Education Evolutions #107

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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.

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