One day I read about George Lucas’ Third Internet testimony before a House Subcommittee. It sounded like an exotic pipe dream whose realization was still light years away. I’d just returned from a tour of what passed for summer school where I’d seen hundreds of children crammed into classrooms, following rigidly-scripted lesson plans, with the single objective – a passing score on a NCLB or Common Core test. What joyless containment tanks, where it was absolutely verboten to fire up computers for the frivolity of PBS Kids, Starfall or FunBrain. Nose to the grindstone little darlings, definitely grin and bear it time. I was seriously down in the dumps when my phone rang with an edgy Jack on the other end. “I thought you should know we aren’t going back to school in August.”

 “Come again?” I replied. “Did you say YOU weren’t returning to school because you can’t do that, Jack. You’re our salary negotiator. You promised!”

 “Forget all the union stuff,” he hurried on. “I mean that’s definitely and forever scraped since none of us are going back, at least not until later in the fall.”

 “Have you spent the afternoon draining Margaritas with your flea market buddies? You certainly aren’t making much sense.”

 “In my capacity as lead salary negotiator, I just received a courtesy call from the Superintendent’s office. There will be a press conference at the Admin building at 4PM Friday where the announcement will be made. The teacher reps will be given the opportunity to make a supportive statement.”

 My face contorted in confusion and disbelief. “A supportive statement about what? Everyone knows how the state stiffed us to the tune of a $26 million-dollar shortfall. What’s to support?”

“That deficit, along with national fuel and food prices, climate change, catastrophic flooding, $500+ million a day on war, and major bank collapses, have brought thousands of districts to a financial closure crisis that we are being asked to help out with,” Jack replied.

 “And in my capacity as union president, I bet I get the thankless job of telling the rank and file that it is Love It or Leave It on a pro-rated contract. Suck up the pay cut and help out. How, pass the hat and run a Toys for Tots donation drive?” I was beyond disgusted.

 “We’re being asked to create an electronic, community-focused curriculum that will run in place of the first 30 days of the official school term and perhaps after that, to supplement a reduced week, now under consideration.”

 “They have got to be kidding! You’re the math teacher, Jack. So what are we talking about here? This sounds like a chapter out of FDR’s New Deal. Subtract 30 days and then slim down to perhaps three days a week…what are we left with?”

 “Affirmative on the 30 days but after that, we’d be paid for our time both onsite and virtual. A National Educational Emergency is being declared that will be governed by guidelines and funding mandates issued from Washington. We’re going to have to go along to get along. Ham has called a meeting in his office tomorrow morning at 9AM. You’re expected. All the tech support will be present, as will the curriculum heads. I’ll save you a seat so we can slide notes back and forth. Our two heads are always better together.”

 Jack clicked off and I stood there with my mouth hanging open. We weren’t hammering out a salary agreement, we were making up education out of thin air.

 Everyone in the meeting seemed up for the bump, pumped is more like it. I glanced around the room and saw talented educators who’d spent decades watching their bliss broken to bits by a procession of mindless, bureaucratic testing mandates. Now they looked alive, a little angry but animated for sure. Finally we would get to think outside of the restrictive, dumbed-down, Common Core box public education had become. We might be headed to the poor house, queued up in soup lines and driving around on fuel ration coupons but at last we were free to do what we did best.

 Horace Hamilton was a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. He had a sly as a fox twinkle in his eye as he convened the gathering, hinting that this challenge might be exactly his cup of tea. A positive tone was established and his can-do attitude untangled my brain from most of the paralyzing anxiety I’d wrestled with the evening before. “Thanks for coming everybody. We don’t have time for the usual blah-blah-blah so tech team is up first.”

 They’d been busy was my first reaction. I listened as a power point outlined first steps. The district server would be opened to all registered students using standard passwords. Software site licenses had been expanded to include as many remote hook-ups as necessary. Programs had been clustered into web pages according to grade levels but scholars were free to take on any level of complexity they could handle. Popular educational pages like BrainPop. Enchanted Learning, National Geographic, BBC Kids and many more had been added to the mix as had museums, libraries, government repositories and publicly funded literacy, history, math and science projects. Next came some wrangling about hardware. Should it be left locked up for the duration? Should it be distributed out to emergency Wi-Fi neighborhood sites like supervised homes, church halls, libraries or community centers? Was there any point in calling the guy at MIT with the $100 laptops? Could we locate a stash of used/cheap but web-ready PDA’s, cellphones, iPods, iPads or comparable tablets? No one seemed to have an easy answer because the idea was to conserve gasoline, not squander it driving all over creation on techie, troubleshooting calls. Better to wait and resolve this once we knew how long it was going to drag on.

“Precedent for any of this?” Hamilton asked. “Have we done this before, people?” Silence sat on us for a few seconds and then I heard Jack clear his throat and begin hesitantly.

“Well there was the natural gas shortage. We closed school for the entire month of January, as I recall, and the world didn’t come to an end. We nearly froze to death but we made it through, teachers got paid and seniors graduated on time. The state even issued a waiver on number of days required.”

“Exactly, so we’re in somewhat familiar territory. Treat it like that and maybe everyone will relax and think deeply.” Then I saw Horace fix me with one of his meaningful stares. “Didn’t you gather up your crew and drive them around to cultural institutions during that closure? I distinctly remember that you talked some front office idiot into approving educational road trips for those baaad kids of yours.”

Groans and grins erupted. My students always look like a casting call for Blackboard Jungle and yes I had run them all over Kingdom Come during the month off. We had fun, bonded, learned a lot, and kept everyone engaged and out of juvenile detention lockup. From then on, I knew that extreme situations could offer up golden opportunities for intelligent innovation and experimentation. Why should this be any different?  

“What’s going to happen when the thirty days are over, we’re not heroes anymore and everyone’s figured out that we’re hanging on by our fingernails?” Thus spoke Jakco the realist.

Ham nodded his head in agreement, “Peek around and you’ll see that hanging on by one’s fingernails is a fulltime occupation for much of the nation at present, but Jack’s right. We may look good in a clutch but if this moment doesn’t go away, then we’ll be held to a different standard. Our social institutions are facing major chiropractic adjustments and while changing horses in midstream may not be the safest, it is now officially the order of the day. How do we do a good job,remain accountable and keep our folks feeling comfortable and confident? Jack, what’re your major concerns?”

I’d watched him doodling on a legal pad and knew he had a punch list of problems at the ready. “ How about Kids of all ages out of school, unsupervised or inadequately supervised. Kids spending more time in already dysfunctional families where they don’t get enough to eat, physically and intellectually. Insufficient concentration of neighborhood programs to take up the slack. Complying with state-mandated curricula, advanced placement courses, graduation requirements and college matriculation. I can’t begin to imagine….” and his voice trailed off.

Others jumped in citing concerns about the retooling of teachers for a job description that was yet to be created, what to do with the textbooks, narrow test-derived lesson plans inappropriate for home schooling, special needs students, progress reports and report cards. Everywhere Smart Boards must be blooming with the roots and branches of mind maps and brainstorming sessions like ours. The swap meet was about to begin and what a trader’s village it would be. Emphasis on local solution-seeking was too good to be true but I was prepared to ride the wave for as long as it lasted. The best ideas usually came from those closest to the kids but most often these ended up suppressed or ignored. Desperate days had turned everything topsy-turvy, which suited me just fine.

I plugged a vintage, Targus keyboard into my beat-up Handspring and began ticking out a different kind of tune – past efforts that harmonized with our present plight. Jane Addams and the Hull House posse wedged themselves onto Halsted Street, folding in and out of the crowded tenements like an immigrant accordion – a call, a response, a need, an invention. 1889 or 2009, either way riding with predators, gougers, high-rollers, warlords, scaplers and fat cats always lands us in the same place – hunkered down together trying to triage the mess and jumpstart a recovery. Might the karmic reincarnation of the settlement movement return in the form of emptied out, sub-primed, tricked-out, traumatized condos, cottages, subdivisions and cul-de-sacs, offering up incommon thinking spaces for compassion, cultivation and civic transformation?

“School Is Not A Place But An Activity,” – a catchy but necessary rationalization for Philly’s 1968-1971 Parkway Program where high schoolers actually woke up one day and discovered that their district, burdened with debt and broken-down buildings, was sending them on a school without walls walkabout. In church nurseries, police stations, City Hall, and county court buildings, tutorials cranked out the 3 R’s as well as an ambitious assortment of student-supplied electives like Urban Economics, Multimedia Journalism, Market Research, Intro to Physical Chemistry and Business Skills for Beginning Jobs! They hooked up with the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, the Academy of Natural Science, the Philly Zoo, Smith Kline and the Philadelphia Inquirer and all of this BEFORE the arrival of search engines, email, texting, podcasts, community video,YouTube, blogging,, My Space, or Facebook!

Edgar Dale used to toss around copies of the New Yorker magazine and playfully order an underlining of all ‘telling phrase’. Grad students sat and read an entry out of the World Book encyclopedia every time they visited his university office or routinely researched the etymology of several weird words of which he seemed to have an endless supply. He was the guru of planned but flexible, non-traditional, self-pacing, correspondence course, personalized, programmed, intensive, self-study and he meant it when he said it was the educator’s central mission to show people how to learn and think on their own and for themselves. Vocabulary development, readability and all manner of audio-visuals were his passion – instructional technique and technology a life fascination. His Cone of Experience paradigm was my Steady Eddie for figuring out how in balance or out of whack things were. Imagine an upside down ice cream cone with a base wide enough to support plenty of old fashioned, first hand, full-bodied, get your hands on it, sink your teeth into it experience. The re-experiencing continued up a spiral in the form of working models and mock-ups, dramatizations, demo’s, homemade or ready-made exhibits, dioramas, television/film, photographs/slideshow, filmstrips, radio and recordings, whiteboards, charts, diagrams, graphs or maps. And at the narrowest, most abstracted pinnacle of the cone was the place where teachers now seemed to hangout the most …letters, sounds, words, flashcards, paragraphs, concepts, definitions, formulae and aphorisms. We’d gotten it all wrong but maybe our upending would ultimately set us straight and launch us in the original direction we were headed forty years ago.

We could always pull a Civil Rights Era Esau Jenkins and fire up a fleet of alternately fueled school buses. If he could drive all over 1950’s Johns Island on dino-petro, teaching disenfranchised citizens how to read and answer questions on the unconstitutional, South Carolina Constitution Test for Black voters, I suspected we could manage to outfit a few mobile classrooms. A foundation in Fullerton, CA dreamed up a series of Arts Learning Activities Buses/Arts LABs ,featuring digital filmmaking, theatre production, music-making and dance, art studio & gallery and even an architecture office equipped with giant tinker toys, large Legos, Velcro building blocks and CAD software for kids. Or maybe we should ring up our British Landlords, the Pearson Digital Learning headquarters, and ask for the specs on their broadband, satellite-powered, internet accessed eBus4’s that roared into Bay St. Louis, Mississippi right after Hurricane Katrina, transforming the destroyed Second Street Elementary into a ‘TENT’ school worth crowing about. I was sure someone at our district’s transportation barn knew how to calculate how much fragrant french fry oil it would take to fill up a modified diesel tank on a 60-seater Blue Bird. They’d done it in NOLA and so could we!

I knew some 4th graders who loved to chant ‘How Low Can You Go?’ whenever the Chubby Checker Limbo Dance CD was played in gym class. Instant stardom was guaranteed to anyone who could lean back and take the crown of the head all the way to the floor. Did we grownups embody the same flexibility? Could we bend over and envision at our feet, a program of study in a muddle of clay, water, millet, sawdust and sisal?

The African Primary Science Series sure did. One 1966 creepy-crawly, unit entitled, Ask The Ant Lion, zeroed in on Myrmeleontidae – a hardy creature available throughout most of tropical Africa, non-biting/non-stinging, easy to observe, maintain, feed and replace. Everyone was plenty familiar with its existence but hadn’t a clue how to organize a scientific investigation into the everyday behavior of this crater building Insecta Anthropoda Animalia. Simple experiments flowed from children’s questions. How does it move? How does it catch its food? How does it make these little pits and can it do it in gravel, flour, bran, rice, cassava meal, sugar or ashes? How does it throw things out of the pit it digs and how big a thing can it throw? In one study an eyedropper was used to trail water along a crossroads drawn in tabletop sand to see if an ant lion would cross a simulated river.

Science of Sound contains beautiful photos of pupil-made East African instruments like the balophone, the kihembe ngoma drums, slit gongs, makaji and malume xylophones, thumb pianos, horns and flutes made from gourds or bamboo and mouth bows, zithers and tube fiddlers.

Common Substances Around The Home (Mixing Powders and Liquids) begins by amassing a huge supply of clear containers, bottle tops, hollow reeds, flat sticks, water, chalk dust, cassava starch, Andrew’s Liver Salts,vinegar, baking soda, white wood ash and limes or lemons. Rudimentary labs were assembled where powders got stirred, mixed, dissolved, diluted and bubbled. Very cool!

Now if you’ve ever had to count the number of hairs on your head, the number of eggs produced by a chicken flock in one month, or the number of fish that fit into a lorry, then Estimating Numbers is chock full of the practice that makes perfect. Good guessing about big quantities was done with items easily found in the immediate environment. Field studies included strategies for reckoning the number of leaves on a tree and the number of ridges in the corrugated iron roof of a school.

 Arts and Crafts, Cooking, Dry Sand, The Moon Watchers and Making Paints are equally brilliant adventures including one of my all time favorites, common sticks changed into paint brushes by chewing down the fibers while walking to school.

Suddenly it struck me that it had only been five days ago when I’d spent a Saturday morning with high school teachers, previewing their labors of love, online Algebra II and Biology II courses. It surely was an African Primary Science moment when one of them handed me a big, fat, familiar red onion as the actual/non-virtual artifact used for studying mitosis in this newly minted e-Academy. What these young faculty-facilitators had taken three months to create, we might have to crank out,across the USA,  in three weeks.

I shrugged my shoulders at the absurdity of it all. If only we had started earlier – like three decades ago.