Rereading Moffett – Month One

While I haven’t posted in my long off-again-on-again blog in some time, this seemed good inspiration for chronicling a journey.

Photo: James MoffettLast week, I entered a reading group focused on the work of the late English teaching giant James Moffett with a bunch of National Writing Project colleagues. When I first heard the group was being created I immediately jumped in and couldn’t wait to get started.

Moffett is one of those foundational figures of the early Writing Project. It took me years to glean just how significant his contributions have been to the field of K-12 English teaching. At first, he was just a name that wasn’t mentioned on the mouths of experienced NWP folks. As often is the case, my interest piqued, I started to dig and read a little.

Over time I came to realize just how much of my own thinking about teaching English and his overlapped. It has always felt like the more I read his work the more I nod and think to myself, “Why don’t more people I know and work with realize some of this stuff?” Although to be fair, that is, in part, what has always drawn me back to the writing project. It is always the people. Even opening the virtual session to see the number of familiar faces was an emphatic affirmation.

A few years ago, I started a deeper dive into Moffett while working on a fellowship I was doing in writing instruction. However, a fair amount of his work has fallen out of print and combined with the time it took to secure some of the books and the pressures of deadlines ultimately stalled the depth of the dive. I certainly was able to make use of some of it, but I finished the project feeling slightly unsatisfied with my exploration of Moffett.

In the interim, I picked up some of those hard to find volumes but haven’t had the time to dedicate to them as I would like. Despite my desire to know more, I sometimes need a push to restart the kind of in-depth study that I had hoped. This group looks like just the motivation I needed to reopen the exploration. Already it has been an invitation to that deeper dive I started but went unfinished a few years ago.

Even before the first meeting, I began pouring over the selection of articles for the second session. My curiosity and desire reignited almost instantly.

Best of all, this opportunity already feels even better. Reading and discussing the work in a community of like-minded individuals with an array of deeper knowledge and experience with Moffett and his works is a boon that can only eclipse any individual passion project of my own. There are even members of the group who knew the man personally and worked with him some capacity while he was alive, which is all the more exciting.

Education Evolutions #131

Person looking at smartphone in the dark
Person looking at smartphone in the dark flickr photo by
shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This week I got caught out a little on the timeline. A couple of interruptions and a couple more technical challenges and before I knew it I missed my traditional late Sunday send. Still, I always figure better late than never. Plus, I have noticed the service I have been using is not the most instantaneous distribution. So many may not actually receive these messages on Sunday as I generally intend.

There is no real theme to this week’s selections. There are some stories about teaching specifically and a beautiful collection from the like of those that many of us teach. This group of pieces spans a wider timeframe. Usually, I try to stay relatively current, but that has a lot more to do with when my eyes have come across the work rather than when it might have been published. Sometimes, it takes me a little longer to get to an article, and other times I only discover it long after it has been out there for a while. This trio is that kind of mix.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the second one. I suppose I have chosen it because it is something that many teachers could read and make use of tomorrow. At least, that is how it has worked for me already. The first article might be particularly significant for a certain section of readers but not everyone. Yet, I highly recommend the last one if you are even remotely tempted by my thoughts about it..

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

Teaching in-person and virtual students at once? It’s an instructional nightmare, some educators say – Chalkbeat – Kalyn Belsha (7-minute read)

The pandemic has brought about a number of disturbing trends across the education landscape, chief among them is the merging of in-person and remote students simultaneously. This is an issue that I have no shortage of comments about but will keep them mainly brief. I am not going to even get into the abundance of profoundly problematic privacy and ethical considerations. I am not even sure how this idea got started, let alone managed to traction because it is so profoundly flawed. It is one of a handful of ultimate examples of complete and utter edtech nonsense, if not an all-new just-because-you-can-doesn’t-mean-you-should standard.

Apart from the myriad of technological challenges required to even do this close to well, nevermind the cost, this is terrible pedagogy. It benefits no one. Nobody can be in two places simultaneously, which is at the core of this newfound demand being placed on teachers. Attention is finite and multitasking is a myth. No teacher can be present and engaging with students in completely different contexts. What works face-to-face does not necessarily transfer in a remote setting and vice versa. The notion is farcically foolish, devalues the whole enterprise of teaching to little more than content distribution, and is hastening teachers’ exits from the profession.

As Douglas Rushkoff elegantly explains in Program or Be Programmed, digital technology favors decentralization and is biased toward dislocation. Simply put, the presence of remote students in a real-time brick-and-mortar classroom permits barely the weakest relationship and engagement with the teacher or classroom experience while intruding on those very benefits afforded the attending in-person students. Remote access to a face-to-face classroom simply simulates the experience of presence, reducing and devaluing the entire teaching and learning experience for all involved. It takes away the best possibilities and affordances of both contexts for faux facsimiles of each. I could go on almost ad infinitum.

A Simple Technique for Affecting Belonging, One Genuine Connection at a Time – Dave Stuart Jr. blog – Dave Stuart Jr. (5-minute read)

This is an older blogpost I came across courtesy of Ian O’Byrne but I think it found me serendipitously. Checking-in with students personally is something that I endeavor to do every semester. In fact, I think most teachers try to do this. This year has made this prospect so much more challenging in a host of ways. Masks, Zoom, schedules, and the sheer volume of decisions that need to be made just to get through a day are exhausting and interfere with the connections we make with students. So, it is even more important than ever.

I like how Stuart narrates the types of connections that he pursues with students. Labeling the interactions and providing a short narrative not only makes those moments real it provides a window into what he values as a teacher. While the types are not exactly out of the ordinary by any means, that seems part of the point. Reaching out to students who have overcome setbacks or a shy student when they come out of their shell seems obvious but circling back on the student that gives a flip answer about plans after graduation might not come readily to mind, at least for me.

What I like best about this is the justification for tracking the connections. This is something I had contemplated doing in the beginning of this year, even started, only to falter in keeping it up. Yet, it might be more important this year than ever. Everything is strange about school now. The number of times I see any specific section and the masks had me worried I wouldn’t even know most of the students’ names before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, I am doing all right. Yet, I have only met any one class eight times and we are about to enter the sixth week of school. In part because of the masks and all the strangeness, I started asking students to complete a quick form that invites them to share things like stress level and a discreet way to inform me of anything helpful for me to know. I have been pleasantly surprised at what I have learned and it has made reaching out to a few easier and more meaningful. Now I just need to be a bit more methodical.

YOUNG BLACK POETS – The New York Times – Ten Teenage Poets (30-minute read)

Subtitled “Ten teenage writers show the future of poetry” this is powerful, powerful stuff. It was published a week or so ago and it took me some time to finally get around to it and it so worth it. Even if you think you are not a fan of poetry, these young people have something to say and it desperately needs to be heard. Apart from that is a majestic piece of digital publishing, the kind of innovative technical presentation that often requires outfits like the Times to pulling off.

Despite the reading time in the headline, you do not need to spend that much time, but you do need to spend some time, clicking around and listening. If you are not surprised and maybe a little bit amazed, I would be surprised. Anyone who works with young people, especially in a writing capacity, knows that there is powerful potential often waiting to be released. This collection of young black writers from across the country is an unbelievable expression of that power.

Simply clicking around at the pictures that render the audio of each poet reading their own work is impressive enough, but take the time to read the interviews below all the multimedia. There is some stunning wisdom in this group of kids. To have curated such a collection is exciting and a wonderful reminder of what young people are capable of producing when they possess focus, talent, and technique. Spending time exploring this set of voices is time well-spent.

Education Evolutions #130

Person looking at smartphone in the dark
Person looking at smartphone in the dark flickr photo by
shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This week is a bit of a coronavirus cornucopia, at least indirectly. This group is a mix of current articles that deal with different elements of the present moment in all its challenges. They are not all specifically about the virus as much as they are about living in the time of a pandemic and the challenges that are presented as a result.

Thematically that might be a bit much for people but each presents a way of thinking through some of the challenges that have been amplified right now. Yet, some of the wisest advice I have ever heard is to react to the new or uncomfortable with curiosity. Easier said than done, I know. Still, only through approaching our responses with curiosity can we hope to navigate them with any sense of genuine success. We may ultimately judge something to be good, bad, or something far more complex but we can learn much more through inquiry than snap reactions.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the second one. I feature the thinking and writing of PL Thomas often in this newsletter. In this blogpost, he takes on some zombie-like beliefs that keep returning despite mounting evidence that they are built on lies. It is an ambitious post that comes full circle and offers a kind of hope despite its subject matter.

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

Are Teachers Ok? No, and Toxic Positivity Isn’t Helping – We Are Teachers – Julie Mason (10-minute read)

The notion of toxic positivity has been knocking around in my head for years, although I never would have come to that label, to be sure. While I don’t want to diminish the role self-efficacy can play in framing an experience. Still, it is a thing. In fact, it can be a significant thing in education or any helping profession for that matter.

Belief matters but so does being realistic. WIshing a way out of difficulties is not a secret to success. There also is a difference between not accepting negative framing and not accepting any negatives at all. Failing to acknowledge the full spectrum of emotions is not just toxic it is foolhardy. Extremes of any kind tend to be unhealthy for people, but they can be markers worth noting. Yet, while the first half of this article stakes out a justification for its headline the second half presents more practical advice for teachers.

The five-point list might be a bit too tidy, as so much media content can be, they are all also worth noting. They are the kinds of things that often take teachers years to fully grasp if they haven’t run them out of the profession before they fully wrestle with them. The core idea of wearing stress as a badge of honor is not peculiar to the teaching profession but seems to be acutely American. All five points mentioned can be distilled down to a simple message – stop working all the time. Teaching is an expansive and challenging job with no shortage of demands before the pandemic arrived. The onset of the pandemic has only increased the demands for everyone in nearly every aspect of life. At the least, acknowledging that is a major step toward overall health that is neither bound by limitations of positive or negative.

You’re on Your Own (But You Don’t Have to Be) – Radical Eyes for Equity blog – PL Thomas (10-minute read)

This is a wide-ranging blogpost, which uses the recent South Carolina Senate debate as the starting point for a skilled take-down of America’s obsession with bootstrapping, rugged individualism. It makes a fascinating followup to the previous addition above. Some myths never die but live undead among us, constantly adapting to any efforts to kill them. What Thomas points out so effectively is this particular myth, woven into the broader myth of the American Dream, is rooted in a lie.

While he may only cite one particular source in this blogpost, there is no shortage of evidence and research to support the notion that “cooperation, collaboration, and community are far more productive than competition.” Ultimately, competition as a prized value only truly serves capitalism and consumerism, not necessarily humans more broadly. Still, the idea of “slack and scarcity” Thomas pulls from the work of Mullainathan and Shafir does provide a great way to frame the argument he is making against the flawed cultural belief in individualism above all.

My favorite part of this piece, however, is when he questions why we have not collectively committed to a true effort to give all individuals the authentic “possibility to the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One, I always respond to efforts that explore figures sanitized by history, as Thomas does with Martin Luther King Jr. Also, I find the kind of call to action implicit in this post profoundly encouraging. We do not need to be on our own. In fact, almost none of really are. Again, we all benefit from recognizing broader truths even if they may not be comfortable.

We Need to Think Critically About How the Pandemic is Impacting Our Schools – Human Restoration Project – Dan Kearney (5-minute read)

The pandemic has brought so many areas of life into stark relief. Once again, schools serve as a battleground for a range of competing and contrasting ideas. This piece from the Human Restoration Project, which is a fantastic group of educators asking all kinds of serious questions about education, takes on issues of command and control that existed long before the challenges of the moment but are nevertheless proliferating as a result.

While Kearney anecdotally references a student’s concern of everything being under teacher control. I would extend that idea to a far broader top-down approach that has been creeping into schools for some time. Prior to any decisions about whether schools would reopen or not, I could not believe how many people’s desire to just-get-kids-back-into-schools seemed remarkably oblivious to the fact that measures required to address the pandemic would render many familiar aspects of schools almost unrecognizable. Students and teachers who find themselves back in buildings can testify to that fact. What’s more, top-down controls have grown considerably for both. What changes will endure is precisely the kind of questions we all should be asking.

Some of the changes we are seeing are merely direct ways to properly address the safety of everyone involved and some are not. Efforts to impose greater command and control should always be questioned, even if they under the guise of safety which can offer a convenient cloak. because some changes will endure long after the pandemic. The main issue is that these changes are all the product of decisions, be they informed and conscious or ignorant and unaware, and they all come with consequences.