Monday June 9th, 2014
Four days ago it was my youngest son’s birthday. I woke up early and made him breakfast in bed, handed over presents of a Lego Steve and toy light sabers (he is way too young for a real light saber), then I packed my bags.
My wife and I had debated driving all night on the 4th, but instead decided we really didn’t have enough resources to drive the family 1,000 miles away in a car with well over 200,000 miles on it just so dad could go to a conference. Again and again I’ve had to justify to my wife why I was spending my own money to go to Washington DC for a conference. She is used to losing me for the occasional Saturday, especially when the conferences are free, this time I spent close to $400 to pay for the trip.
Luckily I have relatives who would have taken offense if I didn’t sleep in the guest room and eat all their food because my district won’t pay for out-of-state conferences. I also used vacation days, I don’t earn professional development credit, and as career networking goes, well this is education and an edcamp to boot, there just won’t be high-powered executive looking to hire away great talent. I love my job, but occasionally I dream about being able to pay the mortgage on a regular basis.
On Friday June 6th 7:30 AM I showed my driver’s license to the security guard and was permitted to enter the hallowed halls of the Department of Education. Over the past several months an energetic and very excited teacher fellow, Emily Davis (I think the only person, besides myself, at the edcamp who follows more people on twitter then she has followers), had worked hard to carve out space for us edcampers to do what we do at edcamps right there under the noses of the driving force of programs such as Race To The Top.
Mr. Duncan stopped in for a few minutes in the morning and then was off. The cynical amongst us called it a drive by, others reasoned that one should not expect the Secretary of Education to dump his entire schedule to chat up a random selection of teachers. (Rumor has it that he had an interview with NPR.)
There were some folks from the Department of Education in the sessions with us, some more obvious than others. The great thing about an edcamp is one person is the same as another. Perhaps if Duncan had stuck around, all the sessions he took part in would have devolved into a group of people trying to talk at him, (and occasionally throwing tomatoes). It may have been for the best that he left us alone to try to do what we do at edcamp.
There are always a few session on policy at an edcamp. This of course was edcampusa, some, perhaps all, thought is was the opportunity to have real teacher voice heard at the Department of Education. Whatever, we aren’t the first group of teachers to visit, though perhaps the first grassroots group of teachers. Edcampers are by no means a political organization, rather they are educators who are actively stepping up to make changes in their schools and classroom. I guess, being invited to the Department of Education felt like being asked to consult on policy.
During edcampchicago in 2012 (maybe 2013) I led a session on the RESPECT document. A paper written by former Department of Education fellows about how they envision a “renewed and transformed teaching profession in the 21st Century.” I talked to one of those fellows during that time and she said that as Arnie went on a bus tour around the country they would set up shop at each stop and ask teachers to comment and improve the document. There was space online at the Department of Education website, that allowed interested educators to comment on the document. During my session at edcampchicago of 300 attendees I think 4 showed up.
At edcampusa my session on webmaking with Mozilla was only attended by one person. (the session on maker spaces had 6 I think) She knew more about the subject than I did. As a college professor she was excited to see what happens when kids get a hold of tools such as webmaker and Scratch. On the other end of the spectrum, sessions on “How we should schools be evaluated” and “Measuring Education” were generally full. I guess we should forget about the classroom and focus on fixing education, isn’t that the way most reformers do it?
At work as a technology integration and professional developer I spend a lot of time talking about pedagogy. Using technology is not about the technology, it’s about quality teaching practices. The teachers don’t like it, the new boss wrote me up for it. Yet, I refuse to change, I refuse to be a person who teaches tools. (Seriously, when was the last time your boss hired someone to teach you how to use the accounting software at work?)
Most teachers and edcampers aren’t policy wonks, they are interested in changing classrooms. This can be seen as policy talk, but what we really do at edcamp is talk pedagogy, even if we don’t call it pedagogy. Pedagogy is the basis of quality classroom instruction, it is also the bedrock under which we should write school policy.
The natural question is how much of the policy talk actually made it across to the people in the Department of Education. Were the people from the Department of Education, that joined us in session mostly teacher fellows, there for a year and gone, or were they full-time staffers who actually have a voice in creating education policy? (How many people in these huge public buildings actually affect policy and how many just keep the government running?) We certainly had a star-studded group of educators who could speak well on such topics as education policy. Just these 8 could make a think tank worth millions.
Then again, to not have heard what we have been saying for so many years, testing is being misused and is statistically useless for evaluating teachers, schools need to be more student-centered, teachers need a voice, the model of schools we use is hopelessly outdated, and more. All of these things are not new, they are not a big secret. Heck, most of them are in the RESPECT document. They are just not being implemented.
Did we need to go to the Department of Education to tell them? Or do they need to come to us and see what we really do? Tom Whitby suggested that instead of doing a bunch of edcampusa in Washington DC, the staff should leave Washington and visit edcamps around the country. I know they have gone out in the past to visit schools, but the dog and pony shows that happen when outsiders visit a classroom is not a true indication of what really happens in our schools. Take a Saturday and spend 5 or 6 hours with teachers, don’t even tell them you are from the DOE, edcamps are like that, they don’t check your credentials at the door. Just be careful you might learn something.