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  • 10 from the ‘10s
    Here is a one-stop post for education writing I’ve done here over the last decade. Not exactly a Top Ten, but ten pieces that I think capture some of the range of my thinking about education over the course of the last ten years. 2011: Pace Invaders A reaction to Mary Kennedy’s _Inside Teaching_ and seeing the classroom as a minefield of intrusions and distractions. 2011: Teaching from the Top The problems I found with imagining undergraduate students as “potential graduate students and peers” in designing higher ed learning environments. 2012: Cognitive This and That A summary of the first half of Daniel Khaneman’s _Thinking Fast and Slow_, which was probably the most important book I read this decade. I reviewed it for the Journal of Media Literacy Education (but return to this post more often – I need to write a straightforward precis more often!). 2014: Teaching as Emotional Labor A reckoning with the intersections between job security, job support, and the emotional labor of teaching, a reaction to Simon Head’s book _Mindless_. 2015: Ghettoside A review of Jill Leovy’s _Ghettoside_, along with personal connections to my stint as a juror and incipient engagement with prison abolition (though I may not have been fully conscious of that at the time). 2016: It Takes Two to Be Credible A framework I developed for high school instruction that ended up shifting my thinking around frameworks for information literacy. Part of the basis for my piece in the School Libary Journal and a co-authored chapter in an edited collection about fair use in education contexts, “I Got It from Google.” 2016: Hamburg Reflections on my first year of full-time teaching. I talked a lot about this in my interview with the Shape of Education to Come podcast (transcript). 2016: Farewell to the Limbo Stick A reckoning with smartphones in the classroom. A messy post, but hits on a lot of ideas that I think I need to explore more. 2017: What If They Knew What They Needed, Too? Reaction to _A School of Our Own_ and ensuing implications for working with a different student population than the one featured in the book. 2018: What Is Wrong with Math? Frustration with math pedagogy is a common feature of my writing the past decade, and even though I am techincally “better at” mathematics than I was at the start of the decade (better than I have been since high school, I think), I still feel like I don’t understand its role in formal education very well, but I still want to.
  • Transcript from “Shape of Education to Come” podcast
    I was recently a guest on the Shape of Education to Come podcast hosted by Devin King. I like to transcribe these, especially when I’m talking in a semi-professional (as opposed to formally professional) context. (It turns out that when I’m not transcribing audio for a living I find it relaxing in small doses.)This is lightly edited for relevance (I snipped some Taylor Swift content that wasn’t related to teaching, but kept in the Taylor Swift content that was) and coherence. You can listen here.SEC: David Cooper Moore, tell me what you do.DCM: Hello, my name is David Cooper Moore. I am a media literacy educator in the United States – I’m based in Philadelphia. The past four years I was the media and blended learning coordinator at an alternative high school for kids who had become disconnected with high school, dropped out, or were in danger of possibly dropping out or failing out of high school. Before that I worked in media literacy enrichment mostly with the Media Education Lab, which is now at the University of Rhode Island, but that I got connected with when it was in Philadelphia at Temple University. I’m a certified English teacher, so I teach English but I also teach media arts, and I just got a consulting gig to do a digital literacy curriculum with the Free Library of Philadelphia, so I’m taking a year off of teaching to do that, plus a lot of other life stuff going on with kids and houses and things. So that’s kind of my general log line.SEC: What would a digital literacy curriculum look like?DCM: That’s a great question. The classic framework that I go by is one that Renee Hobbs at the University of Rhode Island uses, which is: access, analyze, create, reflect, act. Media literacy is this really big tent movement and academic field of study that encompasses questions like how do we access information? How do we use things in both digital and non-digital media worlds? How do we make meaning out of it through analysis? How do we compose – how do we make stuff? But also how do we reflect on its impact on our lives and how does it inform the way that we take action in the world? So any digital literacy curriculum to me goes back to that kind of a framework, especially those first three, access/analyze/create. I think reflection and action are imbued in media literacy practice but the access/analyze/create part is what a lot of educators and folks that are in education don’t always know how to do, so I’ve always been attracted to the media literacy field because of the way that it really is non-negotiable that those three pieces of accessing information, making meaning out of it, and creating with it are really fundamental. It’s such an expanded view of what counts as texts, how we make meaning, how we communicate in the world.SEC: We’re definitely going to come back to that. What you’re talking about is really huge, there is a ton to that, which is why there’s a curriculum for it. So we’re gonna come back to that but first of all, I wanted to think back to when I think I first became familiar with your work. It would have been over a decade ago, when you were doing music writing. DCM: Oh yeah, that’s right! Those are my two non-education things, I’m a filmmaker and I’m a music writer, and those actually are the things that got me interested in the intersections between media and education, which led me to do this kind of work. The work I’ve been doing for the past ten years is just the synthesis of the media stew I’ve been bathing in my entire life since I was a little kid, culminating in my young adulthood with making movies and writing about music. But you know, for my professional life, it turns out they don’t really give you huge paychecks to make movies about your family or write about underrated pop albums. SEC: So I know that you started out as a critic. I don’t know if you’d say you’re a critic.DCM: Yeah, I was a formal music critic for a couple of years. I actually wrote for real publications.SEC: Do you think that good critics make for good teachers?DCM: I think that there are overlapping skills. I taught in the classroom for four years. I took a position as a full time teacher because I really wanted to get my five years as a teacher under my belt. I really wanted to teach full time because one thing that I knew very clearly from doing enrichment work was that it’s just different. Classroom teachers do different types of work than a lot of other people who educate others do – college professors, enrichment educators, people that do coaching, mentoring. There is something very different about full-time teaching, and so to that extent I think that the critical sensibility is a good one to have in the classroom, but it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about whether someone is a good teacher, and I don’t know if it’s in the top five, in terms of the key traits you need to have to be a good classroom teacher. A critical mind might be part of it, but honestly if the kids don’t really care about your critical insights I don’t know how effective a teacher you’re going to be. I certainly found that when I tried to use my own criticism directly it was pretty hit or miss. It’s as likely as any other text to engage students. Teaching is really about the relationship you build with the students you are working with. I do find that a lot of folks that I know who are critics do make good teachers. I actually know some music critics who are high school teachers, that’s their day job. But I’m not sure there’s anything inherently better. It’s better to “be a music critic” about music than not to be, but there are probably other things that  are more important for teaching.SEC: I guess what I was wondering was if the critic sensibility of looking closely at something and assessing its value and worth lent itself to the way we think about classes and systems and what’s valuable and ways to approach student learning? I wondered if being able to think critically about what we do could come from that critic sensibility.DCM: One thing that I’ve noticed with music critics – the people who are really good music critics tend to be really good other things, too. They tend to be good thinkers in a lot of fields, and they’ve chosen music but they could have just as easily chosen politics or film. And I also find that a lot of folks that are thinkers and writers in other spheres often show their worst instincts when they’re writing about music. So that’s always fascinated me about music as a medium, that it is so predicated on our viscerality, our feelings about it, how we feel about it, and we try so hard to put that into this kind of critical thinking language, but a lot of times we just use the critical thinking language to say the really biased or weird thing that true critical thinking wouldn’t have us saying. I read a lot of critics, who are very smart, who when put in an uncomfortable space will just use their critical faculties to say something that I don’t think is a very “critical thinking” thing. Good teachers are more likely to uncover the good music critic within themselves than the music critic who does that [uses critical thinking language for non-critical-thinking insights] is likely to access their inner teacher. I think classrooms do this kind of naturally. You have to be openly curious and humbled and not allow any of your preconceived ideas about what’s going to be the right thing to guide you too often, because the students will just knock you down. Students are really good at sussing out inauthenticity. So when you’re using those critical devices to prop up something that needs questioning, the people who are going to do that first are your students. One thing I found teaching is I would say something that I’d never thought twice about and my students would say, “why do you say that?” Maybe there’s a song they’re listening to I don’t like and I say “oh, I don’t like this song,” and there’s a student who really loves the song and they’re like, “I really love this song! It’s my favorite song!” And I have to think about the song differently now because I’m in a situation where I’ve been kind of put off-guard and I need to actually use my real self-reflective critical thinking. So I think there’s this great synergy between criticism and teaching but I actually think it kind of comes from the teaching side more than necessarily from the criticism side. Being a good teacher helps you be a better critic in a way that I’m not sure that being better critic helps you be a better teacher. SEC: One of the things you mentioned there was the idea that it comes from a feeling, bad music criticism or bad criticism just comes from that feeling rather than an analysis. And I wonder if we see that sort of thing in education because I don’t know what your experience with teachers are but there is a certain kind of teacher who has been around for a long time or even a short time and has a feeling of what things work, and doesn’t want to change their practice.DCM: I think that the thing that interests me about feeling in music is the way that feelings can destabilize us. And I think what you’re describing are teachers who are doing almost the opposite, teachers who feel highly stabilized in their classrooms. That’s what I’m always skeptical of. It’s the teacher that feels like nothing could possibly happen to them to change anything about what they think or what they do. It’s not that I’m the most open-minded and amazing person, it’s just that I have a lot of experiences where I think I know something and the teaching experience really knocks me down a peg. It can be humiliating, in fact! When you realize that what you just expressed that you thought was teaching critical thinking, isn’t. For instance, when I’m talking to young, predominantly black, and predominantly low-income students who are 16 to 19 years old about the news, I could get up on my high horse – I read the Washington Post every day and I do this and that and yada yada yada, and talk about the credibility of sources. And then they start telling me about things that are actually happening in their very own backyards and neighborhoods that I know nothing about. And who am I to say that the way that they found that information is better or worse than my way? I don’t mean that obviously means I’m not better or worse, I might be better at something, but I need to think about it more carefully, because the assumption I went in with that I had the knowledge and the students had the brains to absorb my knowledge, it didn’t work out that way. It’s not even that it can’t work out that way. I do have knowledge sometimes and they can absorb the knowledge. But the teacher who isn’t open to being humbled unexpectedly is not going to be able to improve their practice in the way that the teacher that is can. That isn’t to say you need to go cut yourself down at every opportunity and completely take out all your confidence, it’s just that it’s complicated and again, students are going to be able to push you in ways that other types of relationships don’t. So that’s what I’m looking for in teachers, and I think music does this to people. When you really hate a song and you just explode with anger about it, I mean, the kind of feeling that that can instill in you, I can’t think of a lot of other media that can really do that. But I can definitely tell you some experiences that people have had in classrooms, where the kid did that one thing and you just exploded, you didn’t even know that was your trigger. Like, “oh my gosh, that kid that wouldn’t sit down, that really bothered me for some reason, I have to analyze that!” I think music does that. I think there is something about the combination of feeling and analysis that is so tied together in music, I think there’s an echo of that in how we learn about ourselves in the classroom. SEC:This was obviously a very big week because on Pitchfork this week they reviewed all the Taylor Swift albums. DCM: All the Taylor Swift albums! I know! Where were they when I was actually writing for them in 2006? They didn’t ask me to write up the self-titled album. I had it before anybody did. My friend actually burned me the self-titled Taylor Swift album and mailed it to me. In the mail. I was there, man! I was there! SEC: What did you think of her first album?DCM:I loved her first album. At the time I had taken a critical turn. I was really interested in teen pop music, so I was writing about it at an old website called Stylus Magazine, a really cool online space. And it’s funny because I think people can look back – I’ve worked in elementary media literacy and all this stuff and it seems like maybe it’s all of a piece, of me being really curious about youth culture. I’m actually not that curious about youth culture. I just really liked the teen pop music at the time personally! So I got into it and I was writing about it and that got me into youth culture only because of the ways in which people were writing about young people. I thought it was just bizarre – High School Musical had just come out. Taylor Swift had not quite broken yet. She was still trying to be a country star at that time. And people were just writing about it – you saw this when One Direction got really big, too, these recycled teenybopper losing their minds takes. And so it forced me into understanding youth culture, and that got me connected with the Media Education Lab at Temple. I was a grad student there at the time. I thought I should actually try to understand what’s happening in youth culture, because I mostly just liked, like, listening to Ashlee Simpson for myself.When Taylor Swift came out, I saw this as a really ingenious way to try to find a space outside of Disney which at the time was starting to build its music brand through Hannah Montana and High School Musical, and she was doing this thing where she was trying to capture the country audience with the same moves that they were doing in the teen pop music. And it was interesting to watch her really struggle in country music. She had a couple hits on country radio but there was always this talk about her inauthenticity and how she’s not really country and whatever else. And then when Fearless came out it seems like it was just this explosion, that young people just flocked to her and created almost a whole separate genre of Taylor Swift. She is her own genre now. I think she has been since 2008. She stopped being a country star about a year after she started. But what’s interesting to me about the Pitchfork thing is how uncontroversial that is now. Of course you’d cover Taylor Swift! She’s the biggest American pop music star probably in the world. I think she’s maybe bigger than Beyonce by a nose? They’re probably the top two, right? SEC: Probably! DCM: Why wouldn’t you be interested in writing about that? At the time you just couldn’t do it. SEC: It was part of the rockist sensibility that was still in the ether then. Poptimism was still kind of coming out. For me, I remember when I was in school I was teaching Grade 8 and we were doing a music video lesson, and a student wanted to watch “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And I remember being snooty about that then, and I think I probably looked down on that student and I almost  guarantee that student noticed that. So for me, that’s a lesson to check yourself. It’s so easy for us to look at student culture and say, that’s not my culture, that’s not good. And we saw that even in Pitchfork, which was the leading credible source of music.DCM: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, because you have those experiences, and you have such a personal relationship with students whether you want to or not. I consider myself a progressive educator and I’m all about relationships, but there are some really healthy boundaries that teachers need to have from their students. And part of that can have to do with their popular culture. You also don’t have to be the hip teacher that insists on being really into all the music your kids are into. It’s more about your authenticity to yourself in your relationship to the students. But at the same time, if you don’t like Taylor Swift, there are a lot of ways to engage with the student who loves Taylor Swift honestly without making the student almost a representative of a social problem. You still have to teach that kid math! You still have to have engagements with that student who loves Taylor Swift. And that is such an important part of that person’s identity. But as the teacher, that’s the field that you have the least control over. You really have almost zero say in how that student is going to take their own popular culture and make meaning out of it. And so in a way it was actually kind of healthy for a place like Pitchfork to stay away from Taylor Swift, because the only thing that would have happened is that they would have gotten somebody who doesn’t listen to Taylor Swift to write some sneering thing about it. Or do the thing where it’s like, “well, begrudgingly I’ll admit there are a couple of songs here.” But something interesting was obviously happening with Taylor Swift from a social perspective. I happen to think it was pretty god as music, too – your mileage may vary with that. SEC: If you were going to give yourself a Pitchfork rating as a teacher, what would you give yourself?DCM: Well you have to understand about Pitchfork ratings, because there’s a science to it, right? It’s a little code between music nerds. Anything under a 7 and above a 5.8 means “I listened to it, it was fine, you shouldn’t really even bother to read this review, because I’m not really sure how I’m feeling about this one right now.”  Anything between a 7 and a 7.5 means this is a solid album that I don’t quite have the traction on, or I really like it but they won’t really let me rate it higher. I don’t think they do that any more. They made me change some of my ratings sometimes. SEC: Did you give a number? I thought it was the case that writers didn’t give the number.[Ed note: Pitchfork editorial gives scores now, but when I wrote for Pitchfork in 2004-2006 writers gave the initial score and it was discussed editorially if necessary.]DCM:Yeah, I gave the numbers. Writers gave the numbers then and there was sometimes an editorial decision about it. I infamously tried to give the Arcade Fire’s first album a 10 and they wouldn’t let me. We negotiated it down to a 9.7, which I think is kind of funny. It’s too bad, because it turns out it’s really more of a 9.4, but that’s OK. I mean, I was really obsessed with it at the time. It settled into a 9.4. Nah, I’m just kidding, 9.7 is the perfect score for that album, I think. What was I talking about? Oh yeah – Pitchfork ratings are very specific, so as a teacher, I actually don’t think–I only taught for four years in a classroom so I am ineligible for anything above a 7.6. That’s the cap of the album that was great and some people are going to love that album, but no one is going to talk about it in the critical conversation at the end of the year. So you’re going to see a lot of individual writers’ favorite albums that they don’t feel comfortable giving a bunch of Pitchfork hype to get between a 7.3 and a 7.7. After that, once you get into the 8’s, you’re getting into the critical conversation. So I would give myself over four years…a 7.4. SEC: One thing that jogged my memory and made me think you were someone I should talk to is that you were posting on Twitter a list of observations you were making as you were coming to the end of your year, and the end of your job. DCM: I had this manic spell in the first week after I left where I just had all these disconnected thoughts. So I started a big Twitter thread, and now I’m writing some of that stuff up. I don’t know if I’m going to do anything with it. It’s nice to just write, I’ve written like 30 pages of observations. I didn’t write anything while I was teaching for a couple of reasons. One, I felt really overwhelmed with the job of it – I don’t know how many of your listeners are teachers and how many aren’t, but I feel like the lack of understanding that people have about the kind of job that teaching actually is from a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour type of day-long standpoint is one of the fundamental things that keeps people from  truly understanding education problems in general. I don’t know if it’s true in Canada versus America but certainly in the U.S. – anything that’s bad in Canada is probably just worse here.So I started writing these observations because there were so many scattered thoughts, and I didn’t feel comfortable reflecting on it formally anywhere, because it was happening to me in the moment. I felt some protection of my students and not wanting to use them as examples of things, use pseudonyms or whatever. But now I’m kind of processing it and I really am reflecting a lot on it. A lot of what I learned makes me think of Annette Lareau, who wrote a great book called Unequal Childhoods, which tracks different social classes of folks raising kids in Philadelphia – middle class, working class, and poor, more or less. I think she didn’t really hit that many super affluent families and she honestly didn’t seem to engage with that many really poor families. There were a couple. And her big sociological insight was around this idea of middle class versus working class parenting philosophies. The middle class parents, maybe unconsciously, maybe consciously, go through what she calls concerted cultivation, which is the idea that your children are investments and you cultivate them to become a certain type of person. A lot of this is based on the kinds of scheduling that you do and the activities you do and the way you teach kids to question authority, in ways that promote power. So middle class kids learn to ask the doctor questions, whereas working class kids don’t ask doctors questions because doctors are experts and you don’t ask experts questions–because that’s why you’re seeing them. Working class families tended toward something she called the “theory of natural growth,” something like that [ed note: her phrase is the “accomplishment of natural growth”], the idea being: let the kids be kids, set pretty firm distinctions between the adult world and the child world. So there are these authoritarian elements of the working class philosophy, but generally kids have a lot of space to themselves. They just kind of do what they need to do as kids. There are often many more siblings and other folks from the family that are of comparable age. And then she tried to deal with poor families. And really most of the book that I remember when she’s writing about children growing up in poverty is thinly-veiled horror at the daily existence of their lives. Having to take a bus for an hour to try to get food stamps so that you can go get some bread, but it’s not enough. She’s just detailing the horrors of American poverty. And I think I understood this all better in working in the environment I was working in for so long, and getting to know the students, and getting to know the distinctions between students. That’s another thing that I think happens, especially when people write about, quote, “urban education” – by which they’re usually talking about high populations of students who are black or people of color – you just homogenize the group benevolently. It’s like a benevolently homogenous group, so you’re all for the kids but you can’t see the distinctions between the kid who’s got the working class parents and the kid who’s really suffering from acute poverty and needs other kinds of assistance. So working so closely with so many with those kids helped me understand how poverty and working class families in our country are so intimately connected, and they’re part of what you could argue is the same socioeconomic bracket. What poverty is in America, to me, is just what happens when the bottom drops out of the working class and there’s nothing to protect anybody. So what I had to do in working with my students was to really develop an understanding of who they were as – I sound like John Lennon in the ‘60s, but – who are they as working class people? And that was a lot of my own learning as a teacher. I had things I could teach – everybody needs to know how to Google and how to make movies and how to write. But what I had to learn was what this whole social arrangement was, and how students’ lives before they ever came into my classroom affected both their attitudes toward learning and where they were going with it. That was most of what I learned. So when I started reflecting it was like, “God, I don’t have a whole lot of cool pithy quotes about education because, like Annette Lareau, I’m just kind of struck by the horror of poverty, and I don’t have a lot to say about it!” How do you help this kid to learn…? “…But this kid is homeless! Oh my god, how could you let a child be homeless?” Those were the kinds of things I was dealing with. It’s the kind of work I want to do – but it’s a lot to process. How to write about it is very complicated. SEC: Let’s talk a little bit about how you found out who your students were. That relationship aspect is really important and I think a lot teachers believe in that, but I also think they are uncomfortable about how to go about that or what they might uncover when they go about it. DCM: I always told my students “I keep it 85.” They keep it a hundred, I keep it 85. I’d say, I’m your teacher, so there’s 15 percent of things I’m not going to tell you anything about but of the 85% of things I will talk about, I will be 100% honest about 85% of things. And that was important for me to be able to share with my students within boundaries that I set for myself but know that every time I talked to them I was coming from a place of honesty for myself. Because it allowed them to be honest with me, and so our dialogue kind of worked when they had trust in me. The way they trusted me was to know that I was not putting on an act for them. I was who I was. And that meant some warts and all stuff – we would talk a lot about how I’m a white male teacher and that’s a thing. We’d talk about school shootings and they’d say, “why do white guys do that stuff?” And we had to have conversations about that. I didn’t always have the answers, but we could have the dialogue because everything was kind of fair game in terms of what they could bring to me and how I would respond–as me. Even if that response was “I can’t say that, I can’t speak to that, I don’t know.” So that’s one of the ways I built trust. What’s funny is that I think a lot of the teachers at my school thought that because I had an interest in popular music, that was something that gave me some capital with my students. It appears that way from the outside because I would know all of the music that they listened to, including the music they made.  A lot of my kids made music, so I would always want to know who they were. But I don’t think that my fellow teachers understood that I didn’t actually like most of the music my students listened to and I wouldn’t have sought it out if they hadn’t been listening to it. But because they were listening to it, and because it was such a huge part of the classroom – it was coming out of headphones and speakers and laptops all the time – I wanted to know what this stuff was, because I was curious about it. Some of it I ended up really liking. But I think that’s irrelevant, whether I liked it or not. The point was I was curious about it and I took it really seriously, the music they liked. Understanding what it was and why they liked it was really important for me. That was an element of the trust, but it’s connected to the first thing I was talking about, which is the honesty piece. I honestly was interested. I think for teachers that honestly aren’t interested in their kids’ music, don’t force it. It’s not going to work. Whether it is better to take an interest in your students music or popular culture or whatever or not, I don’t know. I read something the other day, some educator Twitter who talked about how they pretended to be interested in sports every year. They were so glad the basketball season was over so they didn’t have to pretend to be interested anymore for their students. And I was like, that’s terrible! If you’re not interested in basketball, just say that! I mean, be honest. And if you feel you should be interested in basketball because your students are interested in it, then come to it from a place of honest exploration of it and – you know, if you still feel like it doesn’t matter, just be real with people about that. It goes a longer way being honest with students about yourself and your shortcomings and everything, along with your strengths. That’s the other piece – when I knew stuff, I told my kids, look, I’m sorry but I know a lot about this so I know you’re telling me this way you found this thing on the internet, and I’m telling you I know more about finding this thing on the internet than you do. I feel very comfortable saying that, this is the better way. But I limited the number of domains in which I would claim that kind of expertise. I tried to limit it to being on-topic in the classroom. I wouldn’t try to know everything about everything. When I don’t know stuff or don’t like stuff or don’t feel a certain way and feel comfortable enough to say it, I’m honest with them. In that way, you build a certain level of trust. The other thing is – and I hate to say it – I was also the permissive uncle in terms of classroom discipline at my school. I’m the guy who you go to and he gives you the ice cream and mom and dad get upset: “We don’t give him ice cream and now he’s gonna ask us for ice cream every day for two weeks!” I was also that. But I don’t think that that was as big of a factor as my sense of wanting to know my students, within limits, and wanting them to feel that they can know me as well as I want to know them, that it’s two-way. Whatever I want to get from them, they should be able to get from me. And that’s why I was the permissive uncle. I don’t actually care that this kid did this in my class, so why would I go through the work of writing it up and making it a thing, when I don’t actually care about this? Now, from an organizational standpoint that’s not a great approach to take. I get that. Things break down when there’s not consistency among classrooms. I guess it’s just to say, I wanted to know who these people in my room were, and that’s how I saw them. One thing I started writing when I got off of Twitter was that I think we have it backwards, especially for the age group I worked with, which was 16-21. Most of them were disconnected from formal school, although not entirely (it’s very complicated, especially in Philly). I feel like we tend to call kids “kids” in situations where we should think about them as adults, and we tend to call them adults in situations where we should be thinking about them as kids. To give you an example, we say that because this young woman has a baby even though she’s only 17, well, that makes her an adult. But because you are throwing pencils in my classroom, you’re a kid. Right? And I would kind of flip that in my mind – I didn’t realize I was doing this until I was reflecting on it. I’d say, look, if you’re 16 and you have a baby, this is a kid that just had a baby. Let’s think about the impact of the baby on this young person’s life. But if you threw a pencil at me in my room – why did this adult in my room just throw a pencil at me? I’m not saying you should think about things this way or it’s better this way, I just realized that that is the approach that I took philosophically to who my students were. I was working with adults and they were adults in all the times when I most wanted to call them kids, and they were kids in the times that I think, maybe not me, but society wants them to be adults. Incarceration, teen pregnancy, all these big scary social problems, you have to think about what kind of things a person is going through– and what is a person going through when they’re going through it at sixteen? I think my students would judge me higher than a 7.4 as a teacher. But I also think that there were certain jobs I had as a teacher that I wasn’t as good at as other people are, and I’m pretty open about that. Organization of time. Having the plan set. Having the boundaries set. Making the space safe for learning. Making learning happen even when it’s hard. Those are the things that, because I was so interested in how people are feeling, “are we there today,” sometimes I could lower my standards, I could let the discipline slip and it affects other people’s learning. There are some teacherly things that I think I have a lot of work to do in my own professional development. One way I started thinking about it early on was, in my first year, I was reading the John Lennon biography. (It’s weird I’ve mentioned John Lennon twice so far. I do love the Beatles.) And they’re describing Hamburg, their first big tour in Germany, how they got there with their songs and they realized after the first night that they’d played all their songs and they didn’t know anything else. So they were in this crucible – but not of creativity. They didn’t go to Hamburg and write their best stuff. They wrote their best stuff after Hamburg, after they’d gone through this crucible of performance. Performance, performance, performance. Play it again. When you run out of something, pick an old showtune that someone half-remembered. Steal songs from other people. Play the thing you just heard the other band play and see if you can do your own take on it. Not because it’s creative but because you have so much time to fill and you don’t have enough material. That’s how I felt after my first year teaching. There was so much time and I’d gone through everything, I felt I’d left it all on the floor in my first year and I had nothing left. I was already resorting to Googling lessons and trying to figure out what the hell I’m gonna do tomorrow. And so I realized in my disposition, I’m thinking about the difference between being a composer or a songwriter versus being a performer. And how those things are often connected but they’re not the same. So maybe I’m a Carole King–a really good songwriter but it’s often better if other people sing my stuff. Even though there’s a couple things only I can sing. Other stuff, other people should probably do. My relationship between curriculum and teaching is like that. I’m like a singer-songwriter more than I am a performer. That was a good realization to have, because it means there are some things I’m just never going to be the best at, and if I’m teaching full time again I need to work with those limitations. But that hadn’t hit home before. I could have abstractly said something like that before I was a full-time teacher, but you gotta feel it. You gotta understand what it feels like to run out of material and be empty and have nowhere to go. Every teacher goes through that. It usually happens in the first year if not the first month.SEC:That idea of teacher as performer–there’s a lot to unpack in that. When you’re a performer, what is the thing you’re trying to be? I don’t know that a lot of teachers think about who they’re trying to be. There’s a lot of thought about what they are trying to do. Not who they’re trying to be. Who you are informs a lot of what you do. DCM:Yeah – it’s an imperfect metaphor. I mean, I think teaching as performance is only one, maybe even small element of teaching. There are a lot of non-performative teachers who are just really good at the nuts and bolts of getting people in a room to do something. That is a good teacher, too. It was more about the difference between imagining lessons and putting them into reality. Maybe because I’m a music guy that’s where my head went with it. But it is interesting to wonder, if teachers were performers, are there rock stars versus second-chair violins? Different ways to perform? I dunno, I don’t want to go too far with the metaphor, it’s tenuous enough as it is. SEC:I wanted to go back to one of the things you talked about in your observations. You were working at an alternative high school and a lot of the students who you were working with had so many gaps, or there were things in their background that had made them not love learning or not feel confident in learning. I’m curious about how in the high school situation, it’s hard to catch up with that background. I mean, maybe this is a Philly question. Where I am, we were the poverty capital of Canada for a long time, we may still be. There may be some overlap here. So what do you do in those cases? Because you talk about scaling up form elementary and how that might not work. DCM:It’s hard, because the tendency is to scale up from young. So where did you lose it with math? I have to be careful about my language here, because I don’t want to play into deficit thinking. I also don’t want to do the thing where I say there’s no such thing as a deficit, because if you talk to a student about their math abilities, they’ll be like, “I have a deficit! Please help me!” If you find the point where the student disconnected – to give an example I like to think about from my work, because it controls for a lot of other stuff – take a student who is more or less engaged in the project of school and has not decided that school in and of itself is a bankrupt institution, but who also has real challenges with math. If there is some kind of specific learning disorder, it hasn’t been diagnosed, and it’s probably too late to be diagnosed, and it’s specific to math. What do you do?I think the way that people tend to go about it, that I’ve seen, is to figure out what should have happened in fourth grade and figure out a way to do that fourth grade piece in high school. And I think that’s a problem, because I don’t think that it works very well, and it especially doesn’t work for kids who are not motivated. If it could work for anybody, it would be the student who is already motivated but happens to have this missing piece from fourth grade. In this student’s case, it was literally that they had a bad math teacher in fourth grade and they struggled and failed math and they were kept back. So the kid gets to high school about a year or two late because of this math issue that he’s had that’s been unsupported, and now he’s at our school. And the question is, how do we work with the student who has a math issue? For me, the answer is one on one instructional time. And I hate to say that, because what it means is that the classroom itself is not the space to deal with this. And that’s a very uncomfortable realization that I started to have as I was working through this with my students – that I can differentiate, differentiate, differentiate, but when the gaps are so large…I don’t know. I feel like this student needs an hour of an expert’s time that is a reading specialist or a math specialist. Then there needs to be something else happening in the classroom environment. I think a lot of the issues are a little like that. From the reading perspective it’s even more complicated, because these practices of literacy are so intertwined with content knowledge, background knowledge, cultural context, how you were taught phonics from a very early age, basic decoding that may have happened in weird ways. What you can do at the high school level is you just set the bar really high for everybody, but you don’t assume that anybody actually knows how to read. You set the bar for everything else really high, and you don’t do the basal reader with the sixteen year old. If they’re interested in mass incarceration, you read about mass incarceration. But they may not be able to read what you’re using –so you use the exact same resource and you use every trick in the book to get them reading as much as they can – chunking it out, working on smaller passages, connecting it together. I don’t know what all the best practices here are. I’m probably going to go back to school at some point to learn some of this stuff, in terms of literacy coaching. I do think that we tend to level kids in ways that are really counter-productive to their ability to see the point in education in a big picture sense. When you’re going into school and you’re sixteen years old and you’re reading the “adapted reading” that is really not very good–these adapted readings tend to be very poor quality. I had a person that I worked with who used a website that would replace words with easier words with an algorithm. I would read the results and think, this is garbage! You took a really cool article and you changed all the words in it! You can’t just do that! “I’m gonna take this song that I love but I’m going to change every other note in the melody and I’m sure it’ll be just as good.” That’s not gonna work. So I think you treat the group that you’re with as capable of taking whatever they can talk to you about. And then you think of literacy as a very specific set of practices, and that different pieces of it need to be emphasized in different ways. For my students, maybe everybody has to do some pretty high level vocabulary and then there are a lot of strategies for how do we chunk out this reading, which is really difficult for some kids, only a little difficult for other kids, and pretty much in the comfort zone for the others. You kind of have to sit down with the kids and go through it sentence by sentence, talk about it, re-read it–OK, so what is this saying? Why does it say it like this? And for the students who struggle with print literacy, it’s just going to take longer. I don’t know if there’s any way around that. I don’t know what it looks like in the long-term, because I also don’t know what the proper amount of time is. I also feel like students weirdly have too much time in school and not enough time with some fairly uncomfortable, hardcore learning. They spend a lot of time in this building but the times at which they’re really doing cognitively challenging work is not nearly as concentrated as it needs to be. I played piano as a kid, and practice is awful. I had to practice every day, and as soon as I stopped practicing every day I got worse. I could practice for one hour and then I was just done. If I could practice for an hour every day for a week, I got better, and when I didn’t do that I got worse. But I feel like the problem is that in school, you don’t have one hour, you have six hours, each of which is a one-hour block. But you can’t practice for six hours. You can’t do cognitively challenging work for six hours. So it seems like the better thing to do would be to really target the time when you are doing the most cognitively challenging stuff, do it for an hour, and then take a break and do cool stuff that’s not that. But I don’t know how you square that, because every teacher kind of feels like they’re in their own little island of content and they don’t realize that by the time you have the kids for fifth period they’ve been doing this all day. They’re not even doing cognitively challenging hour-long work. What ends up happening is that everybody kind of blands out. So you’re doing 20% cognitively challenging here, and 50% here, and maybe 0% there because you were asleep that period. It’s just not organized very well for what I think the challenge really is, which is that learning is really hard, the more you miss early on the harder it is to make up later, and the ways that you make it up later require more investment and more resources, not less. We want to do the opposite. We want to say, what’s the fastest way we can get this kid to learn all the crap they didn’t learn in the last twelve years? Well, I don’t think you can. Maybe the answer to that is that it’s not possible. I don’t know.JEC:We’re coming up on an hour now and I didn’t talk about any of the media stuff – we’ll set up another call. I’ve enjoyed all of this time and want to put it all up. DCMSure! You basically got everything I’ve done except the media literacy work, which is fine because actually media literacy is a whole separate thing we could talk about. JEC:That’s good. The work of Julie Coiro and Renee Hobbs, their work and your involvement in that, has been really interesting to me as I’ve been doing the same thing as you have in a lesser scale for the last few years. I really want to talk about that. So I’ll start wrapping it up and ask, what would be a resource you might recommend to someone?DCMThe one book that I recommend to people is Inside Teaching by Mary Kennedy, whose big project as a scholar is understanding why reform tends not to work in schools. The reason it doesn’t work is that most reforms don’t fully grasp the day to day practices that teachers have to accomplish to do their job. And if you don’t understand the very intimate details of on-the-ground work in schools, there is no reform that’s going to change anything, because you don’t actually understand what you’re doing. You have an idea, but you don’t know how to implement it at all.Inside Teaching is a series of observations about how teachers manage in the classroom. They manage their time, they manage their resources, they manage their sanity, their tranquility. And that, to me, was one of the single biggest insights I ever had about teaching, and I reflected on it a ton when I was doing my full-time teaching, which is that teachers really value tranquility in the classroom, and soundness, this feeling of safety and quiet. And the reason is because they’re teaching for so long that if you don’t have that, you burn out immediately. It’s one thing to be a cool engaging college professor and teach people three days a week and you have a little seminar room or whatever – I’ve done that kind of teaching, it’s a blast. And I can be on all of the time! As you can probably tell already from this conversation I can be very on. But if you teach full time, you get there at like 8 a.m. and you leave at 5 p.m., you can’t be on for that whole time. You will physically blow a circuit. So her observation about what teachers do to manage that was so interesting. She has this really big picture critique of reform movements in education that are not ground-up from teachers. What I like about it is that she doesn’t have any clear ideas about what teachers should be doing, just that if you don’t have their buy-in, nothing that you do is actually going to matter very much. And the other insight there is that there are really good reasons why schools operate the way they do, even in the most dysfunctional school systems and spaces, and you should really put some effort into understanding exactly why things are the way they are. Because if you change one thing about it, you don’t realize you’ve also changed five other things that are connected to this one fix. There’s no way for ideas to fix organizational issues if you don’t really understand how the organization works. I return to that book a lot because it just it’s really a nice perspective on what teaching is, and why a lot of our best ideas about education don’t actually seem to work when you put it into effect. And the answer is it works for something, but not for teaching. This cool idea you had is a good idea for something, just not for this. It’s because there’s no way to sustain it. So that’s the book I would recommend. If you’re a science teacher, I just read a cool science book. I’m the type of person that thinks the last book they read is the best book ever written, and then promptly forgets it existed after I read the next book. The book I just read was Life Ascending by Nick Lane. It’s a science book and it goes through, from this microbiology perspective, everything from the origins of life through the development of most of the major processes of life, and it was a very cool, cosmic look at everything. I kept reading it thinking, “God, I wish I was helping teach a science class again, because I could talk about this stuff and kids would be interested in cells because they would know why it’s like this.”  I never knew! There’s so much stuff I actually never knew even though I, quote, “learned it in school.” I learn it again later and I’m like, “oh, I didn’t know this at all! I don’t know anything about this!” I could have told you what mitochondria were but now I actually understand mitochondria–it’s profound. I love that book because every chapter is like that for something science-related and I have a really hard time finding accessible math and science literature that makes accessible not only what happens, but why it matters and what the context is, so that was cool.
  • Survival Literacy
    I’m not sure what I think students “need” at a minimum level of competency to be considered to be “done” with school – and my use of scare quotes here should give you a sense of the turmoil that I’ve been feeling around some very foundational beliefs I’ve long held about school itself, its fundamental purpose and role in students’ lives. I’ve been teaching in an alternative high school for four years, a daily teacher with a full course load, but in an environment that is about as “loose” within the traditional strucutral confines of a public school as you can get. Sometimes this looseness is good – the students like it here; we don’t have any fights; we love our kids and help them on their first postsecondary steps. Sometimes it’s not so good – things are very messy, and there are lots of little fires to put out, many of our own making, trying to do things a little differently and creating new problems as a result. But I’ve come to realize how insufficient the professional norms of reading instruction (these norms are different from research-based best practices; by professional norms I only mean “what do districts and administrators and classroom teachers expect to happen in the classroom”) are for the majority of our students, all of whom have become disconnected with their previous high school. Some students come to us with high standardized scores in literacy and numeracy and seem to gain little from the direct instruction we might provide in reading and math, say. Some students come to us with borderline learning disabilities that have gone undiagnosed. Most come to us with severe gaps in their knowledge and skills according to the general scope and sequence of what they should have learned between fourth and ninth grade. You can see these gaps in their diagnostic scores, and in math these gaps even tell a story of educational turbulence and, sometimes, trauma – students who have poor grasp of numbers and operations but can do passably well at certain types of algebraic thinking, say, usually because they had a terrible elementary experience but a few good math teachers in middle or early high school. Part of my job has been to take in all of this information in consultation with students and teachers and work with them on an individualized plan for making progress in their classes – an ad hoc academic support position that is not technically special education but tries to implement some just-in-time learning needed to be successful in a class. So I’ve become more and more interested in how you actually teach people how to read, and how you might translate what seems to work for young learners to adult literacy. (I’ve been reading a lot of Tim Shanahan lately.) There is much less liteature on teaching adult literacy than I expected; much of it essentially takes strategies for younger learners and applies them to adults more or less unmodified, or expands the concept of literacy to areas that may or may not improve reading ability. Research on adult literacy seems to have a good sense of how many adults can’t read, who they are, and some of the reasons why, but from what I’ve found so far there is a lot less convincing information on what the best practices are for intervention. I’ve started thinking about rudimentary literacy a little differently from how I imagined it when I took a media literacy approach – i.e., a holistic sense of what literacy is, including multiple symbolic forms. Although I still love media literacy, I think there is something categorically different about print literacy, both in how it works – at a basic cognitive level – and in how we are expected to actually use it in the world. (Maybe I’ll write my post about reading as photosynthesis later.) The metaphor I’m circling right now is survival skills. I had a conversation the other day with my wife about swimming. Our oldest son not only can’t swim but has a water phobia. In other cultures, swimming is part of the environment, a survival skill that children can learn at very young ages. I’ve read that babies naturally know how to hold their breath if put into the water in a particular way. Even my own sister, who insisted her sons learn to swim early, had them in the pool at age 2, fairly regularly. (I’ve also read that actually swimming is probably more like reading developmentally, and that you should probably start formal swimming instruction closer to six years old. Hang with me; it’s just a metaphor.) The extent to which reading is a skill for survival depends on more complex social context than swimming does. “If you’re near water a lot you should know how to swim” doesn’t quite translate. Instead what I’m thinking about is the purpose for teaching survival skills versus the purpose for teaching for enrichment and enlightenment. We focus so much on a love of reading in school, and also subsequently conflate love with motivation (a topic for another post that I won’t go into now), that I think we miss defining which aspects of reading are actually necessary for one’s life as a “survival skill,” and which develop more naturally after those basic skills have been mastered. The problem with reading is twofold: (1) many but certainly not most children become expert readers before they’ve had a lot of instruction in reading, let alone targeted literacy intervention, so it seems like their love and their ability are linked and (2) the students who don’t “take” to reading are then often engaged at the level of motivation and ease – trying to make reading a pleasurable experience, by “leveling down” reading to where they’re comfortable – while also getting certain reading interventions that are uncomfortable and involve a lot of practice. A lot of literacy instruction focuses on instilling motivation and appreciation in students, for understandable reasons – it seems like master readers should want to read, and we also know that master readers are motivated to read independently. We had a long and unproductive program at our school trying to implement sustained silent reading at our school, which failed for both site-specific reasons (we didn’t do it with much fidelity, too many distractions, etc.) but also, I think, failed to take into account the fact that our students struggled to do more basic reading than we really liked to admit, even when in guided instruction they showed that they could read. They didn’t like reading, and we didn’t really have the school culture to instill that basic affection and motivation. But they also didn’t have some of the precursory skills you would need to enjoy reading. But I’m not sure that the primary job of literacy instruction should actually be to instill an affection for reading any more than I think that the primary job of swimming instruction should be to instill affection in swimming. Without basic skills – in swimming or reading – it is literally impossible to develop affection in any meaningful way. You can’t be motivated to read independently if you can’t read any more than you can be motivated to “swim for pleasure” if you can’t swim. Add to this what I see in my students – they have specific blocks to reading that resemble my son’s water phobia. So on top of whatever technical instruction they need to get to the basic level of literacy motivation, they also need a different sort of motivation, a motivation to overcome what I would call something like a fear of reading – more accurately, a combination of distrust, deflation, and past negative experience. They are discouraged about reading. The logic that we tend to use in school is that if you get kids encouraged about reading, they will read more. But we also underestimate the level of reading mastery it requires to actually feel a basic level of encouragement, and then, crucially, for this encouragement to translate into actually reading well. My son feels encouraged when he puts his face in the water. But he can’t swim. He needs to be able to put his face in the water for his comfort, but it may not be a skill that he needs to practice and focus on intently to learn how to swim. It may be a way of filibustering, a way of avoiding the thing he actually needs to be able to do. In fact, it is possible that part of him learning to swim will be to be put in an environment where that kind of incremental thinking based on his own comfort vanishes altogether. Survival literacy cuts both ways. We also don’t need to expect our students to love to read, maybe ever. This is a profound and destabilizing idea in English education in two ways. First, it shifts a lot of the kind of content we teach in English classes. Fewer books and novels; more short and non-fiction pieces. This was a controversial component of the Common Core standards that I happen to think is on the mark when you are considering students who already are far behind in their literacy ability. That is, for my students, exploration of a novel might have some value, but lots of practice with short, relevant pieces – journalism articles, reports, etc. – will be more likely to help them with specific goals they have for reading. But the most destabilizing thing about a survival literacy mindset is that I’m not sure that the classroom is the best place for it to happen at all, and I’m also not sure that “classroom” is the right space to imagine successful literacy acquisition. I’m starting to think of literacy, as a functional process of decoding and low-level comprehension, as something that one has to acquire by hook or by crook, often alone and with deliberative practice. That it can happen in a classroom doesn’t mean that it should. All of this goes away when you reach a baseline competency, but I think that we have the bar too low for what that baseline is and how much rigorous literacy instruction you need to be able to read independently and contribute within a culture of print literacy (i.e., read independently and then talk about it). Again, these are baseline competencies. I’m not suggesting that I believe that there is no role for reading in a classroom! But that for interventions and the basic development of that baseline competency, the classroom environment that fosters a love of literacy isn’t the right way to think about what learners really need. This has been hard for me to digest, and I’m not anywhere near done in my thinking – in fact I’m returning to grad school soon, I think, to devote myself more fully to literacy – print literacy – as a component of understanding the world.
  • Seeing and unseeing
    Sometimes I’ll come across an idea or a metaphor in fiction writing that single-handedly restores my faith in literature to do what non-fiction can’t, to illuminate by stepping just outside of what is understood, re-frame radically within a fictional universe that shakes things so hard that my world shifts, too. That was the impact I had reading China Mieville’s The City & the City, a sci-fi-leaning pulp detective novel about two interlocking cities from two separate nations whose impossibly subtle boundaries are policed through the willed ignorance of their respective populations. People in Beszel and Ul Qoma (the two cities) must unsee, unhear, even unsmell what is happening sometimes feet away from them. The story, briefly, involves a murder mystery that crosses borders, leading a Beszel detective to collaborate with Ul Qoman authorities. It’s a crackerjack read, but that metaphor and its treatment shook something loose in my mind, offered a key to pull together separate threads that I’ve been pulling for months now. The first thread comes from an increasing engagement with the American socialist left, whose taste in music has not improved since I last dipped my toes in the waters, but whose ideas I’ve started to engage with more seriously. The centering of class analysis, albeit a Marxist kind that I find too reductive, and the ways in which a materialist caste system intersects with a separate but intimately related racist caste system in most of the analysis I’ve been drawn to gave me a better framework and language for understanding what the hell is going on at work, where my deepening understanding of my mostly black, working class students keeps on hitting walls against the kinds of social activism that surround me in conversations, readings, and ideas online. My reckoning with what it means to work with working class students, and understanding poverty as an outgrowth, or even a kind of unchecked disease, of a working class, is the single most important revelation I’ve had in my almost three years teaching there. The second thread comes as an offshoot of the first, in reading the work of scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and, esepcially, the Field sisters on race and blackness in America. The basic concept in Racecraft, the Fields’ book, is that, like witchcraft before it, race needs to be understood not as an identity, something you have, but as a set of enacted social codes and ways of looking that must be made and agreed upon. The Fields refer to what they call the “sumptuary codes” of racism, where participants follow a social script whose rigidity – or even whose existence – isn’t necessarily obvious until there is a breach in the system. The Fields are particularly sensitive to stories about immigrants from Africa and elsewhere, whose “blackness” must be learned, sometimes in horrifying ways, in these breaches in protocol. They detail stories of people whose ignorance of the codes of racism in the United States lead to confusion in its most benign form and death at its most malignant. And here is where the Mieville metaphor starts to deepen my capacity to really grapple with this concept. The alienness with which a reader of The City & the City must necessarily approach Mieville’s world-building replicates the kind of outsideness that few within the U.S. can meaningfully access when it comes to seeing the system of racism. There is no neutral ground with which to observe the enactions of racism. But here, we have a neutral ground with which to gradually understand, and even gradually accept, a new system whose arbitrariness and seeming absurdity is, at first, so obvious that the initial chapters are a kind of training exercise. (In the book, travelers between the two countries are required to take examinations so that they understand how not to see what is right in front of their faces.) These books opened up a real logjam in my own thinking about interrlated issues in racism and education and politics and activism, but I’m not able yet to fully articulate what’s coming as a result of that logjam loosening. My writing has been sporadic lately, my thoughts clearer than usual but my ability to synthesize or even record them hobbled by a hesitancy that I haven’t had in the past. A lot of what I’m thinking about feels truer than it has in the past, but it also feels less worthy of sharing, or at least I feel less urgency to share it. I’ve lost my mental audience, something like that. I feel more like a spectator than a participant. But I still wanted to put this here, a post I’ve been pecking away at for months now, if only to put the basic idea and the basic juxtaposition out there. For what it’s worth, both books are better at revealing the mechanics than they are pleasures to read – this was a sticking point for my wife, who read but was lukewarm about The City & The City. But to me the plainness of it, the force of the frameworks, is improved in the simplicity of the telling. You should read them and see for yourself. So consider this post a post-it reminder for myself not to let go of these threads.
  • What is wrong with math?
    My school started using a blended curriculum model (which I won’t name here) recently, and I have a lot of thoughts about it, some pro- and some anti-, none of which would be totally appropriate for me to share here yet. The one thing that it has undoubtedly done, though, is dramatically improve our math curriculum. In the pre-blended days, our long-suffering but talented and enthusiastic math teacher would randomly pull from a grab bag of mathematical concepts and subdisciplines – geometry, trigonometry, algebra, repeat – trying to patch together a satisfactory sampler of mathematics to students who very often had significant gaps in even their most basic math knowledge. “You have to get ‘em when they’re young,” she says, sadly, so often. Now we have an integrated math curriculum, where students re-frame some of their understanding of math to tools that will be more broadly applicable to different mathematical problems: identifying patterns, creating spreadsheet tables, graphing data. These are all skills that I use, more or less, in my day to day work and life – you could use these tools to find significance in a lab experiment or organize your taxes, say. So that’s good. And yet there’s still a kind of fog of specialization running through this integrated math; students still learn concepts they’ll soon forget, and I find myself dumbing down my “so what” talks so that they’ll just remember the difference between a domain and a range, or a mnemonic device to help them find the slope of a line. It seems to me that there is something very deeply wrong with the whole concept of mathematics at a pedagogical level, and I think the problem with it is the way in which teaching math outside of meaningful applications of that math doesn’t even provide some of the basic building blocks of what you’d need to apply it later. Some of the ways we teach reading suffer from this, but at some level the pay-off of knowing how to put letters into words and words into sentences at least has some obvious, immediate value. The higher level meaning-making of literacy is a lifelong project, and subject to constant, frustrating backpedaling, sometimes among very smart people for no reason other than general cognitive biases. (It’s amazing, for instance, how your reading comprehension suffers when you really don’t want to change the ideas you had coming in.) But at some level, I understand at least the connection between learning the basics and applying the basics to some other thing – reading a newspaper, scrolling through a Facebook feed, even. I have a harder time seeing that much “higher” a level in mathematics than learning some baseline of competencies. I think of the non-fiction books I’ve read on innumeracy, probabilistic thinking, other “mathematical errors” that so many people make, especially when interpreting or conveying their understanding of data. But in many of these cases, what’s being described is the breakdown I mentioned above, a way of tactically, if perhaps subconsciously, not understanding something because you don’t want to, not (just) because you can’t. I think of someone like Nate Silver, lamenting the inability of journalists to convey his site’s probabilities in a way that is true to how they’re actually presented. But such inability doesn’t necessarily speak to some breakdown in the way in which that person learned math. That person can likely do their taxes, use a spreadsheet, figure out the slope of a line if they really needed to. The breakdowns that I most commonly read about are of a kind with reading incomprehension more than they are of innumeracy. This is a meaningful distinction for me as I work with lots of kids with genuine innumeracy – it just doesn’t look like “dumb analysis” or shallow thinking. It looks like students who really can’t calculate numbers, are unable to estimate or make mathematical inferences at a level far beyond misunderstanding or mischaracterization. It is closer to what it looks like when a student can’t read a sentence, can’t put the words together, than what it looks like when a student uses a poor argument to make their point. The thing that makes this frustrating for me is that I genuinely have no idea what math should look like. I have at least some inkling, some model, some research, some something for how I understand and imagine almost every other school subject and its relevance to student outcomes. I know what I know, I know what I don’t know, I have some provisional thoughts about where to go with it, where it works and where it doesn’t. But math continues to totally perplex me. (And I now know, as someone who has developed about as much understanding as you’d need to teach all of the math at my school, that the problem isn’t just that I suck at math.)
  • Return to Oz
    My wife and son watched The Wizard of Oz together last weekend. He turns four in a few weeks. This was his second movie, but the first that he watched simply for pleasure, not because he was sick and needed a quiet activity for a few hours (that’s how he saw Moana). Since we don’t expose our sons to much screen media, my wife noticed that he reacted to the film much in the way, she expects, original audiences may have, marveling when it switched to color, gasping at the costumes and sets, giddy at Glinda’s incandescent bubble, asking lots of questions about the Wicked Witch of the West. She said that his obvious wonder was a reminder of the visceral pull that movies can have over us, and how quickly we can become desensitized to that raw power. I had seen Black Panther with my wife in the theater a few weeks prior, and as I struggled to move past my initial commentary on its complex metaphorical and political resonances, my own analytical comfort zone, I landed on Oz as a provocative reference point after a co-worker compared the film to The Wiz. I often wonder whether the weight of cinema history and the many ways in which we are acculturated to understand and grow up with visual media from ages younger than we can really remember have dampened our collective ability to react to a film in the way my son did to The Wizard of Oz. I haven’t been awed at a film since Toy Story, which I saw in the theater when I was 11 years old. (Ones that came close, from memory: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, The Fellowship of the Ring.) I’ve been impressed, and dazzled, but there’s something about the way in which CGI has become the foundational language of cinematic awe that has reduced much of the power of the images on the screen for me. This was something I sensed even in my late childhood – the strange pall of CGI over the theatrically re-released Star Wars films and, especially, the numbing overstuffed screen in The Phantom Menace. Pixar films after Toy Story have been merely impressive, the language refined but not fundamentally remade. Black Panther captured something like awe for me, not in its special effects, per se, but in the richness of the film’s world and its reliance on less CGI-driven forms of spectacle, and the way that this beauty intertwined with a vision of the world that is, in its own way, ambiguous on the position of Wakanda as a place of glory or a place of deceptive disappointment. I was reminded of Rushdie’s take on Oz as an expatriate, refusing the film’s black and white denouement. But I’m aslo reminded of my own unease with the smallness and grotesqueness of Oz, the sense I have that spending more than a little time there would be an unsettling, uncanny experience. The metaphor to Oz isn’t perfect – Killmonger as Dorothy (hm), T'Challa as Oz (maybe), colonialism as the Wicked Witch (eh). But there is one clarifying connection: Oakland as Kansas. This last piece, at least, feels right, that the film’s “home” is in predominately black American urban communities, while Wakanda serves as an escapist fantasy that is untenable (internally to the film’s logic, anyway) as a new home for anyone in the “real world.” Wakanda is the dream that occasionally hints at a nightmare but stops just short. And I can imagine many people watching it, as my son watched The Wizard of Oz, with eyes wide to its possibilities, to its beauty, leaving with more feelings than questions, but questions buzzing nonetheless, to be asked over days and years. My son has said a few times since watching The Wizard Oz that he doesn’t really want to “watch Dorothy again.” It was a lot for him. But its ideas and images are imprinted now, part of the language he’ll use to make sense of what comes next. And I’m glad that Black Panther is there, with its own language, its own ideas, to lay that foundation for others, even as I continue to grapple with what exactly it all might mean.
  • What if they knew what they needed, too?
    I just finished A School of Our Own, a strange, frustrating, and provocative book about a “school within a school” founded by a precocious 16-year-old, the son of an education and development theorist.It’s strange because the co-author (the mother) cedes well over half of the book to the articulate but nonetheless unpolished journals and reflections of her son as he went through the process. It reads like a whip-smart 16-year-old kept a detailed journal and shaped it together in grad school, which I imagine is something like how it happened in real life.It’s frustrating because the nature of the program was so tiny (8 students, at least one of them personal friends of the author) and the duration so short (six months) and the circumstances so unique (the program seemed to be largely led by the author himself, with some support from his peers, and with little faculty intervention save mentoring roles) that it hardly seems replicable in its particular incarnation, let alone scalable.But what was fascinating about it was that the central premise of the book, the big “so what” of it to my mind, had nothing to do with any of those seemingly obvious flaws of the book and of the program, and it’s something I’ve been returning to a lot as I enter my third year teaching at an alternative high school:What if students not only knew what they wanted, but also knew what they needed from school, too?The first premise – that students know what they want – is hardly uncontroversial. Still, in most progressive education, this idea, whether it involves following interests, developing unique projects with broad parameters, following one’s educational muse, so to speak, this general idea that students should know what they want and “what I want” should be incorporated into the school day is fairly well accepted in various forms. Media literacy education places much of the engagement in digital media and popular culture; critical literacies connect social justice to one’s place in one’s community and in the world; expeditionary learning assumes ownership in mastery, and on and on.But none of these progressive approaches, as far as I can tell, truly cross the rubicon to the second proposition, that students know what they need from school. If they knew what they needed, after all, a name for their program would be unnecessary. The students would just do it themselves. Indeed, the oddly provisional title of the school in A School of Our Own – the Independent Project – seems almost pathologically neutral in expressing any of its radical potential.In the car a few weeks ago, my wife asked me, “what would you do if you could open your own school?” And after thinking for a few minutes, since I’d never really thought about this so directly before, I answered, “I’d ask the kids what they wanted and I would trust what they told me.”Then we had a conversation about what my wife wanted in high school, and whether what she wanted synced up with what she valued in education after high school. It was – she would have jettisoned classes she hated, tried out more classes on a trial basis to see whether she might like them (this was how she found the one science course that resonated with her – auditing a class she didn’t need and taking it anyway), spending more time reading and less time doing things she found boring.But even in this conversation, my wife was quick to point out that she didn’t think that would work for “everybody.” The idea here is that of course the most capable students could map out educational outcomes for themselves, but they had the support and perhaps the natural inclination to do this, and other people need more structure, more of a predetermined path.Oddly, my experiences teaching with students who have been systematically shut out of educational opportunities has suggested almost exactly the opposite. What seems truer, to me, is simply that these students have a different way of thinking about education and about their own lives that seems foreign to the kinds of students who might have designed an Independent Project that looks like the one in the book (my wife’s would have been nearly identical, in fact). And this is the great disconnect in what it means to design a school for students who don’t seem to benefit from the structures and privileges of relative affluence – that is, a fully functioning and even thriving school system at the most material level, if not at a pedagogical level: just because my students want dramatically different things from what’s being offered to them doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that it’s not what they need.I had my students design a school of their own on the first day (we enroll new students every ten weeks). Amid the traditional schools that simply operated more smoothly and had better food and later starting times (a universal request – pay attention!), there were schools that were far more vocationally based, schools that taught students how to roll a proper joint and had marijuana dispensaries on campus, schools that turned all math into financial planning classes*. Schools that were something like community schools, whose primary purpose was to provide child care and job training opportunities. Schools where college professors had to come and give special lessons for shared community college credit.All of these are ideas that currently exist, at least in pieces, but when my students designed the schools, their priorities didn’t assume there were also these other things that experts could bring in that were outside of their current understandings and experiences that would somehow elevate them beyond their current imagination. They didn’t assume that many of the goals of current progressive and other alternative educational models were ones that they should care about, or that they should consult with an education expert, say, to find out. It didn’t occur to them, and the radical element of trusting students here would be to accept that some outside idea wouldn’t necessarily provide any real benefit to their design.But I think it’s instructive for people who design educational experiences to do a thought exercise where you ask the students you work with what they want, and to immediately translate that into what they need. It may not work – and there are signs that the Independent Project itself was relatively unsuccessful after its charismatic founder left the school – but I’ve found that it’s helped to change my mindset around what education is at some basic level. It was a good way to tap-dance around a post on political horizons for education that I’ve been mulling over for months now.*There’s a somewhat remarkable post-script in A School of Our Own, under the heading “Math,” where the authors admit that they screwed math up, and that through this experience they came to the belief that math is much less necessary to high school education than they assumed going in. They express the belief that math is too specialized to be particularly useful in any broadly interest-based curriculum designed by students, and that it’s essentially a waste of time to teach discrete math concepts disconnected from other subjects. I don’t know if I agree with this, but having now taught math as a kind of all-purpose academic support teacher for a few months, there is something deeply wrong with math and math teaching. More on that later, maybe.
  • Horizons: Prison
    I’ve been thinking a bit about an off-hand comment I made in my last post, about prison abolition. My statement, which was too unequivocal in hindsight, suggested that I have problems with the idea of “prison abolition” as a policy or social goal. And it’s true that I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the basic idea of prisons – the existence of an institution designed to deprive people of their liberty, perhaps for some other positive (i.e. rehabilitative) purpose, or perhaps not (in the case of simply removing people from the general population for the good of others). I was thinking at that time specifically of an interview with Roger Lancaster, whose critique of abolitionist thinking both (1) suggested to me, based on previous experience with such critiques in other fields, that he was being uncharitable to people who identify as abolitionists (perhaps especially his refusal to put actual names of scholars to his critiques) but (2) also hit on a few ideas that I’ve grappled with myself as I think about the role of prisons in society. I searched for pushback and the best thread I could find on the subject was on Facebook, a Nikhil Singh post that is, predictably, very long and very messy and it devolves quickly. Lancaster responds directly there. My sense remains that he is conflating “abolitionism” with “abolitionists,” and that in doing so he takes on an easier target that he can stretch to match his critique (the -ism) than the actual people whose opinions such an -ism indirectly point to. So it goes. The one idea that emerged from that thread that I’m returning to is prison abolition as a political horizon, an ideal that informs incremental work but may never see full fruition. To the extent that prison abolition functions as a political horizon that does not then get adopted (as a horizon) by many communities for whom any work toward that horizon would provide benefits – that is, you work with prison abolition in mind and (some of) the people you’re working with really WANT prisons, just fewer prisons that are more humane – abolition as a horizon or goal seems, if not moot, then not a front-and-center issue when the prison system is so utterly extreme. My hesitation here comes partly from engaging with students who have been in or around the prison system via friends and neighbors and loved ones. Very few of them ever talk about getting rid of prisons, nor would they even think of it. They don’t think they should have gone to prison, but they can’t imagine a world without them. This is NOT true of all of their beliefs. They can easily imagine a world without police. They can easily imagine a world without schools (not as a political horizon, usually, but something more like a political abyss). They often try to imagine a world without race – which is more accurately to say, a world without racism. I’m doubling back here to say that in some important way, I don’t think that my own sense of horizon necessarily changes the kind of work I would want to do in the here and now to end injustice in the prison system. I want fewer prisons, fewer prisoners, addressing horrible problems every step of the way that would look similar whether you wanted “humane prisons” or whether you wanted none. Lancaster describes Finland as, on the whole, a country with fairly aggressive, punishment-oriented social views toward crime but with an extremely small prison “footprint” in society, as it were. (Not sure how accurate this is.) So as a thought experiment, I wonder what I would be pushing for if the United States were Finland, with 10% or less of our current prison population, working rights for prisoners who have dormitory restrictions but can leave site during the day, much shorter sentences overall. Would I be pushing to reduce things further, to push things toward zero? I really don’t know. I know that it’s not a philosophical approach that a lot of people who have received the brunt of our system’s oppression would agree with very strongly. What was useful about this argument about horizons wasn’t so much around prisons or crime, since clearly this is an area where my own thinking is muddled and in flux. But it did help me to think about other institutions, partiuclarly education, with the basic question of what the horizon might be for change. What is the political horizon for education? That’s the one that I find myself turning to more, and not coincidentally my challenges and questions around prisons show up, in modified forms or in different articulations, when I think about education. But that will have to be for another post.
  • O.J.: Justice and vengeance
    Finally finished American Crime Story, one of two shows about O.J. Simpson that received quite a bit of conversation and acclaim last year. Most of my commentary on it as a piece of media would probably retread well-worn analysis; none of it is particularly illuminating. If you’re curious, I thought the series had two or three excellent episodes, was overlong, and only managed about half of a decent cast (Sarah Paulson, Courtney Vance, and Sterling Brown), the other half settling for rather than elevating material a cut above a Lifetime movie. The series is at its best when it plays into the mythology and popular imagination of the O.J. case – its thrilling depiction of the Bronco ride in angles not captured from news helicopters; its depiction of Johnnie Cochran’s aside to Chris Darden after they parry on use of the “N-word” in the trial, which says more about race in two minutes than the entire finale manages in retelling the story of the verdict; and, especially, Marcia Clark cutting her hair to the strains of “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal (Paulson’s interview about the series on Fresh Air was in many ways better than the series). What ended up staying with me through the series, though, was a melancholic reminder of how formative the O.J. trial was in my own incipient sense of justice, its peculiar (and cruel) form in the United States, and, especially, its racialized dimensions. I was so incredibly angry after the O.J. Simpson trial. I have an image in my mind of the entrance to my school building at dismissal time, mustering every swear word at my disposal while climbing aboard the “Gold Bus” (the neighborhood color code for our otherwise identical short buses) parked in the school’s drop-off circle, stewing and clenching on those vibrating leather seats, wanting to scream. It’s as vivid a memory as anything I have, one of those indelible images seared into memory. My coursing, insatiable anger. I was 11. My work has made it impossible for me not to think about criminal justice. Many of my students are in the justice system to some degree, and many (though not a lot) have been incarcerated. Most of them are, by most definitions, guilty of the crimes for which they were either convicted of or, more frequently, plead guilty to. The language of criminal justice in my classroom is usually one of beating a rap, not of being charged with a crime that wasn’t committed, a language of technicality and cleverness more than just simply injustice. And yet the punishment meted out on my students is unfathomably cruel and usually far out of proportion with the underlying, often violent (as in “violent crime” versus “nonviolent crime” – not always actually that violent), but almost always relatively minor offenses. When someone seems to get away with murder, especially an unusual one, and especially one with a high profile, it’s easy to key into the kind of anger that I felt after the O.J. trial, and perhaps again in periods after 9/11 when friends argued with me against the invasion of Afghanistan. But what I find odd about the O.J. trial today is how much that anger has subsided over time, and how the utter absurdity of so much of the trial all but guaranteed at least a mistrial if not an acquittal. (The many points at which a mistrial by all rights should have been declared in the O.J. case constitute one of the few true “crime story” elements of the series that were helpful from a historiographic perspective. I don’t suspect that was a major aim of the show.) I think more now about the barbarity of criminal justice in our country, the idea that to commit even a ghastly crime must be countered with a ghastly punishment. Marcia Clarke, who in many ways is treated with the most care and perhaps most writerly interest in the series, fights initially to charge Simpson with the death penalty. She goes on later to explain how her sense of justice can be described as “vengeance for victims,” based on her own experiences as a rape survivor. And yet I am at a loss for how state-mandated vengeance can truly serve the purposes of criminal justice. At the same time, I find myself equally unable to truly embrace total prison abolition. But it seems clear to me that vengeance should never be the primary motivator for dealing with crimes. It’s a kind of blanket vengeance, exacted against students like mine, that takes their admitted foolishness (at best) or cruelty (at worst) and proceeds to use it as a means to dismantle their lives, blunt their potential, often before they’ve turned 18. (Expungement petitioning is a popular workshop topic among our students, and I hope to be able to do more to help them with this next year.) And so my primary thought leaving the series is simply that my remaining sense of Simpson’s guilt simply isn’t and was never commensurate with the thirst for blood that accompanied his acquittal, and that this imbalance, multiplied many times over, has profound implications for how the system works for or against others. (Oddly enough, my first sense of this value system emerged after the imprisonment of Paris Hilton, a sense that a misplaced public thirst for vengeance among people I may have otherwise respected was papering over and perhaps even implicitly supporting wildly outsized forms of punishment to non-Hiltons.) That thirst was there in me, humming quietly in the background, and it was marshalled toward an outlier case that seems to have had few precedents and certainly seems not to have had many direct followers. Understanding that thirst, grappling with it, disassembling and defusing it, that’s what marks the biggest challenge in my thinking about what it means to have criminal justice. And it seems alien to many of the same students who have dealt with the criminal justice system – the ones who ask me, for instance, what I would do if someone shot someone I loved, as though it were obvious that I or any sane person would retaliate. But I really wouldn’t. I dreamt of retaliation and vengeance throughout my childhood; I killed bad guys and imagined righting wrongs and addressing slights with swift retribution. But the story of my adult life has been the diminishment of those dreams, even as I had more and more to lose, even as I could identify so mcuh more deeply with Ron Goldman’s parents, a constant somber and stone-faced presence on my television screen for a year of my life. This defusing process, this decoupling of vengeance and justice, is something that is necessary for us to get a handle on what crime and punishment is in this country or what it should be, what it’s there for. I’ve come to believe that you can have justice or you can have vengeance, but you can’t really have them both at the same time. And so the Simpson trial saddens me, and still angers me in many ways, but it no longer recalls that other thing, that dark and hateful thing that marked what was more or less my introduction to the criminal justice system.
  • Seven Tips for Teaching News Literacy to Eight- to 12-Year-Olds
    Seven Tips for Teaching News Literacy to Eight- to 12-Year-Olds: Forgot to share here the article I wrote for School Library Journal on K-6 news literacy. For me, the big point I’ve been thinking about a lot (and have written about here) is #5 – thinking of sources as a question of “who,” not of “where” or “what”: Tactics for spotting fake news or assessing journalistic credibility often treat newspapers, websites, and other sources of information as “places” to find information, rather than focusing on the specific people who create that information. The next point, about “getting things from Google,” is a sneak peek at a book chapter I wrote with a colleague about fair use in elementary school contexts, out next year.
  • Hitler’s American Model
    From Mein Kampf onward, Nazi jurists and policy makers took a sustained interest in American race law. Especially during the early 1930s, the era of the making of the Nuremberg Laws, Nazis engaged in detailed study of American immigration law, American second-class citizenship law, and American anti-miscegenation and mongrelization law. Some of them saw attractions in the system of Jim Crow segregation. In particular, the Prussian Memorandum, the 1933 text that laid out the basic statement of the radical Nazi legal program, specifically invoked Jim Crow – though it proposed a more “limited” version for Nazi Germany. Certain aspects of American race law struck Nazi observers as appealing: in particular, the exceptional American practice of harshly criminalizing interracial marriage lay in the background of the Blood Law. Other aspects, like the one-drop rule, struck them as excessively severe. Some of the more vicious Nazis, notably Roland Freisler, championed the lessons to be learned from American legislation and jurisprudence, while moderates like Justice Minister Gurtner worked to downplay the usefulness of American precedents. Nobody argued in favor of a wholesale importation of American practices; everybody was aware that America had liberal traditions that were at war with its racism, but many expressed their approval of what the National Socialist Handbook of Law and Legislation called America’s “fundamental recognition” of the imperative of creating a legally enforced race order – though Nazi authors always added that the task of building a fully realized race state remained for National Socialist Germany to complete. Page 135 of Hitler’s American Model by James Whitman provides a precis of the whole book, which should really be a must for all authors of non-fiction intended for lay audiences. If you don’t have time to read the book, his interview on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News summarizes many key points. He does this summarizing so that he can put some of his claims in context with how we might interpret some of the influences and echoes of American racist law from the current era – and not overinterpret his findings to call America of the 1930s “fascist,” say – with a particular focus on how our American common law traditions have directly led to some of our most pressing current injustices: The great jurisprudential conflict at work in Nazi Germany was not the conflict between common-law liberty and civil-state state power. The great conflict was between lawfulness, as founded in a civil-law idea of legal science, and lawlessness, in favor of which a man like Freisler could invoke the American common law. Nazi law, as a man like Freisler imagined it, was not a crass form of legal positivism, reducing the law to a duty of obedience to the command of the superiors. Nazi law was law that was liberated from the juristic past – it was law that would free the judges, legislators, and party bosses of Nazi Germany from the shackles of inherited conceptions of justice, allowing them to “work toward” the realization of the racist goals of the regime, with a sense of their duty to use their discretion in the spirit of Adolf Hitler. Judges in particular were to enjoy meaningful independence to be exercised in line with the goals of the Fuhrer. By this means, the law would institutionalize and perpetuate a savage form of national revolution, by giving discretion to the savage instincts of innumerable Hitlers in innumerable state offices. …Sometimes the American democratic political process produces admirable legislation. But to have a common-law system like that of America is to have a system in which the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians, and when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed. This second element of America’s influence on jurisprudence in Nazi Germany – our system’s far-reaching discretion of prosecutors and judges – is one that has survived the repeal of so many explicitly racist laws that comprise the majority of the commentary of the book (summarized in that precis above). Our system of elected prosecutors and judges and highly politicized judicial system leads to what Whitman identifies as current issues: for instance, he cites habitual sentencing (e.g. “three strikes”) to Nazi policies that define someone as a criminal. And this is the element that’s been identified in other recent work – by James Forman, Jr., John Pfaff, and others – that still makes the criminal justice system in the U.S. an “exemplar” for oppression.
  • “Uneducated”
    NOTE: This is something I wrote the day after the election and then sat on for months. It was too raw to post when I wrote it, but I think there’s a lot in it that I’d still like to explore, and I don’t want to give up the things I like about it even though there’s a lot here I’m uncertain about. A quick note on terminology: I will not write the word “uneducated” without scare quotes. I also will not write the phrase “only a high school degree” without putting scare quotes around the word “only.” Hopefully my reasons for this will be clear below. My job right now is to work with the “uneducated.” These are students who for a variety of reasons – some mundane, some utterly soul-crushing – dropped out of high school. Most, not all, are black. Many, not all, live at or below the poverty line. Their blackness and their poorness have no obvious correlation to their success in our school, or at least we work really hard to make this true. I teach students who just skipped school, because they hated it, until there were no obvious alternative but a literal “alternative school.” I teach students who were pregnant or caring for younger siblings or elderly family members and simply fell too far behind. I teach students who were incarcerated. I teach students who have gone through unspeakable tragedies and I am awed that they’re just there, day after day. But I also teach students who are more or less comfortable, just didn’t “click” with school, and needed something different to get over the finish line. And I should note that none of these categories are mutually exclusive. The one thing that quickly became screamingly obvious in my job is this: They did not fail. Education failed them. I have a lot of ideas and opinions and beliefs. Today they swirl around in my head as I shadowbox myself and my perceptions of many others, as I worry about “what to say in school on Monday” as though there’s anything to say, as though I know more than anyone else, as though I can’t just listen, which would be so much harder (oh well; it’s what I have to do). But the only truly bedrock one standing after a year of teaching in an alternative high school, and one that has been underlined, amplified, spotlit, and emblazoned across my heart and my mind especially after this election and its rhetoric, is that education is a human right, and a person who can’t achieve some significant, if minimum, level of status – and according opportunity from that status – have been robbed of that right. All of the students I teach, aside from a handful whom I often suspect are concern trolling their classmates, despise Trump with a passion unmatched in any other figure in the United States today. They believe that, along with the election being rigged (for Trump), and with the uneasy sense that their voice, and hence their vote, doesn’t truly matter, that Trump will usher in the most racist policies they can imagine. “Bringing back slavery” is how they usually put it. They don’t believe these things simply because they are “uneducated,” even if in some technical sense they can sometimes be wrong. Conspiracy theories are merely a backdrop for a more intuitive understanding of the gross injustices that are with them, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, all the time. And I believe the same to be true, more or less, of Trump supporters generally, at least those with “only” a high school diploma, who have been held up as, essentially, too stupid not to vote for Trump. They too have their own, if different, conspiracy theories that provide context for their sense of gross injustice, sometimes racist ones. (The SNL “Black Jeopardy” sketch made something like this point af few weeks ago.) In a Guardian article published a few days before the election, Chris Arnande describes the split between the “uneducated” white and black communities he visits this way: Natchitoches [in Louisiana] was like many other towns with their share of enthusiastic Trump supporters. It had suffered a devastating economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s when the cotton gin mills closed. Other than jobs related to the state university, it has since offered little opportunity. Those in town whose lives were not connected to the university lifeline were the Trump voters. Well, the white people in town. Natchitoches, like the US, has long been divided along racial lines, with black residents confined to a lesser choice of jobs, homes, and schools. And Trump was dividing them further. […] America has changed fundamentally over the last 35 years, and I saw and heard the impact of those changes. America had finally started upending a longstanding and ugly racial hierarchy, removing legal barriers that had made the playing field anything but level. For this, minorities overwhelmingly supported the new system, despite still suffering economically and socially more than white Americans. Yet we replaced that system with one based on schooling, building a playing field that was tilted dramatically towards anyone with the “right” education. The jobs requiring muscle decreased (many going overseas) while the jobs requiring school increased. Compounding the pain from this, we started giving the winners a much larger share of the profits. The early Trump voters I met were the losers from these changes. Their once superior status – based only on being white – was being dismantled, while their lack of education was also being punished. They lived in towns and communities devastated by economic upheaval. They were born in them and stayed in them, despite their fall. For many, who had focused on their community over career, it felt like their entire world was collapsing. What I like about this analysis is that it doesn’t take racism off the table, but contextualizes white racism with the legitimate struggles that white Americans deal with – and deal with, in part, by doubling down on those few advantages they feel are being threatened. They are right, I think, to believe those advantages are also their rights; but they are wrong, I think, to believe that other people aren’t equally and in some cases more deserving of those advantages, which are also their (the others’) rights. (Generally I’ve been frustrated by critiques of this election, from many perspectives, that conflate “white supremacy” and “white supremacists.” The idea that you can’t factor in white supremacy to the mindset of a person who voted for Obama and then Trump, for instance, is to confuse that person, who has undoubtedly benefitted from white surpemacy without seeing those benefits for themselves in any meaningful way, just by dint of not knowing what it’s like not to be white, for a white supremacist. The on-record white supremacists also turned out in droves for Trump, but not necessarily for the same reasons. More than one problem led us to Trump.) We can mock or deride “uneducated” whites and insist that education would change them. But when we talk like this, it seems like we’ve got the problem the wrong way around. Whites with “only” a high school diploma don’t want to throw a “Molotov cocktail right in the center of the bastards who did this to us” (in Michael Moore’s prescient phrasing) because they are uneducated. They are uneducated because they are in a system that isn’t working for them, to the extent that it seems to require a Molotov cocktail. They just don’t recognize, or don’t care, that the fire won’t hurt them as much as it hurts other people for whom the system isn’t working either. I’m not absolving whites with “only” a high school diploma from their votes for Trump (and I can’t absolve myself for not talking to more white people who I knew would likely vote for Trump). Like my students’ fear they’ll be “sent back to Africa,” on some level, lots of Trump voters are simply mistaken about a lot of what they believe, especially as regards what a Republican-controlled Congress and a President Trump would do about their problems, the source of those problems, and any possible hard solutions. But what they’re not mistaken about is the existence of their problems. Their “uneducated” status is a symptom of those problems, not its cause. (So how about those whites with college degrees, like the insurance adjuster I met last night who delightedly quipped that he is “NOT! Disappointed!” in the election results, before returning workmanlike to the everyday functions of his high-paying job that reqires a college degree? He’s not the same. But then I’d also hazard to guess he didn’t support Trump in the same way that the subjects of Arnande’s piece did. Again, more than one problem led us to Trump.) To see things the other way around – to think that people vote Trump because they are uneducated, rather than that a breakdown in education and basic security as human right is one of many factors that makes Trump look particularly appealing to white voters with “only” a high school degree – to see things this way is to use the same logic that paints my students, who are in a system that has failed them, as failures themselves. In this telling, “dumb people voted against their interests,: we are making the inexcusable mistake of equating the "uneducated” and a whole group of unrelated adjectives – stupid, bad, ridiculous. Even after I’d taught at my school for about ten minutes I knew, if I didn’t know it before, that there is no obvious correlation between any of these words and whether or not my students had (or later, “only” had) their high school diploma. So yes, by all means, we need to improve the social infrastructure that guarantees rights to people to a safe and productive and meaningful life. But thinking that “to educate,” beyond improving that social infrastructure, means something like “present the right facts and different perspectives and watch the problems go away” is not only naive – it’s an insult to those “uneducated” out there who know a lot, but about things that don’t make it any easier for them to succeed in their society. My students all start their time at my school “uneducated.” They, for the most part, leave with “only” a high school diploma. That is an enormous achievement often made against cruel barriers. What we can’t do is guarantee that other people – those who make up our colleges, our local, state, and federal government, our social welfare support systems – have taken the steps they need to do their part, too.
  • Poor People Work
    So many strands have been bouncing around in my head as I think and read and teach in the age of the Trump administration that I haven’t really been able to make any of them coalesce. I find my politics, which were always fairly left, moving toward a more coherent leftist philosophy. I find my teaching relaxing, letting social justice and humor and bullshit commingle fairly indiscriminately, listening a lot, not having a set idea of where I want things to go. I find myself giving more money, paying attention to more things (showing up is still a problem – baby #2 arrived in early March). For whatever reason, what finally clicked for me, after reading about Ida B. Wells and precariously carceral Philadelphians and primitive accumulation in a rapidly industrializing America and a seemingly endless stream of articles and thinkpieces and Facebook posts and – I can’t even believe it myself – podcasts – after all that, what clicked is the simple idea that poor people work. That phrase is probably a window into my own privilege. But there’s something deeper in it. Poor people work. Distinguishing between the American working class and American poverty is an incoherent distinction. For some reason, when many scholars confront the cruelty of American poverty, they seem to bracket it from the working class as a coherent socioeconomic category. This was most obvious to me when I read Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau, whose inability to find any meaningful commentary on parental strategies (or lack thereof) within urban poverty, I now realize, in part reflected her need to separate the cruelties of American poverty from the larger distintegration and precariousness of the working class writ large. When we simply combine these two categories and refuse to see them separately, most of her observations about the working class hold true to her sample of poor parents, except those in poverty are trapped more acutely (and, in her telling, unconscionably). But I’ve been breaking down the distinction between poor and working class. To be reductive about it, treating the students I teach as “poor” stigmatizes them and their likely trajectory through postsecondary learning or work. It does this in two ways, one that I think is a “progressive” trap and the other that is a more obviously bankrupt way. The bankrupt thing that the label of “poor” does is simply remove students from larger society, putting them into a singular category that is somehow separate from the larger functioning of their society. It isolates them, treats them as a “social problem” in ways that often are blind to the subtle ways in which they do or do not conform to expectations of what it is to be poor in America in 2017. It can lead to assumptions about their eagerness to work (I can relay my own anecdotal evidence that 100% of my students are always, actively looking for work). This is a trap that affects left and right perceptions of poverty – on the right, someone like Ben Carson can use this isolation to frame poverty as a “state of mind,” while on the left someone might be tempted to think about social safety nets and social welfare without considering how poor folks themselves imagine the role of these supports in their own lives (short story: it’s really complicated, and the right-wing perversion of this complexity doesn’t come from nowhere). The more “progressive” trap is the one I’ve been grappling with. Isolating poverty from a working-class distinction among my own students gave me an incredibly naive and unrealistic understanding of their own sense of possibility; the real, likely course of their postsecondary trajectories; and where success is possible for a majority of my students within a working class which many of them are not only aspiring to have a solid footing in, but are proud to have a solid footing in. The idea that someone might be proud of being working class is oddly taboo among the political coversations I find myself having about urban poverty. But at my school, students are incredibly proud of achievements that just don’t fit a lot of privileged ideas of what it means to have “postsecondary success.” I’m thinking of my students who go on to short-term vocational training and secure long-term employment with benefits and modest but fair salaries. I’m thinking of students who can bump their hourly ask from $8 an hour to $12. I’m thinking of students who have a clear-eyed vision for their working class future that involves some college or postsecondary training but no greater vision of achieving a life that they can’t currently imagine. I always have room in my mind for students exploring, dreaming big, doing things like “learning to think” – the sorts of things that are long said to be the unique territory of undergraduate education (and, specifically, non-community private or public undergraduate education). But I also worry about students going in to a private college with little postsecondary support and dropping out before their sophomore year, making few gains beyond a high school diploma statistically and taking on massive amounts of debt. I worry about the racism they may face in minority-black higher education institutions that they haven’t been prepared for and may not have much support to enter. I have two thoughts here. One is that high school needs to be more in the habit of teaching those skills that seem, rhetorically at least, to be so important in undergraduate teaching, while also serving remediation and foundational literacy practices. (This is an area I think media literacy has a lot to offer – more on that to come, I hope.) Another is that we need to break down the privileged fantasy of undergraduate education as a ticket to more privilege, and be more realistic – and transparent – about the role of college in the perpetuation of privilege and not a ladder to it for those without. I don’t think that this should be the end of the story. I think it needs to be the more realistic start of the story, so that (1) we educators who view postsecondary success in a limited way can be prouder of trajectories that don’t fit those views and (2) we can work to provide meaningful postsecondary education experiences to populations for whom the racket of a four-year university isn’t and maybe shouldn’t be a dominant framework for their future development as thinkers, producers, and leaders.
  • Farewell to the limbo stick
    Media educators (and other educators too) have dealt with media intrusions for a long time – from passing notes to students bringing portable radios into class to texting or taking phone calls on a flip phone. But smart phones are different. We have conversation after conversation among teachers and administration at my school about our cell phone policies. Many schools simply forbid them, collecting phones at the beginning of the day and giving them back at dismissal. We don’t do that, but we don’t really have anything concrete in its place. Some teachers will consider cell phone use a classroom disruption; others are more ambivalent about it (I’m usually in the latter category, with some exceptions). I’ve read plenty of “progressive” ideas for integrating cell phones into learning environments, from disciplinary strategies (positive reinforcement, a no-fault “turn in your phone for the period” policy, a demerit system, etc. etc. etc.) to engaging classroom activities. I have my students use cell phones for academic reasons all the time, for what it’s worth. And I’m not prepared to say “none of these strategies work,” because I’m still too new at it and my own classroom management is not particularly enviable, though it’s gotten a little better. But…so far, I’m not convinced that any of these strategies DO actually work. I think there’s a more important issue than the disruptive potential of cell phone use in the classroom, though. It seems to me that the nature of cell phones (of the smart phone variety) at school makes their presence a unique and possibly intractable problem for teachers who view cell phones as “distractions.” One thing that every student tells me when I ask about cell phones is that they usually go on their phones because they are bored. Yes, students use their cell phones when they are bored. Revelatory! I know that sounds obvious. But we often think about cell phone use as a one-way problem –- from the preventive side, how do we train students not to have to use the cell phones in “inappropriate situations”? From the proactive side, how do we give them incentives to want to use cell phones in a more productive way? But we rarely ask the quesiton in the other direction: why are students so bored that they hop on their phones? And the answer I have to this question now is not the one that I entertained prior to being a teacher, which was something like: school just isn’t interesting or engaging enough and if it were, then students wouldn’t need so many distractions (literally one second’s reflection on my own high school experiences would have dispelled this, of course). Don’t get me wrong, school often is unnecesarily, and sometimes crushingly, boring. But students often opt for the phones anyway. Even in really engaging classrooms, where the students tell you they like the lesson and are engaged, cell phones still pop up like a game of whack-a-mole. One thing that smart phones have changed, I think categorically, and not just for students, is the threshold of boredom that it now requires to turn to your phone instead of engaging in the moment. There are so many things to do with a cell phone, so many ways to re-engage with your out-of-school life (this is what smart phones do, in ways far more immersive than flip phones, say, could ever do), that the cost-benefit analysis changes from “am I so bored that I would do anything rather than sit here right now?” to “would I like to check in on literally anything else going on in my life right now?” That is a much lower threshold. It’s the difference between going under a limbo stick and walking through a doorway. It’s right there. A key insight from my students here is that it’s not just them. It’s not just my students, or their generation, that are asking this question. It’s all of us. I have never (never!) been in a business meeting, conference, or, hell, even a dinner with more than a few people – most of whom have established adult careers that they are in no danger of losing due to cell phone overuse – in which someone didn’t check their cell phone. Smart phones are one place where the needle hasn’t just moved at the student level, as might have been true with other forms of media distraction in classrooms. Most professionals aren’t so bored in meetings, say, that they would do anything besides just pay attention to where they currently are – listening to a radio broadcast in a staff meeting or passing notes (though even that happens occasionally still). In every meeting I have ever attended with more than five people or so, someone has at some point decided they need to check in with the rest of their life outside of this meeting, glancing at their phone for texts or missed calls or checking their email or their Facebook or something, just for one second, rather than give their full attention to the meeting. I would say something like “we need to decide as a society whether this is the example we want to set for our students” but beyond seeming too preachy, it’s just too late for that. To understand cell phone use among students, teachers need to reframe the way they think about media as a “distraction.” We are connected to our full, messy, complicated, real lives 100% of the time, and these connections are both immediately accessible and relatively discreet (you can check under the table if you’re sneaky). Nearly every adult I’ve engaged with in a professional capacity has done the cost-benefit analysis that my students do every hour of the day – “does literally anything else that might be happening in my life trump what’s happening in this room right now?” That is a fundamentally different question, and it’s not a “distraction” in the sense that we tend to use that word as teachers. It’s a total shift in mindset that has affected everyone. If pre-smart-phone distractions were a limbo stick and smart phones are a doorway, it’s the difference between choosing to do something intentionally versus drifting into doing something, perhaps only somewhat consciously, or even accidentally. (Which, I should add, is exactly what a lot of cell phone use in my classroom looks like – semi-conscious, or even unconscious, slipping through the doorway. In the lexicon of classic classroom distractions, it’s much closer to doodling than it is to passing notes.) I don’t have any solutions here; but I do know that thinking of it this way has eased my irritation at the presence of cell phones in my classroom. First, I don’t take distractedness so personally, any more than I take students doodling personally. (In some cases doodling improves memory retention, such as during note-taking. I’m not aware of a corresponding cell phone benefit, though.) When I’m honest, I concede that I would probably make the same decision myself, even in situations that were genuinely engaging. I do have one idea, but it’s not an attractive one -– have no restrictions on cell phone use during class at all, but instead set rules about discretion. Legal as long as you don’t get caught – it’s a “text under the table rule.” Send your text and then re-focus. Glance and then re-focus. Beyond being skeptical that this would work (people, not just students in a classroom, are far more distracted by cell phone use than they think they are; studies have shown that glancing at your phone to text while driving, for instance, distracts you for a full ten seconds AFTER you’ve put your eyes back on the road), it just doesn’t feel like the right message to send to students. But this idea is related to another idea I’ve been having: trying to be more transparent when I’m asking students to code-switch. A lot of “code-switching” we ask students to do at our school is one-sided – that is, we want them to switch into some other mode of academic or professional engagement, but we never really let them switch back, nor do we explain that we are asking them to do something that will probably feel uncomfortable and is not, and may never be, natural for them, or even fair to them. Transparency in code-switching requires not just the switching, but a deconstruction of the codes themselves, pointing out when certain academic or professional expectations are culturally insensitive, actively uncomfortable, or even the direct product of racism. A code-switch framework for cell phone use may be less specifically cultural, and would probably apply to teachers in almost exactly the same way – teachers would give up their phones in a way that is actively uncomfortable and then reflect on the experience. Have teachers “turn in their phones” before meetings. Do workshops specifically about our relationships to mobile devices to figure out how they help us and how they hurt us, from a personal perspective, not just the blanket statement that they’re distracting. (It’s really hard to convince a distracted student who doesn’t feel distracted that they are, in fact, distracted, just as if you’ve ever texted while driving you probably didn’t think you were distracted after your eyes were back on the road.) Along those lines, I’ve had a lot of conversations about cell phone use, lots of parsing of why students use their phones and when. I’ll pause class for a day and just talk about it with my students for a half-hour every now and then. What I’ve noticed is that only a minority of my students have what they describe in their own words as a “cell phone addiction.” A subset of these “phone addiction” students will willingly give their phones over sometimes, given the opportunity, knowing they can’t help themselves from looking at their phone during class. As for the rest of my students, when I’m charitable to them, I notice that the ones without a specific “phone issue” don’t really check their phones that much, and when they do, it’s also likely that they’ve finished their work or a lesson is floundering. That is, for the majority of my students, cell phone use is a symptom of a problem (in the classroom, anyway) rather than the cause of one. A lot of cell phone problems, from the perspective of teachers anyway, are a visiblity problem, not a distraction problem. It’s the teacher who is distracted, not the students –- I notice that sometimes I tend not to discriminate between students using their phones and therefore I’m not actually tracking who is using their phone occasionally but staying relatively on task (i.e. is using the level of discretion my co-workers and I use in meetings) and who is a chronic user or using the phone to escape the lesson. “Cell phones are out” can become a binary variable, but I imagine there are more complicated patterns happening in any given classroom along three variables –- what’s happening in the classroom, who has a specific “cell phone problem,” and who has reached their low boredom threshold but, given another activity, would still re-focus and be on task. Anyway, I have no actual answers here, just observing that this is a problem that really is unique to teaching right now because it’s unique to society as a whole right now. Comparisons to other distractions and ways of disengaging just don’t work, because those other distractions aren’t mirrored so exactly in the adult world that we’re supposedly modeling for our students. Cell phone use has transformed into something like doodling on the margins of notes, daydreaming, or thinking about something else. But unlike those things, it’s plain to see. It’s "daydreaming” that accidentally buzzes or beeps or plays a Beyonce song sometimes. I can’t tell my students with a straight face that I would never glance at my phone in a professional context given even the slightest opportunity or reason to do so. So why should I expect them to feel any differently?
  • Hamburg (Reflections on my first year teaching)
    I’m exhausted. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what kinds of things have changed the most in the first year of full-time teaching. As I began this work, I could sense a shift in my sense of priorities and maybe even philosophies around teaching media education. But then as I look back over old posts, I see that actually I am for the most part putting a lot of beliefs and norms into action that I’ve internalized reading about and writing about and thinking about and doing media education for almost ten years. I’ve tinkered at the edges of some of these beliefs, but nothing has been shaken, really. The biggest difference between teaching in an enrichment or college environment and teaching high school is almost entirely physical. I teach five days a week, five periods a day, and teach two classes during the summer. We work in short 9-week “cycles” that more or less correspond to a marking period (quarter or semester). I quickly realized that teaching is marathon, not sprint, and that most of my methods and techniques for teaching developed for enrichment and college (which, as it’s turning out, are far closer in structure than either is to day-to-day high school teaching) just plain don’t work over a long haul. The metaphor I’ve been returning to is the “Hamburg period” of the Beatles mythology – the short story is that the Beatles were basically a local group of no particular significance, then got an odd and grueling gig in Hamburg playing for hours and hours and hours, over the course of a few years. (Don’t worry if you don’t know or don’t like the Beatles – you could fill in any number of examples to approximate that “marathon/sprint” style dichotomy, but the running metaphor wasn’t working for me.) To me, the key difference between teaching high school and teaching in less intensive environments is basically the difference between Hamburg and what might be considered a lighter, or at least more sporadic, mode of engagement. Here are some of the key differences: YOU CAN’T PERFORM ORIGINALS ALL NIGHT EVERY NIGHT. The Beatles didn’t have a back catalog when they played Hamburg, but even if they somehow had literally their entire songbook at their disposal, they wouldn’t be able to fill even a fraction of the time they had on stage. This has been perhaps the biggest “aha” moment for me, especially as someone who has some experience designing curriculum and enrichment activities. I was reminded of the difference this past week when I had an opportunity to teach a 30-minute stand-alone mini-lesson on stereotypes to students outside of my regular classes. It went really well! But it was the kind of structured, contained lesson that doesn’t work in a sustained Hamburg engagement. First, it’s just not long enough. My lesson fit into 30 minutes perfectly, could have stretched to 45 or 50, and could have expanded the creative element to do maybe a two-day lesson. But that’s less than half of a weekly structure, and there was nowhere to go after it was finished. Second, the Hamburg audiences had a lot of overlap, and if you play the same set every night, things start to get tedious. I’ve already started to figure out which of my standard activities can withstand lots of recycling (online research templates, storyboards and outlines) and which don’t work more than once (nearly all content-specific worksheets, many novel project ideas). YOU NEED COVERS – LOTS OF THEM. Before I taught full-time, I had a mild disdain for the whole basic idea of a pre-written curriculum. At its worst, I’ve seen teachers literally read scripts in a wooden monotone while asking students about things like their interpretations and opinions of a story. But it turns out that’s merely a perversion of a necessary component of long haul teaching – I never appreciated how the structure of the job demands cover versions and a radically omnivorous approach to curriculum development. Again Hamburg was a guidepost: sometimes you make covers your own, but more often you incorporate others’ ideas and work into something more like your house style. You don’t rework so much as filter through your own lens. Extensive reworking is often impossible under time and other restraints, so you need to work in whatever materials you can find to your environment without feeling the pressure to rip it up and start it over. And you need a LOT of material. By the end of my first year, I’m feeling practically empty, and I often look to like-minded educators for new foundations to build on. Curriculum from media literacy and media education simply isn’t enough, either – when the Beatles ran out of rock ‘n’ roll, they grabbed showtunes, music hall, pretty much anything that could fill another five minutes. YOU NEED STAMINA. Here’s an underrated component of teaching that I’m not sure I’ve seen discussed well except for one book on the subject, Inside Teaching by Mary Kennedy. In that book, Kennedy discusses a lot of the structural factors that keep teachers doing what they do – things that, from the outside, may look like inefficient or even counter-productive behaviors for quality learning in a classroom. One of them that I was fascinated by at the time, and have returned to repeatedly this year, is her concept of tranquility as a bedrock psychological requirement for teachers in their learning environments. She argues that disruptions to tranquility often lead teachers to overcompensate to essentially preserve what tranquility they can. I’ve noticed that often my own needs for tranquility are in total opposition to the natural energy of a media classroom. These needs aren’t as obvious in shorter-form learning environments, because stamina isn’t a key attribute. But in a regular high school environment, that need for tranquility starts to crowd to front and center very forcefully, and on a daily basis. My own strange rituals have been a surprise to me, as I haven’t needed them before. I could be “on” for an hour, then off for three. But I can’t be “on” for five hours. Ever. And so I need to take stock of how I cultivate tranquility for myself and adapt or prioritize those needs based on how well they complement learning. That said, there are times where my tranquility trumps learning, period – it’s just a matter of physical necessity. That’s something I haven’t yet experienced as an educator. YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE ON THE JOB. One reason teaching full-time is so physically difficult is that you really don’t have any “off” time to speak of. Professional development, even when it’s available, doesn’t really tend to deal in the day to day management of the classroom, which by its nature is pretty ad hoc. What that means is that aside from prep periods and personal time – neither of which are totally sufficient to prepare new material or master new concepts as a teacher – the only time you have to reflect, adapt, and shift your strategies is while you’re in the classroom. In some ways, this is actually an ideal way to work out new material with your class, but when it’s the only way to work out new material, it also means that your failures are “live” in a way that they aren’t when you have more of a break between teaching sessions. The structure of the school day is interesting in that, like a live set, if you teach a lesson multiple times through the day, you can experiment with what works in real-time, adapting as you go along. But the flipside of that is that when things go well the first time, the likelihood of pulling it off at the same level of quality three more times on the same day is basically nil. The cumulative impact of this is that teaching becomes an extended period of something between practice and performance (in a music metaphor – not entirely comfortable with thinking of teaching purely as an act of “performance” though obviously there’s a big element of it). There is both flexibility and stress in knowing that nothing that you’re doing is ever entirely baked – this is something that is true to all teaching, in a certain way (the missing ingredients, as it were, are the actual students you’re working with), but full-time teaching is a little different in that you’re never totally “started” or “stopped” – sorry to mix so many metaphors (did I mention I’m exhausted?) – but if in discontinuous and part-time teaching you have different results from your oven to reflect on, in full-time teaching the oven never really turns off, you just keep making batch after batch on the fly, and by the time you can actually stop you simply have too much product (too many practice sessions, too many performances) to do anything but take a more holistic view of the whole thing. Which leads me to… YOU SUCCEED AND FAIL CONSTANTLY, AND IT’S REALLY HARD TO DO A “SPOT CHECK” REFLECTION ON HOW YOU’RE DOING. By the end of their Hamburg stints, the Beatles were a formidable touring band, even though by all accounts they were amateurish when they started. When you look at the big picture, you can see how they evolved after the end of a year or two years, but on any given night what you get is, essentially, noise. I also think about the Ramones, who after years of grueling tours shaved seconds here and there from their set lists until they could play everything at nearly double speed in thirty minutes. But tracking that in the day to day would be pointless – like tracking hair growth or aging (I’ve sprouted some gray at the temples, for what it’s worth). You only notice the changes down the line cumulatively. The great drawback of this approach to change in teaching, of course, is that it’s really important to have useful feedback when you feel like you’ve failed or succeeded. But you rack up failures and successes so rapidly that those kinds of check-ins feel fruitless in the moment, but become unwieldy down the road. I have a mass of student produced videos, well-intentioned (but ultimately useless) worksheets, writing, journals, Powerpoint slides, audio snippets, survey data, conversations both remembered and recorded. Piles and piles of it. But I don’t have nearly the bandwidth to process it all, along with my own observations or those of my students, and much of it was glossed over or not given the attention it deserved when it was created. In the aggregate, I have some big take-aways of what works and what doesn’t, but at that granular everyday level, I just don’t really know what works or what doesn’t work outside of a few obvious exemplars (which, to go back to point one, doesn’t begin to cover the amount of class time I have to prepare for). I can assume that shifting my big picture outlook will shift the everyday stuff, too – once you’ve shaved off twenty minutes of set time, your new material will be incorporated differently than it would have been before – but once the grind starts back up, it will be difficult to determine what’s working and why. In my next post, I’ll try to list some of the things I’ve learned and observed in my first year.
  • isabelthespy: I was talking with a friend a while ago about how like the problem with Teaching...
    isabelthespy: I was talking with a friend a while ago about how like the problem with Teaching Critical Thinking is that you actually can’t think critically about anything without some kind of fact-based framework about it and she was like “yeah, I think that’s why students learn a lot of it through English classes, because you can have all the information of a text” and at the time I was like “oh true” but actually I have thought about it since and I am starting to feel like maybe that is a lie perpetuated by mediocre English teachers! Been looking for a way to expand a little on one of my previous posts and this post sparked something… I had a fascinating debate with my wife about something like this – she was responding to my preliminary thoughts on “credibility” that I wrote about here. She basically argued that you can’t understand texts without understanding a bunch of other stuff, and that this process is actually especially difficult in the context of something like an English class, where what you need to know in terms of context can stretch out to infinity. (The idea that everything is “there in the text” is probably just an artifact of there being such a huge number of possibilities of how to read a text – a way of looking right through the air and assuming there’s “nothing” in front of you. I actually think ALL subjects work this way, but it’s especially unavoidable in literature settings – the fiction of “right and wrong” isn’t really in the teacher’s toolbox in the same way it is in math class.) I was reminded a little of Lisa Delpit’s critique of the trend of “developing voice” in ELA, especially among black students, indigenous students, and students of color – reductively (and from memory, so I may be a little off here – this was just my takeaway of her position), she argues that kids HAVE voice already; the problem isn’t with whether or not students have a voice, but whether anyone respects or “hears” their voice, and whether they can communicate it in ways that are, usually unfairly, outside of their experience or culture. What students don’t necessarily have is a base of particular (usually culturally-specific) knowledge and skills that they will need to be better understood to people who don’t really value the voice they already have. One issue here, I think, is that (in my experience, at least) the more background knowledge you build on a given issue, the less strongly-voiced and obvious your “criticality” tends to get. There’s a kind of uncanny valley of “critical voice.” Actually, it’s more of an uncanny moiuntain – quiet on both ends and loud in the middle. On one end, you have relative ignorance, which leads to (most often) a lack of opinion or interest in a topic. This side of the valley is where the vast majority of students spend the vast majority of their time in school – not really knowing and not really caring. (There’s a version of this “know-little” side of the valley that may lead to something like strongly-held but misinformed opinions – though actually many of these kinds of strongly-held, seemingly “wrong” opinions usually ARE built on some kind of background knowledge, just not of a variety that teachers are comfortable with or respect. That is, they actually fall in the middle of the mountain, but we pretend that they’re the result of ignorance, because it’s easier to “fix” ignorance than it is to change the heart or mind of someone who is profoundly different from you.) On the other side of the mountain, you have something like expertise – a subtle and extensive set of knowledge about a particular topic that allows for a variety of different perspectives and constant updating. It is exhausting, and usually forces one to begin any discussion of an issue in prefaces and caveats and multiple options for how to engage. (I.e., you end up answering most questions with “It depends.”) This isn’t to say that you have nothing to say, but that you paradoxically have so MUCH to say that it doesn’t necessarily code as “critical voice” even though it is. But in the middle, we have what I think a lot of people, and certainly a lot of teachers, see as “critical” – a small base of knowledge and some meaningful if limited set of skills to learn enough about any given topic to Have Something Informed to Say about it. In practice, I find a lot of these kinds of responses from students to be extremely shallow and often counter-productive to complicating an issue. Or, more problematically, their learning process uproots a meaningful opinion or idea they had from intuition or experience – on the other side of the mountain – that they can’t really support with the available evidence but is valuable nonetheless. When I started consciously learning more about music and becoming a “music critic” in my own mind, I actually erased a huge swathe of important ideas and experiences from my thinking and writing all in the name of having a more informed opinion. (It took me about 10 years to reclaim it.) One example I’ve been thinking about lately: many of my students have a blanket distrust of government sources of information, based on life experiences that haven’t really proven to them that major institutions have their best interests at heart. But when doing science research, it’s important in the short term for them to trust, say, the NIH or CDC over Yahoo Answers. And yet on the farther side of the critical uncanney valley, they would be able to critique even the most seemingly authoritative sources for inadequacy, differing points of view (e.g. using data to make one argument instead of another). They would go from being instinctively cynical about everything to instinctively skeptical about everything. And it’s a very slim difference from outside appearances (from totally not trusting to generally not trusting), with thousands of hours of analysis making up the actual difference in mindset. By privileging the CDC over Yahoo, I’m doing a short-term service to their “critical thinking,” maybe, but at some foundational level I’m doing a long-term disservice, I think, to the whole point of trusting the CDC over Yahoo, which is that actually you don’t start out “trusting” anything, but you also know enough to figure out how to trust something more than something else. I often think that I underestimate just how much stuff you need to know to develop that newfound critical understanding of information, and how constant a process it is in updating your information and revising how you feel about something. But it’s also difficult to think back along that process and remember what it was like to be on the far end of the Critical Thinking uncanny valley. One way to do it is to constantly force yourself onto the “know-little” side of a given issue. I like to believe that this is something that teachers can do in class – it involves finding areas of expertise your students already have, and then learning from them, casting them as the experts to begin with. But that’s easier said than done. The crux of my wife’s argument was that it would be misleading in many classes and subjects to claim that students have meaningful expertise that is relevant to what they’re supposed to be learning.
  • Why are you always trying to make us learn something?
    I found a weird echo of an idea I’ve beeng thinking about lately in Strangers Drowning, a book about “hyper-idealists.” The book itself is merely provocative, a patchwork of well-told yarns about the idealists themselves, and falters on the analysis, which seems shallow. For instance, the quote that resonated with me is, I suspect, at least a simplification, if not a straw man argument, about utilitarianism as philosophical school of thought: “[U]tilitarianism claims that you should act so as to bring about the most well-being possible in the world. Taken literally, this means that every single thing you do, at every moment of your life, should be motivated by that goal. Which is to say that there is no point at which you can say, I have done my duty, I have followed the rules, and I am now free to do what I want.” What struck me about the quote was not its merit according to its actual subject (frankly, I don’t really care, not being anything near a “hyper-idealist” myself and finding most of these subjects irritating going on creepy) but the way it bounced off a question I find myself asking a lot in teaching lately: Why can’t my students just take a break? I don’t mean “down time” for a few minutes at the end of a lesson or an alternative activity that’s tenuously connected to the ostensible subject for the day. What I mean is, why isn’t OK for my students to just kind of check out for a day? Why do they have to be in learning mode every minute they’re in my room? This isn’t some principled stance against “bell to bell” learning, mind. I’m actually grappling with my own sense that teachers owe it to their students to provide learning – even if only spaces for learning or opportunities for learning – while they’re in school. The most common complaint I get from students, whether it’s around cell phone use (allowed in our school, but not particularly warmly welcomed within the school culture, not because we’re opposed to it but because we don’t really know how to deal with the radical disruption of it – more on that later) or assignments that fall short of the bell or just not “feeling it” on a particular day is that they can’t opt out, especially when they’ve ostensibly finished their work for the day. I tend to frustrate some of my students because my “work for the day” can always be stretched past an initial goal. This might be something as simple as revising something they’ve written before the bell, or as complicated as turning something they figured was a final copy into the first part of a new phase of a project. But at some level, I take their question seriously. If they’re done, why can’t they just be done? And actually I’d go further than that. If they’re not feeling it today – that is, if they didn’t even get close to “done” – why can’t they just sit out, take a break, and come back? My sense so far is that teachers tend to be suspicious, sometimes outright dismissive, of students’ assessment of their own efficacy. Surely students who think they’re “done” simply haven’t worked hard enough (say), or haven’t done as much as they could do if pushed to deepen their engagement (or something). But when I’m honest with myself, usually when students finish my assignments early, it’s because I misjudged how complex the assignment would be, or how committed my students would be to go beyond the bare minimum required to (genuinely) complete the assignment – which, again, is usually a reflection on the assignment, not my students. That is, when they say they’re done, they’re very often really done. So why can’t they just tune out? And when it comes to “not feeling it,” forcing a student into work mode usually results in them disengaging completely or even finding ways to escape the classroom altogether, only to return when they are “feeling it.” For plenty of students, this amounts to a bad day. For others, what they’re “not feeling” is just the “resting” mildly oppressive environment of school. I remember feeling mildly oppressed in school, too. Not a big deal, just a kind of low-frequency hum of boredom and irritation. I get it. What I settle on is kind of punting on the “on and off” question. I try to offer corrollaries to things students do in their down time, like keeping track of the videos they’re watching on YouTube, say, or listening to music while doing some free writing or research for a bigger project. But these kinds of compromises, beyond being obviously ineffective (i.e., it’s easy to pretend to “free write” or “research” without really doing anything), seem kind of…wrong. Not really wrong. Just kind of “off.” I sympathize with my students’ impulse to just not care about school all the time, or even most of the time. To want to do what they need to do and no more. To, in the utilitarian framework above, follow the rules and then be free to do what they want. I wonder if students need much more time in school to not demonstrably “learn” anything. (Of course it’s possible that we learn things – important things – while goofing off, but my point is that we shouldn’t have to. I’m not talking about “informal learning.” I’m talking about not having to do anything.) I also think they generally need more time in school, period, but that there should be some not-insignifcant portion of this time devoted to not “being in school.” And I think part of this should be in the form of a kind of informal agreement in classrooms themselves. I imagine things like nap rooms and mindfulness breaks and “opt out” opportunities. The alternative – the status quo – seems to pathologize classrooms as a place where students perform, mostly punishing those who suffer the most from performance anxiety or, conversely, just don’t like performing. As someone who falls into both categories but who nonetheless thrived in school (which isn’t to say I “liked” it, per se, just that I was good at it), I can’t help but imagine what school would look like when students feel comfortable opting out and opting in, in their own time and at their own rhythm, which I’m sure wouldn’t really match the rhythm of a bell schedule. (And a final parenthetical here to remind folks reading that in this series if I seem to end up shadowboxing it’s squarely with myself. I’m not trying to turn other people’s school philosophies into straw men – even realistic ones. If I’m strawmanning, it’s gotta be my own ideas, at least.)
  • It takes two to be credible
    NOTE: I’ve been writing up some notes I’ve been taking as a new high school teacher, and I’ll hopefully be posting more of these in the coming few days or weeks. These are mostly “first drafts” of my thoughts so far based on what’s worked or not worked. I’ve been struggling as a new media teacher with the best way to tackle the issue of credibility in my classes. I find that a lot of standard ways of teaching, e.g., journalistic credibility (in the realm of news literacy) or source credibility are a harder slog without arbitrarily deciding beforehand which sources “count” as credible. But I don’t want my students trusting, say, the New York Times just because I said so. For one thing, this denies the reality that any given author, subject, or section differs in its level of credibility, and that even in a generally “credible” source there can be untrustworthy information. This presents a bit of a challenge, as I can’t predict with any real accuracy what my students already trust or why they trust it, and what they do wind up trusting often leaves me in a world of little-known networks and sources of information. To put it another way, I feel about the sources that they tend to trust – from websites, social media, YouTube, and other places – the same way they feel about my left-of-center semi-mainstream journalism diet. And it’s in this admission, that I don’t know whether or not I can trust their sources – which is very different from assuming I can’t trust them – that’s led me to what I think is a more productive way of thinking about “teaching credibility”: credibility isn’t just an attribute that you apply to a person or a source; it’s a relationship you have with a person or source. The way I’ve been breaking it down this cycle is a four-part determination that includes BOTH the source of information my students have and their own knowledge. That way they can chart not only the qualities of what they’re reading, but also note where they may have a difference of opinion or experience, or a lack of sufficient background knowledge to even determine credibility. The four that I’ve been working on, though I’m not really happy with them just yet, are: Point of view: the general position or outlook one has as it relates to what’s being said. Experience: Relevant experiences one has had in the subject area or with an event or topic. Interests: The reasons, especially those having to do with status, money, or other beneficial self-interest, people may have for saying or arguing something Sources: The other sources one defers to for authority. What I like about these four attributes is that they fit into a chart that students can fill out about both their source and their own background knowledge, i.e.: MY POV / THEIR POV; MY EXPERIENCE / THEIR EXPERIENCE; MY INTEREST / THEIR INTEREST; MY SOURCES / THEIR SOURCES. (The word “interests” can be a little confusing, since if I ask a student “what’s your interest in this,” I’ll often get a response like “I’m not that interested.” I usually define it as “what’s in it for me,” something like that.) One really useful starting point for many of my students, for instance, is to look at local news from their neighborhoods for incidents that may have involved people they know directly or indirectly. (These usually come up unprompted when I ask a simple question like “what’s going on in the world”; I wouldn’t force a student to talk about an incident they knew about if they didn’t offer it.) In these cases, the local news coverage nearly always misses details (minimal experience in the neighborhood), spins the event in a particular way in its tone (a particular way of thinking about and presenting crime stories), betrays a need to attract eyeballs without digging deeper or returning to the story (financial and programming interests), and relies on police and often tenuously related bystander sources. So in this exercise, my students start off knowing MORE than the “official” reports do, and have a means of charting that knowledge – their point of view as a resident, their experiences with both crime and news coverage of crime, their interest in knowing the truth about the event for their own curiosity or sometimes their own safety, and sources that news media tend not to cultivate (neighborhood networks connected to the event). I don’t have to throw them into the deep end of a news landscape that they may or may not know. Rather than just say that the news story is or is not credible (my students will more or less tell me that local news stories are generally credible, just sensationalistic), it establishes a comparison between author and audience. In a story about a cure for a little-known disease, by contrast, students may genuinely have little “skin in the game” in terms of their point of view, experience, or interest. (Usually their self-interest in thinking about a story like this is that they have to for class, which is a powerful interest, mind, but a little…boring? But boring works sometimes, more on that later, maybe.) They may need to rely primarily on the sources that the story uses and other information they can glean about the author (is this someone who writes about science all the time? A medical professional? A drug company representative? What’s their track record?). This also somewhat solves the “Wikipedia problem,” where students immediately discount the credibility of a Wikipedia article (or any source without clear authorship, like something an aggregator spits out) mostly because of their former teachers’ distrust. Instead, they can, without delving too much into the POV, experience, or interests of Wikipedia and Wikipedia editors (which certainly exist, but aren’t really my primary target for teaching about thoughtful Wikipedia use for research), they can go straight to the secondary sources, where the questions are usually a bit easier to figure out. That is to say that a good Wikipedia article already satisfies one out of four of the categories needed to assess credibility, meaning that any Wikipedia article is potentially “credible,” depending on where the editors get their information, which then goes back into the process. The bigger point, though, is that how credible something is depends largely on what you bring to the table – your own ability to understand the context in which the thing was created and compare it to what you know (or can find out). That credibility is relative isn’t meant to pathologically destroy the idea of credibility altogether – it would be stupid to say that one source can’t be more or less trustworthy (or, frankly, more or less right) than another. It’s just that the relativity of credibility requires us to understand where we stand in relation to something else. It isn’t an attribute that can just be bestowed upon a source; if we don’t actually know where we sit in relation to that source, it’s not really “assessing credibility” to use some other set of criteria alone – scanning for education credentials, news legacy, production value, strong byline, etc. – to figure out whether what’s being said is something we should trust to be true. The model I’m moving toward, I hope, puts my students and what they know at the center of the process. But it’s too soon to know whether this is any more effective at getting students to actually research well than just saying, in effect, “you can trust this…trust me.” In fact I know the latter is easier, and achieves the result of students putting together source lists that I (from my own position) would call “credible.” But I don’t know if it’s worth the cost to how they view research – as a process orchestrated by some other authority whom you’ve assigned credibility. The whole point is to learn enough to become authority enough to decide who to trust.
  • United States Supreme Court Rules Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive
    United States Supreme Court Rules Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive: Not a lawyer and haven’t looked through this at all (it was a FB share) but it seems like pretty good news. (I’ve been off this account for a while but would like to try to jumpstart it again…)

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