I'm headed to SXSWEdu in Austin, next week. And I’m nervous that I’ll feel like an interloper at a banquet for the educational industrial complex. I’ve been the lucky teacher who has always had the lead role in the design of my classroom—the curriculum, materials, pedagogy, methods, relationships, values, norms, and expectations. In recent years, however, it’s felt more and more like a radical act, to be the master of my own domain. In an era where the phrase “education reform” has been co-opted by market-forces—testing companies, data collectors, producers of packaged curricula, programs and materials—it feels like everybody who has ever gone to school wants to instruct teachers on their instruction. Some mean well. Some are in it for the money. Some both.
I’ve got a different idea. And maybe it sounds simplistic or idealistic. Compensate teachers like other professionals, like dentists and insurance agents and scientists. Choose the best, brightest and most creative for this critically important job. Pay for it with budgets now used to support top-down, administration-heavy systems, budgets now used to pay for the huge costs associated with standardized testing, budgets now used to purchase packaged, scripted curricula and programs selected by those outside the classroom. Create lots of time and space for national networks of teachers to share best practices, observations, lessons and materials. Put teacher voices first, in every discussion of education reform. Treat us like the professionals and experts we are.
It’s this revolutionary idea that makes me wary about attending South by Southwest’s education conference, where entrepreneurship rules. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting messages from attendees who want to meet up and chat about their company’s scalable learning program, or digital solution. SXSWEdu’s homepage says that it “cultivates and empowers a community of engaged stakeholders to advance teaching and learning.” Them’s a lot of buzzwords. And the phrase ‘engaged stakeholders’ tastes like it came out of a neoliberal cookbook. Fewer than 16% of the attendees are actually K-12 teachers, and of those, the majority are locals, with easy access to conference fun, and eligible for the continuing education credits—necessary to maintain certification—that the conference proffers.
On the other hand, the website also states that “SXSWEdu extends SXSW’s support for the art of engagement to include society’s true rock stars: educators!” Allow me to poke gentle fun of the italics and exclamation point, as if this statement is a huge, big-hearted, enlightened surprise. I certainly think it’s the truth. And I’m delighted to have SXSWEdu acknowledge it. I hope I’ll have meaningful conversations about education, and edifying take-aways. I’ve been curious about this conference for a long time. Every year, I attend the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and occasionally the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP), both well within my teacher-writer wheelhouse. Maybe this conference, where I feel like the outsider, will bring fresh ideas and perspectives.
Conference attendees, please talk to me about how you support teacher agency. And student agency. About equitable and culturally relevant reading and writing classrooms. About authentic writing instruction. About creating joy in teaching and learning. About growing great teachers. Ask me about my scalable learning program, where scale means knowing the individual approach that each kid needs. Ask me about the digital solutions I’ve crafted with basic, free apps, to foster a reading and writing community that centers student voices. Tell me how you support engaged, happy students and teachers. Listen to the 15.84% of attendees who are the experts. I’m going to come with an open mind. And my best rock star attitude.
[image = Jeb Feldman’s UnSmoke, a former schoolhouse in Braddock, PA that he converted to an art space and home.]
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I've been blogging since 2010. When I've got writer's block in every other way (frequent), this low stakes riffing to think has been a constant. Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.