Archive

Teach This

If you teach U.S. History anywhere near the 20th Century I’m going to go ahead and assume that you take some time for the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully even a couple weeks. If you don’t we have bigger issues to discuss and we should probably schedule a one on one meeting to look at your curriculum. (That wasn’t a joke.)

I’m also going to assume that you use a few key texts like King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, or maybe his speech from the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. You might use Brown v. Board. Perhaps you use some texts related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You might show films or clips of films like Selma or Eyes on the Prize. If we’re really lucky you might use  something from Malcolm X like The Ballot or the Bullet or even some texts from SNCC or the Black Panthers.

You should also use March.

march-coversMarch is the three volume story of Representative John Lewis’ (D-GA) life in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. The story is told as a series of prolonged flashbacks as Representative Lewis processes the historical significance of President Obama’s election. I recommend all three volumes though you could probably get away with just volume 3. Books for a school or class aren’t cheap.

If you want it in a single sentence March is to the Civil Rights Movement as Maus is to the Holocaust minus the plot line about Art Spiegelman’s issues with his father. And frankly, from a comics standpoint March is a superior piece of work. (Luckily you could use both!)

I’ve written before about how comics can increase interest and accessibility for students and that all remains true here. Volume 3 also won the National Book Award making it the first comic or graphic novel to do so. That could be reason enough.

You will need to be a courageous teacher to use it and I have faith that you are capable of that courage. (Lucky for you the people at Top Shelf created a teacher guide for book 1 as well.)

march-feedom
Unlike many civil rights stories in other media, the experiences of the movement are extremely visceral thanks to Nate Powell’s art. March moved me and helped me identify with Representative Lewis in a way that no prose text or film has done previously. I felt pain when Representative Lewis gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was sick to my stomach when protesters were harassed and taunted by other citizens. I choked up when Powell revealed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church even though I knew it was coming. And I completely broke down at the end when President Obama is inaugurated and he and Representative Lewis exchange a few words. Students need to engage directly with the emotions that March brings up.

march-marchIt’s easy to just keep using the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s easy to stick with excerpts from “I Have a Dream.” They are known. They are safe. They’re excellent. They also keep the brutality at a distance. The conversations stay intellectual. Those texts avoid images of adult white men beating young black boys. They avoid the emotional pain and embarrassment of being repeatedly turned away from a lunch counter. Of having your church burned to the ground. They avoid the repeated arrests and the reality of putting one’s body on the line for the sake of justice.

March steps directly into that challenging space and as a teacher will force you to do the same. You owe your students an honest representation of historical struggle for justice. The dominant narrative that paints Dr. King as an infallible saint who never disturbed anyone. The dominant narrative tells us Rosa Parks as some tired old lady and does them a disservice and that narrative is a disservice to the movement as a whole.

March places the ownership of the movement in young people. Many young people working together over a long period of time. March is a story of resiliency in the face of oppression that is honest with readers about the time and effort and struggle required to make social change. And it is honest about the risks.

Without the emotional weight and the seriousness of the movement, why even teach it? Teaching the movement is not important because it may come up on the final. Teaching the movement is important because lives were at stake and young people took action. Lives are still at stake and young people can still take action and as educators we have a responsibility to help students realize their own power.

march-bridgemarch-arrest

RashadIsAbsent

The tag screams out at everyone from the school sidewalk in giant blue block letters. #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Rashad is absent again today because he was brutally beaten by a police office after being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. Rashad is black. The office is white.

This piece examines the full plot of All-American Boys and implications for teaching with the book in schools. I encourage you to read the book first. It’s excellent.

In All-American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely explore issues of racialized police violence in the context of a town named Springfield through the eyes of two teenagers: Rashad, the black high school junior who is beaten, and Quinn a white bystander and senior at the same high school. Rashad is an artist and JROTC member. Quinn is a basketball player. Reynolds and Kiely (themselves black and white respectively) tell the story over a period of a week through chapters that alternate between Rashad and Quinn’s perspectives.

The book explores Rashad and Quinn’s personal reactions to the situation, their families, the community, and very specifically, the high school. Each boy experiences a clear developmental arc as they examine racism, what it means to have courage, and the definition of “All-American”. Reynolds and Kiely show great skill in immediately humanizing each character including the boys’ families, their friends, their teachers, and the police officer in question. There is a poignant sense of history in the community that is evidenced without resorting to lengthy exposition.

AllAmericanBoys CoverIf you interact with adolescents in any appreciable way you need to read this book.

If you live in the United States you should read this book.

If you’re in education you need to read this book.

If you’re a teacher, you need to seriously think about teaching this text. I understand the political challenges of adopting a novel in public education. This book is worth fighting for.

The reading level should be comfortable for middle school and my only hesitation (and it’s slight) is that there’s harsh language in the book that could be tough for younger students. The characters are in high school and they speak like they’re in high school. I don’t see any issues with 8th grade and up, but each school is a unique environment and should be considered as such when selecting literature.

Educators I speak to are wrestling with ways to address racialized officer involved killings as they come up in the news. Which ones to address, which ones to not address, how long to spend, what to do when students get riled up, what to do if they think their administration is unsupportive, the questions are endless. These questions are increasingly heightened when the incidents are local. Reynolds and Kiely have the beginning of an answer. They provide an entry point for the conversation.

All-American Boys speaks to me like “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where Tim O’Brien posits that fiction can be more true than non-fiction. Reynolds and Kiely strip away the talking heads, media analysis, and theoretical objectivity and instead bring us immediately to a human level that cannot be easily accessed through other means. Reynolds and Kiely do the essential work of novelists by localizing and humanizing essential questions of humanity and providing readers with a set of circumstances against which to examine our lives.

Thankfully, Reynolds and Kiely avoid simple solutions to complex problems. Quinn is not a white savior coming to Rashad’s aid. Quinn is a confused teenage boy who wrestles with competing influences in determining right from wrong. Rashad is equally complex wrestling with his desire to avoid conflict while also feeling strong anger at having his rights violated and a growing commitment to broader social justice. Paul, the police officer who beats Rashad is equally complex seen primarily through Quinn’s eyes and their previous big-brother-type relationship. Each character is fully human and provides a potential platform for discussion and inquiry into motivations and understanding. There is great potential for students to cross identify with characters from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Springfield is a town full of complexity and nuance.

There are many lessons for students to pick up. There is an obvious lesson about racism’s continued presence in American society and how racist acts can come in many forms including inaction. There are strong lessons about strength and courage and how courage is about doing what is right at all times, particularly when you are afraid to.

There are also more subtle lessons for educators to examine. Throughout the book, the school and the basketball coach barely respond to the incident, encouraging students not to discuss the issue and the basketball coach actively threatens to bench any player who discusses Rashad’s situation on or off the court. The students react to the school’s decision in a very human way, making it clear that the topic is unavoidable. The students’ experience in All-American Boys parallels the real experience that Rich Milner discusses in Rac(e)ing to Class when a school chooses to ignore a local robbery. Local issues always come up in the classroom and we teach students important lessons when we actively close topics of conversation. All-American Boys challenges educators to actively engage in challenging conversations for the benefit of our youth. It is a challenge that education can rise to.

Ultimately the book’s power lies in how the authors complicate humanity. Each character, even small characters like Rashad’s nurse, are fully realized human beings with history and motivation. Each one is complex and that in and of itself is an important lesson for students. There are no obvious stereotypes at play and the reader cannot easily categorize or dismiss any of the characters. This to me is the most important lesson, and the one that can make lasting change in a student’s life. If we can help students understand that each person is a worthy and important human being we can help create a future in which we can treat each other with dignity and compassion. I wanted to dismiss Paul. I wanted him to be a clear villain, not worthy of my consideration. I couldn’t do it. Paul is just as human as Rashad and Quinn.

Reynolds and Kiely close the book with a student lead march that shifts focus from Rashad being absent from school to the student population being present for upcoming hard work. There is no trial. The march is not presented as a panacea. Many questions are appropriately unresolved. Reynolds and Kiely opened a large door with All-American Boys and they’re encouraging us to step inside. I hope that schools and teachers have the courage to do just that.

 

Thanks to Max Brooks and Caanan White you can stop teaching All Quiet on the Western Front. Seriously. Just stop. Right now. You don’t need Remarque’s four hundred pages of Paul Bäumer ruminating on camaraderie, lice, mud, and the horror of World War One. Instead you now have The Harlem Hellfighters.
NoQuietHellfighterThe Harlem Hellfighters
is Max Brooks and Caanan White’s fictionalized history of United States’ 369th Infantry Regiment. Much like All Quiet, the precise details of the story and characters are fiction, but the context and the core history are accurate. This makes the text applicable in both English and Social Studies contexts. Brooks even includes a brief, but thorough bibliography for students or teachers who want to do more research into the war or the 369th.

It’s also a graphic novel. If your school teachers Maus or Persepolis you should have no trouble justifying Hellfighters. It’s on that level of greatness.

So What’s So Great About The Book?
Hellfighters is a great war story. It has incredibly poignant depictions of the horror of war, dehumanizing combat technology, and deep camaraderie. Hellfighters is a story about a few men who hoped to fight for their country’s honor and found a much tougher battle when they got to the front line and had to fight a two front war. One against the German enemy and one against an American enemy. Hellfighters is also a black story; a story specifically about black Americans during World War I.

harlem-hellfighters1

click to enlarge

There’s no two ways about it. The standard canonical curriculum needs more black stories. There are bits and pieces of black stories when we cover 18th century slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, but those are scattered pebbles. There is rarely a clear path through the chronology. Black voices are typically absent or tokenized in the curriculum.

Hellfighters examines the black experience in the United States through the lens of World War I. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. Brooks doesn’t sugar coat the oppression and bigotry the soldiers faced while trying to fight for this country.

Historically, the Hellfighters stand out as the American unit that spent the most time in combat during World War I, never losing ground to the enemy and never losing a soldier to capture. (I’d never heard of them before reading the book.) The Hellfighters were also the United States’ first black regiment to serve in World War One, but the regiment was assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war because white American soldiers refused to serve alongside black solders. Such is our legacy.

hellfighters113-49e69e146ce873f9a17e5ae978b29c9af2f26bb5-s6-c30

click to enlarge

It Also Has Pictures:
If counteracting a hegemonic historical narrative is not enough reason to you use Hellfighters in your class, it’s also a comic and White’s art is incredible throughout. Somewhere between manga and Jack Kriby styles White’s art has extremely clean lines that explode into chaos as the battle ignites. Throughout the text White’s art supports Brooks’ words with raw, immediate, emotional content. It’s powerful stuff.  Just as powerful as Remarque’s vivid descriptions of bombardments and hand to hand combat and more accessible to a range of students.

There’s Nothing Wrong With All Quiet:
All Quiet is a phenomenal text. It might be the greatest war novel ever written. (The cover says it is.) I also really like the book. It was probably my favorite school book before Ms. Jones blew my brain open during my junior and senior years of high school. It’s also one of two school books that I voluntarily reread later in life. All Quiet also has the unique position as a historical document, being written by an active soldier immediately after the war. There is great power in situating the book in its historical context and I fully encourage using All Quiet with students. There would likely be no Hellfighters without All Quiet.

The problem is time. I don’t know of any high schools that offer a narrowly focused class on World War I, or the Literature of War, or any other course where you can justify teaching multiple complex texts on the same fairly narrow subject. We simply ask high school for too much breadth. (The fact that I can call World War I a “narrow subject” tells you how packed the history curriculum is.) With that in mind, swapping in Hellfighters in place of All Quiet is efficient. It’s a much quicker read without sacrificing emotional or historical content.

It’s also a black story and we need more of those. Hellfighters solves the dilemma of how to add other perspectives without sacrificing core content.

Stop Doing Good Things:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

World War I is an important topic to U.S. history and world history courses and the canon has a truly outstanding text already in place with All Quiet on the Western Front. Asking teachers to drop that text in favor of The Harlem Hellfighters is a prime example of the difficulty of changing education. For the most part, teachers are doing very good work. That means in order to improve we have to stop doing  very good work in order to do excellent work.

Teaching Hellfighters would be a bold move and I appreciate the difficulty of asking teachers to stop doing very good things to risk something new and unknown, but  there’s a big gap in much US History curriculum. The black experience frequently disappears from the classroom and Hellfighters reminds us that black people didn’t disappear. That is a critical message to send our students.

StrangeFruitCoverIn Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Joel Christian Gill collects nine snapshot biographies of exceptional, yet largely uncelebrated, black men. The stories are situated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and predominantly focus on black experiences in New England, where Gill felt the need to stay out of neighborhoods in Boston after growing up in the South. Gill’s explicit goal is to “cut the rope” off of the lynching tree and harvest the strange fruit referenced in the title by shining a spotlight on stories of black excellence under highly oppressive circumstances. Gill’s mission is sorely needed in the U.S. History classroom that has a tendency to portray sweeping universal narratives that lack human complexity.

Gill’s book is essential material for any U.S. History class due to its overall mission and the highly accessible presentation of material. This would be useful for any class working in the time period, or on the black experience in America more broadly. The comics medium allows students of varying reading abilities to jump right into the stories and Gill makes the stories extremely poignant without removing the narrative’s clarity. Strange Fruit also broadens the story of black experience during slavery, reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras. Gill’s work acts in direct opposition to history’s tendency toward the single story; a highly valuable resource for the classroom.

gill-6

It is easy to tell stories of oppression in black history. There are innumerable resources, but oppression alone is too simplistic to be an accurate representation of human experience. We need stories excellence and defiance alongside stories of oppression and Gill provides that much needed complexity by helping readers explore how black people excelled despite systematic oppression, thus adding strength to their already remarkable feats. It is incredible to be a dominant cyclist, even more so as a black man in the 1890’s like Marshall Taylor. This complexity is further highlighted in the story “Richard Potter’s Greatest Illusion” in which a mixed race man presents himself as an Indian magician to great commercial success, bringing up issues of skin color and the concept of “passing”. Other success range from mastery in chess, excellence in law enforcement, and the recovery of a man’s daughter during the Civil War. By exploring a range of successful of black experience, Gill also brings humanity to the narrative of black experience, something often lacking in the U.S. history classroom’s focus on great men and great wars.

Gill’s work on New England’s black history, much like Jack Jaxon’s work on Texas History, stands as a strong example of comics as a serious historical product. Gill is not out to tell children’s stories or invent fictions. Gill and Jaxon both explicitly identify their motives and intentions through the introduction and afterwards as well as by providing a bibliography. Gill sets a strong example that students could easily follow by creating snapshot biographies of their own. There is strong educational research on the power of summary to help students understand material, and creating an illustrated snapshot biography, that is highly accessible to many audiences, would take a great deal of research and summary to produce. With appropriate structure and support students should be able to produce highly engaging work that requires the development of research, narrative writing, and historical analysis skills. There is no shortage of potential subjects.

FullSizeRender

The structure Gill presents could also be easily extended into a research project for other groups of people and other historical time periods. What would it look like for students to actively research stories of how Native Americans excelled despite consistent oppression? How powerful would it be for students to investigate the myriad of experiences involved in the Tejano experience in the American Southwest to overcome the narrative of all those of Mexican descent as being immigrants? This could even be focused to a very narrow time period and location to provide much needed depth to U.S. History and an excellent vehicle for local history projects. Time constraints and curricular guidelines can often lead to teachers covering history in broad brushstrokes  and leaving details aside, but by including more individual stories students can better understand the complexities of history and marginalized groups can be brought into more deliberate focus.

If there is any major fault in Gill’s work, it would be that he includes no stories of women. There is one story that focuses on a community off the coast of Maine, but the other eight stories are all stories of black men. This does not at all take away from the qualify of Gill’s stories and I’m hopeful that in following volumes Gill spends time with stories of black women as well.

“Hi daughter/son, what’d you learn about in school today? What are you reading?”

“We’re reading Bitch Planet! It’s a sci-fi comic book about off-planet women’s prisons and repressive institutional patriarchy!”

“I see…”

You have to admit. It’s got a nice ring to it, but the reality of teaching a high school class with Bitch Planet would be challenging at best. Even in the most liberal district in the country you’d be likely told to cease and desist or get fired. It’s a pretty good way to go out though.

C47F3D66-438E-4271-81E4-9B3ED98F1F8B

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet hits all the flashing red buttons for schools. It’s a comic book. It’s got swears. It’s got nudity. It’s got violence. It’s feminist. One of those you could probably get away with, but all five? Goodnight teaching career! The title alone would get you stopped in most districts.

Here’s the thing though. It shouldn’t be that unbelievable as a high school text. If you take this book and the back-matter essays, match them with some additional academic writing, a film, and a novel you’ve got a really strong basis for a study on the impact of institutional patriarchy women in the United States. A study that a high school student can access. And that is something we desperately need.

We don’t teach about women in high school. Women aren’t in the books. Women don’t take center stage. By not teaching explicitly about women, we teach many lessons implicitly about non-participation and low levels of importance. A colleague recently drew my attention to an article that Martin Luther King Junior’s mother, Alberta King, was assassinated while playing the organ in church. I had no idea that was the case. I didn’t even know her name. I’m a history major. I’m a history teacher. I didn’t know her name, let alone the fact that she was assassinated. The only thing I know about Betty Shabazz is that she was Malcolm X’s wife. I couldn’t tell you about her life’s work. I lived in Washington for over twenty years and I can’t tell you anything about senator Patty Murray’s work (in office since 1993). I know more about Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and I’ve lived here for six months. This ignorance from the west coast raised, Oberlin-educated, child of political activists. There’s something wrong here and Kelly Sue DeConnick is trying to fix it.

39EBADA0-8FAD-4D45-92EF-7D8E2E32611AWith Bitch Planet, DeConnick is doing dangerous work. She’s claiming the women’s prison exploitation film genre and using it to stick a shiv right in the patriarchy’s gut.

It’s important that Educators speak the language of their students. Paulo Freire states that “the only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy…. In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teachers can manipulate the students, because it epresses the consciousness of the students themselves.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 30th Anniversary Edition, 2000, p. 69) Students are going out to see 50 Shades of Grey. They’re watching Game of Thrones. I had a 6th grader come to school quoting Inglorious Basterds. A casual flip through television and they’ll see more than their fair share of oppressed, abused, and marginalized women. We need to work alongside our students within their context while exposing them to new ideas and broadening that context.

The Hunger Games does a respectable job of putting a young woman in the lead role, but Bitch Planet tells the current dystopian story that The Hunger Games won’t touch. We rarely see the impact of Katniss being a woman. Katniss could be a man and the story would not fundamentally change. Bitch Planet puts gender front and center. Teachers have an obligation to expose their students to new ideas, issues, and values. In the realm of women’s stories we’re underperforming and Bitch Planet can provide some balance.

In terms of media literacy this is the comic book at its underground best: dangerous and subversive. You open the book and think to yourself “only in comics.” While reading it the voice in your head is constantly warning you. It can’t stay this good. No way she’s gonna go THERE. But it stays that good and DeConnick definitely goes THERE. The best part of it all is Bitch Planet isn’t even all that underground. It’s published by Image. You can get it at any comic shop. You can download it from Comixology and Amazon. The only reason you’ll have to hunt for it is if it’s sold out.

809E9EF1-1C1C-46FD-B013-74CB3552F116

It’s also a really good book. The plot is strong, the characters are meaningful, and the art is fantastic. We’re 3 issues in at this point and the DeConnick’s shiv is honed just as sharp as in the first issue. The plot is ramping up quickly and the characters are deepening. There’s still time to pick up the back issues and get on board before this ship really takes off.

Once you read it you’ll probably decide that it’s not something schools should put in front of kids. (Particularly not the first issue.) But maybe reading Bitch Planet will help you see that we need more stories about women in schools, more stories that explore the woman’s experience. Perhaps you’ll start looking at how women are represented in your curriculum and the messages we send. Perhaps you’ll look for alternatives. That’s definitely worth a few bucks and a trip to the comic shop.

This piece is dedicated to my student Jia Wen (no hyphens). Thank you for pushing me for more women’s stories. You made our class better and you made me a better teacher. Keep the fire burning. 

Austin Texas in March is essentially dominated by the growing suite of South by Southwest conferences: Education, Interactive, Film, and Music. The Education conference (SxSWEdu) serves as the appetizer course, covering four days with roughly two thousand attendants as opposed to the thirty thousand attendants for interactive. The sheer size of the conference creates a fractured atmosphere. There is an attempt to mitigate that by collecting sessions into themes, but there are twenty different themes. This is further exacerbated by the massive number of sessions at each time slot. It is simply impossible to get more than a tiny sliver of the available content, therefore my experience is entirely colored by my selections, and another attendant could come away with a completely different experience.

In selecting sessions I attempted to bridge my interests in equitable access to education, teacher development, and education policy. This diverse set of interests allowed me to see a range of sessions that included multiple panels, research presentations, and an extended workshop. There was some overlap in these sessions, such as using video in teacher evaluation, however for the majority of the sessions, they stuck within a single theme.

Equity and Opportunity:
The two presentations related to improving educational opportunity that I attended, while not explicitly related, had extremely strong synergy. These were titled “Saving America’s Black Boys” and “Understanding Literature Through Hip Hop.” The first was focused on leveraging STEM education and entrepreneurship with young black men as a way to build their engagement in school, close the opportunity gap, and improve the economic viability of disadvantaged communities. The session on Literature through Hip Hop presented a systematic approach to close reads of difficult figurative text while using hip hop as an example of how culturally relevant curriculum improves student engagement and lowers the opportunity gap in poverty impacted urban schools.

In both of these sessions the speakers spoke honestly and directly about issues of equity in public education and steps by which those inequities can be remedied through inclusive economic competitiveness and culturally relevant, high rigor, humanities education. These two sessions combine to create an important, pincer attack on the racial and economic opportunity gap in public education. John Holifield, Mike Green, and Rhea Williams-Bishop are taking a STEM and economics focused approach to including more black youth in economic development, while Sage Salvo operates from a humanities-centered approach linking high level figurative analysis of literature with hip hop. Both groups of presenters operate from providing traditionally disadvantaged students with extremely high level and high quality curriculum as opposed to remediation. They are honoring the spirit of John Adams’ claim that what is best for the wisest in our community is best for all members of the community.

The two sessions provided significant evidence that their methods work, and by combining inclusive STEM and economics with a culturally inclusive, and academically rigorous approach to humanities we could make very substantial progress in closing the opportunity gap. However, before we can make positive change, we need a system that is willing to unpack its racial baggage and actively and intentionally work against institutionalized racism with compassion and respect for human dignity. As was a theme with all of the sessions offering solutions, we need to address the problem from many angles. It will take a multifaceted approach to achieve the kind of changes we need to see. As John Holifield said it very succinctly during the session on inclusive competitiveness: “there is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot.” As a system, we need to be willing to use a lot of buckshot in order to solve our issues.

Education Policy:
I was not able to go as deep into education policy as I’d hoped at SxSWEdu. There were simply too many scheduling conflicts between sessions, an issue I repeatedly ran into throughout the conference. Despite the limited number of policy sessions I attended, I was able to gain some important affirmations for ideas that I’ve been working with. Most importantly: education policy is extremely complex, yet it is  routinely discussed in oversimplified terms. This is not unique to education. One need only look at political discussions of healthcare or foreign policy. The distinction with education, however, is that a significant portion of the electorate has a self-perception that they are experts because of their experience with public education either as a student, a parent, or through contact with teachers. Compounding this issue is the fact that educating children is a very high stakes endeavor so there are strong emotions wrapped up in the discussion. Lastly, education is a highly diverse special interest. “What’s best for children,” is an extremely vague position to take and is open to a high degree of interpretation. There is no obvious answer, and there are no positions that are as clear as “end the death penalty.” This weakens education as a political platform.

This political weakness is even more extreme at the national level. There was consensus from a few panelists that the Bush and Obama administrations deserve credit for making education a national issue, however there is little for either party to grab onto as a political discussion point and as such there are no clear positions for major parties to argue for. (There was much prediction that this may change with the introduction of Common Core Standards.) This means that education policy easily stalls at the national level, and to a lesser extent at the state level. This political stagnation has the most negative impact for the equity agenda. Our record on improving educational equity occurs almost entirely at the national level because it takes significant federal dollars to put forth the kind of change required and those changes are usually precipitated by the national courts.

I also attended a session evaluating the teacher accountability agenda. The panel did not disagree as much as I would have liked, however they raised valuable points about the complexity of evaluating teacher impact. There is no single measure that will allow us to understand how much impact a teacher has on a student with any sort of reliability. This was confirmed in another session by a data team from the Austin Integrated School District that spent time presenting their evaluation of multiple measures of teacher evaluation, finding all of their measures to be inadequate in isolation. This highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of education at a deep level as opposed to understanding surface level simplifications. If we only understand the evidence gathered from inaccurate, reductive, measures, we will have no way to determine if we are making appropriate changes.

There are an incredible number of variables that impact a student’s ability to learn from their diet, to prior experience, to what happened to them in the five minutes before they walked into class. There are currently no good measures that can completely isolate how a teacher impacts student education, and there was consensus that standardized tests are particularly limited. As such the recommendation is to include a wide variety of measures from student surveys, to peer observation, to administrator evaluation. Each panelist was very keen to emphasize the need for multiple measures, with Randi Weingarten regularly referring to a dashboard of information, yet each was unwilling to nail down specifics of how much each component should impact a teacher’s evaluation. I agree that teacher evaluation is extremely important, however, evaluation and data collection are not ends in themselves, The information we gain from evaluation is most valuable when it use it to improve our teachers through high quality continuing education.

Teacher Development:
This theme is most directly tied to my current work as an instructional mentor, and as such it is not surprising that in these sessions I found the greatest number of practical links. These are the best practices and concepts that I will be immediately bringing back to my district and my day to day work. In particular I attended valuable sessions on using video in teacher evaluation, improving professional development through problem based learning.

The session on using video in teacher evaluation was essentially a presentation of preliminary findings for the Best Foot Forward (BFF, an intentionally referential acronym) Project by Miriam Greenberg of the Harvard Center for Education Policy. The short version of the story is that video is excellent when used properly. Replacing traditional live observations with video (or adding video to the process) can provide solutions for reliability, time usage, feedback quality, and reflective accuracy. All of these benefits are fairly straightforward and Greenberg cited significant evidence for these results. One can easily have multiple observers to increase reliability, watch the video at an advantageous time to improve time usage, improve feedback by recording voice overs or John Madden style diagrams, and reflective accuracy is increased because all the evidence is preserved and there is no need to rely on memory. None of these issues are perfectly solved (remember silver buckshot, not a bullet) but they are definitely eased. It is easier to reflect accurately with accurate evidence, but a teacher still needs to develop the skill of meaningful reflection. While an administrator could watch a video of a class at any time, they still need to make a choice about finding and preserving adequate time to provide meaningful feedback and maintain fidelity in the entire observation process.

Greenberg also made a compelling argument for having teachers self select which lessons to have observed. She countered the “what if teachers put on a dog and pony show for the camera” concern by reframing the dog and pony show, as a positive practice. If a teacher is concerned with making sure they submit the best lesson possible they will continue to rehearse how to provide the best instruction. If anything teachers leverage high quality techniques more often. Additionally, but self-selecting lessons for observation, teachers are essentially inviting the administrator in as a feedback source and collaborator, making it easier for the administrator to act in the role of instructional leader. This was all supported with data from a study in Hillsborough Florida that compared drop in observation with teacher-selected observation, finding that the two methods showed negligible differences in how teachers were evaluated, while self-selection had substantially higher positive reception from teachers. The evidence that Greenberg presented was extremely positive, and I am interested in leveraging more video in my non-evaluative role as the concerns she presented were all linked to the evaluative aspect and high stakes personnel decisions.

The other practical heavy hitter was a workshop on transformative professional development facilitated by members of the Columbia University Teachers College Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC_TC). I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this session as the description, while interesting, was decidedly vague. It boiled down to using problem based learning as a framework for professional development and continuing education. As soon as I made the PBL connection the obviousness of the benefits slapped me in the face and I spent the entire session wishing I’d thought of it first. Simply put, all the research-backed benefits of PBL for young students are equally viable for adult students in professional learning environments. This means authentic problems and meaningful tasks that are relevant beyond the session will increase learning and engagement, and to top it all off the team from CTSC_TC modeled their theory the entire time.

Throughout the two hour session the presenters set up an authentic problem around developing PBL based, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum in a middle school. We were tasked, as outside consultants, with making a one-minute pitch to the superintendent to bring him on board with the changes the school was making. Throughout the session the presenters alternated presenting their information with time for each table group to spend time exploring and designing solutions to the problem of bringing the superintendent on board. After learning the theory, we immediately switched into application mode. At the end of the session each group had to create the one minute pitch and either present it or record it.  Our group recorded it and my unscripted work is captured below. I’ve never been that deeply engaged in a traditionally formatted professional learning session. I was able to create deep new learning as well as leverage my prior schema. I will absolutely be using what I learned in this session for the next session of professional development that I design.

Closing:
This only partially covers my experience at SxSWEdu. I also attended sessions evaluating teacher preparation programs and building classroom community in graduate education. While there was some inconsistency in sessions, I was able to glean valuable learning from each, even if it was a bit of a lesson in how not to present. The conference has a huge amount of content to offer, and I was able to get into many strong sessions. Despite my personal success at the conference, I am concerned that the SxSWEdu, in its extremely fast growth, has suffered from bloat and loss of direction. There was no sense of overall vision to the conference and as such I found a lack of consistency. I only see this becoming exacerbated if the conference continues to grow.

Despite the inconsistency in actual presentations there was an incredibly consistent desire to improve education that was immediately obvious from everyone involved. There was also an understanding that education is a singularly complex endeavor. I was incredibly impressed by the humility of people like Randi Weingarten and Peter Cunningham, in their admission about how much is unknown with regard to what impacts student learning. There were a lot of good intentions, and there was a lot of discussion about the problems in education.

In general I want more solutions. There is very strong evidence about problems in education. We can point to data about writing ability, unequal educational opportunity, the bloated testing environment, and issues of class size. We can discuss the need to balance national standardization and local control of standards and curricula. It’s time to put in the work to solve some of these problems. The presentations by CTSC_TC and Miriam Greenberg were particularly compelling because they put forth possible solutions. Likewise Sage Salvo, Holifield, Green, and Williams-Bishop added their silver buckshot to the collection of possible solutions. I want to add even more. Education is extremely high stakes and there are very limited resources. This is a deadly combination for political stagnation, and a fear of failure. We solve nothing by maintaining the status quo. High level outcomes require high level inputs. We need to commit to funding possible solutions, try them with fidelity, drop the ones that fail, and keep the ones that work.

Schools teach about African history and schools teach about the difficulties of improving living conditions in Africa. Schools teach about the destruction caused by conflict in Africa and schools teach about lack of healthcare and clean water. Students learn about Africa in the broadest brush strokes, taking very little time to cover extremely nuanced and complex issues. In the service of introductory information we lose humanity.

Ishmael Beah’s The Radiance of Tomorrow provides that humanity. While in the classroom students discuss conflict and how to recover from conflict in a generalized way, at the level of country, Beah examines these issues at the level of the town and the individual. We discuss the moves a government or international organization need to make in order to recover and Beah looks at the compromises a teacher has to make in order to feed and clothe his family. In Radiance, Beah skips right over the broad context and opts instead to focus entirely on the level of individuals without apology or exposition. This small-grain, human level, is an essential piece of understanding that is missing from how we teach modern issues of conflict, development, and what happens when tradition and modernity butt up against each other.

This book is very much a companion to Beah’s first book, A Long Way Gone, his memoir, and I read Radiance with that context as well as substantial background on the civil war in Sierra Leone. However, in Radiance (a novel), beah is freed from the pressure of historical accuracy and in doing so he can write an extremely compelling narrative and he can develop characters to serve a purpose, as opposed to relying on Truth. A novel like Radiance fits in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” in that “a true war story does not depend upon [absolute] truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Beah captures this sentiment excellently, blending the reality of the situation in post-war Sierra Lone with a story of his own fabrication.

Beah’s novel is not driven by plot, but by character and through this we gain an intimate understanding of the cognitive dissonance required to live in post-war Sierra Lenoe. The people are simultaneously traditional and modern, hopeless and hopeful, defeated and determined. Not through any desire to be contradictory, but through necessity as they examine how to put their lives back together after such far-reaching destruction. Beah does an excellent job of avoiding the easy route here. It would be easy to commit to hope or hopelessness. It would be easy to write that Sierra Leone is a lost cause, or to create a hollywood ending of pure hope, but these are inauthentic. Instead, Beah remains committed to humanity and the complexities we love with. There is no simple solution and as a result we have to be willing to take the time for nuanced and complicated solutions that bring opportunity without squashing tradition. Beah opens the can of worms with the understanding that it cannot be easily closed.

Much like A Long Way Gone, Beah does not pull punches. There are brutal descriptions of mining accidents, the impacts of unclean water, and the daily reality of extreme urban poverty. Beah’s characters are continually grounded in a harsh and unforgiving world. These depictions, while graphic, are not gratuitous and are presented with grace and serve to honor the importance of individual people. Beah uses death to honor the value of human life.

From a teaching perspective, this book would be an excellent companion to a social studies course on contemporary modern issues as it brings a sense of humanity to the statistics on poverty and death. One wouldn’t need to be explicitly studying Sierra Leone, or even Africa, as these issues of recovering from conflict would be equally appropriate in Latin America, or Afghanistan. Additionally this book would be extremely valuable in a world literature, or creative writing course as Beah takes an uncommon, and extremely compelling, approach to language. Throughout the book Beah uses non-traditional translation as a way to approximate the imagery present in the multiple languages spoken in Sierra Leone. This is a powerful literary device and when reading I had to bring increased intentionality to my reading so that I could experience the language of the book at face value while also translating phrases like “nest of air” into “ball” for myself. This served to reinforce Beah’s commitment to the story of the individual throughout the book. Characters from different backgrounds leverage language in different ways, and this serves to deepen the human connection I felt between myself and the characters.

I’ve read A Long Way Gone, and I’ve seen the film Bling, in which Beah brings a group of rappers to see the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and while both were powerful and highly informative, they missed the human connection that is so central to Radiance of Tomorrow. Despite the concrete sense of truth provided by memoir and documentary respectively, A Long Way Gone and Bling suffer from the common issue of being another story of human suffering. Radiance of Tomorrow stands apart due to its complexity and nuance and Beah’s commitment to avoiding simplicity and highlighting the contradictions inherent in human life.