It’s Time for a National Museum of Disability

Gann students are at it again. THIS IS THE WORK.


Throughout the year, we researched and analyzed historical artifacts and subjectareas related to disability history. We learned about institutionalization and the reasons behind person-first language. We investigated the origins of polio leg braces, learned about advances in hearing aids and the invention of blind baseball. We also interviewed important figures in the disability community, like Matan Koch, a lawyer with cerebral palsy who served on President Barack Obama’s National Council on Disability, and Richard Robison, the executive director emeritus of the Federation for Children With Special Needs, who is the father of two children with Down syndrome.


We now know a few things. And we believe informing the public about the history of people with disabilities is necessary. We also believe that a major step in doing that means having a national museum dedicated to disability history.

Elianna GerutSarah LevinDaniel RabinovitzGabe Rosen and Ben Schwartz. New York Times. It’s Time for a National Museum of Disability.

Video Learning Outranks Printed Books in Survey

In a survey released last month of people ages 14 to 23—the so-called Generation Z group—YouTube ranked the highest as a preferred learning tool. Fifty-nine percent picked YouTube as a learning preference, 57 percent chose in-person group activities, 47 percent picked learning apps or games, and 47 percent chose printed books. The study—conducted by a global market research firm, The Harris Poll, on behalf of education company Pearson—examines the differences between Generation Z and Millennials—defined as ages 24-40—when it comes to their outlooks, values, and experiences in education and the use of technology. The Generation Z age group has a “specific brand relationship” with YouTube, said Peter Broad, the director of global research and insights for the education company. “When younger learners are looking for answers, they’re going to the most straightforward, familiar force, and for them that’s YouTube.”

Lauraine Genota. EdWeek. Video Learning Outranks Printed Books in Survey.


Ideology is the Original Augmented Reality

[Augmented Reality] mode is what makes Pokémon Go different from other PC games: Instead of taking us out of the real world and drawing us into the artificial virtual space, it combines the two; we look at reality and interact with it through the fantasy frame of the digital screen, and this intermediary frame supplements reality with virtual elements which sustain our desire to participate in the game, push us to look for them in a reality which, without this frame, would leave us indifferent. Sound familiar? Of course it does. What the technology of Pokémon Go externalizes is simply the basic mechanism of ideology—at its most basic, ideology is the primordial version of “augmented reality.”

Slavoj Zizek, Nautilus/MIT Press. Ideology is the Original Augmented Reality.

When Local Institutions Matter

As educators, do we demonstrate to our students that we value our local institutions?

The chain of house explosions and fires that rocked Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover in Massachusetts late Thursday afternoon were tragic and frightening in part because they were so abrupt, so unexpected, so random, and so devastating for those affected. That experience was immediately followed by a loss not just of natural gas but of electrical supply. As state police closed off highway access, as fire fighters from across Northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire tried to douse up to 80 burning houses and businesses, and as residents evacuated (some on foot), the scene was something out of a Hollywood disaster movie.

That was Thursday. Today, many residents are returning to their homes, and power is returning. Of course, some residents do not have houses to which to return; others are comforting the wounded as well as the family of the teenager who died from a house explosion (sheer luck kept the number of wounded and fatalities from being much higher).

There’s another kind of loss that happened in the Merrimack Valley as well – a loss of public trust. Columbia Gas did not activate their crisis rapid-response plan, assuming they had one to begin with. Governor Baker declared a state of emergency and transferred operational control to Eversource, saying that “on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing, and then something else happened.”

When public trust is in scarce supply, it’s important to recognize how critical local institutions are, particularly in times of crisis. In Lawrence, for example, the senior center has become a focal point for donations. The library has become a communications hub for utility-related questions. St. Patrick’s and the Cor Unum Meal Center (serving free meals in a restaurant-like setting) are helping hold the community together.

As educators, do we help our students value their local institutions? Do we model that kind of connection ourselves? Do we foster interconnection and interdependence within our communities?

A Walk in the Woods

Fernald 1

NPR Reporter: “This is like a legit museum, you guys!”

Gann Student: “I know!”

Here and Now

Two years ago, on a beautiful early August day, my husband and I took a lovely walk in the woods. We came upon a neglected cemetery, with little more than a stone wall and a wooden sign to distinguish it from a field. We stopped and looked more closely. The wooden sign indicated that the “MetFern Cemetery” was where students from the Fernald School were buried, as well as the adult patients of the Met State Hospital.

Why were children buried in a forgotten corner of the woods?

Back at our house, quick research yielded some initial info – the Fernald School was a state residential institution “for the feebleminded.” The entry exam required a young child to score relatively poorly on a brief and flawed IQ test that took no account of a child’s previous education or level of literacy. The “state boys” were therefore a mix of students who were truly developmentally disabled (by 2018 standards) and those who were committed there simply by being wards of the Commonwealth. Progressive in its early decades, the Fernald School became a troubled institution by the mid-20th century — one with many stories of neglect and exploitation, such as the mistreatment of teenagers which led to the revolt chronicled in “The State Boys’ Rebellion.”  Now closed, its 186 acres of land and buildings sit abandoned — ironically, adjacent to Gann Academy. While Fernald’s entrance is 1 mile away, the property backs up almost to Gann’s fields, with only a thin layer of trees separating one school from another.

Less than two weeks after our walk, I sat down for coffee with a local historian, Alex Green, who was researching the history of Fernald . He shared with me many well-meaning but often under-resourced efforts to make visible the lives of those whom society had forgotten (“The State Boys’ Rebellion” being the one exception). It was that conversation that convinced me that a relationship between Gann Academy and the Fernald site was going to be fruitful, perhaps transformative. It was clear how meaningful it would be for Gann adolescents to research the lives of Fernald adolescents, and how powerful it would be for Gann students to help memorialize the site and suggest appropriate ways to preserve and reuse the space. It was an obvious opportunity for project-based learning (PBL). But I also felt that we had a moral obligation to tell the stories of the Fernald School. As a Jewish school with a commitment to “build a better world where human dignity will flourish,” we would be authentic to both our mission and our core values if we told these hidden narratives of liberty neglected, of dignity deferred.

Of course, it was easy for me to have coffee with someone and envision educational, civic, and moral engagement. It was another to invite my school to pursue this resource-intensive work. I did not know how students and faculty would respond to the idea of a project such as this one.

I need not have been concerned. Gann students and faculty immediately understood both the moral urgency and the possibilities. U.S. History teachers rewrote their curricula, on the spot. We brought Alex on board, first on a volunteer basis and then as a part-time teacher and PBL resource.  Students developed a test website with a virtual map of the Fernald campus. A senior conducted research on the MetFern Cemetery, designed an online presence to tell its story, lobbied the Commonwealth to rehabilitate it, and created an online donation portal. That was year one.

This past year, two classes of history students learned and taught a history of Americans with disabilities. They analyzed historical artifacts; they researched background and context. They examined the narrative of American history through the lens of those whom mainstream society labeled “disabled” in different eras. With the support of a grant from the Ruderman Foundation, and in interdisciplinary partnership with students in a graphic design class at Gann, they mounted an exhibit to demonstrate what a national museum for the history of people with disabilities might look like.

Yes. that’s right: a national museum, the first of its kind, to be sited at Fernald, around the corner from our school. It had long been a dream of Waltham City Councilman George Darcy and many other devoted citizens and advocates, although not the vision of every politician in the city. Now, Gann students were prototyping what might be possible.

On June 7, 2018, the opening night of the exhibit, politicians, activists, and advocates mingled while students led tours and ran Q&A panels. Waltham Mayor McCarthy stepped to the podium and, in a dramatic gesture, pledged her support for the creation of a national museum at the Fernald site.

The exhibit, “A Disability History of the United States: Division, Unity, Hardship, and Progress”, has now attracted national attention:

I am so incredibly grateful to the students, faculty, and staff of Gann Academy, who infused the entire enterprise with such an outstanding ethic of excellence. My school accomplished more than I could possibly have imagined in two years’ time. There is so more to be done, but we are believers and we have the confidence to aim higher and achieve even more. More stories must be told. More advocacy must happen. The museum must be built.

For now I’ll simply end by saying: two years ago, my husband and I had a lovely walk in the woods.


Digging into Implicit Bias

Dear Colleagues,

The field of social psychology is a fascinating one. Many thoughtful psychological studies over the past few decades have demonstrated how easily our thoughts and actions can defy our own self-conception as neutral, rational, bias-free individuals. Researchers have discovered these “mind-tricks” through innovative psychological experiments in human behavior.

In my view, these studies are exciting (rather than intimidating) in part because they offer not simply challenges but solutions, both meta-cognitive and strategic, to overcome what researchers have long termed “implicit bias.” There are all sorts of benefits that accrue from exploration of this topic; as professionals, we can relate much more thoughtfully to current and prospective students, colleagues, and parents, not to mention other constituencies within our larger community. It’s no surprise to me that an increasing number of organizations, including K-12 schools and colleges, explore implicit bias as a key component of professional development.

We at Gann are in a particularly advantageous position to explore implicit bias. Not only does work on implicit bias strengthen our initiatives in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; it also comports very well with our character study groups. Soul-traits such as humility and compassion prepare us emotionally and psychologically for growth in our relationships with others. The daily practice of a soul-trait gives us a useful model for how routinely to incorporate these anti-bias tools into our professional work.

For these reasons, I invite all returning Gann professionals to read an introductory book on the topic: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. I think that everyone will find the book an enjoyable summer read. At our August in-service, we will spend some time discussing the book’s themes and arguments, and then pivot into a deeper dive during the 2018-2019 academic year.


Field Notes

Phillips and Henderson, who previously taught in high schools, have been blown away by their pupils’ rave reviews. Students, without any solicitation, have been emailing them to praise the videos for their clarity and encouragement. “In our combined 25 years of experience,” Phillips says, “we never got responses like that.”

Daisy Yuhas. WQED/Mindshift (via Hechinger Report). How Giving Students Feedback Through Video Instead of Text Can Foster Better Understanding.