply equally to everyone. The characteristics outlined in the article address some young people’s practices that are suddenly made hypervisible and then identified as so-called “guarded” behaviors. Such negative identification foregrounds the assumptions that undergird interpretations of these young people’s actions as suspicious or not, as worthy of labeling or not, as guilty or not.

For those of us who pursue multimodal research, and in particular those who draw on multimodal lenses for understanding the body in relation to the contexts in and through which (young) people move — wherein, how someone engages with a classroom, the park, the subway, etc. may provide additional places to look for the significance of materiality, temporality, relationships, etc. — this trend of “attending to” the body through deterministic readings of gestures and movements is deeply concerning. To notice the many ways (young) people comport themselves multimodally in response to their environments shouldn’t be confused with the trickery mentality that seems to be the driving force behind the “Reid Technique,” the name for the interrogation approach described in Starr’s article, which is used by “police officers, private-security personnel, insurance-fraud investigators, and other people for whom getting at the truth is part of the job” — and that now some school districts are beginning to adopt, according to the attorney interviewed for this article. This “technique” positions young people as adversaries.

From the article:

“None of the videos [used in the training] portrayed young people being questioned for typical school misbehavior, nor did any of the Reid teaching materials refer to “students” or “kids.” They were always “suspects” or “subjects.”

I am left to ponder the following:

  • The power of a single person — in this case, John Reid, “a former Chicago street cop who had become a consultant and polygraph expert” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/09/the-interview-7) — to dramatically shift the normative understandings about people, relationships, modes of interacting, simply by virtue of being given a platform to do so. (especially where there is little incentive to evolve away from an idea once it gains enough traction, even when an idea may do unintended harm)
  • Telling and telling and telling evidence-based tales of how children’s and youths’ actions have been increasingly criminalized doesn’t seem to be working to stem the tide of shifting the underlying assumptions on which split-decision actions and responses are made (by teachers, administrators, law enforcements) when the benefit of time is not readily available. these tales need to be curated differently, made to be encountered in accidental and intentional ways, placed in hands/eyes/laps of people in the moment of consequential decision making. (there ought to be an app for that — “JUST.pause”)

…..

I originally posted this as my facebook status earlier today, and have since reread the original article by Starr a few more times. In these subsequent reads, the following excerpts stood out:

The Reid-trained officers also tended to believe that adolescents were just as capable as adults of withstanding psychologically coercive questioning, including deceit.

In this excerpt below, Schneider is the name of the attorney who called the adoption of the Reid Technique by the llinois Principals Association (I.P.A.) into question, and whose experiences with the training anchor much of Starr’s article.

At one point in the workbook, the phrase “Handling tears” appears, with a blank space underneath for trainees to take down Buckley’s dictation. “Don’t stop,” Schneider wrote in her notes. “Tears are the beginning of a confession. Use congratulatory statement—‘Glad to see those tears, because it tells me that you’re sorry, aren’t you?’ ” Buckley’s only caveat during the session, according to Nirider and Schneider, was that children under the age of ten should not be interrogated. “It was pretty horrifying,” Schneider told me.

And citing the negative impact of zero tolerance policies in schools, Starr writes:

Using Reid-style interrogation in schools can also run counter to educators’ efforts to keep their students out of the criminal-justice system. In 1994, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated that students who brought a weapon to school be expelled. This zero-tolerance policy was later extended to other behaviors, including drug use, but none of it has actually made schools safer. On the contrary, studies show that such policies disproportionately affect minority students, create a hostile school atmosphere, and do not effectively discourage misbehavior. In a report published last May, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for an end to zero tolerance, noting that it has expanded “the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing the behaviors of children as young as kindergarten age.”

The criminalization of children and youth in urban schools, in particular, from a very young age has been documented again and again and again. The codified misreadings of bodies and discursive practices undermine the purported purposes of schools as sites of education and instead push an agenda of schools as places where young bodies must be contained, confined, and sometimes, restrained.

News stories describing the dehumanizing acts that take place in schools have become too commonplace:

These are not isolated incidents, and while a definitive analysis of frequency and type of in-school criminalization and policing of young people’s bodies may not ever be fully possible, the endless list of links that fill up my internet searches for policing or arrests in schools suggests that the numbers of incidents are high.

The unsettling symbiosis between the education and criminal justice systems was one of the factors that initially propelled me toward graduate studies 18 years ago. Now, nearly two decades later, phrases like “school to prison pipeline” and “at risk youth” have become uncomfortably absorbed into the fabric of urban educational (practice, policy, and research) discourses. Change isn’t going to come from energy expended in one domain alone. No single pedagogical approach or policy change or law revision or media campaign is going to be enough to qualitatively reorient school personnel toward the young people who walk the school halls every day such that they see people and not troublemakers or bodies in need of discipline; such that the creative capacities, curiosities, and practices of civic participation in which kids are already engaged in can be noticed as such rather than regarded with skepticism, suspicion, and disdain.

As the theme song for Bob McAllister’s Wonderama reminded its viewers: Kids are people, too.*

 

*Too bad not all people are treated humanely.

 

SXSWedu – Day 2

Day 2 was long. This post is short.*

Short talks called “Future15s”, a couple of panels about STEAM, an augmented reality session with a standing-room only audience, an industry talk about #edtech and educational equity, and a few turns through the exhibit halls.

In nearly every session in which education was being discussed (by and large) by non-educators, the tropes being discursively flung about were simplistic, relied on stereotypes, and very often just plain wrong. A sampling:

  • “Boys don’t like to write.”
  • “Teachers don’t have time to tinker, they need curriculum.”
  • “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds need technologies that expect less from them so that they can participate more.”
  • This toy/game/tool/experience/app/platform is going to change EVERYthing.

How, with all of the thousands of researchers who are actively putting into the ether rich, nuanced, carefully rendered and ethically composed portraits of teaching, learning, children, youth, teachers, schools, and education beyond the school walls, do these simplistic, laugh-line type concepts remain so sedimented in the popular lexicon about “Education”? (At one point, I had to stop myself from leaping up and sharing ample examples of adolescent boys as writers and composers. I held it together.)

Perhaps that’s the point: these portraits are placed, however carefully, into the ether of academic publishing that is largely inaccessible – because of journal and higher ed firewalls – or uninteresting to the general public.

And while I’m not an advocate of turning over the entire academic enterprise into a public scholarship-only approach, what participating in SXSWedu has taught me is that the low hanging fruit of correlations, causal relationships, and definitive answers is what sells (literally).

Not all of the sessions were this cynical or lacking in nuance, of course. Two of the Future15 talks I observed shared important insights into the complex set of relational factors that influence crowd-sourced participation, and the need to (and suggestions for how to) actively engage teachers in the design of educational technology, respectively. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the former was a talk given by my colleague Ioana Literat, assistant professor in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College. And the latter was a talk given by a doctoral student in our program, Candace (Johnson) Bratton.

And two of the best conversations I had with people I didn’t already know were with high school students who had been invited to share the results of their high science fair research with the SXSWedu crowd. One young man, Sakhit, had partnered with a scientist at UT Austin and conducted a series of experiments to test the comparable effectiveness of antibacterial soap, a manufactured product, and neem soap, a naturally occurring element. His results: the natural substance was more effective, more consistent, and more reliable in its ability to create a resistance to bacteria. The second young man was named Travis and he had decided to study the relationship between fatigue and the use of cochlear implants. His younger sister, it turns out, has had an implant since she was a toddler and he noticed that she was becoming increasingly tired earlier and earlier. He wondered why and so set out to survey and analyze the results of respondents answers to questions about fatigue. His results: that the use of FM frequency while using an implant may play a role in degree of fatigue, as could age of initial implantation. Both young scientists-in-training agreed that additional research was needed to better understand the phenomena they had started to examine.

In other words, even high school students understood that simplistic causal relationships need further examination, confirmation, even rebuttal. But then again, they are not primarily concerned with the bottom (dollar) line.

So, where does that leave us in the patience–urgency scale? I would argue for both/and. That is, designers, educators, and researchers need to form alliances and authentic partnerships if the goals of reimagining education as a more meaningful set of experiences in the image of play, increased participation, joy, and a pedagogy that embodies a recognition about the creative capacities of both youth and teachers is to be realized. However, I suspect I may need a better answer for the efficiency-disguised-as-urgency rhetoric that the #edtech industry is peddling.

If ever there was a rallying cry for higher ed to reimagine its approach to corporate partnerships, this is it. Rather than hoping companies approach us, we need to interfere in their domination of the #edtech discourses that are overly focused on infiltrating educational markets. Getting kids, teachers, parents, and communities on board is part of the plan.

It’s the morning of Day 3 as I finish writing this, however my time at SXSWedu is over. But, I’ll be back… [rubs hands, prepares to board plane]

*Short doesn’t only mean length.

SXSWedu – Day 1

It’s day one at my first go around at SXSWedu and the message I am receiving loud and clear is simple:

We (as in they, that is, us…well, you get it) seem to be obsessed with finding THE thing that works.  

“We”, “thing”, and “works” are somewhat negotiable, but all are driven by a quest for capital gain, profit, and (if and when some glimpse of social good is hinted at) the desire for moving the masses toward greater social mobility through (very large) assumptions about cultural assimilation as the medium of change.

In short: Products need consumers and education is the holy grail of new consumer markets.

Neuroscience, that frontier of knowledge about human beings even neuroscientists are rightfully skeptical about, is the dominant lever that speakers readily push to advocate for changes in educational marketing, practices, and policies. The logic goes something like this: “Brain research says we do X in Y settings. Someone tested the X-Y theory in this other setting. So that brain research means that we need to do Z when marketing our products to parents.” Or, in another version: “We know, from neuroscience, that people do X whenever Y is the goal. So, we need to create more Y for people to do more X.” The problem with that logic — admittedly oversimplified for the purposes of making a point here — is that reliance on “brain research” alone, even when variables are controlled for and the like, is that people are fickle and, more importantly, contexts are dynamic. So, while “brain research” can point us to interesting phenomena and patterns of human behavior, without a rich(er) understandings of sociocultural, affective, and even aesthetic understandings of where, when, and how these patterns or phenomena unfold, they will remain inaccurate theories at best… at worst, they become suffocating tools of maintaining an inequitable status quo of access and experiences that currently dominates our educational landscape.

Even theories and proposals that strive to start with the user — the notion that a product may be used in unexpected ways, for example — ultimately are driven by the hope of converting the user (that is, a child, his or her parent, a community, a teacher, a school, etc.) to become brand loyal to whatever the seller is selling: lifestyle tools and apps, software, toys, games, helpful devices and gadgets and so much more. I was pleased to hear a couple of speakers talking about learning through the prism of joy in a recognition of some of the affective qualities of how we learn and grow as human beings. However, this joy at new product/toy/game discovery by kids was placed in an oppositional position to what a child may encounter when “forced” to do so by a teacher; the assumption here is that schooling is ultimately a teacher-dominated enterprise, and will remain so, particularly as teachers continue to be viewed and treated as instructional pawns by educational policy and reform. (Please note: while the implicit view by publishers, ed tech product developers, and policymakers may in fact reinforce this view of teachers, the reality is that teachers, by and large, are motivated by creating meaningful experiences with and for their students. And children and youth, likewise, are deeply invested in their own learning and would be more so if only we — that is, they, you, them, us… — let them.)

I hastily formed these initial impressions while moving in and out of six different sessions today. I spent time in the Playground, where exhibits about various educational technology tools, platforms, and whole programs are set up to invite attendees to interact by trying on augmented reality goggles, for example, or play with the 3Doodler (the line was too long, so I’ll have to get there early tomorrow; I’m determined to give it a try before giving in to my own consumer desires to acquire one…for the good of our program, of course…). I also attended a couple of presentations at the Industry Hub and the Policy Forum.

As the day winds down, I am preparing to attend a reception and a dinner meeting during which time I hope to learn more about how players in the domains of educational technology development, practice, research, and policy interact and intersect at this site of confluence. I’m curious to learn how the conversations here may be relevant to the new digital games masters degree that our program is launching, that is aimed at people who want to design educational games most effectively for learning in a variety of ways and across a variety of settings. I want to know how we (they/them/us/you) are taking into account the ineffable qualities of educational experience in the ways that Dewey invited us, again and again, to attend to, to notice, to cultivate?

Or, viewed another way, is there room for Dewey in a consumer-driven, brand loyalty motivated enterprise masked as education?

 

I do believe that the effectiveness of toys, games, and tools aimed at supporting children’s educational experiences can be assessed in holistic, generative, and multifaceted ways that go beyond what third party media/tech reviewers can offer. But I also would like to see that conversation and its concomitant set of frenetic byproducts — ie, scoring systems, policy statements, use of learning analytics to predict behaviors, and the like — slow down to consider what the assessment of effectiveness in service of and for whom a toy/game/activity/product may be effective. We can’t zoom past these definitions by assuming that we are all on the same page, when it is certain that “we” are not. Pausing to examine these elements will allow us to better commit to the purposes behind our efforts to assess, evaluate, perhaps even re-design and implement technologies in creative, educationally rich ways that actively engage the voices, experiences, funds of knowledge, and desires of the people often at the center of educational discussions: children, youth, and educators.

 

In my more Illich-like moments, I might be inclined to riff on what exactly we mean by effective and the circulation of power embedded in such questions. But I’ll keep those questions at bay… for now.

 

Education in the “Now”

Earlier today, I watched a video in which Martin Luther King’s essay (written, by the way, when he was 18…) titled, “The Purpose of Education” was given a dramatic treatment through media remix and performance by a group of youth at New Rochelle High School. And I thought about the ways that we simultaneously denigrate (some youth) and sensationalize (other youth) young people’s practices, proclivities, and passions, and how consistently we expect too little of their intellect and frequently demand too much of their often limited resources. We are swift to act in response to perceived transgressions (those dances beyond the accepted margins of the norm), and yet move like molasses in the face of adolescent exigencies that require adult support—emotional, political, financial, communal, and the like. (Well, not all of us.)

I embed below that video, a link to the text of the essay (each line, highly quotable), and the news report about the making of the video. The latter includes images of the video production and quotes from the youth filmmakers whose words and experiences suggest some things about the ways that access to everyday technologies every single day may embody a kinship with King’s advocacy that we take hold of the “fierce urgency of now” —Now, as in with the resources (material/human/digital/affective/aesthetic) we have at our disposal; Now, as in the places (locations/moments/conversations) where we find ourselves; Now, as in the people with whom we currently convene, speak, teach, and learn; Now, as in this moment, and this one, and this one. And I thought about how we are all complicit in what moves, changes, ebbs, and flows, and what doesn’t… and how that complicity may move us to actions or may further sediment our paralysis… and sometimes, both.

King, in his essay, writes, “education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”

His words echo others that I hold dear, from Emerson: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”

And in the spaces in between their words are echoes of Baldwin and hooks and my friend Eric​ and Rilke and Anzaldúa and others whose provocations linger and may suddenly catch fire, setting ablaze the beauty of the unimaginable.

The Purpose of Education (video)

Text of “The Purpose of Education” (essay)

Film Students See iPad Film Program As Chance Inspire Change (video, local news report)

(Thanks to Darrell Hucks​ for sharing the video.)

That year we just had

What kind of year was 2015?

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/oct/02/mass-shootings-america-gun-violence

Screen capture from The Guardian, Dec. 3, 2015

The much-too-easy access to guns hit a bit too close to home, and some news in the other direction would be a welcome change. (Over 2,000 doctors agree.)

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence

ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY in The New Yorker, Oct 19, 2015 issue

And, in the spirit of anthropomorphizing temporality: 2016, what do you have in store for us? Not more of the same, I hope. Perhaps this headline is a nod toward things to come:

In anticipation of any and all forms of opposition, I humbly refer opponents and naysayers to this astute reminder.
New year, indeed.

The Curious Case of Vidal and the Stranger with the Camera

##Update##

The fundraiser has passed $1Million. Wow…!

You better believe there’s going to be another post about this soon…

*************

Vidal is a student who attends Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I know this because over the last week, I have become acquainted with this young man, the school he attends, Ms. Lopez (his principal), some of the teachers at the school, and his mother and siblings. I am one of several million people who came to learn about this young man – and the constellation of people to whom he is connected, who impact him and in whose lives he has made and continues to make an impression* – as a result of a photograph taken Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind “Humans of New York.”

The story goes like this: Stanton is a street photographer who launched “Humans of New York,” a photo project in which he aims to photograph everyone in New York City. He shares his photographs on his blog and his wildly popular facebook page, which is where I first encountered his work and he had a mere few thousand followers. (That number is now nearly 12 million.)

Brandon Stanton is a bond trader turned photographer who has captured and captivated people’s attention with the simple act of creating photographic portraits on the streets of all five boroughs of New York City. But he does more than take people’s pictures. He engages them in a conversation, asks them questions, and, in the last year or so, he has been asking his subjects a rotating set of questions, among them:

  • What is the saddest moment of your life?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you want people to know about?
  • What’s your biggest fear?
  • Who has influenced you the most in your life?

One day last week Stanton asked the last question to a young man with whom he crossed paths in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

 

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

 

“When you live here, you don’t have too many fears. You’ve seen pretty much everything that life can throw at you. When I was nine, I saw a guy get pushed off the roof of that building right there.”

Of the many stories that could be told about this interaction and the series of stories and events that have unfolded since, I am most curious to know why young Vidal stopped to talk to Brandon that day.

At a time when differences among strangers are more liability than possibility, the likelihood of a young man taking up the invitation to talk by someone who does not look like him, outside of the (theoretically) safe walls of an institutional context like school, seems increasingly rare.

  • Would there have been such an outpouring of support – in the form of comments and donations – if Vidal had been older? Didn’t smile?
  • What if Vidal had selected someone other than Ms. Lopez as a big influence in his life?
  • How have the unsettling ways in which schooling is criticized, under-funded, and legislatively manhandled increased public sympathy for the daily work of educators and the young people with whom they spend their days?
  • What impact do the ongoing discussions of #Ferguson, #EricGarner, and #BlackLivesMatter have on how people are seeing/reading/responding to Vidal and to the photo-action project he inspired Brandon Stanton to pursue?
  • Did Juno (the Blizzard that could), by keeping many people at home, inadvertently drive the total closer to one million dollars?

The story has been picked by various news outlets and some of the descriptors used to tell the story (and the images and meanings they are meant to evoke) make me bristle. But I am forcing myself to weigh the bristling against the humanizing narrative that has unfolded from a single interaction – the HONY page is filled with portraits of other teachers from Mott Hall, follow-up images of Vidal, including a photo of him with his mother and brothers.

Following a conversation with Ms. Lopez, the subject of Vidal’s first interaction with Stanton, the photographer decided to tap into his millions of fans to launch a fundraiser to support some of the principal’s goals for her school and students (whom she calls scholars), among them: taking her sixth graders on a trip to Harvard and funding a summer program. The results have been staggering: the goal of $100,000 was raised in one hour. (Read the fundraising page for more info on what the monies will be used for.)

Stanton is doing two things at once with his larger HONY project: bringing forth the extraordinary that lurks behind any human encounter, while at the same time rendering ordinary that which may have been viewed only through extraordinary or sensational lenses. The photograph and the accompanying snippets of story, borne out of these human interactions, humanizes strangers and invites other strangers to recognize a glimpse of something familiar. We all have sad moments, fears, and people who have influenced us. HONY urges its fans and followers to slow down long enough to recognize the same in others, if only for a fleeting moment.

Famed photographer Gordon Parks, in a series of photographs that has been circulating recently and which are on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, similarly sought to depict ordinary Black life for an assignment for Time Magazine. Time never ran the images. An excerpt from the Slate magazine article on the collection suggests why:

“In this period, Life stories were told through the framework of the white middle-class American family. When stories did appear about African-American subjects, they were either about celebrities or athletes or people in very dire straits. Parks set out with this project to really counter those stereotypes.”

I read this article the day before Vidal appeared on my Facebook feed and so the two pieces seem intertwined to me: the pursuit of rendering the extraordinary in the quotidian and offering the dignity of the ordinary to everyone.

Regardless of why and what additional questions this story raises (this could be the subject of another post — on how education is valued, funded, supported; whose humanity is recognized, in what ways, and how we might nurture this inclination in friends and strangers, alike…), Vidal, Ms. Lopez, and the story of Mott Hall, rendered in photographs and story bits, has moved many of us – over 30,000 people have donated to the fund raiser already.

At the time of this writing, the total is $873,550 $877,477 $877,477 $877,771 $883,226 $893,512 $895,803 $929,094 $943,850 $948,990 $950,949 and increasing steadily, with people donating every few minutes.

The donations seem to average $20, but the $5 – and even $3 – donations really lifted my spirits. I was momentarily caught up in a wave of Obama ’08 fundraising nostalgia, a campaign built on the idealism of the $5 and $10 donations. Every one can participate (provided you have a credit card).

Ok, I’m going to go and donate now before it reaches its first million.

Before I go, a few links that may be of interest:

The Humans of New York Blog

The Humans of New York Facebook Page

Mott Hall Bridges Academy website

The Indiegogo Fund Raising Page

A Pinterest Board (where I’ve curated all of the HONY portraits related to this story, as well as a number of relevant articles)

*I suspect the latter number has increased a few million-fold by now.