#DML2012: I am the teacher underground. 18

I used to be…[Author's note: I'm no Junot Diaz, but I'm not going to apologize for the few instances of non-institutional language below, either. Read on at your own risk.]

So let me first say, “Brava,” to the foundations, labs, organizations, and educators of all sorts who shared their walk on/walk out work at #DML2012. I think it’s unabashedly good to model real learning and create community-based authentic learning spaces outside of school. It’s clear that groups like the Hive are working to take networks of out-of-school organizations and to make those networks into communities of co-practitioners who frequently co-locate for what I heard best described as “learning parties.” These parties serve kids; they serve learning; and, if schools pay close enough attention, these parties serve schools by modeling personally meaningful work, by suggesting how schools might reconfigure themselves to be relevant, and by intimating that it might not be too long until class sizes drop as students leave public schools for other public learning spaces – at least in cities that build sustainable learning networks outside of school houses.

Let me also say that I have now officially heard enough (which is different, of course, from having done enough). All of this is very clear to me. I see the flywheel gather momentum. However, I’m not sure that it will ever collide with the grinding flywheel of school (think kids as Conans drudging through the sands) – as Mitch Kapor said on Friday’s plenary panel, “we have trouble changing our institutions.” So should we try? (By “we,” from here on out, I mean, “we, the DML tribe.)”

In Walk Out, Walk On, by Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze, suggest that our institutions are living systems because we humans create and populate them. This, however, makes our institutions impossible to change, according to Wheatley and Frieze, because once a living system adopts a set of behaviors, it will not change them – and only at the height of its power will viable competitors emerge to any such system and begin their new cycles of scaling up immutably. Systems scale and die; they don’t evolve. Perhaps they iron patches over tears. See also: paging @usedgov.

Kind of makes you wonder if we should’t just start new public learning institutions – including higher education institutions – to get a handle on the problems of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of identity we greatly admire as a system and rightly rail against as individuals.

Do the foundations and organizations and individuals we love have an obligation to position themselves more directly opposed to public schooling?

Moreover, as Wheatley & Frieze might ask, do the foundations and organizations and individuals we love have an obligation to help with the hospice care of schools and their inhabitants as schools fizzle, pop like a lightbulb, die?

I ask all of this from my position as a classroom teacher in a public school – a small one, albeit one that goes out of its way to reconnect struggling learners with the joys of learning about things that matter to them.

But why do I ask any of it?

Here goes:

  • DML, compelling vision; meh delivery. As much fun as I had giving an Ignite talk, lecturing is only so much fun. It seems to me like the conference (and organization) could take a page from nearly any group of stakeholders and close the gap between lecturing panels and participatory sessions. Let’s bring and/or look at data that provides us with motivating discontent; let’s have game sprints and hack jams and DMLCamps pushing us all into the social-justice/maker work to which we pay homage. Empanel folks in re-combinatory ways so our shared work becomes enmeshed in the local practices we bring to share. Lecture is the lowest common denominator of learning, despite its ubiquity in the institution of schooling. The idea that we know better, but that sometimes we just need to lecture is an absolute corollary to the argument of school apologists. (Maybe we should have a cos-play day?)
  • DML and foundational friends, resist systemization. I know its difficult. I know you want to offer some helpful protocols and criteria for contests and grants, but standardized protocols, criteria, contests, and grants are not new or disruptive because, as one of our own pointed out during the second-day plenary panel, it’s not easy to help the failing failing schools when school divisions and their leaders are sending foundations and their moneys to successful failing schools. It would be more disruptive to experiment with new ways of identifying local instances of the learning environments we want (even those in “rogue” public school classrooms!) and granting money to them based less on a budget based on a plan and more on a rolling basis to support evolving work. I think of scouts here, who travel to identify individuals, but the idea deserves more thinking than that. Maybe prototype a system that allows pseudo-day-trader grantor agents freedom to fail forward in creating learning portfolios absent stringent ROI requirements that stifle rapid prototyping, iteration, and the abandonment of what doesn’t work. As a relatively unfunded lad, I, of course, have little idea of how much of this is already being done, but certainly I see invitations to apply for stuff all the time. This is a tremendously dispiriting thing for a teacher like me who feels the need to look over her should as much as she looks ahead. As transparent as I try to be, it’s difficult to find the time to multi-thread justifications both for what I do (in case someone up there gets to questioning it) and for what I do (in case someone out there wants to fund some of it). There has to be a way to support teachers doing the work of the DML tribe in schools. There has to be a way to make relationships a part of an abundant gift economy between grantors and public school practitioners who are already tending to students’ school wounds as best they know how without the cache of this company or that charity or program.
  • DML tribe, let’s escape the false dichotomy that is plainly part of our creation myth – the one that says we must support this work outside schools because either it’s not happening in schools or it can’t happen in schools. I was surprised to hear the school apologist argument at DMl that goes like this: it’s unethical to create engaging learning environments in schools with high stakes testing because it harms the kids. I call bullshit. The high stakes testing harms the kids. Getting rid of it only harms adults who have invested their egos and funds in an LCD-screen-dusted mountain of SIS, testing, intervention, accountability, and portal products that have digitized the paper-shuffling adults want to believe is important because we do not trust the quality of student work or the clarity of student joy as indicators of our success. We need to report stuff for the approval of our parent figures further up the admin ladder. We look up for approval, rather than laterally – to our kids as co-learners and co-teachers – for the satisfaction of learning. DML, find the courage to call out those scant urban districts that hold back over a third of our children from the kinds of learning their affluent peers pick up hither and yon. Do some hospice. We hospice workers don’t need relief – or your funds or approval for that matter – but we wouldn’t say no to solidarity and we wouldn’t keep you from opting in to our work and out of the “it’s unethical to interrupt the testing cycle” mantra, which – in the starkly insane school-to-prison pipeline world of United States education – unambiguously couples work that does not fulfill human needs with punishment for those who do not fulfill adults’ wants at school.

And here are some additional solutions I would propose from where I live – let’s keep in touch and keep dialoguing in public if any of them speak to you.

  • DML, check out EduCon and some hack jams (which Meenoo Rami and I gladly offer to adults skeptical of hacking). Send some reps. Worry less about thematic strands and more about practical, practice-based ones. I want to leave with some handmade Minecraft/social justice e-textiles next year, dammit.
  • Foundations, create an opt-in, secure database of teachers who think they have something to offer you. The folks applying for your grants are self-selecting. The teachers who can’t see a way to getting local approval for their work probably aren’t contacting you; their students are needlessly cut off from your support, given the communications technologies we have, literally, at-hand.
  • Universities, I’ve said it before: hack thyself. I will trade you badges if you trade me admissions standards that make “college-ready” synonymous with “learning-loving.” For the love of thorny, unambiguous good, demand that kids submit portfolios of interdisciplinary, arts-infused work that oozes passion. Make your primary community of affinity that of students who want to change the world through their learning rather than that of a community of adults pitched at one another across the jousting rail trying to lift up these lances skewer-full of metric brain-tons of work that doesn’t help kids learn – right? I mean, libraries have to subscribe to those rapacious journal conglomerates for Research I professors, not for undergraduates. Serve kids better by refusing them entry from schools that stake-them to intellectual, imaginative, and generative deaths. Stars of the higher education, DML-and-pals tracks and fields, move your labs to affordable schools with deeply compelling admissions policies for kids and learning unless your home institutions change shit up. You want to change the culture of woefully underprepared undergraduates? Change your departmental cultures, band together with other departments, and storm the faculty senate. Stop being compliant with NCLB, or stop calling foul on K12 education. You shouldn’t be looking down when you look at public schools. Problem solve.
  • Foundations, organizations, higher education, school divisions, and gaming companies: create some shift in the educator workforce. Create either hybrid jobs or part-time jobs to get the best teachers in public education out of the schools and into the public. Imagine a fantastic teacher leaving after lunch time – and taking a class or two with her by proxy – to a community-based learning environment. If we pulled this off, we would connect the best teachers and best out-of-school educators in rolling learning parties. We would give teachers #alt-ac-esque career paths without squelching or asking them to disavow their mission-driven service to children in public schools. We would pressure schools to offer such programs or, at the very least, bleed off some students per day without totally removing their per-pupil funds from their neighborhood schools. The schools keep the money – if you set up the partnership correctly so that they stay enrolled full-time (but go to a part-time “internship” or recurring “field trip”) – and get half-a-day of smaller class sizes.
  • Foundations, fund some of the amazing out-of-school-like work going on in schools in such a way that it’s financially attractive for school systems to support that work. If you fund part of a salary (let’s skip over the argument we all know and need to ditch and work around about funding salaries) or sponsor a public school division’s accreditation from a private-school accreditation consortium, why couldn’t a brave school board and local executive lose state money for those kids or that teacher or small program or school?

We are set up really well to continue our own works. So is school.

I’m impatient, sometimes caddy, and a terrible audience member unless I’m live-tweeting, so I really hate it when I get caught up in losing or tautological arguments because I feel like I’m being wasteful of my time and others’ time because I’m impatient, caddy, and distractable.

Know what I hate more? Assuming that I – and the work I love – is lost.

But I hope. I came into DML hoping. I leave DML hoping. And I know I will act.

Just how differently, we’ll see. Sometimes we have to kill our darlings to change ourselves. Sometimes in changing ourselves we kill our darlings. Sometimes – especially in the white West – we white Westerners (males, especially) forget that our darlings and our problems are one in the same.

I am the teacher underground. I sound my barbaric yawp from SFO. The institution I love is the institution I hate. This is the way it is inside school, even when I’m out and about.

Who’s up for GDC?

18 thoughts on “#DML2012: I am the teacher underground.

  1. Reply Kim Wilkens Mar 4, 2012 12:40 pm

    I love so many of your ideas. One I feel compelled to comment on is the idea that “we do not trust the quality of student work or the clarity of student joy as indicators of our success.” I recently video-taped kids about their experiences of a video game design workshop and when asked what they found challenging, their whole body language changed as they shared their frustrations as well as their joy at overcoming obstacles. How do you measure that? I am new to public education and I can’t understand why it seems the default position on standardized testing is no position at all. I am pursuing an MEd with a program that is clearly focused on giving us exposure to inquiry-based, constructivist, progressive education based on the latest in cognitive sciences, yet I don’t really hear higher education emphatically weighing in on why standardized testing doesn’t result in that.

    Also, thank you for tweeting and blogging your DML experience. It’s definitely the next best thing to being there!


    • Reply Chad Mar 4, 2012 8:36 pm

      Kim, I appreciate the kind words and your story. I don’t really know what I think a good role for big data is in the human interaction between learners, but admitting that we can tell at the human interaction level when teaching and learning works would be a great step for the sector to take :)

      All the best,

  2. Reply Chris Lawrence Mar 4, 2012 1:07 pm

    Awesome post, need to reread a few times to have constructive dialogue (especially sunday morning after a conference) but really pertinent stuff and I think your push backs are essential moving forward. And thank you for the shout-out to Hive NYC!

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  4. Reply mura Mar 4, 2012 1:51 pm

    Hi Chad

    Your thought provoking post provoked me to write this short post on Rebooting Educational Conferences: http://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/re-booting-educational-conferences/

    many thanks

  5. Reply Manoj Sinha Mar 4, 2012 5:28 pm

    Great Post – very reassuring! A BIG thank you to you and the rest the ‘DML tribe’ for making this a part of the agenda at #DML2012.

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  7. Reply David Preston Mar 4, 2012 11:06 pm

    Thanks for this! I enjoyed meeting you at the conference and I think you’ve crystallized a lot of the hallway conversations from DML. One thing we classroom teachers can do is network our students through social media and orgs like The Hive (big ups, Chris!) to support learning both behind the chain link and in the wild. My students and I stand ready: send up a flare and let’s rock.
    Keep up the great work,

    • Reply Chad Mar 5, 2012 3:14 pm

      David – awesome to meet you and thank you for finding your way here -

      I hope you’ll share out how your class goes this Spring; I’m looking forward to learning from it!

      All the best,

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  11. Reply Kelley Mar 7, 2012 12:02 pm

    Dang – I wished I had the chance to connect more with the participants (and not just via Twitter, though the hashtag comments were amazing!) I can’t figure out how to link with non-presenters as these things, but huzzah to all this thinking! You inspired me to create a page on my personal working-wiki called ‘true disruption!’ Yay!

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