Monday, October 20, 2014

Testing as a Silo/Solo Act: We Can Do So Much Better

A Chance of Crows (Reilly, 2011)
I. Life in the Silo

In the United States, we test each child ages 8 and higher as if he or she lived in a silo. And we say that the results of these siloed experiments will let us know if the child is career-ready, college-ready. 


We seem to think that ideas are located in single minds, not in what gets made between and among people. Knowledge is composed among and between people.  James Gee (2008) expresses this well when he writes:
Our knowledge is not something sitting passively in our heads (although this is the common view of knowledge); rather what is in our heads is just one aspect of larger more public and historical coordinations that in reality constitute 'our' knowledge (p.220).
Yet, we insist on testing each child, separating him and her from all resources--human and technological, while thinking this process will yield an apt expression of the child's intellectual capacities in school-based reading, writing, and mathematics.  We posit knowledge as that which gets retrieved from our head through some prompting, such as test passages.

Could we be more wrong?

II. Crowd Sourcing Ebola Care

Last week, I received the email below from the National Science Foundation:

The call-out to researchers to submit proposals via the NSF's RAPID proposal process speaks to the idea of leveraging the many to address matters of urgency. This got me thinking about the use of crowdsourcing and video games to help solve world health problem. From serious games like Foldit to Nanocrafter, gamers are playing together in order to solve medical issues.

The Guardian reported:

In 2011, people playing Foldit, an online puzzle game about protein folding, resolved the structure of an enzyme that causes an Aids-like disease in monkeys. Researchers had been working on the problem for 13 years. The gamers solved it in three weeks.

My purpose in mentioning these games is not to promote them as much as it is to highlight that collaborative play is at the center of solving real word problems. Knowledge is made across players.  And yet we refuse to emulate this understanding of knowledge making at school and in fact spend billions of dollars annually to test children as if the possibility for collaboration in their adult learning and work was at best a ruse. 

Our myopic attention to testing children individually renders them less college and career ready. Our methods are antiquated. Our attention on the individual is at best, romantic. In 2014, we isolate each child and remove the full power of connectivity even as we make the child sit at a computer/tablet in order to read/view the test and record his/her answers. 

Could we be anymore 19th century like?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Losing Your Way

Calvary (M.A. Reilly, South Dakota, 2010)

Pat, Tina, Robert and I spent part of a summer on the road, leaving Brooklyn and New Jersey well behind and making our way up the Maine coast and back to Boston. We had no real destination in mind.  I can't recall whose small car we road in that summer, but do remember it was a tight fit what with all of us, our stuff, and a tent--and now and then someone we met along the way.

There's something to be said for traveling without an agenda. Without a destination.

We had just a handful of dollars that gave out as we hit Boston and we spent the night trying to sleep on Revere Beach. The neon lights of the bars along the boulevard made that a difficult task. We traveled that summer with just the barest of acknowledgements that somewhere at the long end of August we would be returning to college--a different one for each of us and though we would stay in touch our lives would wind in unpredictable ways. For me, it marked that last summer hurrah as I finished college early and the year after would find me bartending at a local hot spot with my shiny art and lit degree in hand and living with a new roommate in an apartment that cost me $115 a month including the utilities.

It was in that apartment, a 3rd floor walk up, that my brother would leave a note taped to the door letting me know my mom's youngest brother had died. He wrote that they had tried to ring me several times (this was in the days before cell phones), but I was out more than home. We finally did connect and even now, decades later, I still see her hollow expression at the loss of her last brother. She had six siblings and now only she and an older sister remained. 

After the crowds at the wake had thinned, we sat together and I softly recited Emily Dickinson's The Bustle in the Housethinking about the many years she had read to me.  It was a prayer of sorts. A poor offering to the woman who had taken in a scared friend of mine when she had an abortion at 15 and couldn't go home.  Roe v. Wade was still so new. I remember asking her how she reconciled her very Catholic stance on abortion with Steph's needs and she said sometimes you learn to be conflicted and act anyway. 

I knew my mom had been so mad at me when I left home. She came back from Europe to find me packed and gone.

"You're just 18," she would later say.

The distance between us that evening at the wake felt large, looming, unbridgeable. I had broken something, I thought.  I wanted her back, not knowing she had not left--I had. It is impossible to understand a mother's love. I know now she forgave all my trespasses--she forgave them without me having to ask.


A few months later would find me at another funeral--one my parents would attend too--a service on a cold March day with just a handful of people in attendance.  A friend, Joann, had died in a wreck. Her car hydroplaned on a highway crossing the median and hitting an oncoming car. A few weeks before her boyfriend had broken her jaw. The day she died she had been fleeing him again. It was rush hour and the pregnant woman in the other car--the car Joann's car had crashed into, died too.  

Joann's best friend, my roommate, would not attend the service. She was too sad, she said and certainly too drugged to get there. 

This was a time of such wreckage, a time that reshaped what I might have been, what I was becoming. 

I know that now. 

After college I drifted, unsure. No picket fence. A careless woman with careless friends.

Two years after Joann's death would find me married and teaching high school--a poor attempt at respectability. I was teaching Gatsby to my last period 10th graders and the words on the page resonated. It's that moment when Daisy and Nick are speaking and Daisy says:

"I am careful."
"No, you're not"
"Well, other people are," she said lightly.
"What's that got to do with it?"
"They'll keep out of my way," she insisted. "It takes two to make an accident."
"Suppose you meet somebody just as careless as yourself?"
"I hope I never will," she answered. "I hate careless people" (p. 63).

I wish I could write by then I had it together, but I know now that I traded uncertainty for security. Oddly, teaching high school English for a decade helped me to become less careless, more attentive, empathetic. 

And a decade of analysis helped me to become more (other)wise.  


I think about those days now and then and realize that it's easy to lose your way.  
Perhaps, even necessary.  

I try to remember that, to bear that, when I look at my son.

The Problem of Over-Coding Knowledge at School

The Bath (M.A. Reilly, 2013)

The point is that a rhizome or multiplicity never allows itself to be overcoded, never has available a supplementary dimension over and above its number of lines, that is, over and above the multiplicity of numbers attached to those lines.
 (Deleuze & Guatarri, 1987, p. 9)

As I read Mikael Holmqvist's (2003) "A Dynamic Model of Intra- and Interorganizational Learning" I was taken by his explanation of exploitation suggesting that as organizations "learn to refine their capabilities; they exploit their existing knowledge; they learn to focus their activities on certain domains; they learn what brings success and failure" (p. 99).  Exploitation is about making use of what has been. It's a means to stability, or at least the suggestion of stability.  Holmqvist tells us, "Exploitation is about creating reliability in experience. It means productivity, refinement, routinization, production, and elaboration of existing experiences (p. 99).

Schools, largely governed by imposed standards and high stakes testing, are most often places of exploitation.

These are spaces where clinging to past success as measured by state tests and avoiding failures as suggested by state testing results lead to an "elaboration of existing experiences."  How might we counteract such hegemony? Holmqvist recommends that organizations  "create variety in their experiences as well, by experimenting, innovating and taking risks" (p. 99). This is the process of exploration.

Schools are striated spaces in need of exploration--of lines of flight.

I think a lot about these potentially clear and striated spaces and the dynamic of lines of flight and over-coding that resituate space as being cleared and/or striated.

Building and collapsing.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987) help to name this potential tension between exploitation and exploration when they write:
It is not a question of this or that place on earth, or of a given moment in history, still less of this or that category of thought. It is a question of a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing, and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again (p. 20).
Breaking off.
Starting up again.

This rhizomatic world, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, is one where exploitation and exploration co-exist and how we shift and move between these spaces, reclassify and clear these spaces are worthy of our notice, our naming, our time.

Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Mineapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.
Holmqvist, Mikael. (2003).  A Dynamic Model of Intra- and Interorganizational Learning. Organization Studies 24(1): 95–123. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Web (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

There's this gorgeous moment in a Loren Eiseley essay when the writer touches a pencil to a strand of the web--forcing an intrusion into spider universe. He writes:
...Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist. 

I stop, breath closing.
What cannot be named is irrational, extraneous.


My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Hearing her say it out load was a pencil point inserted into my life.
I was 12.

Like Eiseley's spider, I too fingered the guidelines for signs of struggle--for that something that was bearing down on us,
isolating us


cause from effect.

Does what you cannot name exist?

Shh....It was an irrational time:
my mom closing in on herself,
me learning how to watch, how to grow still,
and as I aged--how to escape out of the house to Brooklyn, to concerts, to parties, to boyfriends.

(Years later my husband would ask: Didn't they notice you were gone each weekend?)

My parents lived an interior life for the next five years.
We lived apart in the same house.
Sat down for dinner several nights each week.
It was a count down of days until the cancer was defeated.

A good war, 

                 even as we broke.


Those days the metaphor of war slipped from our mouths with ease.

There was the war on poverty.
The war on cancer.
The war on drugs.
And there was Vietnam.

When Jack, my oldest brother, turned 18, he was number 2 in the draft lottery.
There was little uncertainty to his future.

My Da talked of Canada.
Jack told me how he and a buddy drank a fifth of Jack the night before they reported for the physical exam.

The average age of U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War was 19.

Jack would be deferred for medical reasons--wire in his jaw.
My mom would be diagnosed a month later.

She told only me about the cancer.  My brothers were not told.


We kept secrets and we aged across those five years.

Jack bought a VW bug.
Both doors were orange.
The hood was red.

My middle brother took to wearing brown leisure suits with wide ties.
He stopped banging out The Battle Hymn of the Republic on the piano at 6 AM each morning.
There were loud silences.

There were things I told no one.

My parents got high in the backyard with the neighbors.
My oldest brother crashed several cars.
My middle brother left home in a pearl-white 1961 Studebaker Lark.
He drove to Richland Center, WI to pay homage to Frank Lloyd Wright.
I got high on my way to school most mornings, some afternoons.
I made photographs.


We were a study in parataxis.

Nothing touching.            

We were flawed,
circumscribed by our ideas, our fears.

This did not mean I was not loved.
I was, perhaps more.

Eiseley, Loren. (2004). “The Hidden Teacher.” The Advanced College Essay: Education and the Professions. 4th ed. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Kristin Dombek. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 9-21.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reclaiming Public Learning Spaces: The Long Tail Meets the Rhizome

from Occupy Wall Street (Reilly, 2011)


I reread with much interest an older post by Will Richardson from 2011, "How the Hell Could They Let this Happen?".  In the post, Will quotes a section from an Alfie Kohn post.  Kohn writes:

We are living through what future historians will surely describe as one of the darkest eras in American education — a time when teachers, as well as the very idea of democratic public education, came under attack; when carrots and sticks tied to results on terrible tests were sold to the public as bold “reform”; when politicians who understand nothing about learning relied uncritically on corporate models and metaphors to set education policy; when the goal of schooling was as misconceived as the methods, framed not in terms of what children need but in terms of “global competitiveness” — that is, how U.S. corporations can triumph over their counterparts in other countries. There will come a time when people will look back at this era and ask, “How the hell could they have let this happen?”

Dem-o-cra-tic public education.

Say it slowly.
A mouthful of words.


I think about this often--how public education is so much more than the content taught to children.  It's what helps us to become (other)wise--to try on unfamiliar perspectives. Amidst the standards and accountability movements, we have lost sight of aims of education. 

We have settled for far less. 

So how do we reclaim what does seem to be slipping from our collective hands? How might we do this reclaiming without colonizing one another?  Without forcing our will?

A way to reclaim public education as a public institution is by leveraging the long tail, the rhizome. The traditional view of education situates schooling as a function of transference from teacher to student of expert-determined content--such as the content specified in state and national standards. As such, U.S. public schools tend to rely on hierarchy as the method used to organize and distribute content and pedagogical practices, most often in the form of sanctioned programs. 

Think assembly line.

In contrast, a rhizomatic learning community is a fluid collective where participants dwell in the middle of things and where learning is a blend of explicit and tacit knowledge. As Dave Cormier has written: the community is the curriculum. Cormier writes:

Rhizomatic Learning posits, among other things, that the community is the curriculum. That being able to participate with and among those people who are resident in a particular field is a primary goal of learning. 

Think an endless sea of middles.

Think affinity groups.
Think choice.


There's no single model of learning that represents wholly all that we are becoming. We are so much more and less. As such, the choices for what constitutes becoming in 2014 are fuller than the the single model we rely mostly upon: the school house. In a connected world, the opportunities to learn need not be limited to what we have done before. 

For example, in this brief video that chronicles the work of Charles Raben, a ninth grader, we can see that the locus of learning is not limited to the place we call school. Raben was able to make use of a passion of his, photography, and apply this passion to framing an urban problem. What strikes me most when I listen to Raben is the agency he asserts.  He is not the receiver of content, he is the maker. 

Charles Raben, 9th Grade Student at Quest to Learn from Institute of Play on Vimeo.

Raben's moment of learning that is actualized via his petition offers us a glimpse at the long tail.  And at the heart of the long tail of learning is the understanding that learning can and does happen anywhere, everywhere, all the time.  

We are never not learning. We are always (un)learning. 

This is a shift in thinking that leaders most need to consider--a shift that asks us to disconnect learning from causality.  I don't need to cause you to learn as you are doing so without me.  A teacher may assist you.  A teacher may help you to shape your thoughts. But frankly, you are learning without the teacher too. You may find that you are learning through chats, social media. You are learning via learning walks. You are learning through play. You are learning through dialogue. You are learning via observations. You are learning through trial and error. You are learning through YouTube videos. You are learning through books. You are learning in connection with others. You are learning by doing and making and reflecting on what you have composed and failed to compose. You are joining and breaking with others and learning during these transitions, these disruptions. You are learning via the courses and workshops you take and give. You are learning though work. You are learning at your dining room table, from the front seat of the car, or bus, or subway.  

It feels rather endless, yes? 
It is.

Learning is not limited to the domain of schools and leaders must embrace this reality and open the doors literally and figuratively.  In fact, some of what gets done at schools in the name of content, standards, and high stakes testing may well limit and suppress thought.

Leaders need to be bold.  Let's open our eyes and catalog the many ways learning is happening and then let's leverage social media to share, reinvent, revise those ways. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Birds Lifting

Birds Lifting (Reilly, 2012)

I'm driving. Dev, my 15-year-old son, turns in the seat and says to me, "There's no getting to what is needed without first protesting."

I'm silent, thinking.

"Not even things that should just be given cause we all know that they're good. These days you can't get to it without a protest."

I listen, refuse to rush in and fill the space his words have opened.

"It's our interests against the corporations and the only way to get our government to actually work, to do what we've put them in office to do, is to protest," he adds. "Everything requires us to protest."

More silence. More space opening.

"It hasn't always been this way," he says in a voice that feels somewhat younger--almost as if he wasn't making a statement.

Or perhaps that's how I want to hear him.

I feel his absence of faith.
Perhaps, I'm feeling my own as well.

"You're right. It hasn't."

As we almost crest the hill that leads to our home, I slow the car and we wait there in the middle of the road. An unsafe place for sure, just below the crest of the hill. We wait as hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of black birds ascend from tree branches, shrubs, and lawns--darting across the road towards the woods. We sit and watch. The car idles, the windows are down, the roof is open and the birds fly--a steady stream of black interrupted now and then by bits of slate grey sky.

"Wow, a Hitchcock moment," I say to Devon.

We are of few words.

I'm putting away groceries thinking about my son's declaration and I'm reminded of a far earlier time--one where I'm talking loudly with my Da. It's dusk, a half-hour or so before supper and I'm explaining to him how we have a caste system akin to India and he's arguing back, a Manhattan at his ready, saying it's not quite so bad. There are still possibilities.

I think he's being less than truthful, choosing his words with some care. I watch as he takes a sip of his drink, pauses. Yes, he's being careful not to deny that a caste system of sorts exists here or at least that's how I'm hearing it, how I'm remembering it. This is the man who took us across the country to the Painted Desert to see what our government had done to the Navajos.

Love is so inconsistent.

They won't teach you this at school, he tells my older brothers and me.

We head towards Intestate 40 traveling East on a road that is marked only by a thin single grey line on the map. I can still see the face of the girl who looked to be about my age, who stood opposite me in that harsh desert light each us bound by the heat. I can see her hand as she takes the few coins from my palm. Her nails are dirty, mine ragged. I bought a small totem she had painted. I still have it, decades later, packed away in a box stashed in my dead father's' attic. This is the way it is. Regardless of where we store the trinkets we've collected along the way, we continue to bear their weight.

And so, on that late day I'm thinking he should know better. I've been telling him about Vicki Battle and how we're friends on the field, just the field. I play third base and she's our short stop. We know how to work the field, back one another up. We've been doing it for years. My Da has watched us play.  But I'm telling him now with some urgency that she and her family live down by the tracks on a block packed with narrow, attached two-story houses. The train runs behind her home.  He knows the area and nods. And it's just like Caesar's place I add. A boyfriend with a notable name, Caesar Chavez, who lives just a town away, who lives above a bar. Trains run behind his apartment too, rattling the windows that are lit by neon.  Between us is such distance--a möbius strip that keeps us from touching.

We live further up the hill where there are no trains, no tracks, no neon. Here, narrow driveways separate one house from the next.  An odd repetition.


I wonder what stories my son will tell when I am no longer here, no longer alive. We are always moving towards death. I wonder who will witness his tales. Who will hear his voice?

Will he remember a fall afternoon thick with black birds?
Will he tell about the time when he first recognized that the only way for right to happen in the world was to first protest?

Injustice is a constant that connects generations.

I wish I could be more clever, more in the moment. But the moment has gone. What I wanted him to know, but failed to tell him, was that difference has never been an antonym for sameness.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Omphalos, Omphalos, Omphalos

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Reilly, 2012)


Seamus Heaney tells of the effect of saying the word, omphalos, aloud again and again and how the repetition of the word led him to recall, remember.  He writes:
I would begin with the Greek word omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door. It is County Derry in the early 1940s ...There the pump stands, a slender, iron idol, snouted, helmeted, dressed down with a sweeping handle, painted a dark green and set on a concrete plinth, marking the centre of another world. Five households drew water from it. Women came and went, came rattling between empty enamel buckets, went evenly away, weighed down by silent water. The horses came home to it in those first lengthening evenings of spring, and in a single draught emptied one bucket and then another as the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.  (Kindle Locations 72-79). 

Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Across the street from the house where I grew up, sat the Corker's home.  A week ago on my way to the Bronx, I passed by it.  The Corkers were the grandparents I never got from family. Behind their home stood the tallest of hemlock trees. This tree remains today, still towering over the roofline of the house. An elegant tree for sure. Sturdy and yet, welcoming.  Many afternoons I stretched out beneath its branches, drawing and writing in a small diary that locked, occasionally munching a few saltines. I did this throughout my childhood. Safe on the soft needles not knowing how drawing and writing would save me. This was my secret place--one I did not visit with any of my neighborhood friends--not even Tommy Lane.  This was a gift the Corkers gave to just me--a secret place.  And in that crowded neighborhood where I grew, a secret place was no small thing.

Early on, Tommy Lane and I would strip from a clothesline, a newly washed sheet some mom had washed, wrapping ourselves in it. Somedays it was his backyard. Other days mine. Somedays, neither. The sheet was always so much bigger than us.  It was prop of sorts that we used as we played. Wrapped in a white or pale blue sheet, I was a saint--a saint who liked to dance. Some days we would snap the sheet above us and rush beneath it. A sky falling. I don't recall what Tommy thought although he joined me as we moved about the backyard, tumbling in the grass.

There was no point to our games, no sought outcome.  There was only the now--framed by the call of voices across driveways, disembodied.  These bits of disconnected sound worked their way into the stories we told ourselves, told one another, until we dozed.


I loved that boy and knew that life in his home was tough well before my ma told me so.

We know more than we can say.


Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Tommy Lane marked the centre of the world when I was a child.  His ma would screech his name from the top of the stairs over and over and over and we'd run fast from some corner of the neighborhood to see what was the matter for there was always something wrong and there she would stand, leaning her large frame into the doorway, clothed in some old duster that snapped up the front, wobbly, loose-faced and always so angry.

I don't know when we stopped being friends, when our interests vied or how we moved away from one another as surely as we did.  I remember meeting him late summer one afternoon by accident. I was 16, stunned by his height and that he had dropped out of school. We talked like strangers, hesitant, unsure and breached that distance by leaving in his green two-door Plymouth Road Runner for a party he knew on the cliffs.

It's nearly impossible to run from your past.


Omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

Here. Now. I can recall the sound of his name, always both names,  a steady vibration across my vocal chords like a mantra I repeat.  I can recall his voice more than I can see his face.

There's a temptation to soften the past, to recast it in some soft light, hear it differently. A falling sky. Some cued music. For me the temptation is not to romanticize the past, but rather to intellectualize it--to distance it from my heart, to not say what must be said.  To write it instead in some book I can lock.

The last I heard Tommy Lane was clean and worked as a short order cook at a diner in Jersey City, his older sister had moved north near the Canadian border and married, and his ma had finally gotten sober right before she died.


There was no room at school in those days for the lives we actually lived. School was not the place to drop the occasional bomb. Causal worlds, like schools and churches, make little room for irrationality. That which is outside simply does not exist.

We kept such secrets--the price of doing school, of doing religion, of doing life at our homes.  I've lost track of Tommy Lane across these decades and I am the worse for it.

I left home at 18, never to return to that neighborhood and I never saw Tommy Lane again.

Heaney, Seamus (2014). Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.