In this episode, we discuss We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be with author Cornelius Minor. Cornelius, a former middle school Language Arts educator from Brooklyn, is a leader in equitable literacy reform across the world. We Got This is an incredible work that blends critical pedagogy, equitable community practice, and connections between relationships and research in an easy-to-read and implement fashion.
Today's podcast is all about designing spaces for learning. Often, we think of a teacher's role as creator - someone who is making the learning happen within their room. But we can look at this in a more nuanced way. To completely steal Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox's explanation from in this podcast, when we plan an experience, we're already aware of what outcomes will be achieved. We're planning for what's going to happen next and already have each step in mind. In contrast, to design an experience - or space - we're opening possibilities for students to learn in multiple fashions. We have a general idea of where we want to be, but we're side-by-side in that learning experience.
This is an incredibly powerful message that is core to progressive education. We speak about student voice and choice but that's not choosing from preset options given by the instructor. When we say choice, we're referring to a plethora of possibilities that each student has to meet a learning goal. And we want to make that learning goal as broad as we possibly can to ensure that all students are engaged.
I think the thing that excites me most about education is the ability to craft learning experiences. My "why" in education is to find cool ideas, make simple foundations and structures for them to flourish, and pass almost all control over to students to make it happen. Of course, a lot of barriers exist to making the why of our purpose as educators happen.
Some of us get caught up in the systematic barriers to learning - whether they be topics that seem meaningless, students who aren't getting enough support, our lack of free time or pay, or just the general way our classrooms look and feel. And I think many - if not most - students are in the same boat. They may be excited from time to time on their why at school - after all, everyone loves to learn about things they care about...there's just a lot getting in the way.
Walk into most school buildings and you'll find a fairly bland and sterile environment. It may be even prison-like. Lack of funding is partially to blame, but there's also a system of control that manifests itself in having a comatose environment. Make everything too crazy and maybe the students will go crazy? I'm not sure. The fact is that as educators, we have the capability to design learning spaces that tear down the barriers as much as they can be torn down.
Sure, there's a lot of things outside of our control - and sometimes we're working against the best interests of our employer, the state, board, etc. that may have lost their way on what learning is (as they're more concerned about state test scores or upholding the way things were when they were in the school.) But we can continue to press on and design the most open and interesting environments we can.
These learning environments are both physical - the ways things look and feel, as well as conceptual - how our learning is designed.
We have four guests on today that exemplify these ideas - from a superintendent who designs schools to be honestly incredible, to a music educator who's making his classroom equitable and democratic, to an administrator at an International school who's designing experiences for students and staff, to two parents and educators who created their own school to do what's best for their children.
GUESTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Dr. Pam Moran, superintendent of the widely acclaimed Albemarle County Public Schools and co-author of Timeless Learning. Pam is an avid proponent of progressive education and designing schools that ignite learning.
Tim Fawkes, a high school music educator set on redesigning the classroom as an equitable, democratic space through embracing student voice, choice, and experiential learning.
Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox, an international educator and current assistant principal at the International School of Uganda, where she focuses on igniting learning through well-designed opportunities for staff and students.
Tosha Woods and Natalia Parker, founders of the Discovery Lab, a self-described “micro school.” Tosha and Natalia started this school as concerned parents and community members to provide an outlet of progressive learning to students.
In this episode, we're focused on advocacy - getting students motivated to speak up for themselves and change the world. We have so many brilliant voices who feel limited to the classroom, not realizing the power they hold. Particularly, we're going to look at how writing instruction lends itself to promoting student voices, featuring a variety of English educators, as well as authors, who recognize how important the Humanities are to promoting a flourishing democracy.
Whenever I've attempted to rally my students up - to get them to stand up for what they believe in - I'm honestly not that successful. Certainly, there's some students who take command and advocate, but most shrug it off. That's not to say they don't care - students overwhelming care about the problems they see in our world...they just don't necessarily think they have the power to change it.
There's so much untapped potential in today's youth - an entire generation of young adults who care about tolerance, acceptance, the Earth, and love. Yet schools rarely, if ever, want their students to engage in political discourse....to fight for what they believe in. It makes sense, given how political volatile the United States is, it isn't an advantageous position to have one's students on the news. However, these issues are core to what students find interesting and important, and seeing that relevance in their work...and most importantly, making the connection that their work is valuable, could literally change the world.
Further, our classrooms are places of "rank and filing", which frankly is just a reflection of society itself. Our "merit-based" consumerist lifestyles don't lend themselves to positive, fulfilling lives, and schools are increasingly intertwined with the belief that success is framed by hoarding money and obtaining the perfect job. With so much focus on purely capitalist gains, it is no wonder that students feel they lack purpose. Plus, our unjust society contributes to most of our "on paper" problems in education - a lack of food, safety, or any safety net for our disadvantaged youth means we'll never find a human-centered education without reforming to make equitable communities. If educators aren't demanding political action to help impoverished families, then isn't all our work for nothing?
The question then becomes twofold: 1) How can we encourage advocacy in schools among our student body, and is that advocacy appropriate? and 2) What is the educator's role in advocating for their students and communities?
GUESTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Bryn Orum, director of Rise Up and Write, a summer writing program centered around advocacy in Madison, Wisconsin, who used to teach high school English and further, co-founded Clark Street Community School, who our previous guest, Bennett Jester, attends.
J.J. Burry (Jess Houser), an English educator at a small public school in Texas, who is an aspiring writer and advocate of writer’s notebooks.
John Warner, an author, editor, speaker, and professor focused on writing instruction. Recently, John's work has focused on writing instruction through Why They Can't Write and its companion book, The Writer's Practice.
Stephanie Hurt, an English educator at Brodhead High School in Brodhead, Wisconsin. Stephanie is a teacher leader for the National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Ready Writer's Program and The Greater Madison Writing Project.
Dr. Richard Wilkinson, an accomplished social epidemiologist, author, and advocate who served as Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. He is co-founder of The Equality Trust and was awarded the 2013 Silver Rose Award from Solidar for championing equality. His co-author and significant other, Kate Pickett, wrote The Spirit Level and The Inner Level, which both focus on the across-the-board improvements of equitable societies.
Unlike our season 3 episodes thus far, this is a standard one-on-one interview! Our guest didn't really fit in to some of the podcasts we're brewing up - so rather than holding onto this for a few months...we just went ahead and released it! I think it's an awesome conversation and I hope you enjoy.
The New Nordic School is an innovative school being built in Finland. Our guest, Brad Kremer, serves as director and informs us about the fantastic opportunities Finnish education provides and what New Nordic School aims to build further upon.
In our discussion, Brad and I discuss:
What is the New Nordic School?
What is the current state of Finland’s education system? Why is the New Nordic School different?
What curriculum can be exported from Finnish schools?
Is it possible for Finnish schools to be replicated everywhere, even in less equitable societies? As in, are Finland’s educational outcomes due to curriculum or more supportive societal structures?
On today's podcast, we're looking at the gradeless movement. There's a lot to be debated in the education system, but I'm hard-pressed to find a topic so steeped in research as this one. Whether it be motivation, willingness to learn, and even traditional test scores, not giving a grade shows improvement across the board.
There's countless research articles, books, podcasts, psychologists, education experts, and more writing and studying the effects of grades. And every single time, whether it be 1850 or 2019, it seems to support the same outcome:
Grades diminish motivation and do little to actually provide feedback for students to improve.
If there is research that supports grades, it's stating that they improve standardized test scores, not necessarily motivate or improve student outcomes.
I challenge you to find data that supports otherwise. I say that not out of spite for those who disagree with the practice, but because I'm genuinely curious if there is any. This appears to be one of these things that's "common sense."
People have thought this way for awhile, even back in Dewey and Thorndike's time. Ironically, grades were intentionally brought into schools as a way to show student growth overtime - a way to open up dialogue between teacher and student - but they've done the exact opposite. Essentially, grades are a shortcut that communicates pass or failure, with many students seeing anything under an A as "failure." And those at the bottom, who receive an "F", are pushed out of our schools - rank and filed to be the "losers" of the education system.
But there's a lot of barriers to best practice, and going gradeless isn't easy. Many districts have gradebook requirements, whether that be simply just giving a kid a grade or even requiring a grade per week. And therefore, many don't even attempt "the impossible." I'm here (with our guests) to show that it is possible! There are educators throughout the world "going gradeless" even in traditional systems. Of course there are various degrees of making this happen, but going as far as possible within one's district for the benefit of their students is worthwhile.
GUESTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Jeffery Frieden, an English educator at Hillcrest High School in Corona, California, and founder of Make Them Master It, an organization aimed at connecting teachers to mastery-based practice and identifying teacher struggle through a podcast, book, and blogs.
Aaron Blackwelder, an English educator in Woodland Public Schools in Woodland, Washington, and founder of Teachers Going Gradeless, an organization aimed at providing resources and connecting educators who diminish or eliminate the use of extrinsic motivators.
Nick Covington, a Social Studies educator at Ankeny High School in Ankeny, Iowa, who promotes progressive education in his own practice including developing portfolio-based gradeless assessments.