Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview: Educator and self-educator Deven Black

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Devin Black

Self-educator’s location: Bronx, NY

Date: 21 September 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me. Thanks for reading!)

Deven Black is a special education teacher in the Bronx. After dropping out of two high schools and a college, Black discovered alternative education and the work of radical education critics such as John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, and Ivan Illich; this experience led him to begin a lifelong journey of thinking about the education system and its relationship to students who struggle in traditional classroom environments. He maintains a blog and a Twitter feed.

WAM: What is your profession?

DB: I am a middle school special education and social studies teacher. I started teaching when I was 50 years old.

Teaching is just the latest of a long chain of careers. I have also been, in no particular order, a radio newsman, a bartender, a newspaper reporter, a political campaign operative, an advertising copywriter, a restaurant manager, a restaurant critic, and a voice-over artist.

Other than going to grad school to get a teaching degree, none of the job-specific knowledge used in any of those careers came through what might be considered normal channels.

While I had some success in all those careers, particularly in radio and restaurant management, I failed in many, and it is those failures that taught me the most. Failure necessitated trying something new, whether a new approach or methodology or a totally new career.

I am a great believer in the value of failure. Of course there are a lot of reasons people fail, but generally never failing means you just haven’t been challenged enough and you haven’t grown nearly as much as you could. My biggest problem with schools is that they don’t value failure. They teach that failure is bad and something to be avoided instead of how to use failure constructively.

WAM: You teach special education classes in the Bronx. What are some of the special challenges you confront as an educator? How have these challenges affected you as a professional as well as your view of formal education in the U.S.?

Special education is a very strange field. It is very broad and includes students with a wide range of abilities. (That is not a typo). Special education at its best is about maximizing the abilities of our students.

I teach students who are said to have learning disabilities. The first challenge I face as a middle school special education teacher is usually to try to convince my students that they are not disabled any more than anyone else. Everybody has things they are particularly capable of doing and other things in which they have no talent to develop. I can’t dance or play a musical instrument. If those skills were valued as much as multiplication or reading, I would be labeled learning-disabled. My students are in the unfortunate situation of having talents that are different from those valued in school, and they get labeled.

My being a special education teacher has reinforced and focused my belief that school is not the right venue for everyone. School is a particular setting with particular procedures, values and demands. It is a perfect fit for many students, but for those of us on either end of the bell curve it is not. For us, school is either a neutral or negative environment that doesn’t meet our needs. Much of the undesirable behaviors seen in schools are inarticulate statements of unmet needs.

WAM: You dropped out of high school twice and college once. Why did you make those decisions? Would you decide differently today? How has the environment changed in recent decades for those who do not complete high school or college?

DB: I think the situation for high school and college dropouts today is much the same as it was almost 40 years ago when I did it. There are some people who have some exceptional abilities and they may succeed in spite of dropping out and there are some people whose lives are compromised in some way by the lack of high school and/or college credentials.

There have been some changes in the landscape. Homeschooling is more prevalent and recognized as are online classes, but those recognitions are not universal. So, while there are more alternatives to traditional brick, mortar and tassel schools, there is still a long way to go before everyone has a real choice.

WAM: What do you understand the term “self-education” to mean?

DB: First and foremost, self-education is an almost universally practiced method of learning. Everyone who pursues a hobby or takes steps to follow a particular interest is practicing self-education, though they may not realize it unless it is made explicit to them.

WAM: Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you? Why?

DB: I am aware that I am constantly learning even though what I am learning at any given moment or collection of moments is not necessarily clear to me. If I attend a lecture about baseball I will surely learn something about baseball that was purposefully taught to me, but I will also learn so many more things about my feelings about baseball; how to or how not to present a lecture; a new style of dress; new technology or new uses for old technology as used in the lecture; and so much more.

WAM: Why should we be curious? What ought we to be curious about? What forms does your own curiosity take? If you are curious about something – say, an academic subject or the way something works – do you follow up on that curiosity by studying?

DB: Being curious is not something we do, it is how we are born; we can hardly take a rest from our curiosity.

I am curious about so many things, big and small, and almost every time I look at a newspaper or the Internet I find something new to be curious about. Sometimes all I do is read the article or what’s on the website, but other times I dig deeper and, depending on what I discover and the amount of time I have, deeper again. Today I learned about the relative amount of meat in the diet of the ten most and ten least carnivorous nations, shifts in religious identification in the US by state, Gasworks Park in Seattle, and how Justin Buck is now thought to be the best defensive player on the football Giants.

WAM: What role do you see for the arts in education

DB: As a special education teacher I see the visual, musical, and performing arts as requiring different skills than the academic classroom and as places where my students typically have a chance to shine in ways not available elsewhere in school. The arts allow visual and kinesthetic learners opportunities that cater to their learning style.

WAM: What are your past and present methods of self-education? Which have you found most effective? Do you use the Internet or other technology to self-educate or expand your intellectual horizons?

DB: I am fortunate in that I grew up in New York City and my earliest self-education experiences involved wandering around the city. While I was learning a tremendous amount about a great many things, that was not my purpose. The learning occurred because I have an inquisitive mind, talent for noticing patterns and making connections, and a relatively open mind, and I am generally at ease in new situations.

I did not become aware that I was self-educating until a few years later when, living on Cape Cod and working as a news reporter and talk-show host for a local radio station, I got invited to speak at the career day of the alternative program that was part of and housed at the local high school. I ended up getting very involved with that program. I was 21 years old, had dropped out of two high schools and college, and was intrigued by this program that was operating in a way totally alien to my high school experience. I asked a lot of questions and the four teachers in the program turned me on to education critiques, writers and books. That was the start of my self-awareness of my self-education.

I don’t use any particular method in my self-education. I use whatever is available. I read books or articles; I listen to lectures, discussions or music; I seek out experts to interview; I use the Internet or anything else. Education has been my main interest for 30+ years, and it is about the only topic that I have any kind of systematic approach to, but it is such a broad and growing topic that the deeper I get into it the less systematic I am about it.

I have almost no academic discipline. When, at the age of 36, I decided to return to college because I found a school, Empire State College, a part of the State University of New York system, that fit my needs. Empire State uses a mentor system, independent learning, study groups, and almost any other form of education other than large classes and lectures. It also gives credit for demonstrated prior learning. Their application had twelve general topics one could choose from and you were supposed to pick the one that interested you. I picked all 12 and wrote an essay explaining my holistic approach and my sense of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.

It was wonderful to have a school that appreciated that not everyone learns the same way and that let me have a very broad focus.

WAM: Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

DB: I have so many. My parents taught me about responsibility for myself and for the world. I am a religious agnostic who has taken moral guidance from all the major and quite a few of the minor religions. I embrace nonviolence, which I learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Intellectually I’m influenced by my college mentor, Miriam Tatzel; Douglas Hofstadter; John Taylor Gatto (who was one of my teachers in middle school); and so many others.

WAM: What is your formal educational background? How did you feel about your formal education? Did you in some ways benefit from the constraints and parameters it provided?

I dropped out of two high schools, one considered one of the nation’s finest and requiring a competitive exam for admission, and the other my local neighborhood high school. I then dropped out of college. All this happened before I was 17. These schools had many strengths and have successfully educated hundreds of thousands of students. They just didn’t fit me at that time.

I had an amazing middle school experience. I was in an accelerated program in which we would do three year’s work, 7th, 8th and 9th grades, in two school years. My teachers included a masterful teacher, Elizabeth Novad, in her last years before retiring, and John Taylor Gatto, then a young and fairly new teacher.

Mrs. Novad was the best teacher I ever had. She had very high expectations for us and helped us develop the tools to meet them. We read two Shakespeare plays a year and took field trips to see them on stage. We read A Tale of Two Cities and, as a class, decided to rewrite it as a musical and film it. This was in 1965, and we worked in 8mm. We wrote the script, the lyrics and some original music. We developed a way to film a fairly graphic decapitation (of me!) by guillotine without, I’m happy to say, actually having to cut my head off. We went in pairs to the adolescent literature graduate course she was teaching to tell them about the books we were reading and our generally low opinion of adolescent lit. In short, our intellects and creativity were uncovered, energized, engaged and celebrated.

Part of the problem that P-12 schools have is that they act like they have an exclusive monopoly on learning. This arrogant fantasy reduces the efficacy and utility of schools because it compartmentalizes learning instead of integrating it. I often hear teachers complain that students who learn a skill in one class don’t have the ability to apply it in a different subject class. This occurs because subjects are taught as separate domains, disassociated from each other and from the world outside of school. Students learn that there is information and skills one needs inside schools and that these are different from those needed outside.

The amount of information available to the average person has expanded exponentially in my lifetime. Despite E.D Hirsch, Jr.’s attempt to identify what learning is necessary to create a common core of knowledge among Americans, it is increasingly difficult to identify what information is essential for every American to know. Schools need to teach the skills necessary to research, access, assess and apply the information available online. This will be impossible to do until there is universal full-time access to computers and the Internet in American schools. It makes no sense to continue to use 19th century technology (pencils, pens, blackboards and chalk) or its 20th Century upgrade (dry erase markers) in times when even the most tech-resistant teachers are using email to communicate.

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich imagined an education marketplace in which people who seek certain knowledge or skill, playing guitar or architecture for example, find and engage with people who know and can teach what is sought. This is a system of self-education and it is increasingly visible in communities all across America. Even schools are starting to operate this way. I have read several articles about how schools too small to offer certain classes within their building - Italian language was one example – allow and encourage students to take online classes. In other words, they allow the student to choose what to learn and, with some oversight, who to learn it from.

The most effective schools are the ones that embrace and are embraced by the community, those that understand that learning is constant and occurs everywhere. Schools need to evolve from closed-off fortresses to open community resources. They have facilities that can facilitate self-directed or contracted learning and teaching.

WAM: What role do other people play in your self-education? Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

DB: Like most people, I am a social learner. Most of my self-directed learning involves contact with other people. I have developed interest in topics I didn’t even know existed through interpersonal contact. I am not an autodidact; I have had a series of short-term and long-term mentors to stimulate, help inform, and guide my inquiries.

WAM: Do you follow current events, and if so, where do you get your news? Why did you select those sources? Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

DB: I have been a newspaper and radio news reporter. My first jobs as a teen involved current events. I am a news junkie. I read as much of the New York Times as I can before going to work in the morning. I listen to NPR and I read the articles friends or my PLN (Personal Learning Network) recommend by sending links. I listen to people around me talking.

I grew up with newspapers arriving daily. Public affairs were discussed at the dinner table. My parents were politically active. Civic awareness is in my DNA.

I have been politically active since I was seven and worked in my first electoral campaign putting stamps on envelopes. By my teen years I was directing a campaign for a State Assembly candidate. I have opinions and am not afraid to express them.

Sometimes it seems like some Americans practice a willful ignorance of government and public affairs. It does not portend a lengthy life for democracy. The centralization of power is disturbing. People should exert more control over our government, but they need to be well-informed to do so intelligently.

Thank you, Deven, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit Deven's blog and Twitter feed. If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it on Facebook or Twitter, or emailing it to a friend.

Thanks, as always, for reading.