Blog Post

An introduction to HASTAC (via more ill-advised confessions)

Before coming to U-M to join the exceptional Joint Program in English and Education, I applied to multiple schools for multiple years. After receiving a poetry degree and moving to NYC for a briefly nascent career in publishing, I moved back to Indiana where I began teaching composition courses at the ripe age of 24. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was sure I wanted to do it.

My mom had been an English teacher for nearly four decades, and though I never tried to follow in her footsteps exactly, I think I was finally starting to see the allure and honor in all of those stacks of papers to be graded, and all of those post-high school encounters of ex-students we'd see in grocery stores. As a teen I'd occupy myself by fingering odd boxes of cereal or baked goods while my mom caught up with students she had taught twenty years prior. Everyone was so happy, so appreciative. I'm not saying that's the reason I wanted to be a teacher, but in hindsight it's as good a memory as any.

So at 24 I began teaching at Notre Dame, and by 26 I was sure that the only way to keep doing it was to get a PhD. So I applied to about three graduate schools, and was rejected in short order by all three. Demoralized but not deterred, I moved to California and began teaching at Stanford. It appeared I was moving up in the world. That is, until I was only rewarded contracts on a semester-by-semester basis. At that point, I threw my hat back in the ring and applied to more PhD schools, maybe 10 or 12. One by one the small, thin white envelopes arrived, each embossed with their schools shiny classic seals, mocking that I'd never be one of their elite members.

Though that last year at Stanford was a blur, I came back and tried it all again. The teaching. The false hope of a career blossoming. I shed preconceptions, fears, and a few girlfriends. For various reasons I applied again. Three years in a row of applying to nearly the same schools (I've later been told that that's a no-no.) But this year was different. I was accepted into nearly every school I applied to even though I hadn't added much to my CV and by now these programs knew me on a first-name basis from all the rejections they had sent.

So what was different?

Honestly, I still don't know. However, there is one change I made that was half-inspired and half-stupid, which I've come to realize isn't a bad ratio at all. In my personal statements I began describing all of my trips to the bar, where I'd sit with old friends and talk about education. For whatever reason a lot of my friends had become teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools all around Michigan. So we'd sit at the bar, and after talking about how bad the Detroit Tigers were doing that year, we'd talk about what was wrong with education and public school in general. However, for me, these weren't typical complain-about-your-job-becuase-that's-what-you-do conversations. They were provocations. They were salient starting points for the work that I had been training myself to do. They were reasons to go back.

So on my first HASTAC blog entry, I'm writing to announce that I'm going camping this weekend with some friends from Chicago. One spent two years at a horrible elementary school in the Bronx as part of Teach For America. The other, his wife, volunteered at a south side Chicago school until she couldn't take it anymore. Around a campfire, and perhaps with a few drinks in hand, we'll discuss what went wrong, issues like charter schools or the new movie "Waiting for Superman," and perhaps--just perhaps--come away with some ideas.

Should I be talking about this here? I dunno. But it worked for my personal statements, and I'm realizing as I begin my own research for my dissertation, that everything I do is a personal statement in defense of (public) education, whether it's at a conference or a campfire, or a blog or a bar.

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5 comments

Really like your post -- informal conversations are often where we "really" learn what we know! 

I'm curious -- what *was* wrong with education in these conversations, and how do you want to approach it? I have my own ideas on this subject, which I'll get into as the year progresses. But I'd love to know what kinds of breeze you were shooting in these sessions. (That is to say, provoke us, too!) 

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Well, I should start by clarifying that I'm a product of public schools and have daily conversations with friends and family about the state of public education, so it's near and dear to my heart.

It's hard to rehash everything, but here's a brief recap of an email exchange I had with my camping friend as we were discussing Race To the Top. It started with me sharing a link to Edutopia's take on RTTT: http://www.edutopia.org/race-to-the-top-impact-on-students

He then broke the article's main argument into parts: "The top states earned their millions by (i) raising caps on charter schools, (ii) instituting merit pay and (iii) teacher evaluations based on student test scores, (iv) loosening the grip of teacher tenure, (v) beefing up their student data systems, (vi) strengthening their turnaround policies for struggling schools, and (vii) adopting common core standards. Taken together, it's shaping up into an educational landscape with more experimentation, more scrutiny on teachers' performance, more uniform curriculum, and more decisions based on data, data, data."

To which I then responded with the bullet points below. As I'm posting them now, I'm realizing how shallow some of them are, but keep in mind that this was a brief email give and take, which was already a continuation of ongoing conversations we'd been having. Hopefully we'll share more around the campfire this wknd. Anyway, me in email:

(i) Charter schools aren't bad in an of themselves. However, good charter schools are often private schools in disguise, especially when money and/or luck goes into deciding who gets to attend. Likewise, I'm sickened by the education-as-business model that many of them adopt (more on that in a bit). Also, keep in mind that there are bad charter schools, too, where turnover is a near constant and you run the risk of CEOs more concerned about the bottom line than the education. I'm not saying that happens often, but it could. I also have several friends who teach at charter schools who make horribly low salaries and aren't eligible for benefits.

(ii) All of these are tied together, but merit pay is the only one directly addressing "good" teachers. Because of my research interests, I'm strongly against it. The best education (in my opinion) comes from free, collaborative, open-access models where people share information and resources to better both their own teaching and the education of their students. Merit pay puts gates up to all of that. Even if teachers don't automatically start acting suspicious or competitive with one another, it taints the open-access ethos of sharing materials and ideas. Why would I freely give up lesson plans, for example, that I know work to people who may then use them and make more money than me?

(iii) This argument is so tired I won't even make it here, other than to point out the obvious that if teacher evaluations are based on test scores, and teacher's jobs are based on evaluations, then I'll give you one guess what they'll be teaching. They'd be stupid to do otherwise. The crime, here, is that it kills innovation and creativity, and feeds even more into the education-as-business model.

(iv) We can talk about this in person. Tenure in secondary schools is different than tenure in post-secondary schools. Tenure in secondary schools is indeed sometimes too relaxed and often rewards teachers who just stick it out for a few years (around here, if a teacher is in place for 4yrs, she's eligible for tenure.) It needs to be reviewed, but in many debates like this the word "tenure" becomes a strawman for career educators even though it has merits. The same goes for unions: there's pros and cons, but to paint them with a broad condemnation brush makes no sense.

(v) I have no idea what they mean by this, but if it's like Obama's plan to make all of our medical information electronic then I'm all for it.

(vi) Again, not sure what they mean, but if this is about identifying schools that are failing our children, and trying to get them back on track then I'd be a fool to say it's wrong. The problem (again) is that the most widely used way of measuring this is through test scores, which continues the infinite loop.

(vii) Not many would disagree with this, even though they'd obviously disagree on whose standards we're espousing. Standards aren't the problem, though, it's the "adopting" where it gets tricky. We could all agree on standards and then all agree on a curriculum that gives teachers guidance, yet ample autonomy. At the end of the day, how do you measure if the standards are working? Yep, tests.

Anyway, those were some once-confidential notes. I'm only posting them here to continue the discusison, not to (in any way) say I'm stuck with them. Hopefully I can learn more from the conversations to follow.

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I've needed to think long and hard about what aspects of the school system I can contribute to changing, and if not what would need to happen to create the environment in which they might be changed. So I've had to shake my head at a number of institutional problems -- like an easy target like standardized testing, which doesn't seem to adequately measure student learning, though clearly some measurement is needed. 

I work with an excellent charter school, but its excellence doesn't blind me to the relevance of your points about the charter system, which is deeply flawed. As far as informal policy commentary on this subject goes, I enjoy Matt Yglesias's education writing: http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/tag/education/ 

Re: (ii), sharing curriculum and ideas is an interesting issue -- in my experience this is an aspect of school cultures (perhaps one of the few from your list) that could use some real improvement from the "inside" -- initiatives designed to get teachers thinking about using and sharing curriculum developed collaboratively. My experience is quite limited, but it seems like an open-access ethos is easier to instill when there's simply will and means within a particular school to encourage it. That makes it something particularly worthwhile as a "digital humanities" project, and is also where my own academic interests currently lie. 

My group has been working to create a model to bridge universities and primary or secondary schools -- the idea (more of a philosophy than reality at this point) is that partnership building and sharing of resources subtly changes the cultures of individual schools, though obviously not some of the more daunting realities of how schools (generally) tend to work, which is more the role of public policy.

Our work, fairly bottom-up as it is, can only do so much in terms of connecting younger students to concepts and practices like digital citizenship, sharing with audiences through digital technologies, developing the ability to analyze and create media, etc. But then none of these things (directly) challenge the norms of MOST policy-oriented school issues. Hopefully the research, curriculum development, and writing we're doing will contribute to some kind of policy shift, however small, toward more sophisticated models of teacher and student assessment.  

I do wonder what digital technologies and the scope of digital humanities (in some of the disciplines with which I'm unfamiliar, say) offer some of these problems -- most of them seem like a result of an incredibly decentralized and idiosyncratic school system that reacts poorly to top-down change and can't easily measure teacher OR student performance by a standard rubric. Other centralized systems in other countries seem to have very different problems due to *over*-centralization, but (e.g.) implementing and improving core curriculum isn't one of them. 

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This is all great stuff, and your post reminds me why I should never try too hard to speak for everyone, especially people/groups that I don't know a lot about. Your project sounds incredibly interesting and relevant, re:

"My group has been working to create a model to bridge universities and primary or secondary schools -- the idea (more of a philosophy than reality at this point) is that partnership building and sharing of resources subtly changes the cultures of individual schools, though obviously not some of the more daunting realities of how schools (generally) tend to work, which is more the role of public policy.

Our work, fairly bottom-up as it is, can only do so much in terms of connecting younger students to concepts and practices like digital citizenship, sharing with audiences through digital technologies, developing the ability to analyze and create media, etc. But then none of these things (directly) challenge the norms of MOST policy-oriented school issues. Hopefully the research, curriculum development, and writing we're doing will contribute to some kind of policy shift, however small, toward more sophisticated models of teacher and student assessment."

It seems like every year I meet PhD students who are starting out on research designed to bridge this divide with nothing but good intentions. A few years later, that bridge doesn't seem any closer to being built. I'm not mentioning this to be cynical or dismissive, but just to agree with you that this is often due to contextual and site-specific issues within schools and districts that hinders instructors from making these bridges for themselves, or taking personal intitiate to collaborate with others beyond their schools walls.

I do think social media can help us with this, if for no other reason than it may help to decentralize the potential community of collaborators. Yahoo! used to have a neat Teachers feature, which combined ideas of social networking with Google maps technology. You could simply look on a map and find people near you who were interested in sharing ideas. It seems like Ning offers us similar opportunities, as do new start-ups like Nixty. But so far, we don't have that one go-to place that everyone holds in high regard. I'm thinking of the extracurricular literacy clubs like 826 Valencia as archetypical examples.

Anyway, per my original post this is where I'd either order another drink or put some change in the jukebox to hear some Johnny Cash, but since we're on a blog, perhaps we can keep discussing how to make these abstract thoughts tangible.

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There's such a fraught tension around the relative cohesion (I hesitate to call this "centralization") of most universities -- in the sense of (e.g.) a keener sense of protectiveness around syllabi, more competition nationally for positions, etc. -- and the relative disorganization of school communities. Here in Philadelphia, though collaborations can be tough even between departments at a single higher ed school, there's a generally acknowledged community of higher ed scholars, professors, researchers, etc. that also extends regionally and nationally. Whereas to connect a teacher at one middle school to another is exceedingly difficult, and there's no real norm for doing it even if there are smaller models here and there (many of which I'm unfamiliar with, so /grainsalt) -- this definitely (as you suggest) a place where social networks come in handy, though I'm not aware of that many that are particularly successful in actually making those connections.

One problem is that many teachers may not have any real interest (yet) in this kind of cross-school or online collaboration; the idea of curriculum sharing, even among teachers in a single school, is often not a normative value (even if it's not explicitly discouraged -- more likely ignored). So again changing cultures from within schools, by working directly with them year-round rather than approaching them with ideas for research or change without the (often exhausting and frustrating) follow-through minutiae, can help to create an audience for the kinds of resources -- still sketchy though as you say some start-ups seem promising in this regard -- that these online networks offer.

At teacher workshops, I've found that many educators are happy to find the least "online presence" heavy tools -- Posterous was a big hit for its extremely simple interface and "email to post" functionality. And simple data sharing sites like Dropbox have been counted as favorites by educators I've worked with.

This is partially a question of goals: do we want to attract teachers who are already attracted to digital networking tools, teachers who would not normally use them, or both? The answer would seem obviously to be "both," but actually creating such a tool without sacrificing to some extent a potential audience on either side is more difficult. And then getting a critical mass of teachers to *use* the thing -- well, you can see why I try to think one step at a time with this stuff...

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