The source is uncertain (Quote Investigator), but the words are true. I’ve been feeling them deeply at the end of 2021. Many of my colleagues are listing their publications for the year, justifiably proud of their accomplishments. One tweeted about work wins that include one book, four articles, two chapters, five podcast episodes, three reviewed pieces, four opinion pieces, seven book reviews, two reading guides, three keynotes, three guest lectures, and seven panels. I get tired just READING those accomplishments!! Tenure will be no problem. And well deserved. This person is brilliant, determined, hard-working, and forward-thinking. Another, equally brilliant, is designing classes based on dissertation research that will become a book. Google Scholar can be overwhelming when I consider the work of my friends and acquaintances.
Me? Well, there was a book chapter that I actually wrote last December and an article in the Spring. There’s another manuscript that I’m third author on that has been in the works for several years that may or may not ever find a home. At the moment, I don’t have any academic work in progress (although I just remembered I do have a book review to write). Even so, it’s hardly enough work to impress potential employers or tenure reviewers.
But wait. Why do I compare my academic output with those who are at the beginnings of careers that will break boundaries? My goal in academia has never been prodigious publications, but influence on individuals. I earned a PhD so that I could be better equipped to mentor, challenge, and cheer for the next generation of educators. A list of accomplishments may make me happy for a moment, but it doesn’t bring me true joy.
Joy in education for me is when a high school student from the 1990s finds me on social media and tells me that my classroom was a place where she was able to be her authentic self. That she felt heard and celebrated in the community I fostered. Joy comes from other students over the years who have confided in me, long after they left the four walls of the school building that they still remembered the lessons of personal responsibility blended with compassion-and that they took those lessons into their own families and careers. Joy comes when I get an unexpected tweet from a grad student in response to a post about grace that has little to do with school and everything to do with relationships.
I say in my personal teaching statement that my philosophy is a simple syllogism:
Every person is a story
Every story matters
Therefore, every person matters
The things that bring me joy are not accolades or citations (I like them, don’t misunderstand), but the long term relationships that come from who I touch through what I do. That’s the source of my joy in academia. Anything else is frosting on an already delicious cake.
It’s been two months since I wrote part one. CRT continues to be defined and redefined in social spaces, and there is no single consensus on what it actually means. People continue to argue about whether CRT should be taught in schools, but neither side takes two minutes to say exactly what they mean by CRT and what exactly teaching CRT looks like.
It’s amazing to me that our social discourse is so broken that we are quick to argue without agreeing to the terminology of the debate. Having an opinion automatically puts people to one side or the other, without even mentioning the possibility of a space in between. It puts people like me in an awkward position. I see multiple angles to the conversation. Critical Theory is one of many ways to interpret positionality, events, and systems. It is a broad brush that does not discriminate between groups and the individuals within those groups.
It is the broad brush that creates most of the chaos. Generally speaking, conservatives in the US of every racial group focus attention on the individual. Individual rights, individual responsibilities, and individual consequences form the central philosophy of the conservative movement. It is not a movement of callous indifference or lack of empathy. Rather, it is a philosophy of the power of one person to change the self, the situation, and the results. It is a philosophy that says, “I made some mistakes. What can I learn and how can I improve my situation?” It is a philosophy that scorns big government in favor of limited and local politics because it is the local power that has direct influence over the individual.
On the other side, progressives in the US of every racial group focus on the collective. They may direct their actions to promote the common good, even when it means stepping on individual toes. Corporate well-being, collective progress, and group benefit are at the core of the progressive movement. It is not a disregard for individualism per se, but it seeks to merge individuals into groups that can make broad changes by the power of the group. It is a philosophy that says, “One group of people should not be elevated over another group. The structures of oppression must fall so that everyone might enjoy the reward of our common striving.” It is a philosophy that prefers movements of groups to individuals, and the broader the scale of the group, the more power it has to change culture and society.
There is a middle ground that many people adhere too, but do not discuss at length because the rhetoric of the two sides drowns out their voices. Often they are silenced before they complete a single line of thought because the sides assume that “if you aren’t for us, you are against us.” It’s a problematic way of thinking that only exaggerates and amplifies the voices that have chosen sides.
The middle ground philosophically recognizes the role and responsibility of the individual to make personal choices that promote the common good. It recognizes the character of groups as able to move agendas, but also notes that one agenda or another may not be beneficial to other groups or individuals within groups. It is problematic because what might be for the common good of some is not necessarily the common good for others.
Covid19 provided multiple opportunities to see all three philosophies in action. On one side are the conservative individualist recommending vaccines and masks, but avoiding mandates. On the other side are the progressive collectivists who demand masks, vaccines, and closed societies to protect those who can’t or won’t protect themselves. In the middle are the people who recognize that there may be times when mandates are required for certain segments of a population, but that individuals for the most part should be able to weigh the risks and rewards and determine for themselves what they will do. If a business chooses to mandate masks, individuals choose to either mask up or go elsewhere.
How does Critical Theory fit these philosophies? By concentrating the lens of power to either groups or individuals. People in the middle are often ignored or assumed to be on the “other” side. Critical Theory relies on the principle of oppressed and oppressors. It is a false binary, but it resonates with people and people groups who feel unseen, unheard, and underappreciated.
Paulo Freire is one hero of critical theorists. He divides people into two groups: oppressors and oppressed. He does not account for a middle class that is neither oppressed nor oppressor. Perhaps the middle class and working class are absent in Critical Theory, but ignoring the largest percentage of a population makes CT purely theoretical and decidedly impractical. It also means that there can never be resolution because the conversation only includes voices on either extreme of the debate.
Freire (1970) wrote his Pedagogy of the Oppressed dedicated “to the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side.” A noble sentiment- and elitist at its core. I have yet to see academia address the inherent elitism in the text. “Those who suffer with them” is an impossibility. No one can suffer the hardships, oppressions, and sorrows of another. Those who claim to “suffer with” the oppressed in the US don’t often sell what they possess and give to the poor (see Matthew 19:21). And it seems the more people have, the less likely they are to give it all away to become truly co-sufferers with the oppressed. Granted, I paint with broad strokes here, but it doesn’t take long on any search engine to find celebrities and social media influencers who talk a big game, but don’t make themselves equal to the suffering and oppressed. There are those who DO sell everything and go so they can make a different in the lives of others, and those are the few who understand the idea of self-sacrifice for the common good.
Freire’s solution to bridging the gap between oppressors and oppressed does not have a home in out current divisive culture. His solution was education as a mutual process between learners and dialogue or, as he put it “dialogical action and its characteristics: cooperation, unity, organization, and cultural synthesis.”
In short, the key element of reconciliation is lacking in today’s society: communication. Cultural synthesis, where all cultures are honored and shared only comes through cooperation made possible by conversation. De-centering “whiteness” should actually be de-centering self, from the elites through the middle and working classes, to the poorest among us. When each person celebrates both the similarities that make us human (individualism) and the differences that make us beautiful (group identifications) then there may be hope for something resembling equity.
Whether enough individuals are willing to set aside their differences for a short time to promote unity is another thing altogether.
I’ve been pondering this idea for some time. I have come to a few conclusions. I’m not sure how they’ll be received, but as a thinker, amateur philosopher, and educator, I find I am compelled to at least put my observations out to anyone who may read this post.
Introduction for 2020
2020 was marked by the unanticipated, the unexpected, and the unprecedented. The words have been so overused that they have lost much of their meaning and all of their power. Still, no one could have predicted back in January just how the next months would unfold. First a pandemic, followed by controversial responses to mitigating the illness, and then a series of abuses of power by individual law enforcement officers that led to months of civil disturbances ranging from protests to riots, ironically none of which seemed to be concerned about controlling the still raging pandemic. Natural disasters from an early hurricane season in the Southeast and early wildfire season in the West led to mass evacuations an devastating loss. The economy, which had been the best in years, tanked; between government quarantines to control the viral spread, businesses damaged and destroyed by riot-induced looting, and nature’s wrath, there wasn’t really any way to maintain a robust economy. Workers were first furloughed before being let go, the result of not enough work to do. White collar jobs moved out of offices into homes, and schools went remote, requiring quick thinking by creative teachers and a paradigm shift about the role of technology in the classroom.
People around the world felt the uncertainty of a pandemic in the Internet Age. Opinions of fault for the spread of the virus began with its source in Wuhan, China, but quickly spread to national and world leaders, criticized for their responses, no matter how they responded. Some were quick to shut down their countries, mandate mask wearing, and force people into isolation. Other countries chose a measured approach, choosing to leave things open and let a herd immunity help slow the disease. Neither extreme approach made a major difference: COVID19 affected the weak and elderly first and hardest, but no particular group was unaffected, and the long term effects are still unknown.
In the middle of the chaos, a social movement gained traction and Critical Theory entered the general lexicon. It is not a new philosophy, but it has become central to a number of groups in the US, particularly in academia, in some protests movements, and even in some churches.
Critical theory is generally known as a Western European tradition that strives to merge philosophy and activism to provide liberation from slavery leading to a world where everyone is satisfied (Horkheimer, 1972). Critical theory (CT) is distinguished by its emphasis on a practical and moral response to inquiry that transforms culture by “decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Early Critical theorists focused on humans as agents of societal change with a capitalism in a “real democracy” as an entrance to a system where life operates by consensus (SEP). Social inquiry led to rational and practical knowledge that people could use to create the cultures in which they wanted to live. Human reason was a path to liberation.
Problems with this view began to emerge almost immediately. Horkheimer argued against the Marxian concept that solidarity of impoverished workers would overcome capitalism because most of the time capitalism helped people build better lives. He added that freedom and justice were dialectical in nature: “The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBaY09Qi-w0). He said that we who live in a society cannot determine what a good society looks like, but that people can bring up the negative things that need to be changed. The problem with this view is simple: every individual can find negative things that need to be changed, but criticism alone does little but create misdirected dissatisfaction, which increases human misery rather than relieves it.
2020 was a year of many things, and the re-emergence of CT, particularly of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is among them. In the midst of a pandemic and natural disasters, CRT has migrated from academia to the vernacular, and the result has been less of liberation and more of strident division, even among friends. But CRT cannot define racists or racism. What it can do is make people aware of the lenses through which they view the world and give them an opportunity to learn through a different lens.
This year’s conference theme—Widening the Angles of Literacy Research: Honoring Untold Stories Using Contrapuntal Approaches— LRA 2021
of or in counterpoint.
(of a piece of music) with two or more independent melodic lines.
When I read the theme for the 2021 Literacy Research Association conference, I was a bit confused. Contrapuntal? My limited understanding of Latin roots gave me a clue: contra: against, punctum: point in time or space. I turned to my friend, Google, for clarification and found that contrapuntal is a musical term related to counterpoint. Being both a musician and a word nerd, I dug a little deeper and learned that contrapuntal is an adjective that denotes the existence of a counterpoint, while counterpoint is the investigation of how two independent melodic lines may work in harmony. Counterpoint itself dates back to the Middle Ages (Jackson, 2020), where two or more sung/chanted groupings created a unique sound.
Without going too deep down the musical rabbit hole, counterpoint evolved and changed through the centuries, becoming mostly associated with two independent melodies that, when sung or played together, made a pleasing sound. If you listen to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number Three, you can clearly hear distinct musical lines in an interplay of stringed instruments. Each instrument is distinct and each melody identifiable, but the magic of the piece is in the putting it all together in a joyful blend that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I read an interesting piece in Medium recently that gave me a V8 moment (for those readers who missed the joys of ads in the 70s, click here for some pop culture history.) It was a story of a family who stymied a customs official by claiming to be full Asian, full Hispanic, and full Caucasian. The father in the story explained, saying, “As a family, we believe that ethnicity is much more than some digit that can be chiseled away into percentages. We cherish all the distinct bloodlines we descend from and see ourselves as fully included in all of them. You see, we are multiracial and not mixed-raced”(Agarwal, 2020, December 10.)
Multiracial, not mixed.
One of the lessons of the Great Pandemic of 2020 included increased attention to the issues of race, injustice, and “othering.” The issues weren’t new, but maybe because we had time to pay attention to the world around us, we had to face, head-on, the ramifications of some people more equal than others. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor became familiar names across the US because of the ways each died–at the hands of white official and unofficial law enforcers. There were dozens of other names to be remembered, but these three stood out as representative of three distinct problems within law enforcement: police brutality, police ineptitude, and non-police vigilantes. There are plenty of essays and articles about the specific cases, so my focus is not necessarily on these three, but rather what they illustrate: humans who focus on skin color, culture, and/or ethnicity can be dangerous. A philosophy that puts appearance above character stands in opposition to what most Americans believe. Most Americans (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and white) cling to Dr. King’s dream for a time when people would be judged, not for the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (King, 1963, August 28.) When the riots of June 2020 began, white Americans were largely horrified and surprised, but Americans of other ethnicities often echoed the sentiments of those participating: You who are in authority cannot continue to violate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness guaranteed to ALL Americans without consequence. And because it was impossible to turn a blind eye to the protests and the riots because we were all in pandemic lockdown, people of all ethnic backgrounds had to listen for a change.
The problem of racism begins with the dehumanizing effect of the other. It is not limited to people of European descent, although that is how it is most often discussed in the political and social US. The idea of the other goes back to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) when Cain, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother, Abel. When confronted, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By that, Cain meant that Abel was not his responsibility; they were different and their relationship was a matter of “him” and “me.” Othering began at that moment and has been a global phenomenon ever since.
Othering is at the heart of the either/or movement. Either Black or white. Either digital or analog. Either science or art or religion. When people fall victim to a false binary (either this or that), they typically seek to protect “their” culture, “their” belief systems, and “their” ways of knowing. By turning inward toward those who look and think as they do, people begin to view the other as an enemy.
Either/or is not limited to melanin sufficiency or deficiency. Either/or can be any aspect of humanity that seeks to keep itself apart from other human groups: the spread of the Persian/Greek/Roman Empires, the Viking conquests of northern Europe, the battles between Israelis and Palestinians, African tribalism, and the European colonization of most of the world are all examples of how othering destroys both cultures and individuals.
There is a solution to the notion (and the nonsense) of either/or: both/and.
There is power in both/and. Both/and is truly inclusive. It means that every voice is permitted, heard, and respected. In a both/and world communication includes listening carefully to information AND experiences. It considers situations and issues from multiple sides, like turning over the facets of a diamond to see the beauty from all angles AND to remove the inclusions of misinformation so that everyone has a clear view. Both/and looks for truth, truth that conforms to fact and actuality, not subject to whims of opinion.
Both/and is what allows the contrapuntal lines of music to create harmony. When a musician makes a mistake, the harmony is disrupted. It is in the both/and working according to the music in accuracy to the design of the piece that brings joy to both the musician and the audience. Every genre of music has its own rules and forms, even the most improvisational form of jazz. The sounds of different genres may not make sense to every hearer, but once the rules and reasons are understood, everyone can appreciate the contribution of each to the music of the world. Individuals are richer for learning the differences in scales and tonalities in global music.
In the same way, individuals are richer for exploring and examining all sides of any given idea or thought or experience. Including multiple points of view, without exclusion, is the best way to find harmony and truth. No one group or person has all the information about anything in this world. Perspectives inform interpretations of facts and events, but perspectives are not necessarily accurate to reality across the board. It is in multiple perspectives that people can gain understanding that leads to harmony.
Embracing both/and is exactly what the family in the opening story meant when they claimed to be multi-ethnic and not mixed-race. The limits of either/or are destroyed when we all embrace both/and.
Stop any conversation you hear (or might have considered starting) that “our kids are behind” and “they must catch up.” I respectfully ask, “Behind what?” “Catch up to what?” Our kids are not behind as a result of a pandemic though at some other time I will happily discuss the insidious systemic racial inequalities that have always existed in our schools, inequalities that have kept many with fewer opportunities than others. But our students are not “behind” now because of this pandemic.
What they are is stressed, anxious, lonely, worried, frustrated, and afraid of what happens next. But they are not behind a reading level or a math skill or a science concept. Rarely have I ever encountered any one concept in any classroom that is only taught once. We teach and reteach; we push kids to apply learned skills, strategies, and concepts in increasingly complex ways across the grades. That will continue to happen and anyone who says, “But they should have learned about mixed fractions in third grade and now we’ll have to do it in fourth grade” is too worried about benchmark learning and not focused enough on what learning should actually be about.
In many ways, our students across all grades have learned skills no one would have expected them to learn at their ages.They have been required to sit at a computer screen for 5, 6, 7 hours a day and figure out different learning platforms. They have had to figure out what to do when a school requires they be in their synchronous learning classroom when the sibling or parent is using the one computer in the home. Many have learned to monitor their own learning while watching siblings, preparing meals for siblings, or being scared while they are home alone. Many have finally returned to schools to be told, “Don’t touch,” “Don’t hug,” “Don’t get too close,” “Don’t share,” . . . . In a world where we want them to experience all they can do, they have been put behind see-through plastic screens on desks pushed that have been pushed six feet apart and told all that they can’t do.
In spite of all that, they have learned critical skills. They have learned empathy; they have – whether they realize it or not – become global citizens. They have learned what it means to stay inside; to substitute “I want to” with “I should.” And too many have learned what happens when parents lose jobs; too many have learned, at far too young an age, what grief is. They have learned that fear in the pit of your stomach when you hear someone you love has contracted Covid. They have learned how to cope with difficulties we never dreamed of preparing them to learn.
They have learned that some neighborhoods had more neighbors to contract the disease; they have learned that some hospitals received fewer supplies or received them later than other hospitals; they have seen, now, far more white people receive the vaccine than people of color or people of poverty. And they have questions about that. Questions they have been told “Don’t ask” and teachers have been told “Don’t answer.” They have learned that kindness counts. They have learned what it means to be without and how good it feels to help and to receive help. They have learned that in the worst of moments, they survived.
To dare to say our kids are behind, is to demean all the parents and teachers in this nation who have done their best under circumstances we never dared to imagine but experienced each and every day. These circumstances, for many teachers, were made worse when ridiculous requirements such as how long they must be at their computers, what they must do to show they are indeed teaching, how much they must cover of a curriculum that mattered little this year, how they must buy their own personal protection equipment and use their own dollars to supply classrooms with sanitizers, and teach face-to-face with no vaccines were never ending. This year has caused even our most veteran of teachers to question how they keep going and has reduced our novice teachers to questioning if they will stay in teaching. And now, now they are reminded they must never, ever forget the forthcoming TEST.
Stop relying on that ridiculous state test. It doesn’t measure a critical thing about what was learned this year or what was taught. If universities can set aside the lauded SAT/ACT this year, then what are we saying to our children, parents, and teachers when we say, “Oh, yes, we’ll be giving THE TEST this year”? What are we showing we value? Yes, let’s have a long-overdue conversation about this test. But for now, STOP the demands to “Make sure the kids are ready.”
To the U.S. Department of Education, stop waiting for states to ask for waivers to give THE TEST. Step in and stop the insanity.
To Dr. Jill Biden, thank you for your support of teachers and please see if you can perhaps push a little sanity into decisions being made right now.
And to all teachers: Stop listening to those who say your kids are behind. That’s a statement without merit, offered in unprecedented times, that is uttered by those who value testing, not learning, and statistics, not students. To those who say such things, I say they have not seen you delivering food to homes with little or none, staying online to talk to the kid who is alone, accepting work at any point in the unit, crying when one kid finally shows up because your heart has worried about that child/teen, and laughing with your students when a cat arrives to sit upon your shoulders. They haven’t seen all you have done to explain the unexplainable while you, too, wonder at this nation’s insanity.
Dear teachers, stop saying, “I can’t” because you have. You have shown up. You have done what you did not think you could. You have taught your kids under the worst of situations because it’s what you do. You are tired, stressed, anxious, worried, and feeling alone. I wish I could make those feelings go away. But I can remind you that feelings of inadequacy should be shoved aside. Please don’t think you can’t, because you did. You gave our nation’s students needed normalcy (though a new normalcy) and you showed them grace when few extended the same to you.
Our nation owes you so much and gives you so little. I wish we would all stop any belittling remarks toward teachers and those administrators who do support them. So, to all of the rest of us; stop saying what your child’s teacher did not do and start thanking that teacher for what was done.
Kylene Beers, Ed.D.
Co-author with Bob Probst of Forged by Reading, Disrupting Thinking, Notice and Note, and Reading Nonfiction
National Leadership Award recipient by the National Council Teachers of English
Teachers Choice Award recipient for Disrupting Thinking
Past President of the National Council of Teachers of English
The depth of the petroglyphs lets them endure over years
Petroglyphs (literally rock carvings) remind those who see them that there were people in this part of the desert Southwest long before the Europeans, Russians, and Scandinavians set eyes on the Pacific and Atlantic shores. Even a novice like me can recognize some of the stories told through these images. Sun and moons mark time. Lizards and Great Horned Sheep repeatedly appear, showing how they populated the mountains around the Las Vegas Valley. Other images might be religious or community calendars, while still others are mysteries to the casual observer.
This one is low to the ground and might represent a person? Maybe a child?
This one is a mystery to me
My favorite from this day: a mama big horned sheep and two lambs.
They do tell stories, though. Story is and always has been an essential hallmark of humanity. I may not understand the particulars of these stories, but I do appreciate that people were here. Families lived and worked and ate and dreamed here then the same way they do now. Children ran and played. Women chatted about the antics of the children and the ways the men showed off. Perhaps the women shared recipes for treating sunburns or illnesses or injuries. Did the men look to the east to test the weather for the day? Did they exchange hunting stories and compare conquests? I see these traces of human stories and my imagination fills in the empty places. I see women huddled around cooking fires while children chase lambs up and down the rugged hills. Men stand away from the women and children, planning the next hunt or the next trip over the mountain to trade with their cousin Paiutes. One nods to another, indicating a need to repair one of the community lodges. Perhaps one makes a joke and they all laugh. The artist among them, inspired by the children chasing the lambs, carves an image of a mother sheep with her kids running from the children, not in fear, but in playfulness.
I can’t say for sure what their lives were like, but I do know that they were forever changed with the Westward trek of European (and eventually American) seekers of silver and gold. There is so much to be learned from the way in which the West was settled. Misunderstanding of culture and language is no excuse for uprooting and frankly stealing from entire populations. The human propensity to enslave what it conquers and to dehumanize those it does not understand is as old as the petroglyphs on these hills. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
Has it really been a full year since the last National Day on Writing? October 20, every year.
I still write for all the same reasons as last year: to think, to process, to learn, to explore, to encourage, to teach, to implore, and to celebrate.
But the more I ponder, the more I wonder whether there is more to it. Maybe I write because the sky is azure with a hint of cerulean where it touches the trees. Maybe I write because sunflowers have faces that turn toward the sun, just like mine does. Maybe I write because fall smells of umami, earthy and rich. The sweet florals have passed, and the sharp bitterness of winter has yet to arrive. Fall feels safe, even in its decaying leaves and molding stalks. Maybe I write because leaves crackle and crunch under my running shoes or because my granddaughter’s laugh comes from deep in her belly and echoes across her yard and into my heart and mind. Maybe I write because I know it is possible to create a perfect German Chocolate cake without gluten and without dairy. When the baker, eyes sparkling as she presents it to her daddy, knows that love is in more than the decadent coconut-pecan frosting, although it is there, too.
There are pictures that speak a thousand words, but there are also words that speak of pictures. Words that become images that lead to memories that recall feelings that carry us away from the conflict of daily living. Words allow us to escape into the deep recesses of imagination and wander there, undisturbed until we find other words to return us to the surface.
I write to find those words. The ones that make magic of the mundane. The crafted compositions of creative curations cry out to become content in a context of something other than the chaos.
I write because, at the end of the day, I am a writer.
I have been an admirer and friend of Buffy Hamilton since we met in 2014. She is one of the most creative teachers I have ever met, and her commitment to her students in unparalleled. I have wanted to write with her for years, and finally the perfect call came from the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle. It was a short notice collaboration, but since I had studied Buffy’s practices for so long, I was able to take her ideas and teaching practices and compose an article that was published September 2020.
This article is about how classroom design that reflects student needs can help students feel good about their learning. The space put them in a mindset where they weren’t “doing school” as much as they were learning by choice.
I am excited about the article, written before the pandemic, and hope to write a follow-up with how Buffy has maintained her creative voice during the pandemic.
In 1999, David Bowie predicted that the internet would change the ways in which people communicate, create, and consume content. Twenty years later, we are living in the world he imagined.
Bowie said, “the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment.” He went on to describe a collaboration between creator and audience that would lead to unimaginable genres of art and thought. And, here we are, or could be.
And then, pandemic
Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, academics, educators, and researchers were clamoring for new ways to assess student learning; the overwhelming evidence of standardized testing’s failure meant seeking out better ways for students to demonstrate learning. Publishers, often heavy-handedly, presented slick brochures of the next perfect solution or program or curricula. Teachers, who often have multiple college degrees and who know the student in their classrooms better than anyone were so often reduced to curriculum proctors and data providers that the profession suffered. New teachers quit. Veteran teachers passed the days to retirement without passion or even interest. Young adults eschewed the idea of becoming teachers altogether. When state mandates replaced teacher agency, the profession became largely unappealing.
When schools closed in March of 2020, suddenly teachers were heroes again. They got creative. They found ways to harness the power of the internet and used it to drive student educational experiences. Standardized tests were canceled, and teachers were able to focus, not on mandates, but on students. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, but the most imaginative teachers made it work the best they could with the resources they had. It was hard. It was also often satisfying for many teachers.
From hero to zero in 120 days.
Fast forward to summer of 2020. The uncertainty of the early Spring gave way to fear of what Fall might bring. Districts and states debated: face-to-face classes in spite of the physical health risks or remote education in spite of the emotional and psychological risks. Teachers’ voices were generally ignored as parents and officials demanded both/and instead of either/or. So teachers, who were hailed as heroes in April, were reduced to pawns in a political game of my-way-or-the-highway. Testing may be stalled another year, but publishers, quick to see an opportunity, started promoting even more prepackaged (and often expensive) programs to schools, districts, and parents. Like in the time before the pandemic, teachers were told, “you must” instead of asked, “what do you think?”
What about Bowie’s vision?
The internet still waits for education structures ot catch up with the possibilities. Many, even most, teens access the internet every day, playing games, mashing up songs, perfecting Instagram posts, and becoming Youtube stars. They are learning. They are curating and creating content unlike anyone could have imagined in 1999 (except, perhaps, David Bowie.) Teachers are taking advantage of a marketplace for their ideas, selling products to supplement a salary that does not represent their expertise or experience in any meaningful way, for the most part. Education is happening on the internet. Audiences and creators are collaborating on remixes, fan fiction, and software designs (or hacks). Teens are specializing in things that interest them – and traditional school is not an area of interest for most.
Education is missing a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself during this pandemic. Rather than push to return to normal, educators ought to be seeking out new ways for meaningful learning. We have the technology, but seem to lack the vision. We need to look forward, not backward. There are challenges of access and equity that should be addressed, but a school or district that seeks the next-best-program can shift those funds from publisher pockets to resources for the people in their communities. (It’s not like packaged programs meet all the issues of access and equity anyway.)
A 20/20 wake up call
Hindsight is said to be 20/20, but the actions of the current education powers-that-be (from the President of the US to the local school board) seem to have clouded the realities of the recent past. Educators, teachers, and parents need to insist that student needs must be the focus. Student interest can drive learning. Student creativity can show mastery. Clear away what doesn’t work. Step into what 21st century education can be.