In Community
Unpacking Accountability

In class last week I said, during our discussion, that I didn’t have a good answer – or more specifically, I don’t have my words well organized enough – to clearly address the “accountability” question in education. These days, I find it very difficult to engage with this question well since the conversation about accountability is framed by testing and what I believe is a deficient-model approach to the situation. I can therefore only be critical within that context although I strive to also be constructive.

Diane Ravitch does a good job unpacking the various assumptions in the teacher accountability debate. And they are helpful to me to clear some of the air towards a potentially more useful path for accountability overall.

Also, I think my professional background is important here I think because it provides me a view of what is possible. I have been working with educators within a large almost 40 year old communities-of-practice network connecting K-University teachers across disciplines, and increasingly, inside and outside of school. The philosophy of this network is one of “teachers teaching teachers” and therefore grounded in a democratic vision of learning where the things that everyone brings to the table are important and vital in the mix. This impacts how professional development is approached as well as what happens in the classrooms and with youth on the ground.

My vision of what is possible is grounded in these beliefs then that we are all learners, that knowledge is something we build and construct together and that schooling is the place for us to foster democracy. This vision has also been expanded by the larger network of the Internet and what I can see was happening as the teachers I work with explored these tools with their students as well as with their colleagues. Teachers and students making, creating and ultimately, leading their own learning, together in an increasingly decentralized knowledge economy.

So, when the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative (of which my network is a part and I co-direct our DML work) came out with the principles of “Connected Learning” last March, I could see so clearly that we had, as a community, returned back to Dewey and to the traditions that I so deeply care about in considerations about learning. And there are exciting and rich conversations that get to what we mean by accountability in this arena too, from discussions about what does equity mean in a connected learning framework and how do we assess outcomes so that we can continue to grow it together.

All this while another accountability struggle has raged on various levels in the schools and on the streets. This return to Dewey is essentially happening while teachers strike in Chicago against a “neo-liberal disciplinary machine that would turn public schools into another tool of casino capitalism while destroying any vestige of the relationship between education, public values and democracy.” The irony in all this, and even some of the interconnected bedfellows, can sometimes be very confronting to me.

But this is where I have landed. And I do believe we are accountable for both what does work as well as what doesn’t in education. I am interested in being part of a movement to build more equitable public institutions of democracy and learning for all. And I am accountable for all this too. So I am asking myself, where can I find some answers and language that ties the pieces together in a way that is useful to the larger conversations, and important advocacy, happening today? This, I believe, is my current inquiry.

Taking this inquiry into our readings this week then, I found the article on Chicago’s Board of Education and taxation from the turn of the 20th century both fascinating and thought-provoking, with a new-to-me heroine Margaret Haley from the Chicago Teachers’ Federation (Taxation and Social Conflict, Marjorie Murphy). So many notes and parallels that made this think of things happening today. It took me first to Chicago and the more recent strike by teachers there and then back here to Philadelphia where the property tax battle rages on and the Philadelphia School District faces a multimillion dollar deficit and is talking about closing schools.

Post-Chicago, there are many lessons to be learned and many educators who have been collecting reflections and thoughts so I gathered together a few of these to review and share:

Bill’s report, of course, brought me back here to Philadelphia, where groups like the Teacher Action Group have been working to put this learning into action through inquiry groups and coalition building with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools around a community-based proposal for the future of our local schools.

Around all this, a schools and property tax battle is playing out here today too. Even as I was drinking coffee and browsing my twitter feed, a local teacher colleague tweeted something about how Philadelphians shouldn’t be angry about tax increases as they will fund her school.  A short conversation followed with one person countering that the solution to the school situation should not be about taxes and another person agreeing with that but also adding that we should pay for what we value. I agree with both, so I spent a little time digging into this topic a little bit more, finding resources like the Philadelphia Idiots guide to Property Taxes and the City School published by the Committee of Seventy.

60% of Philadelphia’s property taxes go to the schools and the Philadelphia property taxes haven’t been re-assessed in over 10 years says the Committee of 70. I am one of those property owners, with a small house in Center City, and I know that I pay far less property tax than the potential value of my house would be if I sold it today. That is not fair and I support the movement towards property reassessment because of that.

However, there are real hardships in this and the burden of over a decade of (incompetence? deliberate avoidance? need to do more muckracking on this to find out) is hard for many, impossible for some, to absorb quickly. I’m in that position too as Center City real estate is still a high-valued market. And the rub of the situation is that the $94 million that is supposed by recouped here is being planned for to help the school district close it’s current budget gap.

What an official mess.

This made me turn to look more closely at some of the alternative plans for the schools to see if there were suggestions around the budget in particular. There are many plans that have been put forward as alternatives to the “BCG Plan” made by a hired external consulting group for the School Reform Commission (SRC) back in August. The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools community-school proposal discusses the budget (pgs 11-15) and puts the financial responsibility squarely at the feet of the state (and the SRC), describing how they believe that with a reassessment of priorities, the district “would be enjoying a budget surplus rather than a deficit.”

The original plan by BCG has been highly criticized as relying on market-driven and anti-community solutions. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan originally called the plan to hire BCG “cynical" (well, he called it more than that, but let’s stop on cynical for a moment) which, I would say, seems well said based on PCAPS description of the situation. The PCAPS authors write:

“… because the BCG Plan assumed that state funding would not return to pre-2011-12 levels, even with the state’s fiscal position improving, the harmful effects of the governor’s budget cuts for Philadelphia weren’t limited to just one year. Under the BCG approach, that reduced funding amount becomes the norm, and Philadelphia schools must then learn to continue operating with substantially less assistance from the state. Thus, because the BCG Plan projects ahead five years, that one-time reduction ultimately has at least a six-year impact.”

So even just stopping here, let’s look back to the accountability question. Who is accountable here?

And then, in terms of my own inquiry, what then can I specifically do about it?

Youth Voices as a Third Space?

the ultimate border – the border between knowledge and power – can be crossed only when educational institutions no longer reify culture, when lived experiences become validated as a source of knowledge, and when the process of how knowledge is constructed and translated between groups located with nonsymmetrical relation of power is questioned. (González, Funds of Knowledge, 42)

The Writing Project where I work has been described as a “third space” … and in this context I have come to understand a third space as a space that is “in-between”, ie. not of any one dominant institution or space although not entirely disconnected either. Local writing projects are gathering places for educators, communities of practice, that cross grade levels and disciplines. They are usually based at universities but are also not directly of the university … they are lead by teachers and serve local school districts but are not of those districts. Writing project teachers take an inquiry stance towards their work and share their practice as writers and teachers of writing in support of youth literacy learning. In this way, teachers become learners, and writers/makers, themselves, and from this place of learning, develop their practices with and for, and often also from, their students.

NWP exists within and across multiple layers of authority and activity. … These sites are designed to be robust professional and social communities that occupy an intermediary or “third space,” neither wholly of the university nor wholly of the school districts (Eidman-Aadahl, 1996; Lieberman and Grolnick, 1996 as cited in McDonald, Buchanan and Sterling 2004).

imageIn the context of my exploration of curriculum I am looking at the Youth Voices forum to understand the ways that curriculum is developed in support of interest-driven learning. As I begin to describe in my own “detox” above, I am exploring if 3rd space and hybridity theory can offer a useful lens for my exploration. Which makes sense given that Youth Voices was begun by writing project teacher colleagues.

In Elizabeth Moje, et al., article titled “Working towards third space in content area literacy: An examination of everyday funds of knowledge and discourse” (2004), they state a need “for strategic integration of the various knowledges, Discourses, and literacies that youth bring to and experience in school” (41). Examining “funds of knowledge” are also at the heart of the González, Moll and Amanti’s book Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities and Classrooms (2005). The content of funds of knowledge is “based on a simple premise” they say,

People are competent, they have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge. (x)

Moje and her colleagues examine the funds of knowledge and related discourses by participating with the students both in their home as well as in more social/informal environments (which could be considered to be “first spaces”) as well as their more formal environments (ie. “second” spaces, in this case in science classrooms). However, instead of getting caught up on the dichotomies of 1st/2nd/3rd space, they develop their work based on hybridity theory (Bhaba, Soja) which pulls together the myriad of places/spaces and funds of knowledge that are being drawn together at any given time and whatever context.

hybridity theory … recognizes the complexity of examining people’s everyday spaces and literacies, particularly in a globalized world. (42)

They call on the construction of hybrid/third spaces that would allow for learning connections to rise within and across informal and formalized learning spaces, both helping to build bridges but also informing/transforming the spaces themselves.

The goal of constructing third space is not to teach youth that academic or everyday funds are more right or more wrong but simply to make space for multiple forms of knowledges and Discourses in the interpretation of classroom texts. (55)

Kris Guttiérez, in her article “Developing a Sociocritical Literacy in the Third Space” (2008), also describes her use of the third space construct as a “transformative space where the potential for an expanded form of learning and the development of new knowledge are heightened.” She says that she is looking with “one eye on the collective and the other eye on individual sense-making” to notice “what takes hold” in youths’ movements between and across cultural concepts and a range of social practices. In this way she starts to see and document the processes that lead to learning, which she describes as “processes marked by new forms of participation and activity that change both the individual and the practice, as well as their mutual relation.” (152)

This focus on the potential for change within third spaces that “change both the individual and the practice, as well as their mutual relation” is of most interest to me in conversations when it comes to curriculum. “Perpetual beta” Monika Hardy talks about in the context of imagining what the “community as curriculum” (Cormier) could look like (TTT #312). In the Migrant Institute of Gutierrez’s work, she writes that the pedagogy and curriculum of the program “are designed to create opportunities to collectively generate new forms of joint activity to solve … problems students encounter throughout their lives …”

Youth Voices is a forum where I believe that I can see a group of my colleagues constituting a collective Third Space/Spaces across classrooms, with their students, facilitated by a range of digital tools. A related project, Teachers Teaching Teachers, provides a parallel platform for educators developing the Youth Voices forum to discuss and develop their work in a hybrid environment.

For example, a base mission within Youth Voices is to “create your online profile or your ‘Bio,’” a process that involves three steps that invite students to introduce themselves as individuals while connecting to the larger mission of the site. The steps involve putting together a peer-reviewed bio, creating an avatar which is a “a representation of the essence of you,” and, starting to find an inquiry for yourself through a 10 self/10 world process. The profile page is then set up by the student to embed all of their work in Youth Voices.  

Here are a few examples:

Youth Voices avatars by evelyns, anthonyf, monishan from Bronx Academy Senior High (BASH)

Those who begin this way are then invited to “Play” youth voices by developing “5 habits of mind, habit and work” through the Youth Voices Framework.

This framework itself then is another way that Youth Voices creates a kind of third space.  Designed as an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) where success in different challenges results in the obtaining of badges that align with a set of “habits of heart, mind and work” of the Youth Voices Framework.  

Youth Voices level 1, level 2 and capstone badges for English Language Arts

The five habits include Reflect and Connect, Wonder and Dream, Notice and Investigate, Construct and Express that “frame our curriculum, guide our teaching, clarify our expectations, and form our assessments” write the authors of Youth Voices. The skills, as represented by the badges below, include citing evidence, independent reading, text-dependent research, formulating argument and self-directed learning.

A full set of Youth Voices capstone badges for English Language Arts

In order to support self-directed learning, which is one of the five skills within the Youth Voices framework, a process called “detox” has been introduced by TTT co-host and educator Monika Hardy of the Innovation Lab in Loveland Colorado. The video you see above is my (somewhat embarrassing) example of me trying my hand at doing a “detox” myself.

The process of detox is “simple,” ie. one is encouraged to sit in front of a camera and record what they “notice” (what are you noticing about the work you are doing?), “dream” (what are you dreaming about?), “connect” (what connections are you making?), do (what is something awesome that you are doing?). Hardy explains that detox is “temporary … an adrenaline jolt to your soul to get back to what matters most … it’s like an exaggeration, a play-acting of what goes on in a healthy self-directed mind to help you get back to that.” (TTT, #282)

Detox strikes me as a really interesting third space in Youth Voices and the process of detox is a very active discussion at Youth Voices, mostly within the detoxs themselves. Teachers in a study group over the summer at the New York City Writing Project did detoxes too as part of their process of studying and imagining Youth Voices. In this P2PU discussion thread, you can read their reflections and reactions.

Educator Jinnette Caceres tries her first detox.

Finally, Youth Voices is also connected to what I believe is a third space for its designers – a weekly online gathering/webcast called Teachers Teaching Teachers (TTT). Teachers Teaching Teachers began in 2006 as an online webcast of the  EdTechTalk network, itself described by its founders Jeff LeBow and Dave Cormier, as a third space (TTT #312). Paul Allison has described TTT as “staff room” talk by teachers that is broadcast and and invites people to drop in and come by to join in conversation. It is also recorded, along with an online chat, as a set of resources for further reflection/reaction later too. In this regular, weekly way, teachers involved in the Youth Voices forum, among many others, have gathered to check in with each other, hone their craft, learn about each others work and push each others thinking.

Over time, I have seen how discussions on TTT impact Youth Voices and visa versa. In using these open forums too, adults are being transparent about their work, questions and processes in front of the students (and the world), creating what I think is an important fourth layer of hybrid knowledge building opportunity.

In the words of Kris Gutiérrez then, as I continue this study Youth Voices over the next semester, I think my job is to have “one eye on the collective and the other eye on individual sense-making” for both myself and with those working within this forum and community.

Some thinking about the metaphor of the “rhizome” in learning

“Rhizomic learning theory” caught my attention this past fall when Dave Cormier started a robust dialogue about these ideas during a MOOC I somewhat follow called #change11. I decided to “dig” into it (pun intended) as part of a course on Curriculum Theory, Policy and Change that I am taking this semester.

Dave Cormier is a blogger and educator in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and published an article in Innovate—Journal of Online Education called “Rhizomic Education: Community as Curriculum” (2008).

Rhizomic learning theory is based on the metaphor of rhizomes found in the writing of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus:

"… A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic in other respects altogether: the question is whether plant life in its specificity is not entirely rhizomatic. …"

A core idea of Deleuze’s rhizomic philosophy suggests that there is no fixed knowledge only new knowledge that emerges from acts of creation.

Therefore in regards to curriculum, Dave writes,

"In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process."

Other educators have been thinking about this metaphor as a way to think about learning. Mary Ann Reilly, a blogger and educator working in New Jersey, considers rhizomic theory in the context of teacher professional learning.

"I suggest that implementation of [professional development] programs as a substitution for professional learning undermines teachers’ agency; obscures our capacity to recognize anomalous situations, and diminishes thinking and learning. As a counter model to development, I describe professional learning as rhizomatic, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s (1987) metaphor for horizontal thinking that is nonhierarchical, and advocate for locally determined professional learning."

In a blog post about her work at the InnovationLab in Colorado where rhizomic learning is a key theory of action in the design and implementation of curriculum, titled “Wanted (And Needed): ‘Radical’ Collaborations” Monika Hardy writes,

“One of our immediate goals is to affect the research/researchers/stakeholders enough to break down the walls of tradition and remove major roadblocks to these spaces of learning/permissions, particularly in the mind, such as standardized testing and set curriculum. And to do it in a way that is useful.”

I believe that I see and experience different aspects of rhizomic learning by participating with teachers and learners – particularly those taking an inquiry stance towards their work and learning – both online and within networks (see also a previous short study I did on teachers leading in online public spaces). Dave Cormier has suggested that the rhizomic metaphor is a useful way to think about the ways we can learn learning and connecting in online networked environments given his experience with #change11 and also EdTechtalk.

Here are a few forums online that strike me as fairly dynamic centers of activity with potential for highly rhizomic connections:

Would love to learn more about your rhizomic connections too!

See also …

In what ways do teachers lead in public online spaces?

This fall I am taking a Ethnography for Educational Practitioners class (with Dr. Foram Bhukhanwala) at Arcadia University outside of Philly. This class is my first toe into the water of a M.Ed I am considering. I’m excited!

For this class we have to design a six-week research project. My current research question is “In what ways do teachers lead in public online spaces?” and in order to think about this question further I will focus on observing five writing project colleagues who are teachers and leaders, both on and off-line. My plan is to observe and document their leadership and the ways that they lead in public online spaces.

Even though these are colleagues whose work I am familiar with, follow and am informed (and often inspired) by everyday, even just starting this process of bookmarking and organizing the many online spaces where they work and share already has me amazed and slightly overwhelmed. I plan to focus on only those spaces that are public and also to somewhat limit those spaces to those that are linked from the main places where they told me they will be over the next six weeks.

Here are the five folks I chose to follow and who so nicely can me permission too!

  • Meenoo Rami has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia since 2006 and is currently at the Science Leadership Academy where she teaches English to 11th and 12th grade students.  Meenoo is a Philadelphia Writing Project teacher consultant and runs a weekly online twitter chat for English teachers that she established called #engchat.
  • Bud Hunt works as an instructional technologist in northern Colorado. He is a Colorado State University Writing Project teacher consultant and has an active leadership presence online as Bud the Teacher. He is currently facilitating a course online at Peer2Peer University in their pilot School of Education.
  • Chad Sansing teaches humanities at a Virginia charter school and blogs about transforming public education and classroom practice as a member of Cooperative Catalyst and his own blog, He is the technology liaison at the Central Virginia Writing Project.
  • Lacy Manship is an early childhood educator who is currently in the Urban Education doctoral program at UNC Charlotte. Lacy is the Associate Director of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project and is actively involved in early childhood education in her community.
  • Paul Allison is a high school teacher at Bronx Academy Senior High in NYC and the technology liaison at the New York City Writing Project. Paul founded and co-facilitates a weekly online webcast called Teachers Teaching Teachers and designs and manages the Youth Voices community with his colleagues and students.

I will be experimenting with being public with as much of this work as possible and so will be posting and sharing here as well as bookmarking content and annotating on Diigo. I welcome comments as I do this and have invited the five folks here to provide any feedback along the way too.

And here are some thoughts on next steps too …

  • Continue to organize and describe the spaces I’ll be following over the next six weeks …
  • Continue to learn more of the theory and practices in ethnographic study (note this is the first time I’ve done this particular kind of study) …
  • Write about my relationship and the previous knowledge I bring to this work and the underlying assumptions as part of the data I collect …
  • Include some writing about what I mean by “leading” and “leadership” to help guide my looking and further unpack my assumptions …
  • Probably interesting and useful too to think and write more about the impact of doing this study in this public and shared way (and why I wanted to experiment with this in the first place) …
  • And then, along the way, I have to also … keep track of questions that are emerging … Set up a regular process and schedule of “observation” across these spaces … and continue to figure out best ways to do data collection and organizing.

Wheew. Really the biggest challenge is going to be just keeping up with these guys!

Thanks everyone for all your help and support. I pulled together a little collage here (since I’m taking screenshots of everything too).