Project Rebirth: 10 Years, 5 Lives

A 9/11 film’s elegiac tone resonates with those still coping with the emotional remnants of a historic tragedy

by Dino Sossi, MST TimesApril 16, 2012

The arc of news-driven, mass media narratives regretfully tends to mimic the form of the tragedies they cover. Intense in coverage. Short in duration. And unfortunately, after the incident mercifully settles down, sometimes are never heard about again. The vibrant red of the lead quickly bleeds dry, the process of recovery is more grey, wan by comparison. And as our interests shift and collective gaze refocuses on the next breaking story, the victims are deserted. Left to their own devices as they fitfully grasp at the remaining fragments of their lives, absorbing the outer chaos, desperately trying to reorder it into some form of lasting inner peace.

Project Rebirth is a documentary that challenges the ephemeral nature of most broadcast news stories, with salutary effects for both viewer and subject. Rebirth chronicles the aftermath of the most wide-reaching tragedy of our recent past, the cataclysmic destruction of the Twin Towers, and brings it to a more human scale. The film examines this atrocity through the prism of five sympathetic survivors as they have been forced to cope with 9/11’s fallout, whether it be physical, spiritual or emotional, sometimes all three in concert.

Rebirth follows the emotional journey of a firefighter dealing with guilt when his best friend does not survive. A female victim’s son who struggles with the practicalities of working in finance like his departed mother did at the time of her passing. It lingers on the story of young woman who lost both her beloved fiancé, and her idyllic dreams of a future together, in one horrific instant. It shows a woman dealing with the physical trauma of surviving a plane’s impact while working in the South Tower. And it conveys a construction worker’s pain after losing a brother and being left to build the Freedom Tower, and rebuild his life, alone. Their individual narratives intertwined through the inescapable bind of a sudden, inconceivable and absolute loss.

Democratic pluralistic societies necessitate a level of deliberation in their governance that can surpass the excessive, bridge into the seemingly incomprehensible and sometimes even verge on the ludicrous. Practical outcomes of the political process are utterly slow in their embodiment. The cogs of change do turn, but they move deliberately, over a prolonged gestation period. And the politically- and emotionally-charged grounds of Ground Zero have certainly not been immune. Far from it.

The most breathtaking aesthetic choice of Rebirth is the time-lapse photography that documents this glacially slow rebuilding of the 9/11 site. The subtle growth at Ground Zero, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, acts as a metaphor for the equally gradual reshaping of lives consumed by the aftermath of 9/11. Life simply cannot remain the same in the dark, omnipresent shadow of this soul-wearying conflagration. The only questions are the degree of change, the painful existential cost it must exact and the time it takes. Is following a mother’s career in finance the most appropriate homage to make up for a son’s sense of loss? When is it right to move on after the unexpected death of a beloved fiancé, the moment when it is appropriate to finally let go of your shared dreams together? Are endless surgeries the most suitable way to deal with disabling disfigurement? Or should we just surrender, the price we all must eventually pay as human beings fashioned in a fragile, tender and ultimately mortal form?

In a society obsessed with novelty and plagued by an ever-maddening quickness of pace, a slow building symphony of steady construction provides an appropriate framework to allow us to bear silent witness to these lives indelibly shaped by the defining tragedy of the new millenium.

To these victims, 9/11 is not just a terrorist act with shock waves that can still be felt in the geopolitical realities of the present as well as, most likely, distant future.

No. It is far more piercing.

For them, a paradigm has become inverted. The political has become the intensely personal. Infused with the most intimate and deeply profound emotions possible. And the existential detritus caused by the deaths of thousands of innocents caused by the collapse of two gleaming towers, erected as a testament to the hypercapitalism of our times, is something that can only be swept away slowly. Carefully. Painfully. Year-by-endless-year. Moment-by-searing-moment. Never truly exorcised from a psyche scarred deeply, irrevocably.

Similar to the luminous glow of the newest buildings on this hallowed site, as they stretch out to the boundless heavens above, reaching for a peace that these earth-bound victims can never have, the quiet dignity with which these five solemn people struggle to resuscitate their shattered souls is something equally dazzling to behold.

MST Professor Frank Moretti screened Project Rebirth in the Cowin Center last semester. His Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) offers educational initiatives using Project Rebirth as a resource.

Dino Sossi studies Instructional Technology and Media. He has worked for the CBS television newsmagazine “60 Minutes” as well as CNN. He has also worked for The New York Times, The Toronto Star and been published in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail.

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A Final Word

I presented a draft of my dissertation in Toronto last summer. The city was pregnant with meaning. It was the last place I lived before becoming a student at Teachers College.

I was in Canada for a course. I was attending a summer program offered by the Oxford Internet Institute. Participants shared an intense interest in the Internet.

One afternoon, I stood in front of a cohort of other late-stage graduate students. I began to discuss my work.

For the previous few years, I had the unbelievable privilege of working with Ms. Jean Neal. She was a New York City public school teacher. I helped her students explore immigration with visual media. This included screening my documentary film Home as part of the curriculum. The film chronicled my family’s immigration experience.

I worked in professional development with Ms. Neal. We met through TC’s Office of Schools and Community Partnerships. The OSCP does incredibly important work connecting TC to the surrounding community.

Towards the end of my presentation, I spoke about Ms. Neal. Although I supported her professionally, in many ways I was the one who learned from a masterful educator and better person.

As my presentation came to a close, I shared my heartfelt thanks for Ms. Neal.

I talked about her kindness.

How she watched over me when I entered her nurturing public school classroom for the first time.

I expressed my gratitude at what a great friendship we had developed.

Then I paused.

I was about to cry.

In that instant, a number of feelings coalesced.

It had been a sincere privilege conducting my doctoral research at TC. It was a pleasure screening a rough cut of my documentary film Home for her class. It was an honor spending time with so many incredible New York City teachers, including Ms. Neal.

But my path to this overwhelming sense of satisfaction wasn’t preordained.

It didn’t have to turn out this way.

A couple of years ago, I fell into a crisis. I wasn’t sure if I should focus my dissertation on visual media. Immigration seemed too difficult a topic to research. My study felt like it was falling apart.

I don’t think my crisis was atypical. Graduate student life challenges you in ways that you could never have imagined.

But I believe there is a secret to making it through.

Find something that you love so much that you will do anything to achieve it.

It is this kind of deeply personal commitment that will deliver you through those impossible challenges where you don’t think you will pull through.

If I had one piece of advice before coming to Teachers College, I would tell you to find something you want to do.


Something you need to do.

And follow it with your fullest heart.

Just have faith.

Sossi, D. (2014, May 7). A final word. Columbia University, Teachers College Office of Admissions Student Blog.

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I still love buying school supplies

By Dino Sossi, From Monday’s Globe and Mail

I still feel a swell of excitement when I reminisce about Mom ushering me onto the bus each August when I was a little boy. This wasn’t a typical shopping trip downtown. This was something special.

I wasn’t in a state of euphoria because of the promise of a new velour shirt or corduroy pants – both brown, of course. It wasn’t about buying a baseball glove. Or new music. No, it was all about our final destination.

The school supplies store. Pardon?

To be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot to do growing up in a small town like Sarnia, Ont. To a provincial boy of limited means but seemingly unlimited imagination, the school supplies store was the place. An amusement park popping with paper. A magical midway of multicoloured markers. A freaky funhouse of full-size folders.

Mom instilled a sense of independence in her young brood. She would let me, my older brother Carlo and little sister Paula wander through what felt like an endless bazaar of academic tchotchkes.

But aimless I was not. Even at the ripe old age of 9, I had all the telltale signs of a Type A personality. I didn’t carry around an Alex P. Keaton briefcase. I didn’t have a written to-do list. But I did have a mental one.

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Stop Waiting for Superman – A Prescription to Fix Our Ailing Schools? A Review of the Film “Waiting for ‘Superman’”

By Dino Sossi, MST Times, Nov 24th, 2010

“Look, I’m just a storyteller. When I make a film, I never want the film to become a vehicle of social propaganda.” – Norman Jewison

Educating children is emotionally taxing. Their natural curiosity, inherent playfulness and seemingly boundless joie de vivre create an insatiable demand for constant attention in its fullest and most detailed form. Keeping a single child happy and productive necessitates a complex, improvisational pas de deux. Teachers normally lead these interactions, making a series of adjustments subtly synchronized to the variations in attitude and demeanor of children often capricious in attention and temperamental in mood. Even the most masterful educators can quickly reach their limit in patience trying to tame a reluctant solitary learner. Multiply this number several fold to mimic the practicalities of the typical classroom environment makes the task incredibly difficult. Adding burdensome social, political and institutional impediments challenges teacher and student still further, making the ideal of a nurturing educational environment for all nearly impossible.

Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a new film by Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award-winning director of the environmental tour de force “An Inconvenient Truth,” acts as a welcoming guide to what has devolved into a bewildering educational labyrinth. It is clear from his career that Guggenheim is unafraid of tackling challenging fare within the documentary form. As hard as it may be to believe, by producing “‘Superman,’” Guggenheim has chosen subject matter that is potentially more difficult to chronicle and even more polarizing than climate change. He has taken another controversial, complicated system that is deeply influenced by stubborn stakeholders with conflicting agendas as it teeters at the edge of disaster. But instead of building a moral argument for fighting global climate change, Guggenheim focuses on something equally important – chronicling the dire state of the American public education system.

Similar to the battle over climate change, education is an interdependent ecosystem with multiple players and territorial policy makers. The most damaging effects occur in closed-door meetings and the pen still remains mighty. As a result, its subject matter does not naturally lend itself to documentary filmmaking. Given the complexity of public education, with its byzantine layers of bureaucracy, Guggenheim wisely grounds his narrative by focusing on the personal toll it inflicts on five students – Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco. Each is a highly sympathetic child who does not deserve to suffer at the hands of an uncaring, monolithic, Leviathan-like system, their lives slowly crushed by its fumbling, ham-fisted grip.

Guggenheim is a master documentarian who incorporates a vast array of statistics, personalities and storylines with minimal costs to pace, intelligibility or emotional resonance. He cooks up a thick gumbo of hard facts and soft tugs at the heartstrings –the simple aspirations of these children are heart wrenching when juxtaposed against the seemingly unavoidable obstacles they face in a system that should facilitate but instead tragically impedes. If you are banished to a failing school, alternatively called “academic sinkholes” or “drop-out factories,” your chances of graduating are incredibly small and future prospects correspondingly dwindle still further. The system is terribly convoluted. There are multiple levels of government, conflicting funding agendas, and inconsistent curricular standards. The challenges are seemingly endless, the bureaucracy stifling to creativity, initiative and efficacy, costs inevitably borne by young innocents who are ill-equipped to pay. Although he is not uniformly effective in communicating the problems plaguing the system, Guggenheim gives sufficient detail to convey its complexities but not too much to overwhelm. Many people have experienced these problems personally while in school, or heard them from others still buckling under the weight of the system, but are unsure of neither their provenance nor gravity.

You can argue with some of Guggenheim’s aesthetic choices like the veritable veneration of the Harlem Children’s Zone(HCZ) and Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools respectively. This treatment presents several problems – their clear success does not represent the uneven performance of charters as a whole, their expensiveness may prohibit them from becoming replicable en masse, and children rejected by these schools are left to wither away in places they clearly wanted to flee. The quality education their guardians desperately crave puts the children’s uncertain futures in sharp relief, exacting psychic costs that are undoubtedly real but difficult to measure.

Also, there is at least a touch of irony when a film titled “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which decries the impact of a solo hero who may never come, focuses on a couple of iconoclastic educational innovators – the irrepressible Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the HCZ as well as the steely-willed former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, Michelle Rhee. Their heroic work caused tectonic shifts in their respective educational communities but may not represent the painful reality of most jurisdictions where massive reform is necessary. You can also question the value of what feels like an easy vilification of teachers unions, and more specifically, the American Federation of Teachers and its president Randi Weingarten. Her already difficult job, protecting the livelihood of teachers who have been historically underpaid and gratuitously exploited, probably became tougher because of this documentary.

But perhaps Guggenheim is selecting a few narrative pressure points to advocate on behalf of a larger, more profound theme. Public education can always use greater funding aimed at improving crucial student outcomes such as increased literacy and numeracy scores. It is somewhat disingenuous to disagree with this as a starting point. And perhaps crafting a story that champions some themes at the expense of arguably equally valid others is a compromise he felt necessary to make.

As a rhetorical device, Guggenheim appeals to the American ethos that helped fashion, for better and worse, the country we find ourselves in today. Perhaps advocating on behalf of the innovation promised by charters and against the inflexibility of unions is the shrewdest opening gambit. To create a narrative counterpoint against these young student protagonists, it appears that something needed to be demonized. And it is relatively easy to do this at the expense of the straw men of teachers unions and bloated faceless bureaucracies, though arguably unfair.

We speak about public policy within an increasingly polarized discursive space where areas of commonality are increasingly rare. An anemic economic recovery in the aftermath of a global recession has added heat to already incendiary and vitriolic public debate – more nuanced recommendations for the future be damned. Perhaps Guggenheim appeals for the innovation which has fueled the US economy and rails against union-mandated collectivism that is antithetical to the rugged spirit of American individualism in the hopes of creating a point of convergence in an increasingly stratified political spectrum. For the sake of the prospective dropouts who will inevitably be left to recover from the social, psychological and financial scars inflicted by a broken education system, let’s hope that Guggenheim’s prescription is correct.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” screened as part of the Constitution Day Celebrations and was hosted by the Teachers College Office for Diversity and Community Affairs. The faculty panel included remarks by Jeffrey Henig, Aaron Pallas, Michael Rebel, Erica Walker, Barbara Wallace and was moderated by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz.

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The Magical Journey of Dr. Yoo Kyung Chang

By Dino SossiMST Times, Nov 7th, 2011

CCTE’s newest faculty member recounts her circuitous path from Korea all the way to Teachers College.

Professor Yoo Kyung Chang has led a life on the move.

Communication, Computing and Technology in Education’s (CCTE) newest full-time lecturer is originally from Seoul, South Korea. She earned her BA in English Literature and Language from Korea’s prestigious Yonsei University.

After college, she eventually settled in New York. Professor Chang has been living in the area for 13 lucky years starting back in 1998. Pre-9/11 New York is difficult to remember, clouded by some world-shifting memories. What is equally puzzling, from the vantage point of our increasingly tech-centric world, is remembering a time when the Internet wasn’t a central part of it. When she arrived at the famous Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University (NYU), Clay Shirky was a lighting designer in experimental theater and the legendary Red Burns ruled the roost.

“ITP was a big eye-opener,” Professor Change recalls fondly. “I remember the first time sitting in front of a Mac computer in the school lab spending about 10 minutes to identify the power button on the keyboard.”

From these humble beginnings, Professor Chang’s migration into technology and education was gradual. “I started off with hardly any technology literacy. Then I was exposed to different types of media.”

Full immersion happened later.

Professor Chang worked in public relations for a few years, when the Internet had just started to take hold.  This was when she was first exposed to new media.

“I was only used to traditional media,” she said, most likely a common experience at the time. “Then I found how media can connect people. I was fascinated by the workings of it.”

As she sagely identified, technical literacy was in its infancy. “The Internet was a dominant topic back then,” she recalled. “But there were other tenets of new media, such as physical computing that were being explored.”

Her professional career has been a site of progressive advancement. With increasing experience with technology and media, her interest grew deeper in understanding the human factor beyond technology. Professor Chang worked four years as a programmer with, a web-consulting firm. She then turned to the NYU School of Medicine where she worked in its educational technology laboratory – the Division of Educational Informatics.

She loved it.

“It was the first time I was exposed to educational technology. It was the intersection of my two strands of interest, technology and human development” she exclaimed. “For the last 7 years I have been using technology and media together to promote educational interests.”

It was through the medical school consortium that she learned about the esteemed Educational Communication and Technology program at NYU, headed by Professors Jan Plass and Ricki Goldman. Dr. Plass, her eventual doctoral research advisor, was working on a research project with the School of Medicine. It was during her doctoral studies that she narrowed her research focus.

“My research interest was focused on technology’s role in understanding the development of our internal processes,” Dr. Chang explained. “I wanted to see educational technology as a means to provide learning opportunities but also as the method to assess and understand how learning emerges, namely the cognitive, metacognitive, and affective processes.”

During her studies she worked as a research assistant for a program called “Molecules and Minds” that involved chemistry learning. The goal of this project is developing chemistry simulations that are effective for a wide range of learners, especially those who have been identified as having underachieved academically. Dr. Chang studied how students’ patterns of interaction with the learning environment reveal different information about the students learning processes, using the methods of data mining and data visualization.

After completing her doctoral studies, she worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the New York Hall of Science, the hands-on science and technology center located in Queens. Professor Chang worked on a play-based science learning project where technological enhancements were implemented to help students develop abstract concepts through concrete, physical play with science phenomena. She conducted observations and qualitative analysis of how student demonstrate learning, or lack of, through their play behavior.

Some of the major research questions that fueled the research were: identifying the design principles that promote play-based learning of complex scientific concepts, and finding appropriate methods of assessing play-based science learning.

“It was an interesting but challenging project,” said Dr. Chang. “The most difficult part was trying to marry student-driven exploration, namely play, and the goal of implementing New York State science standards.”

When Professor Chang saw an opening at Teachers College, she was excited about pursuing it.

“I am still a very early career researcher,” stated Professor Chang. “I am happy to be exposed to such a great faculty of researchers” she enthused.

She is very enthusiastic about her new position.

“There is great diversity and expertise within CCTE, MST, and the entire TC community” she exclaimed. “As a masters student adviser, I will be exposed to many different people with different interests. They will bring expertise and interests that will further extend my interest and understanding.”

But working in this role is not the end of the line. Ideally not for her. Nor for her students.

“My goal is to grow not only for myself but also with my students,” Professor Chang stated. “I look forward to a solid learning opportunity as my advisees grow as well.”

The idea of being a mentor to students pleases her.

“The best learning experience is learning from your own experience,” shared Professor Chang. “The best mentors are those you could relate to. I hope that is something I can provide to my students. It reflects my life as a student.”

And she has an invitation to new students starting off at Teachers College, just like herself when she began her very own New York story over a decade ago.

“Open your eyes,” invited Professor Chang. “We all come with different interests and goals. For new students, be open to new ideas and the tenets and facets of educational technology.”

She readily draws links between academics at Teachers College and the deeper exploration of life itself.

“It’s similar to living in NYC,” she confided. “It may be nerve racking, but it’s good to get lost sometimes. How else will you come across the pleasure of unknown surprises unless you go beyond your familiar path?”

By Dino Sossi, Communication, Computing and Technology in Education Student

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A Fond Farewell to a Legendary Figure in Education

By Dino Sossi, MST Times, Aug 8th, 2011

The Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) held a warm send-off for one of its most respected intellectual leaders Professor Robert “Robbie” McClintock. Celebrating more than 43 years of service and commitment to both Teachers College and the wider Columbia University community, Robbie’s life and work was honored with a lecture, reception and dinner on May 12th. Professor McClintock is a historian of educational and political thought. His intellectual work has examined the effects of changes in communication on education and culture, among others. He has held the distinguished position of John L. and Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education at Teachers College since 2001.

Dr. Arcilla

The event was a fitting tribute to someone who has given selflessly to many members of the College. MST formally celebrated Robbie McClintock’s legacy with Professor René V. Arcilla’s lecture “An Existential Basis for Study” at the Cowin Center Auditorium in front of a highly supportive crowd of approximately 100 attendees. The lecture was populated by a diverse group of fellow faculty members both within TC and beyond, former students as well as other well-wishers. Dr. Arcilla holds the position of Associate Professor of Educational Philosophy at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

Professor McClintock’s intellectual work has been at the forefront of a vast array of academic subject areas including the application of digital technologies to the reform of education, the educational potentialities of urban life, as well as formative justice and education as an academic study, among a long list of others. In addition, among a diversity of professional titles, Robbie has acted as the Co-Director of the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) housed at Teachers College. The ILT is a development group focused on furthering progressive reform in education and society through the use of digital information resources.

In addition to the lecture, there were also addresses by various Teachers College faculty. A panel including former students was led by Professor Frank Moretti, the Director of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, as well as Robbie’s dear colleague. Following the lecture, there was a reception in Horace Mann as well as a farewell dinner.

As one of Robbie’s former students who have benefited so deeply from his guidance on both an intellectual and personal level, the event was a fitting tribute to a scholar who has given so much to not only Teachers College, but also New York City, the disciplines of education, history and communications as well as academic scholarship as a whole. He will be sincerely missed.

For a more in-depth look at some of Robbie McClintock’s work as well as the community of scholars he has developed, please visit Also, an online tribute was developed at Watch the lecture given by Dr. Arcilla here.

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Technologists and Educationalists Exchange Ideas Regarding Emerging Technologies: Teachers College Educational Technology Conference 2011

By Dino Sossi, MST Times, Aug 8th, 2011

A common complaint regarding academic conferences is their tendency to bring together only people who work within the same discipline. The problem? Group-think. Few truly novel ideas. And a tendency to miss key developments outside that subject area. An answer? The Teachers College Educational Technology Conference (TCETC).

“We need this conference because it provides graduate students with a comfortable setting where they can present their research,” stated TCETC 2011 Co-chair Darnel Degand, a doctoral student in Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) at Teachers College. But TCETC is not solely focused on research. “The conference … serves as a great opportunity for students to meet and network with one another as well as receive feedback,” added Co-chair Melanie Hibbert, also a doctoral student in MST.

Shira Ackerman – Keynote Speaker

TCETC was originally conceived as a multi-disciplinary setting where graduate students could share theories and research regarding the development and application of emerging technologies. Initial areas of interest included Pre-K to 12 classrooms, after-school programs, higher education, home environments, distance learning and corporate learning environments.

TCETC 2011, the third edition of the annual conference, was convened in May and has evolved from its humble beginnings. The current iteration was a two-day-long affair focusing on the work of students at Teachers College and across the U.S., including Tennessee, Texas and California. Session themes included social media and web 2.0; school integration and policy; mathematics and science; building literacies; mobile devices; visuals, aesthetics and design; new media literacies; film and video; issues and methodologies in technology/educational research; virtual spaces; human-computer interaction; and identity formation.

A much-acclaimed highlight of TCETC 2011 was keynote speaker Shira Ackerman. An alumna of Teachers College, Ms. Ackerman has a well-rounded background in both the educational and children’s media sectors. She has over a decade’s worth of education and media experience working for companies like, Nick Jr., Scholastic and Sesame Workshop. She has created/researched a number of products for not only television but also the web, as well as CD Roms, the Wii, Nintendo DS, Leapster, the TAG pen as well as both print and eBooks, her current focus. Ms. Ackerman’s diverse professional successes served as a particularly appropriate metaphor for the wide intellectual interests that converged at TCETC.

Mark Dzula – Presenter
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