A wild goose chase: Seeking Little Black Sambo

Two weeks ago I ran across a news story about a Black History Month exhibit that included a copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1899.

To refresh my memory of the story, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I found a copy of Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman and illustrated by Florence White Williams.

I remember as a child hearing the expression “the grandest tiger in the jungle,” but nothing else in the story seemed familiar.

It’s clear from the text that the story is set in India, so how did the Southern Black stereotyped figures get into the book?

I found out that the author of the story, Helen Bannerman, was from Edinburgh, Scotland. She married a man who was a physician and officer in the Indian Medical Service. They moved to India, where they lived for 30 years. They raised four children in what is now known as Channai.

Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards in 1899 in London. Bannerman is listed as both author and illustrator of that edition. I can’t think of any reason for Bannerman to use American racial stereotypes in the British empire, but I cannot find any images from that edition to show that she didn’t. There are references to Bannerman’s “cartoonish” style being the reason for publishers not using her art in later editions. 

In 1900, an edition of Little Black Sambo was printed in the US by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It may have looked like this. White Williams was too young to have done the illustrations for that.

(White Williams’ birth year is variously listed as 1888, 1895, 1900 and both 1888 and 1900.  She would have been roughly the same age as the Bannerman children.)

I’ve found references to White Williams doing Sambo art for 1918 and 1919 editions of the book, but no images.

There were many knock-off copies of Sambo published up through 1923 when Stokes labeled that year’s product “The Only Authorized American Edition.” That was just about the time Florence White Williams was making a name for herself as an illustrator and artist, but I can’t find any source that says who did the illustrations for the “authorized edition.”

I’ve spent a whole day trying to figure out how Little Black Sambo was transformed from the story of a clever Indian boy to a story about race in the American south, and I’m no closer to knowing than when I began.

I guess this is what’s called lifelong learning.

Quotes from fiction to provoke discussion of current events

In doing reading for my blog of reviews of twentieth century bestselling novels, GreatPenformances, I often come across something relevant to some of my other interests.

Since we celebrated Independence Day in the US this week, I thought I’d share three quotes I copied down as I was reading 1970s novels. I pasted each quote against an American flag backdrop because each seems to me to raise some questions about the condition of America today.

The first quote is from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 bestselling novel Slapstick. The novel’s main character is a former US President, who makes this observation about history:

Surprises of history should prepare us to be surprised again.

Is this all history can do for future generations?

I’m saving the Vonnegut quote and a couple others I found in novels as openers for writing prompts about why people ought to care about history.

The next quote is from Gore Vidal’s historical novel 1876, which is an examination of America drawn largely from contemporary documents threaded together into a narrative by the addition of two fictional characters, Charlie Schuyler and his daughter.

The federal government was wracked by scandals, and corruption was rife. Charlie Schuyler sums up the situation this way; President Ulysses S. Grant could "sell the White House to a speculator, pocket the cash, and the people would still love him."

Quote from Gore Vidal's novel 1876.

Gore Vidal’s description of America on its first centennial.

I’ll take Vidal’s word for it that America in 1876 was a "vigorous, ugly, turbulent realm devoted to moneymaking by any means." But if I do that, I have to ask the question, "Has anything changed?"

What do you think? Has anything changed?

The third quote is from Saul Bellow’s bestselling novel Humboldt’s Gift.

A Saul Bellow character says education is American recompense.

Is education how we make amends in America today?

I’m not sure whether it’s true that "Education has become the great and universal American recompense," but I can see why people might think so.

When jobs disappear, the government sends people back to school.

When families can’t afford to have one parent home with young kids, the government provides preschool programs.

When college gets too expensive, public highs schools subsidize their best students through dual enrollment programs.

I hope one of those quotes is enough to make you do some critical thinking. We can’t let our brains get flabby over the summer.

Required knowledge for 2037

What can we be sure students will need to know 20 years from now?

I’ve been working at revamping content from my “you can teach writing” website begun in 2008 — a date that seems like an eternity ago — I’ve been taking a hard look at what from that bygone time is still valid.

Obviously anything that has passed its sell-buy date in 2017 has to be scrapped.

I’ve deleted the “current events” references and the rotted links: Information expires.

Now what?

How do I decide what to keep?

Skills are more durable than information, so I’m starting by looking at them.
What skills will students need 20 years from now?

I’ve started making a list of what I’m pretty sure students will need to be able to do on their own without the benefit of a teacher/supervisor 20 years from now:

That seems to me to be a reasonable method of determining what of my 2008 website content (which, truth to tell, was the accumulation of 40 years of experience as a writer, editor, and writing teacher) is durable.

In 2037 students will need to be able to:

Here’s in the order in which I thought of them are my ideas of what students will certainly be required to do in 2037.

I invite you to share your reactions in the comments section.

  • learn by reading
  • write to communicate
  • communicate by speaking
  • learn from listening
  • learn by observing
  • formulate useful questions
  • translate information from one communication medium into another
  • read and write a language other than their native tongue (language here can include computer code)
  • communicate via images
  • curate content
  • control machines
  • collaborate to achieve goals
  • get along with people unlike themselves
  • learn without a live teacher present
  • adjust their behavior in response to their learning
  • identify problems
  • formulate solutions to problems in ways that are testable
  • distinguish between causation and correlation
  • find people able and willing to share their expertise
  • distinguish between essential and non-essential activities
  • distinguish between what people need and what they want
  • manage their time well

Help me out.

What have I missed that everyone will need to do? Math skills for sure, but which?
What are essential skills in the social sciences? in the fine arts?
What’s on the list that is dubious?

Social media as a research tool

When I teach writing, one of the strategies I teach students is a procedure for identifying experts on a topic.

I call it ripple strategy. It is basically the process journalists use when they start to investigate a topic about which they have no real starting information.

Ripples spread out from a drop of water falling into a puddle.
Ripples on water help students visualize the process of finding experts.

I tell students to begin by seeing if they have personal expertise on the topic. They may not be an expert, but specifying what they know can help them in the search for expertise.

If they can’t think of anything they know from personal experience, they move a bit beyond themselves to people they know personally: family, friends, teachers, co-workers, the owner of the pizza place they patronize. Do any of those folks have expertise on the writing topic?

If no one comes to mind, they move to the next farthest ripple: People they don’t know personally but who are known by people they know personally. These are folks like Mom’s boss’s son or the mail carrier’s brother.

Finally, they come to the people they know about but to whom they don’t have any third party link.

Let’s say a student’s rippling has led him to think a good source on his topic would be someone who  manages a nursing home.

The student can ask people in his closest “ripples” if they know someone who manages a nursing home.

If they don’t have any luck, they can use social media as a research tool.

Each of the major social media networks has its own search functionality.

Written for business people seeking customers, this article from the Business 2 Community website, gives a pretty good introduction to using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+ to find people with interest or expertise in a given topic. Although the list doesn’t include LinkedIn, the six options it does discuss are probably more familiar to students grades 7 to 14.

The article isn’t a perfect answer to students’ find-an-expert questions, but it’s a good start.

Relationships and learning

Since I came across this image in a tweet, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I agree with the quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

I agree with the @teachergoals that relationships must be encouraged and maintained. I suspect the intent of the quote is to encourage teachers to interact with their students as people instead of as rectangles on a seating chart, which is a worthwhile aim.

What I’m not so sure about is the meaning of a “significant relationship” in the educational context.  (I’m sure, however, it’s not the meaning we occasionally hear about on TV newscasts, in which one of the parties wears a bright orange jumpsuit.)

Who are the parties to a significant relationship in which learning occurs?

In what way(s) must the relationship be significant to impact learning?

Do the learning and the relationship have to occur contemporaneously?

If all significant learning requires “a significant relationship,” is turning students into lifelong learners a pipe dream?

And, last but not least, I wonder if I the only person in the world whose most significant learning came from books?

Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

Informal education can transform lives

quote from Seth Godin set against cement block foundation: "Formal education is a foundation but lifelong, informal education can transform our lives."

Education is the answer

It almost doesn’t matter what the question is, really.

Everyone is an independent actor, now more than ever, with access to information, to tools, to the leverage to make a difference.

Instead of being a cog merely waiting for instructions, we get to make decisions and take action based on what we know and what we believe.

Read the rest of this Seth Godin post.

Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel
Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.


If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills

 

Define ‘good paying jobs’

If Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 election, it could well be because she defines “good paying jobs” differently than a significant chunk of the electorate.

Last night as I watched as Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, I was struck by her implied definition of the term “good paying jobs.”

She never defined the term, but it was clear from the context in which she used it—”clean energy jobs” and “advanced manufacturing” for example—that she was talking about jobs that didn’t exist last century, jobs that were just getting a good foothold when the economy plunged into recession in 2008.

I don’t believe the angry, white American males who support Donald Trump  (or their female counterparts) would consider those “good paying jobs.”

Clinton’s “good paying jobs” require people to acquire new skills and to keep updating their skills routinely.

I suspect the angry, white males think of “good paying jobs” as those a high school graduate can walk in off the street and learn to do in a couple of weeks—and keep doing for the next half century with regular, substantial pay raises.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, you ought to think what “good paying jobs” means in your students’ communities.

If the definition favors those who stop learning at the end of formal schooling, you have some educating to do.