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communications

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the culture of encounter

(In which I give in and write more about SketchFactor.)

How supremely perfect it is that the SketchFactor app debuted at the same time as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. On the SketchFactor scale of 1-5, where 1 is "kind of quirky" and 5 is "could be dangerous," Ferguson probably ranks at about a 30 right now, what with the rioting and the wooden bullets and all. According to these metrics, at least, it's a place to be avoided.

But is it, really? Because avoidance, at least of the mental kind, might be how we got here in the first place.

My man Pope Francis has been on a tear lately talking about the "culture of encounter," the idea that we learn and grow when we interact with people different from ourselves. In one letter of which I'm particularly fond, he talks about the role that communications and technology can play in fostering greater human dignity:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. 

The essential problem with apps like SketchFactor is that they don't break down these walls. They build them by specifying where we shouldn't walk, literally dividing us and our environs into safe and unsafe, worthy and unworthy. In its own way, this discourse is violent and destructive - not just to those it victimizes, but to our connections to each other as well.

Walls like these are what allow those of us who are not regularly harassed for our race or class to turn a blind eye to the killing, by police, of young, unarmed persons of color; they block out the protests, the riots, the sound of sirens. They let us believe it doesn't happen that often. Walls like these give us an excuse to make assumptions, because we've never learned that a "gang sign" is actually a symbol of peace. Walls like these prevent the large-scale catalyzing of public opinion against procedures that are fundamentally unjust. And walls like these allow us to avoid imagining ourselves, as individuals, in the same situation.

Elsewhere in that letter, the Pope invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan and its call for us to view ourselves as "neighbors" to all of humanity:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  ...(I)t is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God... 

Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  

It's hard to be someone's neighbor, though, if you won't even go near their neighborhood. Is this the world we want? Full of strangers, kept at a distance? 

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love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

Transient

(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 

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thanks to listeners like you

(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

"It is because of NPR," my Uber driver told me this morning. "All because of NPR!"

He was referring to his knowledge of English, which he acquired almost exclusively from - you guessed it - National Public Radio. "I have RFI [French public radio] access on my phone, but my teacher and my wife said, 'No. You should listen to NPR.' And now? RFI? Never." (He added that his favorite host was Kojo. Obviously.)

I have no real new observations here, except that I love being reminded of how powerful effective media can be for educational purposes. When I hear stories like this one I think of my father, living as a child quasi-refugee in France, getting his first introduction to America from Tom Mix Westerns; of my old friend Yuriy, who once told me that he learned English from the reruns of DuckTales they broadcast in his city in Ukraine; of my host brother in Korea, who learned the word "undertaker" from the name of his favorite American wrestler. (Yes, really. And yes, I'm counting it.)

And, of course, now of this man, a former executive with Coca-Cola in Cameroon whose daughter is in the US Navy and who's working on a novel about the experience of the African immigrant in America.* I'm glad that the mediated, highly enunciated NPR accent has proven its worth. And I'm glad that we make it freely available to all Americans, new and old.

 

*It was a long ride. 

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I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.

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many gods

Well. Where was I?

First of all, boringly, I'm still sick - not as overtly anymore, but enough that I take a lot of naps and still wake up feeling bushed. My failure to recover completely probably has something to do with the fact that, in addition to my freelance work, I've also started working part time at a charter school near my house. Miss Eason's immune system used to be made of Teflon, but apparently times have changed, although children have not.

Nonetheless, a few notes and recommendations.

  • My general concern about sites like A Mighty Girl is that they will a) take themselves too seriously, b) ultimately contain nothing but girl power slogans without substance, or c) preach to the choir. I think what alleviated my fears with this particular site was seeing its book collection, which is FILLED with my childhood favorites (Dicey's Song! The BFG! Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, otherwise known as the most underrated Judy Blume book of all time!). These are not stories written expressly to empower girls; they are written as though the starring role of interesting and smart and imperfect young women is totally normal. Because it is, in real life. That seems to be the site's overall perspective. And I like it.
  • "No one believes that O Brother, Where Art Thou taught you five valuable lessons about engineering": the Awl on what you should *not* write about on Medium. (Or a variety of other platforms, for that matter.)
  • And, despite what I just wrote, a rather interesting article on employment, one that happens to be hosted on the Medium platform. I like what he says w/r/t understanding how to make yourself useful for employers, particularly after some of the Billfold interviews I've conducted. The article itself also lacks the sense of self-aggrandizement that I've come to expect from pieces on this topic, which is refreshing. 

And there's one more thing I'd like to recommend, but it requires a bit more explanation. I've learned a lot over the course of a week and a half with sixth graders, including: why eleven-year-olds think Hinduism is a good religion (no need to limit yourself to just one god, if you were wondering); which historical sites and events are featured in Assassin's Creed;* and new insights into male youth hairstyles (cuts like the fade - and, dare I say it, even the flat-top - appear to be making a comeback). I've gotten to see an entire class, in response to one student's answer of "I don't know," yell "YET!" in unison. I'm not going to front, I've even gotten some hugs.

HOWEVER, the greatest thing by far that I've seen is this video that my friend Clark showed to her ELA class. It's an excerpt from a hip hop song cycle by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of In the Heights. That song cycle is called The Hamilton Mixtape. As in Alexander Hamilton.

I love this because it circles back to the core beliefs I hold for all of my work, namely that you have to go to people (audiences, children) where they are, and that well-crafted communications allow us to find the elements of an idea that resonate with others. I know everyone's laughing here at the idea that A. Ham is hip hop, but you can see how seriously Miranda is taking this, and he should: nothing he's saying is wrong, and he's exploring this personality in a way that helps us gain a new perspective on the man. Whether you're on a stage or in a classroom or designing a user-centered, mass-market health education program for a country with high morbidity indicators, isn't that what we all want to do?

 

*I have mixed feelings about this.

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