Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

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It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

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In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

Unassigned Reading

Just about everything I read now is unassigned. I am no longer in school. I believe that I have acquired all the academic degrees that I care to acquire in this lifetime. And while there may be the occasional course of study to deepen my understanding of certain professional or personal development topics ahead, the reading choices at this stage of my life are entirely voluntary and self-determined. If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that I am an enthusiastic reader and I have the privileges of time, resources and access which afford me a tremendous wealth of opportunity to engage with texts of all kinds.

I say all this now because I have been thinking about the reading that I have done which 1) has nothing to do with education directly, 2) I do with someone, 3) is something routine that we do simply for pleasure. I am thinking about a year or actually several years’ worth of reading aloud to my sons. My youngest is 8 and reading aloud to him counts as one of my greatest parenting pleasures. He’s an astute listener for whom the length of bedtime reading is still an extremely effective bribe.

Looking back over the course of this year, it’s hard to count how many books we read all together. The first 4 Harry Potter books were big, I think we re-read A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a recent birthday gift which we enjoyed. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf turned out to be an unexpected hit and as well liked as Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Chapter books were always punctuated by various picture books: Piggy and Elephant are among our favorites to read in tandem. Classic fairy tales also hit the spot: The Gingerbread Man, Jack in the Beanstalk, The Three Billy Goats Gruff – we read those over and over. With his dad he has discovered the fun in Asterix and Obelix comics (which is rather lost on me; I think it may be more of a European thing).

The librarians at my school have been wonderful supporters of our reading endeavors, not only supplying us with books that have been sorted out but also directing us to great new possibilities. While I began reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck on my own, my son was drawn in by the detailed illustrations which run throughout the story, so that we read a big chunk of it together. Although I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret on my own, it was a highlight when a 5th grader at school saw me with it and said he was reading it, too. And it was the elementary librarians who turned me on to Jaqueline Woodson, whose autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming in verse felt like a rare gift.

So many words, characters, and plot lines and all for the sheer pleasure of hearing, discovering, following, and anticipating what might happen next. My son remembers details from books we read months or even years ago. He quotes lines from one story that remind him of what we’re reading now. And with him I am miraculously able to remember too (most of the time). Recently we observed that a lot of children’s stories involve (and often open with) the death or unexplained absence of a parent. And we tried to understand how this kind of sets up the kids in the story to be heroes of a special sort. (We’ll be chewing on that theme for many more reads to come I’m sure.) Since I put a hold on continuing the Harry Potter series until the boy is a bit older, I’ve been attentive to introducing books and stories which can pick up some of the excitement slack in a more age-appropriate fashion. We’re currently reading The Abominables which is a delightful story about extremely kind and gentle Yetis being transported across Central Asia and Europe to England by a friendly truck driver and two pre-teens. (This is a book I dared to pick up based on its cover, I admit.) When my son commented on how much he liked this story, he said, too “I like everything you bring.”

All this unassigned reading for both of us. There’s no log. There will be no reports, book trailers, or other creative expositions of our literary excursions. Studies show our vocabularies are expanding, we’ll be more successful writers, we’ll do better on standardized tests.  Fortunately for us this is not the objective. It’s just us cuddled up, turning pages, giggling, pausing in surprise, finding just the right rest stop for the night. We have to good fortune to enjoy the very best of unassigned reading: joy and connection.

More Thoughts on Pasquale’s “Black Box Society”

When I finish reading a good book, my sense of satisfaction and fulfillment tends to be a rather private happening. I finish the book and even as I move on to the next (and there is always a next one), I still spend a fair amount of time processing the last. Since I’ve been blogging, I have used this space to share more thoughts about recent readings and that has felt somewhat liberating.

This summer I even went so far as to tweet out a picture of my proposed reading stack of 4 books:

https://twitter.com/edifiedlistener/status/619863567903256576

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidiche, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale and Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier. Three quarters of the way done, I find my mind twisting and turning to accommodate so much new and rich input. Only Data and Goliath remains and as a back-to-back read with The Black Box Society, I feel adequately steeled for whatever fresh insights on  data vulnerability it may bring.

Here I want to focus , however, on Black Box because I feel like I will find no peace until I have shared as much as possible while the ideas are still so active in my mind.  In an earlier blog post I noted parallels between Pasquale’s illustrations and the Harry Potter series. (Seriously.) In a nutshell, Black Box Society examines the role of algorithmic decision-making in the areas of reputation (how we appear to external parties), search (what we look for online and how the selection and ranking of responses takes place and may impact us), and finance (the business of making (much) more money out of some money). I read it because someone I deeply respect recommended it. Before I started I was already a little apprehensive.

While reading The New Jim Crow presented challenges in the form of emotional labor, I was concerned that Black Box Society might be a bit beyond me. I had reservations about my capacity to grasp all the topics author Frank Pasquale was planning to cover: intricacies of the tech industry and finance. I even wrote a sticky note to myself for a potential blog post: How to read a difficult text:
*go slowly
*talk back to your negative self-talk (that keeps saying you won’t get it)
*be patient
*allow not knowing
*come back to it again & again – build stamina over time

The sticky note is stuck just inside the front cover. As it turns out, however, I didn’t need it, per se. I made it through the text and felt well guided throughout. This was the first text in a long while that I read with pencil in hand. I underlined a lot and put notes in the margins. I got involved with the text and found unanticipated connections (i.e., to Harry Potter). And, I dare say, I had fun, even reading about finance because it was explained both generously and with significant intentionality. Particularly when the discussion turned to CDSes (credit default swaps), CDOs (collateral debt obligations) and MBSes (mortgage-backed securities) which stood at the center of the financial meltdown of 2008, Pasquale provided the necessary scaffolding for me to make sense both of the crisis itself and the underlying assumptions that made it possible.

As I read I kept coming back to thoughts about privilege, wealth and status. Whether describing the titans of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, Pasquale captures a very wealthy, white male demographic who wield an immense degree of power and influence in both the private sector as well as in government. And their ability to carry out so many of their transactions behind various cloaks of secrecy and complexity or “black boxes”, reinforces and expands the wealth and privileges this group continues to amass. As an African-American woman, an educator – I found myself reading and thinking that there are few who  expect me to read and be up on this stuff.  I find myself in this narrative as the clueless user/consumer who stands largely at the mercy of these gigantic corporate structures whose services I engage to write this post, to make it findable on the web, to purchase more books, to tweet more links, to tout my professional skills, connect with hundreds of other educators, and so on.

Frank Pasquale is extremely candid in his assessment of the current state of affairs:

What we do know is that those at the top will succeed further, thanks in large part to the reputation incurred by past success; those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages. Despite the promises of freedom and self-determinism held out by the lords of the information age, black box methods are just as likely to entrench a digital aristocracy as to empower experts. (p. 218)

Think about that for a moment. “Those at the top will succeed further…those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages.”
This captures our society with alarming accuracy. And we can be certain that black boxes abound, especially in areas where power is increasingly consolidated. I cannot help but think of the aggressive pursuit of corporate interests in K-12 and Higher Education where transparency and openness can quickly become casualties in the fight to “reform” public education through various forms of privatization. I must also consider the prison-industrial complex which provides shareholder billions as the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens in the developed world. As Michelle Alexander asserts in The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs has enabled the creation of a new social undercaste whose political, economic and social disenfranchisement underscore  the essence  of “cascading disadvantages.”

While reading Black Box Society I was frequently reminded of an essay by sociologist,  Tressie McMillam Cottam whom I quoted in a previous blog post:

…give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics.

There seems to be no escape from the political no matter where I turn.  Completing The Black Box Society becomes a political act,  as is reading The New Jim Crow and Data and Goliath. This is me “getting up on politics.” Getting informed, adding depth to my otherwise fuzzy notions of impending social and economic demise. It is impossible to read Pasquale and not become politicized.  He writes:

Internet and finance firms “set the standard” for our information economy. So far they have used their powers to know the world of commerce ever more intimately…Knowing more than a rival, or simply knowing it faster, is the key to vast fortunes.

But what if economic success were based less on information advantage and more on genuine productivity? Distracted from substantive judgments on what the economy should produce, we have been seduced by the mysterious valuations that Wall Street and Silicon Valley place on goods and services. But their algorithmic methods framed as neutral and objective, are predictably biased toward reinforcing certain hierarchies of wealth and attention. (p. 187-88)

The choices we have become very narrow very quickly unless we take steps at the very least to understand the evils to which we appear to be wedded. My attempts to comprehend the scope of  algorithmic dominance in our information economy seem to have been a wise and useful step. Following @FrankPasquale on Twitter has also broadened my perspective on related topics. This is not about learning the ins and outs of  a subject area. Rather this is about opening my eyes to what is unfolding right in front of me and has a daily impact on how we function as a society. We can’t see everything at once. But we can train our eyes on a specific field for a time in order to gain perspective, insight, and cause for further observation.

Frank Pasquale, The  Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.

 

 

The Integrity Diet

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

Throughout this year I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about what it is I am actually supposed to be doing. For about 8 more weeks I will still be working, living and learning entirely on my own dime. Time away from the classroom has brought an astounding degree of freedom and plenty of thinking and dreaming space. As this designated phase draws to a close, I am looking for the list of achievements I can hang my hat on; evidence of my productive use of this precious time. I keep asking myself: so where is the evidence? What have you actually done with yourself this year?

A valid question, yet not the ideal. Rather, to ask about what I gained, how I grew and which capacities I strengthened – these are the questions that bring me closer to understanding the value of this time better than lists of what I did and made. And on closer inspection, I see that above all – I changed my diet. I paid closer attention to what I was taking in, how it affected me and this in turn changed what came out. I didn’t realize it while it was happening but now I see that this year had everything to do with my integrity – how I live my life as my whole self and how I express and share that whole self with the outside world. I treated myself to an integrity diet.

I recently shared one of my biggest revelations on Twitter:

I joined social media, specifically Twitter, to “hang out” in a sense but instead got “caught up” as I described in a recent post. The deeper and wider my education-related conversations became, the greater my interest and focus on the very things that school and education, in and of themselves, can hardly fix or solve. In fact, the more I engaged with educators, journalists, activists and academics around these topics, the more keenly aware I became of the potential for school systems and political systems to harm students, exacerbate disparities and claim ignorance about how such circumstances (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline, excessive police brutality against black and brown people, also in schools) could come to pass. Internally, I note a shift in myself from accommodating to critical. While I love the idea of speaking to a broad audience,  it has become more important for me as a person, as a writer and as an educator to speak out and speak up and accept that not everyone will feel included, or comfortable, or agree with what I have to say. I am now willing to run that risk. My ego may take a hit but my integrity finds sustenance.

While I feed my integrity, where does the time go?

It seems to me that I read for hours on end each day: books, articles, blog posts, e-mail. I read and I seek to become wiser, better informed. I read in search of nuance and depth. I read in search of examples of healthy daily coping. I follow my friends’ recommendations. I develop opinions and then read on to have those same opinions challenged. When I find nuance and depth, I am grateful and compelled to share. One think piece that struck me in particular was Why Women Talk Less because the author did not leave well enough alone. Rather, she  examined research and arguments from various angles refusing to sum up her findings in tidy tweetable bullet points. She let the reader grapple along with her as she laid out the complexity and stickiness of the options that women appear to have in choosing to speak out and up. This type of reading is like a good workout. It leaves you a little tired and mentally sweaty but satisfied. And stronger; ready for the next solid think piece to come along and start something. And there goes the time. I read,  feel edified, and wonder where all this reading may be leading me.

Where?

Into the arms of writing, it would seem. The other chunk of time when I am not reading, I am seated at my laptop, pecking my thoughts out onto white screens with hyper-interactive sidebars. I used to write in journals, on paper. I do less of that now and tend to go straight to the screen. Since June 2014 I have published 65 posts on this blog and about a dozen on Medium.  At the outset I was fairly sure that I would be writing about coaching and teaching. But the most passionate pieces are best characterized as responses. Something I read or saw or thought about struck a chord and affected me. Like when a post by Audrey Watters nearly sent me over the edge (in a good and slightly revivalist way). Or when I  needed to dissect the reactions I was seeing on Twitter and elsewhere to a NYT piece on Success Charter Schools. Or most recently when I felt a little out of my depth venturing to take higher education to task but I did it anyway and am glad  that I did. In all of these pieces there was an emotional boiling point which made writing imperative and allowed me to push past the weighty apprehension I typically feel before I click “Publish.” Writing this year has meant jumping over my own shadow. Repeatedly. And with bigger and bigger leaps.

What did I do with myself this year?

I grew and I learned. I have found that my interests extend far beyond where I thought my borders were. In my reading and writing, in fact, I’ve gone abroad. I have ventured into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable territory. I have gained a new appreciation for this wonderful brown skin I am living in.  I have come to better understand and value the ways in which it interacts and intersects with all the other aspects of who I am and how I identify.  I have explored aspects of my otherness while finding commonalities in likely and unlikely places. Opportunities to get down on the ground and truly wrestle with my most stubborn biases and blind spots have been multiple and recurring. I have made many friends and so far, very few enemies. I have come to value questions and responses over supposed answers and solutions. I have found a deeper desire to connect not simply with people but to their ideas and  connect those ideas to other people who may not be seeing the same things.

At the end of this year I have no product to market, no book to pitch, no course of study to offer. What I do have is the well nourished integrity of my intellectual, social and artistic pursuits. Perhaps I have never been as fully myself as I am right now. My integrity has never been in better shape.

Idea Fatigue and Staying Anyway

Sometimes I read a blog post by Terry Heick and a few things may happen.
1. I read it through a couple of times to make sure I get the gist and often feel briefly wowed by the profundity.
2. I go into social comparison mode and rank his visible thought process as deeper and more substantive than my own.
3. Part of me feels uplifted and as a result, I save the link to Evernote for eternity and perhaps tweet it out to my network.
4. Another part of me simultaneously wants to promptly leave the field of education without a trace.

What’s going on here?
One of the joys and also woes of diving into the fullness of twitter and other social media is managing our sense of self as we engage with so many others in various ways. On the one hand, I revel in the intellectual challenge and meatiness that reading a well crafted blog post can offer. On the other hand, particularly if the post concerns education and proposes steps towards rethinking and changing practice, I can also develop a sudden case of “idea fatigue.” That moment when you recognize that your will is much weaker than your best intentions. It’s when you decide to fold rather than play out the hand on the chance that the next card might just turn things around. It’s the point at which your incredibly wise, diligent and productive learning network members rise to edu-Olympus without you. These are the very real moments when I think maybe because I don’t feel as ready to “go hard” as many others, I should decide instead to “go home.”

All that said, I have yet to actually “go home” or to leave the field. I keep reading, saving, tweeting, commenting, coping. For the time being I am enjoying a break from the classroom to focus on coaching. I have other, not bigger, fish to fry. My idea fatigue is real and so is my commitment to ongoing learning, however checkered and imperfect.

So when I read this knock-out imagined speech from student to teacher imagined by Terry Hieck:

Help me to see the limits of my own knowledge in a way that fills me with wonder. As a song I’ve never heard. Why should I care? Not the future me–the right-here-and-now me.

And maybe more crucially, how can we–you as the teacher, me as the student–turn this learning process all the way around, where it becomes to be about what I don’t know as a kind of spectrum of context and possibility.

Where ignorance is a kind of elegant and formless to-do list that shapes and reshapes itself endlessly, lighting my eyes with boundless curiosity and fire.

… I want to weep both for joy and despair. For he has captured both the essential longing and weighty onus of great learning.

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An entirely personal response to #Thisisnotatest

Dear José,
This is not a review.
Rather, reading This is Not a Test has given me much to ponder over the last couple of weeks and I want to say thank you for that. So many topics have cropped up in my reflections: race, privilege, US public education and the ills which seems to plague it…all these themes which give me pause again and again.

And yet, what makes this book, your book, stick in my mind and resist dissolving like a thousand other texts in my fuzzy memory, is the deeply personal nature of the writing. In bringing so much of yourself: your history, relationships, hardships, victories, progress and setbacks to your work and therefore to your writing, you have provoked me to study my own narrative and perhaps for the first time truly see how the dots connect to create meaning.

Here’s the thing: as I read This is Not a Test, I found myself underscoring the differences between your situation and mine (age, gender, subject, grade level, school type, location) and every time being drawn into the narrative more deeply by the kinship of color, teaching, language, love of students and clearly, love of learning. There are parts of the story which make me uncomfortable or which elicit a sense of guilt for not having pursued a particular path. My inner dialogues in response to your story have pushed me to examine the fact that as I stake my reputation on being an outstanding listener, how often am I using that to avoid speaking out? When you described finding your voice as a blogger and activist, I wondered to what degree I already filter and block much of my own content to insure that I don’t offend anyone.

This kind of probing reflection does not come with each new clever title. No, it is specifically you, proud black Latino male teacher, papa, activist, author José. And your impact on me, proud African-American female PE Specialist turned leadership coach living in Austria, is indeed something to write home about. When we dare to write and put ourselves on the page, the words, sentences and paragraphs are but a fraction of the whole package. Yet sometimes that very unique fraction is just enough to budge the needle in the direction of change; in fact, of being changed.

No more excuses, it’s time to make my own fraction count. Thank you for providing the impetus.

Sincerely,
Sherri Spelic
@edifiedlistener

P.S. The print version of your book arrived with Leo Buscaglia’s Love: what life is all about (1972) in the same package. A fine match.

If you are reading this post…

If you are reading this post, you took a journey to get here.  At some point, you learned to read.

If you are reading this post, it is highly likely that you are involved with education in some form.

If you are reading this post, then you are actively engaged in online media.

If you are reading this post, you are expending a portion of your most precious personal resource -your attention – on the ideas of someone you may or may not know personally.
If you are reading this post, it’s possible that your curiosity has been sparked. It’s possible that you are on the lookout for something in particular. Or perhaps for nothing special.

And yet, if you are reading this post, you are making a choice in favor of exposure, of taking a peek, of experiencing something you will not experience elsewhere.

If you are reading this post, then you are taking a moment to connect with someone else. You are venturing outside your own mind to investigate what someone else has to say and how she chooses to say it.

If you are reading this post, you may well have arrived here through serendipity. Or by design. You may be a follower. Or a leader.  What has your path been and where would you like it to take you?

If you are reading this post, you probably own your literacy and take measures to nourish and enhance it.  How are you encouraging others around you to do the same?

If you are reading this post, please take a moment to reflect on the many contributors to your literacy journey.  What are their names? How have they influenced you?  What would you say to them now to acknowledge their unique and priceless gifts to you?

If you have read this post and experienced resonance, then I want to say, “Thank you” and “Please, come again.”

This post is dedicated to my mother, Dorothea Lyons (1924-2014), who consistently fanned the flames of my curiosity, tirelessly insisted on my exposure to so much otherness along the way and inspired a love of the literate life like no one else I have ever encountered.

My mom, Dorothea Lyons

My mom, Dorothea Lyons