Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Maxwell Street Market

I recently watched a couple documentaries on the Maxwell Street Market—Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, and then And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street. Both were very interesting. (This is a topic of fascination for me, and going to the new Maxwell Street Market on Des Plaines is probably my favorite thing to do in Chicago).

Cheat You Fair is mostly about the market getting shut down, which is a pretty disheartening story. Another reminder that Chicago is really corrupt, and that poor people's interests are rarely considered in the face of government or business development. There were a lot of interesting discussions about gentrification, UIC's location as a buffer between the loop and black communities on the west side, and corruption in city hall. There was also an attempt to piece together the larger history of UIC's development, but I think that's probably its own (fascinating and sordid) topic. In general, it seems like this location was chosen for the university because it was occupied by poor people with very little political capital. That area has basically been rebuilt from scratch over the last 20-30 years, accompanied by rapid gentrification.

And This Is Free is two films put together. One was made in 1965, and is almost completely without narration and all the footage was shot in that year. It's awesome. The other is a history going back a bit further, focusing more on the Jewish community and their experience and their role in shaping what the market eventually became. There's a lot of great footage in there: it looks like it's from as early as the thirties. There were a lot of anecdotes from people who grew up selling things as children on Maxwell Street, and the overwhelming lesson they all got from that experience was how to work with people. Makes sense I guess. There was also this great anecdote about a guy whose family had a butcher shop on 14th and Halsted, and the way he got meat to the store was he took the Halsted streetcar to the stockyards on 43rd and Halsted, and then he got a half a cow. Then he put some wax paper on his back and put the cow on the wax paper, and then boarded the streetcar north back to 14th street. (How many lawsuits can you count in that anecdote?) On the whole it was a really interesting documentary. Less informative perhaps than Cheat You Fair, but lots more interesting interviews and footage.

It's a damn shame they shut down the market. Glad it's been revived, but the new development in the University Village area could easily have accommodated some preservation of that community and cultural history.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Technology in Schools

I just watched a TED talk, shared on the 1 to1 schools blog, which was not earth-shattering news but nonetheless succinctly encapsulated my thoughts about technology in schools, which is that what's going on right now is woefully inadequate. I feel particularly passionate about underserved students using technology: I have visited schools with middle-class and wealthy students and seen the way they are able to use technology not only to gather information but also share what they know and express themselves. It doesn't seem like this savvy comes from their schools or teachers, but from outside of school. In my experience, there is a huge gap in technology use between poor and middle-class kids (the so-called digital divide). My first year of teaching (most of my students were low income, living on the west side of Chicago), I sent home a survey about how kids accessed the internet, and discovered that for most of the students who had internet access, they accessed it on a mobile phone. Most did not have a computer at home. This is an incredible gap in opportunity: being technologically illiterate is quickly becoming a very real form of illiteracy. Teachers need to stop being so afraid of technology.

The thing is, educators are generally aware that we need to incorporate technology in the classroom. The Common Core State Standards address technology (albeit in a vague and superficial way). And more and more classrooms are being equipped with interactive white boards and student computers (though usually just a few per classroom). The problem is, most educators (myself included) don't how to use the technology in a way that maximizes its benefit for students.

Technology should be a tool in students' hands. But in most cases it's simply window-dressing on old-school teaching. Interactive white boards are a great example. There are a lot of cool things you can do with them, but at the end of the day, they're not really a tool that students are using to create with. It's a specially-designed teaching tool that's essentially a really fancy white board. And most classroom computers are used for playing educational games, or accessing digital versions of textbooks. Again, this is simply a fancier version of something already happening in classrooms, and the technology is not being used by students to create something new, gather information, or express themselves.

Digital technologies are tools—tools that happen to be wildly powerful. They are rapidly reshaping our world. When we talk about using technology in schools, we shouldn't be thinking about how to make our teaching electronic. We should be thinking about enabling kids to use powerful tools to do things in ways they would not otherwise be able to.

Teachers need more training around authentic and purposeful use of technology in classrooms. People who understand philosophically how technology is changing and shaping our world need to help create vision of what technology use can look like in schools. I think this is where we have a disconnect. I am a woeful luddite (like many teachers I know). My awareness of this problem and the sense of urgency are largely shaped by the fact that I'm married to a computer scientist. Sean reflects often on the ways that technology allows him to be orders of magnitude more productive and creative; to have a voice and a larger audience than would ever be possible without it. We need to be thinking about how we can help our students do this in school and make it a part of their learning.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


sometime this past march, i was talking with sean about being stressed out at my job, and sean suggested that i focus on the future and what i wanted do after the school year was over. my reply was that i couldn't—i could only face one day at a time: thinking about anything beyond that was overwhelming. my only comfort was knowing that every day i went to work, there was one less day left.

i didn't realize it until now, but i think i was depressed. i feel so much different now. i like music again. i laugh a lot. i feel like myself.

i am getting more exercise. i'm drinking less. and i'm loving my job. i sleep soundly and i get up without snoozing my alarm (earlier than last year, no less). i feel so awake and driven and excited. and happy.