Here’s How We Get Things Done!

Yesterday, it snowed. I was supposed to go to an event–Choose2Matter Live, hosted at East Greenwich High School. I was excited, because the event is right up our alley–Genius Hour for two days straight resulting in things that really matter and continue into–real life. Because guess what–school is–and should be–real life. 

This year’s been all about themes that affect the world. We’ve talked about real world needs, and we’ve seen teens making a difference on the world stage. If you’re just reading a book and regurgitating information, guess what–you’re not making a change. Sure, we need to learn the fundamentals so we can apply them to stuff that matters. That’s the whole goal here. So, the next thing we’ll study is education throughout the world. 

Critical Questions: 

What’s school for? Seth Godin asks this in his TEDxYouth talk. 

Have schools, in fact, killed creativity? World-renown author, speaker and expert Sir Ken Robinson asks this question. Since he’s been knighted by the Queen, we should probably listen. If you enjoyed Sir Ken, here’s a bonus–a whiteboard anamation saying we must change the way we think about education. 


If the media and society is so up in arms about education in the US, we need to dig deeper, asking ourselves the questions

  • Is education so bad in the US? After all, we do educate everyone. Even though our “scores” might not match other countries, are they valid comparisons? Are we testing all our students? Are they? Are the tests equivalent? Maybe so, but never believe the media.
  • Where can we improve and how should we do it? How should schools look in this nation?
  • Should we have a national curriculum so that every student in the US gets the same chance? Or should local schools decide what to teach independently?

How’s the rest of the world doing? Really?

  • Which countries value education the most?
  • Do other countries offer free education for all citizens?
  • How do other countries rank against us?

The Big Questions: 

  • How does the fact you can get an answer to a question about China from a student in China, in real time, change the way we educate?
  • You wanted to get rid of the textbooks? And replace them with what?
  • Information is available about everything at any time. What skills do we teach to process this?
  • How will you use all this in your real life and change the world?

These are the questions we’ll be asking. Any one of them is big enough. All of them together is the beginning of a reflection about what education means to us, and how schools can make that happen. 

Utopia or Dystopia

Let’s face it, you’ve got it pretty good. You’re sitting there with your iPhone with the world at your fingertips. You eat every day, you don’t have to wait in line for bread, and somehow you got to school–in your car or on the big yellow bus. The government doesn’t assign you a job, and it doesn’t tell you what you have to be.

We’ve looked at dystopian literature.

Mission: Apply your piece to one nation in the world, past or present. Convince us to vacation there. Show the features that align with The Hunger Games and your particular chosen piece. Make it presentation-worthy. It’ll be put on display.

If you succeed, you will be rewarded with extra bread. If you fail…learn to spell “Solzhenitsyn.” You’re going to the Gulag.

Can You Make the World Healthier?

“Miss, I never go to the doctor,” he said. He’d been sick for a while. Weeks. I was torn between my natural inclination to be concerned and the fact that every time he came into the room I thought he was going to infect me and I’d, die, too.

“Go! You’re sick.”

“I can’t. I don’t have health insurance. and she’s not taking a shift off from work. When I’m sick, my mom gives me Sudafed. For everything. It don’t matter what…Sudafed, and ‘Go to school.'”

We’ve been discussing the impact of major health issues. Some people talked about health policy on the world stage, and things that hit closer to home.

Here are four critical issues:

1. Global health: In this article, we see how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is trying to combat malaria, a mosquito-bourne illness that affects many of the world’s poorest tropical regions.

What are some health problems that plague people who NGOs are trying to solve?

  • AIDS
  • Clean water
  • Family Planning and childbirth
  • Hunger and famine
  • Injuries from landmines
  • …and many, many more

2. Insurance: With the recent controversy over “Obamacare” the nation has at least started the dialog of insurance for all. Is this insurance a good thing? Will small businesses fail to hire employees because of the cost burden? Will it finally get coverage for the nation’s least protected? This Washington Post “Fact Checker” breaks it down. Will you be one of the 23M Americans–7% who will be using Obamacare?

What is insurance anyway?

  • Insurance spreads risk. For example, you can’t afford a car accident. Trust me. The insurance company charges you an amount every month. On a good month, your car’s in one piece and they keep the money. On a bad month, they pay you for your damages. It’s sort of like gambling at Foxwoods. But far less fun, because the only time you win the jackpot is in some kind of disaster, like an accident, a fire, or a major health problem. Trust me–you’d rather complain about insurance prices than need to use them.
  • Insurance assigns risk. That means that they charge you based on your risk. Riskier people cost insurance more money.
  • Insurance protects you from large disasters. This is important, because one hospitalization can ruin a family financially.
  • Insurance indemnifies. That means it pays you to put back in the same position you started out… it’s not supposed to be a financial victory.
  • The Affordable Healthcare Act allows for preexisting conditions. In other words, if you were sick before, you can not be excluded from getting healthcare. This is a big thing.

3. Local healthcare issues:  Is there a difference in healthcare quality or accessibility? Do certain geographic regions have certain problems? Can we work together to solve local, national, or global healthcare issues?

What types of things are important to society locally and globally?

  • Researching for cures
  • Funding for initiatives
  • Prioritization

You might find there’s a lot to think about here. Maybe we can’t solve the problems of the world, but we can keep our eyes open for problems we can solve, then innovate solutions for them. This is what the best of the best do. It’s what separates YOU from the rest.

You Think School’s Bad? Sign Up for Dystopiathon


You think doing homework’s bad? Try government oppression. Martial law. Robots taking over the universe. By popular request, we’ll be studying dystopian film and literature, starting with The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games connects to several themes in lit classics, including:

George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm

William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies

Aldous Huxley’s  Brave New World

Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451

Though not dystopian, The Story of Damon and Pythias is about friendship so deep that you’d give your life for a friend. Read it. It’s two pages. You got this.

These stories talk about oppressive governments, absolute power corrupting absolutely, and the bonds of friendship. Enjoy them in full form, read the Spark Notes, use Audible or listen to the Thug Notes.

Critical Questions:

  • How do people in power keep that power? What’s the fine balance between leadership and oppression?
  • “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” True or false? Can there be such a thing as a benevolent dictator?
  • It is rare to find absolute friendship. Would you be willing to give up your life for a friend?
  • How close is society to the types of societies described by Goulding and Orwell?

Do yourself a favor. Read the full text of at least one of the Orwell, Goulding, Bradbury, and Huxley. They’re worth it. But if you need a couple Thug or Sparknotes to get the rest, at the very least ingest the stories.

Then, we’ll talk…

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Most of us use features on our phone that require GPS or geolocation. This means that our phones collect, store, and transmit data about our present, past, and (depending on Facebook) possible future locations. We tell it everything. 

This is convenient for me when I want to find my way around traffic or navigate to a new place. It’s great when I want to check in somewhere with a friend. 

It might not be great if you’re up to something, or if you just want a little privacy. Going to rob a bank? Geolocation will find you. Going to do a little Christmas, birthday, or Valentine’s Day shopping for that special person? Geolocation knows. 

Crimes have been solved using these features, cheating spouses have been caught and lies unfolded. Houses of vacationing people have been robbed. 

“What,” you say. “I’m honest.” So am I. So, for me, the convenience of having all things Google, geolocation notwithstanding, outweighs the risk of privacy. I’m fairly public and out there. You can read my thoughts or just ping me and ask. I’ll tell you. And I don’t get out much these days. Google doesn’t have that much to track… 

Or does it… 

Is there too much information out there? Even for the honest person? You decide. 
Review this Learnist board and add to the comments, both on the board and for this blog post. 

This video was contributed by Jamaal Ross as an addendum to our discussion of British colonization and military methods.

We see evidence of this in Alice in Wonderland. This story takes place at the height of the Age of Imperialism. By 1750, the British East India Company under Elihu Yale (of Yale University) placed India under British rule, enslaving many Indians. The 1783 Treaty of Paris saw the end of British colonization in America, but by 1881, the “Scramble for Africa” had divided Africa up into European colonial strongholds, and the British were looking toward China.

This video is a humorous look at the American view of the British military, but it fits nicely into the context of British colonization as a whole. Thanks, Jamaal!

Polite War

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

At the same time as the American Civil War was just wrapping up, Alice in Wonderland was taking England by storm. Lewis Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, the son of a preacher and one of eleven children, all of whom survived into adulthood, was an author, professor, and photographer. 
His legacy is highly controversial.  Read through this Learnist board on Carroll and decide–was he a genius or a deviant?  When deciding, it’s important to look at the context of the times. Can we judge people, ideas, and situations in history by today’s standards? People often do. After reading through the Learnist board, please offer your opinion on the life and times of Carroll and Alice in Wonderland focusing on the following: 
1. History: There are so many references to the Age of Imperialism, the roles of women in society and social history. 
2. Fantasy and Imagination: Some of the best innovators fall into this category. How has fantasy and imagination resulted in inventions and innovations that make the world a better place?
3. The Rabbit Hole: Have you ever encountered a person or idea that changed your life forever? That made it so you never saw the world the same way again?  How can this help you change the world? You might not have had this experience yet. If not, think of someone you admire who has had an epiphany and been that kind of game changer as a result. 
Regardless of where you fall on the issue of Carroll, his stories are inspiring. “Sometimes, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” 
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that makes us magic. 

Genius Hour Pitches

So, you have an idea. You’re running with it. And then…

You realize that there’s something missing.  You’ve left something out. A big something. A project-crippling something.

You need to organize. You need to answer the BIG QUESTIONS. You need to write your pitch. If you were stuck in an elevator for two minutes with your idol, what would you want to say about your passion–about your project? How could you make it unforgetable?

1. What is your passion? What’s your project all about?

2. What problem are you solving? How does your project make the world better?

3. How do you attend to accomplish this? What secret ingredient does YOUR group have that will make the world AWESOME or solve the problem you intended to tackle?

4. Ask for something. What do you want your audience to do? Support your cause? Donate? Watch your video? Join your organization? Shop fair-trade? Eat more vegetables? Be clear. Be direct. Ask.

Make your presentation beautiful, clear, and exciting. The world is at your door…

Transportation and Social Justice, Part II

According to the March 2011 report released by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equality” , transportation truly is a civil rights issue. Here are some salient points taken from this report:

  • Average cost of owning a car: $9498
  • 33%: Low income African-Americans without access to a car
  • 25%: Low income Latinos without access to a car
  • 12.1%: Low income Whites without access to a car
  • 80%: Portion of federal transportation money dedicated to maintaining highways
  • Americans in the lowest 20% income bracket spend 42% of their income on maintaining automobiles compared to middle-class Americans, who spend 22% of their income on maintaining automobiles.
  • “One survey found that 4% of U.S. children (totalling 3.2m) missed a scheduled healthcare appointment due to lack of transportation.”
  • Racial minorities are 4x more likely than Whites to rely on public transportation to get to work.
  • NYC residents earning less than $35K/year are 11x more likely to have commutes over one hour as compared to residents earning over $75K.
  • Black NYC residents’ commute times are 25% longer than their white counterparts, and Hispanics’ commutes are 12% longer.
  • People who live in neighborhoods with plentiful transit options (access to bus routes and subways) spend just 9% of their income on transportation as compared to 19% average for Americans.
  • People who live in car-dependant suburbs spend 25% of their income on transportation.

This paints a stark picture of inequality.

Critical Question: 

1. Is this truly a civil rights issue, or an issue where people have the freedom to choose where to live?

2. How can tranportation issues for the nation’s poorest Americans be fixed?

3. Does this create a cycle of dependency on low-income jobs? If so, how can this be reversed?

4. What examples of excellent urban planning are trying to fix this problem in the United States?

Transportation and Social Justice

Think of all the things you can do if you can drive. You can go out with your friends, you can work, and you can travel freely on your own. Americans take driving for granted. The personal automobile has shaped our nation in a way that is unique. The wide-open spaces in America, the sprawling suburbs…these have all been created by the automobile.

Henry Ford’s goal was to make the car affordable for everyone, and that he did. In Europe, trains and public transportation define most cities. In most of America, if you do not have a car, you are at a disadvantage in terms of securing work and having the same freedoms as the rest of your peers. I waitressed my way through college in Rochester, New York, a city not known for it’s kind weather. If I worked an early shift, I could catch the 1:07 bus up East Henrietta Rd up to the mall. If I got out late, I walked the near five miles home. It took about an hour. Think of a mother trying to get home to her kids, or a person trying to get extra hours–if you spend you time waiting for busses, transferring, and walking, it’s difficult to get other things done.

Additionally, if you study bus routes in most non-commuter cities, they don’t go directly from place to place. In a commuter city like New York City or Boston, it’s easy to live life without a driver’s license.  In Providence–not so much. You will lose economic opportunities.

Now, think of not being able to drive. What would that do to your sense of freedom, your ability to make a higher-level living, and your ability to move your family around from place to place. When I was growing up, for years we only had one car for the family. If something so small as grocery shopping came up or one of us had to go to the doctors, my mother had to ask a friend with a car to do her a favor or wait until my father was home from work. This severely impacted her independence.

Think further. What if, by law, you were not able to drive. What if the government said, just based on your gender, you should not.

That is the case in Saudi Arabia. While there is no law stating women cannot drive, it is a custom, and women can be detained, harassed, or lose their jobs for driving. It’s simply not done.

We’ll be discussing several freedoms that involve the issue of transportation and mobility, and how such things change our opportunities in life.

The first will be the heroics of Manal al-Sharif. Watch her TEDx talk on this Learnist board: “Driving Men Crazy in Saudi Arabia”    Do not miss Learning #4 by Saudi comedian, musician, and social rights activist Hisham Fageeh. It’s a winner.