SXSWedu 2017: Day 1 “Recap”

In which I try to recap 1.5% of an entire day of the SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX; an impossible task, thanks to the sheer number of sessions, panels, and just general awesomeness taking place.

Opening Keynote: Dr. Christopher Emdin

Source: ChrisEmdin.com

PhD., Author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too, Professor at Teacher’s College Columbia University, Ratchademic*.

I’d be doing everyone — especially Dr. Emdin — a disservice by trying to distill an electrifying hour-long talk into a meaningful series of static, paraphrased sentences. That being said, I’ve got two pages of notes here and so I’m going to do my best to share his message.

The frenemies need to become friends

If one believes that public education is the civil rights issue of our time, then it follows that there are men and women standing on both sides of the debate. The “enemy”, as Emdin explained, is the individual or company looking to monetize the next great idea and to pitch educators on why their gadget or app is crucial to the success of their students, without any idea what solid educational practice looks like. A bit hyperbolic, sure, but it sets the stage for introducing the real threat: the “frenemy”.

The frenemies of education are those so-called enemies who know and understand just enough about education to be dangerous; on the surface, they believe in the value of socio-emotional learning and project-based curriculum just like any graduate of a teacher prep program, but their goal is to profit or advance their own cause, or to stand by and allow corporate interests and cultural conservatives to claim ground in the battle.

In short, frenemies believe in the ideology of the friend to education, but choose to execute their plan in the way of the enemy.

Well-intentioned schools extract the culture from students

To illustrate a larger point about the trauma that schools can cause minorities and underserved students, Emdin pointed to the history of the Dinka tribe of South Sudan. At a time when slackjaw was devastating their population by depriving children of the nutrients they required to live, the tribe would routinely extract teeth, almost certainly in a more crude fashion than your family dentist would, from the children’s mouths. This allowed them to be fed — with no malintent — and allowed the tribe to survive for many generations. The ritualized practice of extracting teeth from young children persisted long after slackjaw was no longer present in Dinka children, though.

And unfortunately, schools are often complicit in violently extracting a student’s culture and identity away from them in an effort to make them successful in school. “Street smarts” have to be replaced with “book smarts”, nonacademic slang and vocal patterns need to go away in favor of “proper” grammar and manner of speech, and your community’s rich history has to be viewed only in the context of an idealized version of society.

(Ironically, Emdin’s keynote was occurring almost at the same time as our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, chose to paint the picture of African slaves coming to America as being an early example of the immigrant’s dream of leaving home and finding a better life abroad… and just a week ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos chose to honor the nation’s historically black colleges and universities for their “choice” of creating educational opportunities for black men and women. If you think that history can’t be whitewashed, you’re sorely mistaken. But I digress.)

“We’ve got it from here… thank you for your service.”

Dr. Emdin is a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, and the cornerstone of his message came from the title of the 2016 album, We’ve Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. For people of color, there comes a time when society and progressives and advocates for racial equality can actually get in the way and potentially harm groups facing oppression and injustice. To those people, A Tribe Called Quest says asks them to step back and let their community solve the problem, while acknowledging that others tried very hard to resolve the situation (albeit often without engaging the black community directly or involving them in the process).

Education, in a way, faces the same problem. There are so many people involved in “solving” educational inequity that teachers — those who are practitioners and experts in the field of pedagogy — just need to put their foot down and say to the edtech visionaries and ed-reform celebrities: we’ve got it from here… thank you for your service.

Assorted notes:

  • ”Broke people break people, hurt people hurt people.”
  • The enemies and frenemies are always looking to monetize great ideas — project-based learning isn’t a new and novel idea: segregated black schools were learning how to solve very real problems in their school buildings, such as fixing a leaky roof or repairing the furnace.
  • In 2017, schools are still segregated, because the pedagogy and the curriculum in black schools never got integrated as a result of Brown v. Board of Education. This circles back to the point Dr. Emdin made earlier in saying that schools extract culture and identity from students.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this keynote, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.

Panel: Maker Ed — It’s Not About What You Make

Anah Wiersema, Kris Waugh, Sarah Stone, and Oren Connell — all educators or school leaders at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders — presented this session, focusing on the success of their Maker Ed program, which hinged on two main principles:

  • Stop playing “make-believe” school
  • Encourage legacy projects

Stop playing “make-believe” school

Oren, the teacher at Ann Richards known as Tinkerer Extraordinaire, is something like a Maker Space librarian; his role is to curate the space, understand how the tools work, and to act as a source of information and inspiration for the other teachers at Ann Richards. He was careful to point out that getting into Maker Ed is not easy, and Kris Waugh, Academic Dean at Ann Richards, agreed. “You have to be brave to do this work,” she said. Risk-taking and being unafraid of failure are important, and perhaps essential, to effective teaching in this space.

In fact, as Oren remarked, the same skills that make you a successful Maker Ed teacher are the skills that you’ll be imparting to your students. As teachers, we’ve long understood that some of the greatest lessons our students take from us are not the ones we outline in our lesson plans, but the ones that we demonstrate and model explicitly for students. If you’re cautious and afraid of Maker Ed, you’re not going to be taken very seriously when you try to tell students that they should approach their education with fearlessness.

Encourage legacy projects

Students at Ann Richards, specifically those in the Maker Ed courses, are encouraged and given opportunities to work on legacy projects, or the kinds of projects where product or outcome lives on past a single school year, and benefits other members of the Ann Richards community:

There is an intangible that happens when you create something bigger than yourself for a purpose other than yourself.

For example, Maker Ed students have, in the past, refurbished and transformed trailers and other spaces to act as lounges for Ann Richards’ students and teachers. And at the beginning of the previous school year, one class of students participated in a weekend retreat that included team-building exercises that are familiar to most of us, including ropes courses and other similar exercises. It wasn’t enough to just participate, though; when those same students returned to school, they were tasked with designing and constructing their own courses to train all of Ann Richards’ young women the skills and competencies they practiced on their retreat.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this session, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


Panel: Is Education Innovation Overrated?

“That’s hogwash!” Put a tally on the board, but keep enough space up there for more, because Kate Walsh (President, National Council on Teacher Quality) and Benjamin Riley (Founder, Deans for Impact) are going at it!

At the end of this panel/debate, attendees were asked to vote on who “won” the argument, and to be quite frank, I don’t know that either one of the presenters made a lasting impact on me. It wasn’t that they weren’t knowledgable — in fact, you can tell that both Kate and Ben are passionate about their work. The problem is, I’m just not sure what they were arguing about. At some points, it seemed like the question was, “do we need to change anything about the way we prepare teachers?” and both speakers seemed to change their minds at various points.

Kate, as you might imagine, believes that there is very specific criteria for an effective teacher preparation program — her organization hands out letter grades and awards accreditation to schools and universities, and her personal belief is that teaching is one of the only professions in which we allow 21 or 22 year olds to run out into a classroom and begin their practice, without holding them to the same standards we hold lawyers and medical practitioners. And in some ways, she’s correct. As a former student teacher, I remember being confused by how much freedom and flexibility I was given. If I didn’t “feel” like my students responded well to opportunities for socioemotional learning, there wasn’t anything stopping me from pursuing a different route with them.

At the same time, I agreed with Ben when he made the case that those professions Kate pointed to — law, medicine, etc. — are actually becoming less formalized and structured, in an effort to give those professionals the space to be creative and innovative in their fields. In fact, he argues that it might be to the education field’s credit that teachers are prepared this way.

The problem is, I can’t tell what the next step is. At times, Ben seemed to believe that there is no formula for an effective teacher, which seems implausible, but there were times when it seemed like Kate was prescribing a rigid framework that I don’t think is necessary, either.

One major problem with innovating in this space is that colleges and universities are historically slow at adopting new methods and practices. This came up when the question was asked about whether or not teacher prep programs should do more to train aspiring teachers how to use technology in the classroom. It’s hard to argue that new teachers shouldn’t be given a chance to learn new technology, but do we really think that colleges are going to be able to adopt and master technology at a pace that will keep up with the progress of innovation?

Assorted notes:

  • A good point was brought up by the audience about the role of colleges and universities in supporting their graduates after they leave the program. Ben pointed to Boston’s Teacher Residency program as one example of ways in which “induction support” is given to new teachers once they graduate and enter the field.
  • “Constraint drives creativity.” (A quick Google search brought up an interesting article from the Harvard Business Review on this topic.)
  • When asked to differentiate between innovation and improvement, one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t write down if it was Kate or Ben) illustrated it pretty succinctly: to protect and prevent buildings from burning to the ground, you could work to design new and better fire engines (improvement) or you could invent smoke detectors and install them everywhere (innovation).

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this session, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


*A “ratchademic” is a portmanteau of academic and ratchet — a man or woman expressing great authenticity, realness, fierceness, etc. Dr. Emdin prides himself on being able to speak like an academic while retaining the ability to “be ratchet”. 98% of attendees to SXSWedu 2017 learned this word for the first time.