Rereading Moffett – Month Four

For me, interaction, at least in the way I believe I align with James Moffett, is that space between teacher and student, between the learned and the learning. It is that invisible space that crackles with possibility, like static electricity. It is the strange alchemy that can occur when teaching and learning coalesce and something happens, often expected and sometimes sublimely unexpected. It is synonymous with possibility and hope.

Photo: James MoffettI wish James Moffett was still with us. While his work is profound and revealing. There are still so many questions I wish I could ask him.

The more I investigate his opus Interaction, the more fascinated I become. As far as I can tell, there is just so much genius that unraveled at a moment in time waiting to be revived, renewed, and revisited. While the response in Kanawha County, West Virginia, to what-can-only-be-described as a textbook system proved a harbinger of so many of the kinds of controversies resurfacing in education today, the content also manages to hold an spellbinding prescience. If nothing else, the sheer audacity of the breadth and depth of what was assembled warrants the kind of review it is currently receiving, especially at University of California at Santa Barbara. I am just happy to have a small window on it, via the reading group.

Yet to be able to ask him about more pointed questions about the reasoning behind choices made in that massive assembly of pedagogy and program would be a masterclass nonpareil.

One of the things that I take away from our most recent reading group meeting, which has already become one of my all-time favorite National Writing Project endeavors, is just how much we still need Moffett’s voice today. While there are advocates, of course, we need more people to take up the mantle he fashioned in the field of education at his best. Still, his work continues to provide a powerful antidote to so much of the ed-reformy nonsense that pollutes the landscape of schooling today.

As I continue to read and re-read his work, I cannot help believe that he understood just how much every student/learner is engaged in a unique experience and failing to recognize, honor, and lean into that understanding is simply foolish. Yet, even that core understanding is profoundly inefficient, messy, recursive, and extraordinarily hard to convert into hard data, in most part, because it is so profoundly human.

Above all, to me, James Moffett was a deeply, earnest, and unwavering humanist.

Therein may be why I cannot stop drinking in his ideas and writing.

Education Evolutions #109

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

It remains a slight mystery to me how we have managed to get to mid-October in the school year seemingly so quickly. The fall semester always takes some time to get going, despite feeling a bit like a sprint. Yet, it can often feel more like a mile run, which pretty much is a long sprint, despite plenty of non-runners thinking of it more as a distance event.

This week’s selections include three short reads once again. They are a mix of current events, related issues, and some quality reminders for teachers. It is a mix of some old and very recent material. A few of the items have some pretty interesting links worth clicking too.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is a bit of toss-up. The first one is probably the one I found the most interesting, personally. Yet, the last one probably has some lasting impact for anyone still working in a classroom. They are all short reads so consider giving them all a look.

I hope you too were able to enjoy the day.

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

This Map Exhibit Draws A Darker U.S. History — Of Expansion Into Native Lands – WBUR Artery – Frank Redner (4-minute read)

This post is all about an exhibit currently running at the Boston Public Library. The map center has a series of maps on display that are accompanied by some distinctively different points of view. There is the traditional historical perspective, like that which we have all seen for years. Then there is a Native American perspective that reveals a very different and darker point of view.

It might not be obvious to everyone just how much maps are a vehicle for perpetuating a point of view. There is a notion that maps are simply representing the land, a way to orient ourselves. They may be that but that orientation may not be quite as direct or straightforward as we might have believed. Adding native voices to this exhibit makes is a great way to force a reconsideration that requires confronting some much more uncomfortable realities. The United States as an entity has essentially broken every promise ever made to Native Peoples. It is not an admirable legacy.

By paying attention to that fact and giving voice to those marginalized and worse in an exhibit like this is not only a great way to reconsider maps as a representation of reality but to interrogate the very reality being represented. It strikes me as a remarkably insightful and culturally sensitive approach to artifacts that may seem far more simple than they actually are. I love exhibits that force a reassessment of things we might take for granted, like this. I hope I get a chance to go see it.

California becomes first state in the country to push back school start times – Los Angelos Times – Taryn Luna (4-minute read)

This story is fascinating for a whole host of reasons. For one, the fact that California becomes the first state to mandate schools start later is an interesting development by itself. The reasons and justifications as to why are even more interesting and revealing. While there seems to be some flexibility for schools to work within this new mandate, it remains a pretty bold move on the part of the state government.

There is a lot of compelling research about adolescent sleep schedules being not only different from adults but at odds with the way we schedule schools with high schools generally being the earliest start times. California has now addressed this legacy issue. Why everything has to be couched in terms of outcomes is symptomatic of just how wrong-headed we can be about education. The fact that it is simply better and considerably more healthy for adolescents ought to be enough of a reason to make a change like this.

It is fascinating that the teacher’s union seemed to not be in favor of this change. While I understand their point, I just do not agree with it. If we have overwhelming evidence that this would be good for kids, there is not much more to defend. There is no question that any change in schedule could potentially impact families adversely in the near term. However, many of these should be able to get sorted in the long term. Continuing to ignore the evidence about this issue is not entirely unlike saying, “The school building is making your kids sick but it is really difficult to do anything about it, so we won’t.” Wait, that happens too sometimes.

A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned – Granted, and… ~ thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins – Grant Wiggins (9-minute read)

I stumbled upon this recently when, Alfie Kohn reposted this account from a post by the late Grant Wiggins about five years ago. It is about a teacher turned coach shadowing a student for a couple of days, what they observed and their reflection on the experience. I may have read this before, I cannot remember but it that makes it no less valuable today.

Part of my interest is that I am going to be shadowing a student in a high school different from the one where I teach in the next month or so for some research as part of a fellowship I am currently doing. There was an outside chance that there wasn’t going to be time to schedule the student shadow but I pushed for it. While I have observed a lot of classes, especially in my past role as a technology specialist, my focus was always more on the teacher. I am kind of eager to shift focus and limit my view to that of a student only. Not only do I suspect it will inform my work in the fellowship, I am interested to reflect on it as a teacher too.

I think some of the points here are strong and I must admit that I regularly forget about some of these things too. Simply finding ways to get students out of their chairs and moving a bit more is something I could definitely do more. Yet, one thing that often creates challenges to this is not just the time but the students. I am always amazed by how much students can fight the idea of moving around the room when asked. There are plenty of times where moans and groans greet the request.

Education Evolutions #107

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

If you are in New England, this past week may have been the autumnal turn. The temperature started to drop, then there were a couple days of proper rain before the sun returned with temps much lower than earlier in the week. It should only be a matter of time before the leaves really start to change colors now.

This week’s selections are kind of entangled in a way. The first item, a blogpost from PL Thomas serves as a kind of precursor of sorts for the other two items. While you do not necessarily have to read each in order, it would provide a fuller more interesting picture even though the topics seemingly are disconnected. I always advocate reading all three items but also know that people are busy. Reading in order this time might be more preferable than other weeks.

As a result, this week’s “If you read only one article…” is the first one. While it is about reading instruction, it is just as much about education journalism which I have a love-hate relationship with. Clearly, I read a fair amount of it but part of my reason for starting this newsletter was how annoyed I would get with some of the reporting I read. I needed a place to voice some of that disappointment, as well as highlight things I thought more of my colleagues should give a look or think more deeply about.

So hope these articles find you well. I may have just about beaten my cold, finally.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading” – radical eyes for equity – PL Thomas (8-minute read)

As a former high school teacher turned university professor, PL Thomas is an English educator that routinely offers up some of the most insightful commentary in the discipline. In this post, once you get past his introduction regarding Peter DeWitt is an exceptional categorical look at educational journalism and its work on reading instruction.

His overall explanation of how educational journalism often fails in their efforts to cover the “science of reading” is as good as any I have seen and probably has a longer reach than this particular issue. Yet, it is the item-by-item list of errors in the mainstream media that is impressive in both its scale and scope. Thomas covers the gamut with loads of resources as evidence to strengthen his case.

I think my favorite in the list is “Emphasizing voices of cognitive scientists over literacy professionals,” toward the end of the list. This is one of the unfortunate reasons why someone like University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham gets so much time in the media on reading issues. I have definitely mentioned in the past how tired of seeing him quoted in nearly every article about reading.

What Fan Fiction Teaches That the Classroom Doesn’t – The Atlantic – Julie Beck (7-minute read)

While I am not the greatest fan of the title of this article, it was successful in piquing my curiosity. It definitely offers some quality points about writing instruction as well as a potential window into the benefits of fan fiction for those unaware of its presence or potential power. Just as PL Thomas mentioned in the previous title about journalism being trapped in a “presentism,” this article is missing a bit of context.

One obvious reason for the article is the publishing of the new book Writers in the Secret Garden by two University of Washington professors. Having spent months researching fan fiction communities, the two present interesting findings, even if they may not be entirely new. Henry Jenkins’ work of participatory culture is deeply rooted in fandom. This white paper which became the precursor for a longer book is also pretty good. Still, one major issue I have is there does not seem to be any recognition that many benefits are due to the self-selected environment where writers want to be. That is a major difference between a compulsory classroom.

As good as points like mostly positive feedback, communal tutoring, and benefits of peer workshopping are it is the writing for real audiences that has the most power for me. How much more time could we spend asking students to do just that if it were not for the testing regime that all but requires that we English teachers spend the majority of our writing instructional time focused on an extremely narrow set of essay genres? Oh and almost all of the essays we assign will be assessed (evaluated or, as a lot of students see it, judged). Then we wonder why so many students do not like or even want to write all that much.

How to Bring Authenticity to Learning that Happens in School – MindShift – Greg Toppo (10-minute read)

Continuing on the topic of authentic audiences, this piece uses a project run at a mainstream media favorite to praise, one of the High Tech High Schools in California. The charter school system, which operates almost like its own district, does some cool work to be sure, but they also get a lot of media attention (See Most Likely to Succeed as a case in point).

This article has a lot of major players from the field that have some significant expertise in the whole project-based and deeper learning movements. One of the coolest things about the High Tech High School system is that it has an embedded graduate school of education. Thus,  teaming up with other higher education institutions can lead to some beneficial outcomes. Asking students to engage in projects that have public audiences beyond a teacher or classroom is incredibly powerful. High Tech High School students regularly publish their own books, in fact (How cool is that?).

This article also suffers from the kind of “both sides” coverage (another thing PL Thomas mentions in the first article of this issue), where Toppo opts for someone from another media favorite, the Brookings Institute think-tank. The offerings from Brookings’ Tom Loveless are not particularly insightful or interesting beyond basic skepticism. Well, he also manages to slip in a wee dose of classism, suggesting that it might be riskier unless done with wealthier or private school students.

If I smarted a little about Loveless’ dismissal, it is because very much reminded me of a mentor teacher of mine that was fond of saying, “What’s good enough for students at Andover, is good enough for students at [insert another school community]. In his case, it happened to be Worcester, MA. It is a phrase that repeats in my head all the time like a refrain.