Schools, Communities, and Sustainable Partnerships

I was fortunate last night to have a free evening that coincided with a meeting of the RPS school board during their final hearing on a much-contested budget. Torn between the needs of city hall and public schools, our board had considered offering the mayor a budget that was much …

The past is a foreign country, even for digital natives.

I’m in the process of (re)discovery. Belligerence led me this year to adopt a hefty reading project of SpecFic series(es?)–the canon or what constitutes the canon to me. It meant a full March of Ursula K Leguin, who I love so much more than I remember (even though I remember …

Imagining, creating, and evaluating multi-modal work: A Roundup

This list is going live before it’s completed! I’ll be adding to it for a while, especially over winter break this year. In the meantime, feel free to do your own rounding up in the comments. Creating and Evaluating multi-modal work 5 Free Tools for Creating Visual Course Content – iDesignEDU …

My Year of Multi-Modality

My students have done a lot of multi-modal work this semester. We started the semester with a small-scale data assessment of our own lives, inspired by Nicholas Feltron’s much larger annual report project. The assignment was a fun first step with some entertaining outcomes: a student who discovered that video games were …

Documenting process, when the process is your product

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about skills-based learning and what learning looks like in a classroom that is not oriented around content. The UNIV112 essay exam is an excellent example: the exam is always centered around that semester’s reading (for us, The Circle). In theory, I’m testing my students …

Reflections on gaming three years later (or: in praise of failure)

This morning I taught Jamais Cascio’s “Get Smarter” in my two freshman seminar classes. We’ve been talking about computerization for a week or so as part of our introduction of VCU’s summer reading text, Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Debating Cascio and his brand of transhumanism brought to the fore fantasy role play …

Teaching with WordPress: Week I

Because a lot of you are baby-stepping into WordPress this semester I thought a quick assessment of my first week might be helpful. I dove in head first, and while we hit a few hiccups overall it went well. My students are currently swimming in what I’ll call the Feltron Project. We’re …

Last fall I posted an assessment of VCU’s mention in recent studies charting the success of minority…

Last fall I posted an assessment of VCU’s mention in recent studies charting the success of minority students in higher education

You can read the full post here, though I’ll quote the relevant passage below. My response to that report was simply: there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is I do believe VCU is doing a tremendous amount to support minority students. The bad news is I don’t believe we’re using the right datasets to chart this. To wit:

“African-America” and “Hispanic” offer us somewhat misleading categories either of which might translate to: [racial v cultural] v [racial . cultural]*, where “cultural” might or might not include language considerations, which in the definitional constraints of our study might or might not target one or both groups. Thus a recent immigrant from Nigeria, who might share many of the same learning challenges facing Hispanic students (like language adjustment), runs the risk of being lumped with African American students out of a coincidence of race, which when we take into account racial discrimination in the American educational system might not be entirely inappropriate.


I chose Nigeria for my example because I have a large number of first and second-generation Nigerian students (followed closely in African nations by students from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan).

The national language of Nigeria, of course, is English. On their language survey, however, my Nigerian students report speaking primarily Bantu or Yoruba for most of their lives. This is true even for those students born  in the US to Nigerian parents, because most young people live most of their lives at home.

These students, I fear, get doubly overlooked in the data: either they are “African-American” and are assumed to fit the pattern of most African-American teens in Virginia (native and home English speakers) or they are seen as immigrants from a nation whose native language is English, as if Nigeria is linguistically analogous to the UK. Usually, datasets treat these students as African American. 

Here’s where things get interesting: there may be reason to believe that first and second generation Nigerian immigrants academically out-perform African-American students who are the descendants of slaves in the US. See coverage from The Houston Chroniclefrom The San Francisco Chronicle, and from The New York Times

This would mean that even in cases where Nigerian-American students face language barriers that go overlooked they are at an advantage over students whose ancestors are the survivors of slavery (and who are them selves survivors in a very real way).

Let’s jump, for a second, to a piece on the legacy of post-slavery racial segregation by Ta-Nehisi Coats in The Atlantic recently. He writes:

Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result. 
If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy. 

This is precisely the problem with university datasets. They see racism as a habit, but they fail to understand it as a creation. For a survey of what the creation of racism means in Richmond (where many of our students are born and raised) glance through the mayor’s anti-poverty report, where you will see one of the nation’s largest wealth-redistribution programs in the practice of red-lining. Red-lining took neighborhoods inhabited by the descendants of slaves and systematically striped them of wealth through discriminatory home finance practices (pgs 27-29). When we talk about “wealth redistribution” in the US, we never talk about that. 

What does this have to do with education? My Nigerian-American students and my African-American students face some of the same challenges (habitual racism) and some different challenges (generational inheritance of racism as educational, financial, zoning, correctional, and health care policy, just for a start). This is not to say Nigerian-American students won’t come to inherit those additional challenges. I fear they will. I just don’t know because I can’t find studies that assess it. Does policy catch up with new immigrants from Africa? Why or not? If so why, if not why not? 

Finally, what should a dataset look like to start to address any of this complexity? We have to decide who we are targeting with Minority Success Programs, and we have to decide how we want them to be impacted. Were I to choose I would chose both Nigerian-American and African-American students, but I would need to first study whether their educational support needs might be different. All the data I read this morning suggests that it is. If it is, I need to measure their success outcomes separately to ensure I’m actually meeting the needs of both students. Of all students, really. 

Much to the dismay of those who would decry language specificity as political correctness, I think the problem has to do with how we categorize, and I think that problem comes from habits of speech. 


Coats, Ta-Nehisi. “Good People, Racist People.” Atlantic Media. 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013. 

Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission. “Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.” Richmond City Government (, 18 Jan 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013. 

Me, here

Gaming and Learning

For the last couple of weeks, my students and I engaged in an experiment. Now I’ve started the process of revisiting what we did and thinking about what it means. Here is the learning project, as I set it up:

  • For one week, students selected cutting edge technologies and taught half a class (in groups) on the tech they selected, its long term potential, its predicted positive and negative impacts, and its relationship to those ideas that are currently subject to large cultural changes. 
  • Following their presentations, I selected three technologies (sustainable biospheres, indefinite life extension, or large scale space travel), and asked each student which they would invest in, were they billionaires. They wrote up reflections on their choices, contrasting benefits of each tech and considering their motivation (utilitarianism, moral concerns, financial gain, etc.). 
  • In our next class I divided students into nations based on their choice in technology. Their nation had widespread access to the tech they chose. To increase overall investment, I asked students to write up fictionalized histories of their nations, giving consideration to the type of culture that would invest in this manner, and the type of culture that would be created simple through access and use of this tech. Students used the internet and its limitless speculative art database to select images that represented the world they believed their culture would live in.
  • Then, for three class periods, they simply engaged in international relations. I gave them populations, food access, water, technology, and military units. I gave them national boundaries (fictional and real, inside the classroom). Finally, I gave them problems: population explosions, food shortages, climate change, etc. 

I wanted to see what would happen, and I wanted to test Jane McGonigal’s theories that learning is more effective in an environment that favored fun over structure and self-incentivized action over prescribed learning behaviors. I gave students two goals: to feed and care for their populations, and (if possible), locate a second habitable planet. 

Here’s what actually happened: 

  • Groups with low food and water supplies panicked. In most cases, instead of enacting rations or establishing reasonable trade relations (or collaborating with other nations), groups jettisoned populations as refugues, they sold slaves, two groups threatened to resort to cannibalism. 
  • One group did enact rations, but only for forcibly conscripted members of their military. Many groups divided their populations by class and sold no food to the poor. 
  • Several groups declared war, invading other nations and stealing resources or enslaving the local populations. The reasons for war varied, ranging from a need for food or land to a desire to take technological advances. 
  • Group members lost faith in elected representatives who negotiated trade. Most representatives who spent “too much” time with another nation were accused of spying. Trades were canceled. 
  • Some groups asked for permission to poison their food before they traded it. One group whose military was weak asked if they could send suicide bombers to another. 

We called the exercise early, right around the time students began developing non-traditional methods of warfare. We spent the remainder of the week reading McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and talked about our thinking, learning, and conflict resolution habits. Why did we jump to war? Why did we refuse to collaborate? What did gaming teach us, that we hadn’t yet learned in all our debates about moral foundations and human psychology? How did the game reinforce what we learned?

Now we’re rethinking games and talking about the basic lessons of New Game Theory and of McGonigal’s book: that our games don’t just reflect who we are, they teach us who to be, that we need to move away from competitive models, and finally, that we might learn differently if we redistribute our structure of incentives. 

Today we’re reading Flexner’s “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” and revising the value of education in the context of an economy of “Usefulness.” More on this soon.