On today’s podcast we are joined by David Buck. David is an English professor at Howard Community College in Maryland who is actively involved in the ungrading movement, as well as focusing on open access resources, open pedagogy, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To foster and grow the practice of ungrading, David is actively involved in utilizing social and other online media for discussion, including but not limited to his “Let’s Talk Ungrading” Twitter Spaces, which is also an edited podcast, the Ungrading Twitter Community, the Ungrading Book Club, the Ungrading Discord Community, and “Crowdsourcing Ungrading” an open-access book on Pressbooks.
We talk about:
David Buck, English professor at Howard Community College and mass-curator and co-leader of various ungrading spaces
0:00:01.6 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to Episode 111 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Joel Ostrich, Jordan Baca, and Timothy Fox. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
0:00:39.2 CM: On today's podcast, we are joined by David Buck. David is an English professor at Howard Community College in Maryland, who is actively involved in the un-grading movement, as well as focusing on open access resources, open pedagogy, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To foster and grow the practice of un-grading. David is actively involved in utilizing social and other online media for discussion, including but not limited to his... Let's talk un-grading Twitter spaces, which is also a edited podcast, the ungrading Twitter community, the ungrading book club, the ungrading discord community, and crowdsourcing and ungrading and Open Access book on Pressbooks. So thank you so much for coming on, David, this is very exciting.
0:01:19.0 David Buck: Thanks, Chris. Happy to be here.
0:01:20.9 CM: So we invited you here to talk about growing the movement, 'cause we know that you're an avid believer in the principles of un-grading, and I think there's so many different spaces, many of which that are provided by you to learn about how to do that. And we'll link in the show notes places that you can go learning about un-grading as a practice. But today we'd really like to focus on expanding the practice of ungrading and progressive education at a more meta-community level... Getting more people involved. I just started listing many of the spaces that you're hosting or co-hosting or involved in. Before we dive into those, as specifics, I'm just curious to start off with what drives you to do this... Because that's a lot of unpaid labor... A lot of just time. Why? Why are you doing all this?
0:02:06.8 DB: Yeah, it's a great question. Part of the idea for me is that my involvement, especially on Twitter and these digital spaces is... It's basically one intrinsic goal, which is joy. I get joy from connecting with others. I get joy from sharing from others... Learning from others... And I think I'm the perfect guy to do this, Chris, because I'm no expert in anything. I'm just the guy. And so I don't write books. I don't have anything published. I'm just a practitioner that's trying to get better at his craft. And so I think that helps me a little bit in the sense that I am no threat to anyone in the educational space. And so that to me, helps me grow that connectivism that is happening around ungrading. And I think there's a... When you look back at everything that's been happening, especially with ungrading and what you just listed, they all kind of seem to fall in place, extemporaneous-ly, like there were extrinsic forces, intrinsic forces, but it was like the perfect storm to get this growing online community around ungrading and progressive education, un-schooling, all this good stuff that we're all involved in. So I'm not gonna take credit for any of that other than I think sometimes I was at the right place at the right time to bring the voices kind of just together and curate.
0:03:40.8 DB: I think curating the voice is an important thing. But what I've learned from... And your question is why I've always been interested in social learning. The social... Learning as a social construct where we co-create, collaborate, co-participate in these communities of practice, if you wanna call them that. And I got that start from e-learning, believe it or not. From 2010-2014, I was the e-Learning director at our institution, which I couldn't believe they even gave me that position. But anyway... In that four-year span, we migrated from Blackboard to Canvas. We were one of the first institutions to go with Canvas east of the Mississippi. We migrated to Canvas in 2012. It was a brand new Instructure. It was a brand new company. Having said that I had to train faculty to migrate to Canvas within three months. And so I had to build a training mechanism or like a social learning construct, and that got me into this idea of, "Ooh, professional development," getting together with other teachers, talking about pedagogy and assessment and these types of things. So I always had that in my blood. When I got back to the English division... Thank God I walked out of administration back to teaching.
0:05:04.5 DB: I did a Edcamp for our English division. And we did a Saturday where we just came in. So I've always been involved with those types of learning communities of practice, that type of thing. So when I got on to Twitter in 2012, I think, or 2014 I got on to Twitter, I started getting involved with these teachers that we're talking about assessment in different ways, and then that kind of just led to throwing out ideas, Chris, and seeing if they stick to the wall. That's basically my approach. And so, when I got into Teachers Throwing Out Grades that hashtag with Starr Sackstein, Mark Barnes. And I started following and jumping into these assessment chats. So I actually reached out to, I think it was two people, Jesse Stommel and Laura Gibbs. And I tweeted at them and said, "Why don't we have a Twitter chat with the ungrading hashtag, so we can kinda get together?" And Laura Gibbs responded back to me and that birth the ungrading slow chats that we had. And Laura and I... And she's awesome. So she built a website for it and we had that. And then Susan Blum comes out with the ungrading book, so I tweeted out, "Hey, is anyone interested in having a virtual book club?" And that day, I think, I got 50 people that said, "I'd be interested."
0:06:25.4 DB: That weekend, I built the website, got all the stuff together, and then I invited the authors to come to our book club. And here's the thing, Chris, we don't have digital communities of practice without generosity of spirit. And that is the key with around at least the people that I know with the... I met you around it. I think we all had a common purpose, and that is to inject our teaching and learning with humanity and care, compassion. And that really is kind of the broad umbrella that we all operate under.
0:06:56.7 CM: Yeah, it's a very powerful movement because when you bring all those folks to the table, you are creating that learning community where everyone can learn from each other in a very authentic way. I remember when I was in teacher training, teacher Twitter was just becoming a thing. They would say, "You should go on Twitter and get involved." And it was like this very mythical place. And there wasn't, really, a lot of direction on what that meant. And I think for a lot of folks there still isn't. It's not really clear what exactly that means to get involved in teacher Twitter. And the work that you all are doing is making that more real. It's much different to attempt to follow a hashtag, which is sometimes not easy to do. And it often times is pretty banal... Versus getting involved in an extensive conversation over a Twitter space, or having an hour-long conversation in a book club. They're very, very different. And you linked to me before hand... I can't wait to put this in the show notes to share it with people... That dissertation by Christina Moore, that studies extensively the work that you're doing. The spaces that folks are working in specifically book clubs to learn from each other and grow movements such as ungrading.
0:08:08.2 CM: So we covered at the beginning there a few places that you're involved. So you're on Twitter, you're on Discord. Why are you using these spaces versus more traditional spaces? Like you could easily be meeting at Howard Community College with other teachers and talking about your craft. That's kind of part one of the question. But then if you want, you can dive into why newer media stuff? Like Discord. 'Cause when I think of Discord, I think of gaming, video game stuff.
0:08:36.6 DB: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah. Right. Yeah, we're part of the cool kids on Discord... Well, it's a good point, and I think you kind of touched on the answer, which is these digital tools have at their core autonomy and agency. I can choose with whom I wanna learn, when I wanna learn, and I can jump in and jump out. Two, there are many other tools that have beautiful, learning, thriving, the communities that practice. For me, I never got on Facebook. I don't know why. I just never felt comfortable giving away my digital information to a big company. But I got on Twitter. But I use Twitter, Chris, not to post what I had for breakfast, I use it essentially for professional learning, and building those professional learning networks.
0:09:23.3 DB: So again, it's based on where people come and congregate and how they feel when they're there. So if they feel heard, valued, engaged, they're gonna stay there. 'Cause the biggest thing I think is, right now, the challenge for any building of a learning community that thrives is sustainability. How do you sustain it? How do you keep it relevant? So I think these digital tools help us in the sense that we remain relevant. I'm not on Twitch or TikTok. That's a little too relevant for my taste. But hey, whatever fits. But I've chosen Twitter, Discord as almost a side bar... Meaning our Discord presence came out of our ungrading Edcamp, when a bunch of the planners and I... Which Christina was one of. There was about four or five people that helped me plan that. And we said, "We want some place that is for asynchronous jump in, jump out at a slow pace. What could we do?" Slack, Discord, Telegram. We chose Discord simply because it had that immediacy of the voice channels. It was... And we looked at accessibility and all that, all those concerns, which we should.
0:10:38.4 DB: So that's how we came out with with Discord. After the Edcamp, Chris, Discord was sitting there. So I just said, I'm gonna re-brand it, the Ungrading Hub, and just throw it out there. Right now, we have 250 people on that thing. Is it going every day? No. But every once in a while people will jump into that. And I have to use Twitter to remind people, "Hey, we got this thing." So I think my weakness is there are too... I've created too many... [laughter] Is where... There's too many... There's too much going on. So right now, I'm focusing on three areas, Twitter and Twitter spaces. That's always gonna be there. Discord, and then... Of course, Twitter with the Twitter spaces. And then Pressbooks, that crowdsourcing ungrading. That book has been building and building as it goes. And again, it takes someone to kinda keep the ball in front of everyone's eyes. So for instance, if I see a really cool thread from someone on Twitter, I might reach out and DM them and say, "Could you kind of put that into a blog post and put it on our crowdsourcing ungrading." It's that kind of thing, where sustainability and relevancy are there.
0:11:52.4 DB: The main thing... The tools that I use, Chris, it's all about... I call it a pulsating web of engagement. It contracts and expands based on intrinsic factors and extrinsic factors. For instance, the pandemic. That was an extrinsic factor that brought all of us kind of to these digital spaces because we couldn't go physically to our campuses. And then the intrinsic pulsating is at the end of the semester, I've got all of this stuff I'm trying to close up on my courses, I might not be active in Twitter. So I'll see the drop off in engagement around these kind of... The academic calendar per se. So it's one of those things where it contracts and expands based on all of these factors. I guess my point is, I wanna be there when it expands and contracts. I wanna make sure I'm in the right place at the right time.
0:12:44.3 CM: Let's talk about growing those communities and what it means to do platform adoption. 'Cause that's something that both of us do. We also have a Discord. Ours is not nearly as successful as yours... Because it's very difficult to get folks to engage in spaces they're not familiar with, especially when the way that you're recruiting them to get there is already from a subset of the population. The community on Twitter, despite being very active, is still a very, very small percentage of overall teachers. So if we wanna grow a movement such as ungrading, how do we go about getting one, the folks from the... I wanna refer to them as like normies, like people that don't engage on Twitter. How do we get them to get more involved on social media as teachers and not just for personal use? But then how do we then take them into being the even more active users that are engaging us in all these other spaces, like Open Access books and Discord?
0:13:39.4 DB: Yeah, it's a great question. I don't have an answer for that, Chris, other than creating a need for it. So for me, it's that outreach... That evangelism per se. That's a word I'm used to... My father was a minister for 42 years, and so he died when I didn't go into theology, but I went into English. But anyway, I'm part of that idea of spreading the good word type of thing. That's in my DNA as a pastor's kid, or ministers kid. So part of that spreading the word is one, create a need. Instead of saying, "You should do this." It's, "Oh, would you like to come in into this space? I think you could contribute some really cool stuff." Like we got a lot of STEM and math science people that way. Because most of my stuff on ungrading, Chris, is really humanities-driven, English-driven. I teach online composition. But these other disciplines in diverse fields, we have to create a need for those people to come in as well and not just be a humanities-driven type of movement. So that's the first thing is getting in the diversity and also inviting them.
0:14:49.9 DB: As far as getting them used to these other platforms, yeah, I try my best to do a lot of the work... The lead in time. It's actually lead in heavy, which is, I'll make a quick... I'll make a quick little tutorial on the best way to navigate spaces, and I'll throw that out on Google Doc or the Discord. I basically... We never really came up with a kind of a user guide for that, we just threw them on there and said, "Here's where it is." But what I found is when they get there there has to be an organized, clear pathway for engagement. So when we did Discord, I made sure we had four channels based on the four themes of our Edcamp, Anti-racism and equity, creating communities of discourse, ask me anything, how to's about ungrading. So we had all these different channels so that the participants could jump in whenever they wanted and where they wanted to. So that's the other thing. There are folks, Chris, I know that we're leaving, by the way side, simply because of the choices of the digital tools we've chosen. I'm hoping that when people come into this Twitter community they leave and go back to their campuses, 'cause I'm hearing a lot of people actually being invited by their divisions and deans to give presentations about ungrading face-to-face to their colleagues. Beautiful. Wonderful. And I've been in some of those as well. So there is that... The community just isn't on Twitter, it'll filter out into the world into the globe.
0:16:31.8 CM: The Conference to Restore Humanity is an invitation for K-12 and college educators to engage in a human-centered system, reboot. Centering the needs of students and educators toward a practice of social justice. The traditional conference format doesn't work for everyone. It's costly to attend, environmentally unfriendly, and it doesn't allow everyone to engage or have a voice in the learning community. Our conference is designed around the accessibility and sustainability of virtual learning while engaging participants in a classroom environment that models the same progressive pedagogy we value with students. Instead of long Zoom presentations with a brief Q&A, key notes are flipped and attendees will have the opportunity for extended conversation with our speakers, Dr. Henry Giroux, the founding theorists of critical pedagogy, Dr. Denisha Jones, educator, activist and co-editor of Black Lives Matter At School, and the Circle Keepers from Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, a student collective focused on social justice.
0:17:33.0 CM: And instead of back-to-back online workshops, we are offering asynchronous learning tracks. You can engage with the content and the community at any time on topics like anti-carceral pedagogy, disrupting linguistic discrimination, designing for neuro-divergence, promoting child-ism in the classroom and supporting feedback over grades. The Conference to Restore Humanity runs July 25th through the 28th. And as of recording, Early Bird tickets are still available. It's $150 for four days with discounts available for individuals from historically marginalized communities, as well as group rates. Plus we'll award certificates for teacher training and continuing education credits. See our website, humanrestorationproject.org for more information. And let's restore humanity together.
0:18:26.5 CM: Yeah, it seems like it's been ultra successful specifically in ungrading, in part 'cause of the work that you're doing. I feel like that has become more and more mainstream. There's at least one person at every school that we visit who is actively involved in some kind of ungrading movement that you don't necessarily see in perhaps like restorative justice or experiential learning. Not that people aren't doing that work, it just doesn't seem like it has the same online presence as the ungrading camp. And perhaps that's because the type of people that would be interested in ungrading are also the type of people that are more interested in being involved in these types of online communities. I'm not sure.
0:19:03.0 DB: Yes. No, I think you're right, Chris, I agree with that.
0:19:06.7 CM: It's fascinating to me because it seems like we're at a point now in the history of education where because we have access to these communities, we can spur a movement that doesn't die out, because obviously over time, there has been an ungrading movement back to the '60s, even there's text back to the 1910s of teachers talking about how report cards aren't accurate. But over time, that just kind of fizzled out because folks would just talk to each other and then they'd resign or retire and people just stop talking about it. Or various political forces shut it down, something happened that would get rid of it. But now you have this movement where you constantly have people coming in and maybe a few but coming out, but that information is always there and it's easy to connect with other humans and not just books, to engage in that and feel like you're doing the right thing, that you're not just living in your head, it's not just all pure imagination. It's a very powerful tool to have all those things, and I would imagine that, especially, perhaps is even younger teachers enter the fold you'll see adaptations on Twitch or on TikTok or on, whatever the new thing is, maybe Snapchat or something, I don't know. I'm not sure, but whatever that might be.
0:20:20.2 CM: What are your upcoming goals? You have all these spaces, are there other places that you're exploring? Are there specific metrics or ideas that you have in the back of your head like, "Man, I really wish that we could do this," that you're doing right now?
0:20:34.9 DB: Oh, that's a great question. So as far as metrics go, I've learned not to pour so much meaning into the metrics. For instance, The Virtual Book Club, we ended up with 628 registered users. Now, those 600... Yeah, all 600 aren't participating. So a lot of folks will register for something just because they wanna get the communications and that's fine, I do that too sometimes. So our Twitter community right now, we have a Twitter ungrading community that has about 278 members. Our ungrading hub has 250 members, so we're all interspersed out into these things, and that doesn't mean that's how many people are actively engaging. So I've learned that there is a core of us kind of that pulsating heart of the community that will always be there, that people I can always reach out to and say, "Hey, do you wanna come on a Twitter space and have a 30-minute covers?" And they'll be like, "Yeah, fine, sure." I know that those are there. Then we've got these kind of like on the outer rim, these folks that are maybe curious about ungrading, so they're jumping in a little bit and then jumping out.
0:21:46.5 DB: So there's that kind of levels of engagement outside of that pulsating web that I talked about, so I always focus on that core, what can we do with the core that will push some of this going forward, and we'll always get those outer rings of people coming in and out? So we've done an Edcamp, we've done a virtual book club, we're doing spaces, we have a press book with crowdsourcing ungrading, there's all of these things, I would love, if you ask me what I would like to do in the future is, first of all, keep the conversations going on Twitter spaces, because Chris, what I'm finding is, ungrading is just a threshold, a doorway to walk through to talk about teaching and learning, progressive education, restorative justice all of that. So that's kind of my trojan horse to get in the door. It's about, let's talk ungrading, but we're really talking about unschooling oppressive systems, all that cool stuff. So keep that going, but I would love to do a Twitter conference. I saw an institution that did this, and what a Twitter conference is, it's not an Edcamp where kind of like that's totally participant-driven.
0:22:50.8 DB: This Twitter conference has a little bit more structure to it, and it's where people actually propose to give a presentation at a specific time on a specific topic through Twitter. So at that hour that person will live tweet their presentation for maybe 30 minutes, and then the remaining 30 minutes of the hour, we all who are listening or watching this live Twitter presentation, we can start to interact and it always become a chat in a sense. I would love to do that. We could have a keynote where a keynote person at the top of the hour, that person starts tweeting out their keynote presentation, and then we all jump into a quick chat afterwards. So I love to do something like that. That is a little bit heavy for me to... So I have to get my brain around organizing it. Chris, a lot of the stuff that I organize is at about 20 minutes or maybe an hour after I get the idea. I'm a quick person to create something, I like to fail fast and I fail furiously, which is great, 'cause some of the stuff I throw out there does not stick to the wall, and I just go, "Okay," 'cause I have a tolerance for failure, 'cause that basically characterize as most of my professional life is [chuckle] failure. So I'm good with that.
0:24:10.0 DB: So yeah, exactly. So you throw things out and then when they go and you start to see some movement, then you start to really massage it, start to think about making it better, putting on some bells and whistles to it, 'cause you know that it has roots into the community. So I think I would like to keep doing something like a conference type thing where we all... I would love to do. I mean, if someone had the money to have an ungrading conference where we'd go somewhere and meet and that would just be wonderful depending on the pandemic and all that. But in the meantime, just growing this Twitter space. The other thing I like to do, Chris, in the future is make it practical. I think what you were saying before I thought was really good, which is people get involved at their comfortable... At their level of comfort, but you get them involved when there's a lot more, a ton of praxis rather than theory. I think the key to ungrading and why it's gotten more roots than maybe things like Restorative Justice and progressive education is that there's a very concrete part of ungrading that I could do in my class tomorrow if I wanted to. So there's that praxis and I'm a big praxis guy. I'm not a big theory guy. I like just to... Give me something I can do right now and see if it works. That's what I like to do. So I think that praxis part of ungrading will always be there, and we still have good discussions about how to best introduce it to students.
0:25:42.9 DB: What does... How do you make your prompts with the language you speak? So there's always good praxis going on. So the other, that's the one thing I really wanna keep going. And the other thing is, is I would like to try to kind of copy what you guys do. I'm working on a ungrading children's book in press book. And I was trying to work with people who could animate it and illustrate it and it kind of dropped off. So I'm actually asking my daughter, she's 11 to maybe draw some [chuckle] illustrations for this thing. And this is one of those things that didn't fly. I had about seven to eight people saying, "I'm with you. I'll help you build that." And it just died, probably because of me, I didn't keep it in front of people's faces. But anyway, so I love to build this book and steal from you guys and have an accompanying teacher's manual to go along with it. If a teacher wants to use this ungrading book in their course. I would love to do that. That is, I might be pushing the envelope of my capabilities though, Chris, because I don't know if I can actually come up with that content, but that's the kind of stuff I would love to do is get ungrading in front of students.
0:27:00.6 DB: And so, that is another, probably my third goal, get more of the student voice. We do a lot of PD with each other. We all get together. We talk about teaching and learning, and a lot of the stuff I get involved in, I never think about, "Well, what do the students think? Let's bring them into the conversation." So one of the sessions of our Edcamp, we had a student panel. It was awesome, Chris, it was the best Zoom part of that ed camp, having about four students talk about what ungrading has meant to them in their education. So that children's book is kind of like my little, a baby that I want to really grow to get ungrading in front of students, because ungrading, it doesn't mean everything for everybody. It's a huge umbrella. We have arguments about where that term even comes from or what it actually means, because at the end of the day, I still have to give a grade in my course, my institution requires it. So I'm not 100% ungrading, but it's that concept of looking at process and experience over outcomes in production, right? Because that's what traditional grades force us to focus on, that production. Instead, we're looking at owning one's labor, owning one's agency. If we can get to the students early, we can kind of maybe eliminate some of that trauma that traditional grading has done.
0:28:14.0 CM: That's actually a really fascinating point that I'd like to dive into a little bit further, 'cause at least for me, the most powerful discussions in PD I've had about, specifically, ungrading has been in those conversations with kids. I would spend, God, I don't know, four or five extended conversations at the beginning of every school year, talking about why the course is set up the way it's set up, where students are allowed to remediate work, revise things. There's basically... There's deadlines, but they're very soft deadlines, and at the end of the day, like you go...
0:28:48.2 DB: I call them best buy dates. I call them best buy dates. [laughter]
0:28:50.1 CM: So I mean, it's designed in a way that no one should hypothetically fail, because I'm not comfortable doing that. Despite some like Ohio Department of Education rules, that's a whole other story, but we do whatever we can. And students were very open about sharing their anxieties around grading. I find more issues with students that are, "all A students" who really struggle if they get a B or a C, because I always wanna push people to do more. I don't give them a low grade, but I give them feedback and say, "Hey, you should do more with this. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm just saying you just need to make it a little bit better," 'cause that's what my job is. It's difficult to have those conversations with folks that are used to always just doing the rubric.
0:29:33.2 CM: That's the end of it, put it away. Versus having students in that conversation who don't do well academically, that really struggle who have a lot of different things going on. Maybe they just don't like the subject. And I relate to that. I was not a huge fan of school when I was in school either. And those conversations really drive us to do better because when you hear from the people in the room and have that emotional connection to them, you understand why the things in your classroom happen the way that they do, and so much of that is attached to assessment and ranking and filing and judgment. So pulling students into that conversation about changing education online, I think is a huge missed opportunity that we can find ways to do, because obviously like every kid is on social media and online. And I know it might be a little, I guess, lame to be associated with teachers, and doing that kind of work, however, it's the thing that you're doing every single day.
0:30:28.4 CM: And I feel like there has to be a way to reach out and get folks involved in, in taking charge of that. It's kind of an awkward conversation to have because many students are very powerless in what they can do. They could band together and attempt to change things, but at the end of the day it's very difficult to do so. There's organizations like Student Voice who are doing some really cool work surrounding that and publishing student thoughts. But I think there's also more room on social media. I think of... What's the guy who does like slam poetry on YouTube? He's pretty popular.
0:30:57.0 DB: Oh, a Taylor Molly.
0:31:00.5 CM: Yeah.
0:31:00.9 DB: Taylor Molly? Yeah.
0:31:01.0 CM: Yeah. Who like talks about the issues with school and trying to solve those things, and kids really resonate with that work. We have a board member, Madeline Jester who's on our board who talks about ungrading and publishes their thoughts. So yeah, I don't know where I'm going with this outside of saying like, do you have ideas on how we can pull more students actually into these discussions?
0:31:23.5 DB: Yeah. I think, the invitation to... Like you said, some of them are powerless and voiceless. So inviting them into our divisional meetings when we're doing PD on ungrading, inviting them to share their thoughts. And I do a lot of anonymous. I ask them, "Could I use... " 'Cause I think, I say to them, "The student voice to me is the most powerful method of convincing other professors to adopt some of the principles and guidelines of ungrading. Could I use your voice and I'll make it anonymous and I'll make sure there's no identifying." And then they give me their permission. Once I get their permission, then I can post it on Twitter or send it to someone like, "I just did a... " In our institution we're not... We're merit-based, so I have to do a merit achievement plan at the end of the year. I put in my student comments in there, 'cause that to me is a reflection of my teaching excellence, is that I am hopefully changing these people's lives and it's not about me being a great teacher. It's about removing the trauma and removing those things that rank, sort them put them into scarcity positions and positions of competition, all of that.
0:32:33.4 DB: So yeah, I think there's more ways that we can get the students involved. And one thing I think is the way we position our courses, giving them more say into how they want to learn. So I've got outcomes that I have to put into my core syllabus based on the institution, but that doesn't mean I don't divergently re-articulate those with my students into learning targets. So we say, we're gonna take this institution speak and put it into learning targets that you and I can talk about and how we're gonna, which target that you wanna really own this semester and really grapple with. So there are ways to kind of to do that, but I do agree with you. The more people that we get hearing student voices, and there's a lot of talk about the research behind ungrading. There needs to be more quantitative research. I totally agree with that because people, some people won't be convinced unless there's actual documented research. That's great. I always say, "Just ask the students," that's enough research for me that this stuff is working, and that it has that powerful impact on their lives, and for even what you guys are thinking about, the humanity involved in being a student who's heard and who's seen rather than judged or critiqued or evaluated all the time. So that to me is important.
0:33:51.8 DB: So I do a lot of that through, Chris, reflection. So, in my students reflections and self-assessments, I'm always asking them to characterize their labor. And I use labor and that raises a red light for some people about the... What do we, you know, it's that transactional relationship or labor? No, to me learning is labor. So if I recognize their labor, I recognize themselves the students. So I ask them, "How much were you able to labor?" 'Cause I know some, my students, I have single mothers with two kids and ailing parents and I have a kid that's working 40 hours to pay for his apartment. There's all kinds of challenges. So I say, "What labor did you do? What learning did you derive from it? And then how engaged were you?" Because I found, Chris, that I have students that can only devote two hours to my course in a week, but those two hours are big time engaged hours. And I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to recognize that," instead of saying, "Oh, you didn't get it in by this due date, you're losing 10 points, blah, blah, blah."
0:34:56.1 DB: So I think there's a way to give these students more agency and voice, and how do we do that? I think we have to harvest those comments and get them in front of people like our deans, our chairs, our principles, and get that in front so that they can see that there is actually something going on here. Because I remember when I first was into ungrading, I remember we had a slow chat and someone got on there, God bless this person. But the person said, "Ah, I think ungrading is just a... It sounds like a bunch of hippie bullshit." [chuckle] And I'm like, "Yes, that's right." I mean, it's all this, 'cause there are these major anchors that are being dislodged from people because the anchor is grading, academic rigor. This is why we have our certificates or our diplomas have meaning behind them because of these, the beautiful academic rigor that we can ensure.
0:35:52.0 DB: And you start ripping those anchors out, man, people start to get a little disrupted. And so for us, I think it's that, and I go back to what I said before, it's to appear non-threatening. "I don't wanna disrupt your pedagogical approach. I'm not making any characterizations of you if you have due dates and penalties for students, doesn't make you a bad person, but could you maybe think about this and just asking the question of is there a potential that you could do this? So instead of focusing what is, and what's bad focus on the possibilities and potential," and that's like learning anyway, right? When you meet students, you wanna say, "What's the potential for you?" Not, "Let me identify all the errors that you're making."
0:36:37.4 CM: When you're collecting that feedback and soliciting it, you're taking a step in the direction of eliminating that barrier between teacher and student, that authoritarian barrier, where it feels like, maybe perhaps your feedback isn't being heard or doesn't matter. I remember, especially in college filling out like the end-of-year evaluation and I don't know, I felt like it was kind of pointless. I never really saw anything out of it. I was already done with the class so who cares? So I wonder if inviting students into online spaces, perhaps that aren't even your own students has a lot of validity in disestablishing that authoritarian mindset. I've been very fortunate in my position at HRP that I get to talk to a lot of students who are not students in my own classroom. I don't know, I found it a lot more powerful in some regards to hear from students across the country, because one, it reflects the exact same thing that's going on in my classroom here in Ohio, which is fascinating by itself. But also because those students, I think have less of a filter. I try my best to establish a classroom where students are open and honest with me, but I know at the end of the day, I'm going to be perceived as an authoritarian figure. I'm the one giving the grades. I'm the one enforcing the discipline, despite all the things I try to say, otherwise. Students are very unfiltered if you ask them about ungrading and they know that there's nothing they could do to stop you.
0:37:51.4 CM: And I wonder if getting those students in online spaces, not necessarily as like a aggressive people, but as folks who are willing to have those unfiltered conversations would do more to change the movement. I think about a parallel in the political world, for better or for worse, there are a lot of new political Twitch streamers or political Discords. I've noticed a lot of third parties are starting to operate Discord channels that are very subversive and radical, and I don't necessarily want to associate ungrading and some of... Some school things with that, because they can be a little questionable and suspect at times. But there are people that are deeply involved in those spaces that are very young, like 18, 19, 20 years old, who wanna change the world and do what is perceived in their opinion, good things. So I wonder if by using these new media spaces, if there isn't a way that Discord could, for example, be advertised and say, "Hey, you're in your... I don't know, your league of legends channel... " That's super dated, "Elden Ring channel or whatever. Why don't you also join your un-grading channel and talk about how grades impact you, and have this open network of talking to teachers?"
0:39:09.2 CM: Because it's... I don't wanna compare it to someone's job because I don't think that's the purpose of education, but in terms of time invested, it's very similar. It's something that you're doing every single day and having that space where you can talk about that, and instead of trying to just escape from school, you try to make it better. There's just so much power in that.
0:39:26.7 DB: Yeah, that's awesome. Yeah, yeah, and I think there's a good... There's a way to do that without stripping them of their humanity, their privacy, all of that. And I think that's an interesting idea of getting students and professors and teachers and administrators into the same room, having the same discussion. 'Cause one thing I fear is that in ungrading, and I don't see it so much, Chris, is that a lot of times, a hashtag can become an echo chamber, where everybody is saying the same thing, and it's good to have speech and counter speech. I think that's healthy for a community, to have the people that come in to say, "Yeah, but what about... " Or, "Did you think about this?" That type of thing. And what I like about the ungrading community is that there are so many overlapping ideas, diversity of experience, we have people... I think from our Edcamp we had... I think I put it in a statement. We had people from Pittsburgh to Poland, Florida to Finland.
0:40:24.5 DB: [chuckle] There's people all over from... And these people all have different educational experiences, and it would be awesome if we could have students from those locations also get in too, because everyone's experience isn't the same, and that would help avoid that echo chamber where everyone's saying the same thing and agreeing and saying... And just nodding your head to everything. So I think we do need that counter speech, and there is... There are challenges of un-grading, we're crazy not to say that there aren't. And we are up against institutions that are based on transactional relationships and extrinsic motivators and all that GPA and all that stuff. So yeah, I think they're... I think the health of the environment has to have a speech, counter speech, but also all voices heard. So I agree with you, there is... And I use Discord in my course, Chris, and it is funny because when I see who's available, I see who's gaming and who's doing... And then my teacher mind goes, "Well, they should be working on my course." I go, "No, no, no, trust the students, they have... They need all of that for all of their health and all that."
0:41:33.6 DB: But it's finding those tools that will work because I agree, going back to your point, we do leave a lot of the educators on the side of the road because they're just not comfortable getting into Twitter or setting up an account or doing things like that. I like Spaces because you can just go and listen, you don't have to be seen, you don't have to tweet, you just listen. So there are some things that I think can encourage people to get more involved, but it's a tough sell when the tool is not one of comfort.
0:42:09.8 CM: Yeah, there's three things then we'll kinda lead into, I guess a wrap-up question.
0:42:12.8 DB: Yeah, sure.
0:42:14.2 CM: That I just said that I think are very powerful. The first being the power of using these spaces specifically just in the classroom, let alone trying to grow a movement with them. I also use Discord in my class, as well as I'm a eSports coach, so we use it for that. And we also use the organizationally, all of our communicates on Discord.
0:42:32.2 DB: Ah, cool, cool. If...
0:42:34.1 CM: I have found that that is by far the most intriguing and perhaps best way to connect with many kids. A lot of kids that I would perceive as being very quiet or maybe socially awkward, are just so open and funny and charismatic in online text-driven spaces. And when it comes to accessibility, I just think about all the different ways that you can communicate via a chat app like that, whether it's voice or text, et cetera, that you perhaps might not be able to in a traditional environment and you're able to speak up. Probably one of the proudest moments I think I've ever had was last year when we were in still a COVID learning space, I had a Q&A channel on our class Discord, and kids would be messaging each other at one o'clock in the morning, way later that I was up. Helping each other on projects for my course. They would create things like in Photoshop and kids would say like, "Oh, you just need to do this, this and this," they'll be talking to each other and have this extended conversation, and congratulate each other's work.
0:43:31.3 CM: And building that learning space where I'm sure, at least hypothetically, I hope that those conversations happen in my classroom at least sometimes. Having a record of that and being able to read it and go through it and having it a-synchronous is just really cool. So that's the first thing. The second thing deals with getting educators involved to... And students for that matter, who maybe don't participate in these conversations but are there, the lurkers if you will. Folks that just read everything, that do things... 'cause that's what I am. Even though I get super involved in conversations, most online communities I just read through stuff, listen to things, I like just being on the sidelines and taking a second and digesting it. And I think that we forget that when we build these movements, even though he might not hear anything, there is a lot of work that's happening. I'm always shocked, we went to a school and they were like, "Hey, we know who you are. We listen to your podcast."
0:44:24.1 CM: It's like, "I don't... Who are you?" That's shocking. It kinda freaks me out a little bit, because I think that a lot of times when we think we build these online communities there's like 15 people, 'cause those are the exact same 15 people that come back over and over again. But there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people, who are also listening, who are there, and they're sharing that with other people and they're having conversations about it. You have to kinda keep a perspective there and keep yourself honed that, "No, my work is not with those 20 people, it's with all of these people." And finally, that builds into the idea of, let's say that you're going about building one of these places, you want to become David Buck, and you wanna spread information as well, not just about ungrading or whatever it is that you're passionate about, maybe it is restorative justices that keeps coming up. What suggestions or concepts would you offer to folks who are just getting started with this that wanna start growing their own online communities?
0:45:18.5 DB: Oh wow, that's a great question. I... Like I say, a lot of it to me, I don't know Chris, it's a mystery to me how things grow. But I guess if I look at... I try to write down some things that. Because I knew you were gonna ask me this. So I've tried to think about what are the common threads with learning communities and professional learning communities, or even just communities of practice that really thrive. I would say this is, they're there where those people are, you meet them where they are, wherever they are. So that means, like you've said, if it's Discord, it's Discord, if it's sitting in a division meeting and making a presentation face-to-face, it's there. So it's actually trying to be available to meet people where you are.
0:46:08.6 DB: So if I'm trying to grow a community, I gotta be really ears to the ground where the conversations are happening and get into those conversations. That's the first thing. Two would be, provide multiple levels of engagement. Again, going back to what you said, some people wanna lurk, beautiful, I love lurkers, because they're thoughtful processors of information. When they choose to engage, you're gonna get something good, 'cause those lurkers aren't talking like I do off the top of my head and just throw stuff out there. They're really thoughtful. So multiple levels of engagement. We tried to do that in the Edcamp with Zoom, synchronous Zoom meetings, Discord for the asynchronous, and then Twitter spaces for that little, "Hey, I just wanna listen." Stuff.
0:47:00.3 DB: A bunch of grace, empathy, kindness and compassion. That's the key to me. If people feel that empathy coming through that keyboard or whatever screen they're looking at, they're gonna be more tied into, "Hey, I wanna come back to that. That made me feel good." And we always talk about social-emotional learning. It happens for us too, I'm not gonna be in a space where I feel like I'm dumb or I'm evaluated or judged. So for me, I'm the most non-threatening person I can be. I don't know, I call myself a hack, I'm just the hack, I'm just throwing stuff out there, so that's the thing.
0:47:33.2 DB: The energy and passion has to be there, and Chris, this is where you mentioned, "Why are you doing this? It's a lot of unpaid labor." And you are right. [chuckle] But what I found is a bunch of energy and passion covers a multitude of deficiencies, and this is my theory of why I'm doing what I do, is that I don't know a lot, I'm not an expert in anything big, I... Seriously, I don't have anything that I'm really good at. But I do have some passion and some energy and people, they mirror that. So that's almost contagious for some people. If you're passionate about it, "Hey, I wanna grow this community." You will get those folks that say, "Man, I wanna hook up with this guy and get into more conversations with him or her." So that's the... And then the last one is creating learning that's agile. That kind of... It's like the philosophy of be like water. You just... You come and you just form around what's there, and so for me, it was the pandemic, everybody in front of their screens, why not seize that moment.
0:48:41.2 DB: And then, when that runs out, then you gotta be agile and say, "Okay, maybe we'll do more structured things like a Twitter conference or something." So I'm always looking for to be agile and to kind of be like water and form to the extrinsic factors that I find. A ton of practice, not a bunch of theory. I need... When I build this community, it's like I wanna build a community that says, "Here's what you can do tomorrow, here's a bunch of junk you can walk away with. And if you wanna process that and read it, here it is." So that's the other thing, and this is what I've said way back when about Twitter. That PD that I get in Twitter, Chris, it is so much... It's almost like I'm in a practice and theory class every day, 'cause I'm learning from other professors, other teachers, other administrators, and that's good. The other thing is to provide support, be generous with suggestions and sharing, and then you have to deal with that final challenge of staying sustainable and relevant. Because as you've mentioned, there are a lot of good communities that are there, out there, but they wither at the roots.
0:49:47.8 DB: And I don't know what it is, but there has to be... I think we talk about this with learning, you build the space, you tend to the soil, you create the conditions for learning to grow. Plants don't grow themselves, but you've gotta provide the soil, the fertile area for that plant to grow. So I think it's a lot of tending to the garden when you're building a learning community. But Chris, I have no ownership over... The ungrading hashtag was out there way before way before... And like you said it's... From the 1900s people have been talking about that. I don't own anything. All I'm doing is carving out a little space in that big umbrella of ungrading that I can kind of mess around with, and it just happened to be that there are some people interested, so that's kind of like... [chuckle] My theory is like, "I have no clue. It's a mystery to me." But I think learning is mysterious too, and that is cool to me, Chris, if I don't know the answers. Because I then say to myself, "There are so many other possibilities and potentialities that I can investigate and see if they work too."
0:50:52.2 DB: If everything worked the first time. It would be like, "Okay, been there, done that." But since it doesn't work right all the time, I'm always thinking, "Should I do more with press books, should I do... " So I'm always thinking to be agile. Those are some of the things I wrote down. I don't know if they help you, but those are kind of like my keys.
0:51:10.6 CM: No, that's awesome. I think in many ways, to build a progressive education movement, you ostensibly are operating a progressive education classroom just with adults, 'cause that's the exact same thing that you do anyways. You're always constantly mobile and changing and listening and nothing ever appears right, because the second that it's standardized and right, then it's no longer progressive education. So it all feeds into itself. And I can't help but think too about the late Michael Brooks who said, "Be ruthless with systems, be kind to people." And in the power in just like, it's not that we're upset with anyone or trying to harm anyone, we just recognize that the system is not working and we're trying to change that thing, and that's about as basic as it is.
0:51:58.4 CM: Thank you again for listening to human restoration projects podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
#Ungrading: A Digital Ethnography (Dissertation by Christina Moore)
David Buck's Twitter (and location for Twitter Spaces)
Crowdsourced Ungrading Pressbook
David Buck's Sutori Student Blogs