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Quadcast transcript: Education professor sees an environment in transition

October 18, 2017

Sandra Knispel: You are now listening to the UR Quadcast, the official podcast of the University of Rochester.

[intro music]

Welcome to the Quadcast—I’m your host Sandra Knispel. I’m joined today by Joanne Larson, who is the Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. Professor Larson is also part of the leadership team for the educational partnership (EPO) between the University and Rochester’s historic East High School.

Welcome, Prof. Larson.

Joanne Larson: Thank you.

SK: Let’s start with the EPO. Two years ago, the University entered into this partnership with a Rochester inner-city high school, East High, that was threatened by closure. You are part of the leadership that is tasked with turning around a persistently failing school. How was that for a daunting undertaking?

Larson: You know ‘daunting’ is an understatement, I think. It was…we knew at the beginning it would be difficult work, I think for me, personally, I didn’t quite understand how difficult it would be. So, coming here and meeting teachers and students and the first days and just really coming to see how incredibly hard schools are, how incredibly hard teaching is, how incredibly hard being an administrator is, and working with 1,500 teenagers who’ve been undertaught and underserved. And it was quite and eye opening experience for me.

SK: Was is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

JL: Ever! Maybe being a mom might be harder, but, no definitely the hardest thing I’ve done.

SK: You lead and oversee research at East High. What does that entail?

JL: Well, early on, I anticipated that a lot of people would want to know and maybe come and do research at East High, and we were very, keen-—I guess is the word-—on not having these be a lab. The parents and community, especially parents, were very clear that their children would not be experiments or experimented upon. So, we set up some parameters about usefulness, and value to the school; so, we have a committee that I chair, that anyone who wants to do research here, needs to go through that committee and be approved and meet the criteria we set forward.

SK: And yet, as you said, at the same time there is research that is going on. So, what kind of research is valuable, that does not make any other the students or parents feel like their children are, for lack of a better work, the lab rats?

JL: I think that research that takes on a problem of practice of the school. Whether it could be a problem of practice in urban education, generally, that we would then be able to use the findings for here at East to understand teaching, learning, leadership, social and emotional health, trauma, those kinds of things; things that we can use right away, that we don’t wait 25 years for a publication to come out; something that benefits the school, not just the researcher.

SK: You received a $50,000 grant to study the early stages of the collaborative effort to revitalize East High. You looked at the role of literacy in this transformation process. Tell me more about your study… what have you found?

JL: Well, I do participatory orthography, so I was lucky enough with the support of that grant to get a full year sabbatical, so I was here all day, every day and I was able to teach 9th grade English for one unit and that was phenomenally wonderful. I learned a lot of things, I mean I would say I learned some new literacy practices that aren’t in higher ed, and that was interesting. But, moreover I learned the role that literacy plays—I look at literacy and power, since we do distributed leadership as a leadership model.

SK: Before you move further, explain briefly what that means to the uninitiated.

JL: “Distributed leadership” would be moving away from a single charismatic or a single leader, top-down directions, to the idea that everybody is responsible for everything, and leadership is shared—or, distributed, is the better word—across everybody. So, we have the superintendent, and principal, and vice principal, and typical leadership structure in that way, but also teacher leaders and emergent leaders and student leaders. And so, if there’s trash in the hall, everybody picks it up, not just the custodians. It took some getting used to, because people are used to the principal as the end-all and be-all who does and is responsible for everything. But I think we’ve learned that when leadership is distributed in that way there are some things that the principal can delegate and trust that it’ll get done.

SK: You were saying that you are studying/were studying the role of literacy in power structures?

JL: So, a claim I’m working on is that power produces what we are calling “generative frictions” that animate change. So, if you think about power as circular, or circulatory—that everyone has it not just one person—distributed leadership is a good way to look at that, right? So, if power is distributed across these structures, then everyone has it and uses it, and so when there are frictions, which there were, because it took a lot to get used to the idea that it wasn’t just one person making a decision, so if somebody is waiting for something or something hasn’t gotten done and it’s like “Well, why didn’t you do it?”—“Well, I was waiting for someone to give me permission.” Then it’s: “Well, you’re it! Do it!” Those frictions animate change, they generate change and it could be positive or negative—power is neither, right? So, I’m trying to understand what those frictions produce and then the role literacy plays.

SK: Now, I also know that you are studying how these power structures shift over the course of this urban school reform effort. What surprised you most?

JL: I think that the biggest surprise, even though it probably was not a surprise to the teachers, was the scale of the trauma that the students come to us with. So, that took a while to understand and we’re still trying to understand it but when we think about power shifts, I think… I guess I’m not surprised but the ease with which you can slip back into old power structures if you’re not vigilant. So, we changed everything and we’re working very hard to change teacher practice, which means changing beliefs. And that’s hard work and there’s a lot of friction, generative friction, that is producing change and part of my job as a researcher here is to watch what that change is and what’s going to happen and I think a gift that we have is time; a lot of these kinds of reform efforts work in election cycles and their funding is pulled before there’s actually any chance for the change to take hold. That’s not happening with us. So, I guess the ways in which students, if we go back to power, the students are quite remarkable, and their power, and seeing them learn to trust and express themselves and be themselves and see the power that they have and how they express it.

SK: You were just mentioning changing teacher belief. Give me an example please?

JL: I think there’s a traditional model of [the] teacher in the front, standing and delivering education, learning, knowledge, to a group of empty heads. And even though we know from 50 years of research that’s not how people learn—it is the cultural model of school. So, even though we do have remarkable teachers here, it’s still a cultural model that’s hard to break. So, I still see desks in rows and we have 72 minute periods, so it cannot be 72 minutes of teacher talk. And it’s not like that’s the only thing we have, but there’s a way in which we still have to work toward helping teachers: not give up power, but distribute it a little bit, have the students have more time to move around—and we do have that, but building-wide we have work to do. And I think teachers can sometimes…sometimes they are very embattled, I would call them an oppressed group. So, having them trust us, that we’re not going to do any harm to them, to open their door, to watch each other teach, to share what they’re doing with others—that’s not a common practice in teaching, especially in a school that’s under review or something, teachers are very worried about being fired, frankly. I mean, I’m not in the business of firing anybody. So, those kinds of beliefs that are quite old are hard to change over time.

SK: So, as you are doing your research, does it become a sort of immediate, or relatively immediate feedback loop to the administrator, or to the teacher?

JL: I’m trying to do that, yes. So, the ethnography takes longer to process the data so that it gets into any kind of shape to share with people. But I have shared themes, and patterns, and questions, and then my big claim of coming up with generative friction. But also, we’re doing a climate survey annually, and while it takes a little bit of time to analyze the data and get it ready for them, the climate survey data comes right back to the administration and the teachers to show them the raw data, and that we are seeing change for the positive in just the two years—statistically significant changes. And that goes right back and then administration and teachers identify issues that are most important to them, using the data, and then develop a plan, and then we watch that, and then the next year we do it again.

SK: Just to clarify, when you say climate, we are not talking about global warming, we’re talking the atmosphere at school.

JL: Yes, things like “Do you feel safe?” and that sort of thing.

SK: How would you describe the school climate two years ago when you started here?

JL: The first word that comes to my mind in “dysfunctional.” I think it was fearful, I think it was embattled, there were factions…it was dysfunctional. I think that’s the word. And if your next question is “What do I see now?” I would say it is 180 degrees different. I think there’s still a ton of work to do, I’m not going to say we are anywhere close to being finished or that we would ever be. But I think the respect people have for each other, even in disagreement, the trust in the principal—both principals—in the climate survey was 98 to 100 percent, and that is of the teachers. That is just unheard of. So, trust is essential. It’s what I’ve been telling Dr. Nelms. It’s necessary but not sufficient, so what else do we need? So, trust is there, the students are coming and they’re, you know our first year was a little remarkable with the implementation of restorative practice without enough training…

SK: If I can stop you there quickly for the uninitiated again, could you explain that term?

JL: We moved from a disciplinary base to a restorative practice, where the idea is to restore the relationship. If there is an argument or a fight, it is because the relationship is damaged. So, we work to rebuild the relationship with conversation, peace circles, etc., on all levels. I’ve sat in restorative circles with security and administration, adults to kids. And we are seeing trust in that process. But my favorite story was, as Dr. Nelms shared, that a young man was having some difficulty with peers over the weekend and he emailed the principal and said “Miss, I need one of those circle things. These guys are threatening to beat me up on Monday.” And he emailed the principal “I need one of those circle things” and they met him at the bus with the peers, and they had a peace circle, and they worked it out, and there was no fight. So, the students are trusting that process. Family group is a half an hour every day where adults meet with kids and talk and get to know each other, so the relationships are coming along so that people trust each other and that has dramatically changed the culture. We have lots of things we still have to fix; systems that weren’t in place, that we put in place, they’re good but they need this tweak or that change. And the principal’s administration and teachers have done a remarkable job with that.

SK: And by the way you’ve been mentioning twice Dr. Nelms—that’s Shaun Nelms—who is also faculty at the Warner School of Education, but who basically serves as the Superintendent just for these two schools here within East High. You picked an adjective and said “dysfunctional” just two years ago. If you had to pick a couple of adjectives now what would you be picking?

JL: “Inspirational” and “developing.” I think those would work, I think people are working so hard, students included, to really make a difference and you can see that, you can feel that.

SK: There is also already some national attention I believe, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, the relationship between East High and the University is a unique one… a partnership, this idea that you partner a failing school with a University, or a School of Education within a University. Do you think what you see here, what you’re learning here has real potential to become a model of urban school reforms to sort of follow what you’re learning here?

JL: I do. I would want to clarify that it is a whole University partnership. It’s led by the Warner School, but it is a whole school partnership and that is, to the best of my literature review work, unprecedented. There are lots of university-school partnerships that have been around for decades, but they’re more—there’s a lab-school relationship, advisor relationship, not a partnership like this.

SK: Can you give a couple of examples? What other parts of the University are involved?

JL: So the Nursing School runs the health center and the Eastman School has been working with the music teachers, and we are developing a medical education track with the medical school like our other career and technical programs. Take courses here, do internships at the med center. Optics is developing relationships with our precision optics program. Eastman Dental School, School of Dentistry is bringing dental chairs to the health center, I believe, this year.

SK: And the SMILEmobile!

JL: And the SMILEmobile. So, there’s lots of potential, there’s plenty of places that can still partner with us, so that is unprecedented and I feel it could be a model nationally. I don’t know whether other research universities would be willing to do this kind of investment: it’s a big investment of time and commitment, but developing what we’ve learned in trying to implement it, will be helpful for other partnerships going forward.

SK: I was going to ask you what were sort of the biggest challenges you and the leadership here encountered? I think you answered this question partially when you said “the level of trauma” you felt in the students—anything else that seemed like the worst things you were looking at, coming in?

JL: Underestimating the abilities of the students. The kind of underteaching that has been commented on in the literature where you don’t expect the students to be able to do something, so you don’t teach them with any rigorous standards. That wasn’t universal across the school, but I think in general with urban education the idea is there you know—why bother? That was unconscionable, in my view. And I think that’s a problem in the Rochester City School District.

SK: It’s hard to catch those students up if they’ve been underschooled throughout their school career.

JL: It’s been a big challenge for us. Our first year, and I think still, 6th and 7th graders coming in scoring 1 on the ELA. So, they are 11, 12 [years old] and reading at a 1st-grade level, the same goes for math. So, that’s why we have double periods of English and math in lower school to try to catch up, and reinforce, and excel in those areas.

SK: Let’s talk about the greatest successes so far here…

JL: The best part of being here and doing this work is the students. And I think that the successes of seeing students who weren’t going to walk the stage at graduation, graduate – we want more of them definitely, but we’ve certainly had more than ever before. And students getting Advanced Regents, students feeling proud of what they’ve accomplished – the science department sent an experiment on the space shuttle! You know, there were hundreds of submissions and they got theirs accepted and they’re doing that. I think the biggest thing is building positive relationships and trust. And I think we hired amazing people—our administration and our teachers are remarkable. Seeing them at work has been really enjoyable.

SK: When you say “building trust,” I noticed during the photo shoot a moment ago when we were out in the hallways by the lockers, students would walk by you, start talking to you, touched your hair, sidled up next to you—would that have been possible two years ago?

JL: No, I think my first year, in fact, when I was here and the kids were not necessarily in class all the time when they were supposed to be in the beginning of the year and I would go up, and say, restorative-practice wise, “Get to class! What period is it, where are you supposed to be?” And I remember a young woman said to me: “Well, who are you? I don’t know you.” And I was like, “Okay, no you don’t. But I have a badge, and I’m an adult, and I know you’re not supposed to be standing where you are.” Then she walked away, right!? So, persisting, disrespectful—but also protective. I mean, I think there’s a way in which a lot of our students hark back to the trauma they come to us with. It’s how they stay safe in the neighborhoods, especially our young women, and I think to stay apart and stay safe, it’s an aggressive stance…or aggression might not be the right word. But to not take it personally and understand they’re children and this is where they are right now and help them move differently. And so, persistence, staying, coming back up, saying “hello” to that same young woman every single day until it changes and it does, and it did. And that’s a really great thing.

SK: Would you say this partnership is somewhat mutually symbiotic? Are both sides gaining something—both the University and the school?

JL: I would love to see more of that, there should be. You know, personally, I have been completely changed. I think anyone who spends any time here would be transformed. I think University-wide we could learn more. I would love to see more of a two-way.

SK: How? Research?

JL: Research, but also authentic partnerships that make relationships. And you can’t do that from afar. You need to be here and you need to develop relationships. But I think people need to think about it first in the sense that—I’ve really come to a place from doing long-term research here in Rochester— in that studies don’t end. My studies don’t end. The relationships are for life and I think we could learn more as a University from how important those long-term relationships and commitments are. You can’t just come in, do a study, and leave. Then the problems are still there but you get a publication. That’s just not enough anymore.

SK: I want to talk to you about your own research. You’re an expert in so-called “new literacy studies,” which means you examine how language and literacy affects social power relationships and you look especially at elementary classrooms. What are the most important findings that educational practitioners need to know about?

JL: That literacy is not about a set of skills you learn to take a test. It’s about what you do with literacy for different audiences and different purposes. And I would add for social and political change—so one of the things I was really pleased to do while I was here and a part of the research was teaching a critical literacy unit in 9th grade English where students found a community problem that was important to them. We did research on it, they developed an action plan, and enacted that plan that ended up being around a literacy piece. They did infographics, videos, PSAs that they shared what they learned about the problem. Mostly on domestic violence and sexual assault were the topics they picked, but also climate change. And that they could take action. Literacy serves that purpose. It’s not about grammar, it’s not about phonics—we need literacy to do things in the world. And you know, little by little I hope the curriculum becomes more student centered. We still have requirements we must meet like the Regents and the Common Core exams. But we can do both.

SK: You wrote a book three years ago where you really threw down the gauntlet, called Radical Equality in Education: Starting Over in U.S. Schooling. How far are we as a country on that path towards real equality in education? What’s missing?

JL: Very far, I think. And what’s missing, I think, is a real, deep understanding of institutional racism and poverty in the United States. When I wrote that book, I really was in a place that you can’t do it from within the system. But, here I am, in the system, trying to do it. Because you can’t really throw out the whole system and start over. I argued ways to try to do it, but I think to truly understand—and I say institutional racism and poverty as big buckets, because you can trace the trauma our students come to us with, and underteaching—all the things we’ve talked about come down to those factors. And until schools can’t fix all of those things on their own, but people always say “schools can’t do it,” and then nothing happens. So, we had to start. And I think there are places in the United States that people are working towards authentic equity, there are classrooms where that happens, systemically and at scale that we haven’t done it, and I think we’re far, far, far from it.

SK: So how do you do it? I mean, how would you create a classroom with true equity?

JL: There isn’t a prescription. I think this is where we come back to beliefs and ideologies, right, and understanding how power circulates. So, if literacy is a social practice that people use to accomplish things, [that] can’t happen if you’re using fill-in-the-blank worksheets. So, you need to help teachers understand how you can use literacy to teach with, not at, kids to understand the practices they have. Don’t try to ban cell phones, understand the cell phone. What they do need is to understand how to interpret digital text, how to interpret news, how to get more than one news source. There are different practices that our children need to learn. So, classrooms are microcosms of the global, right? So, you start in a classroom with teachers. There are some teachers who had never sat down in a group with kids before. So, sit down, have a conversation. I think family group, where we meet every day for a half an hour, has been remarkable in getting to know kids as human beings. And to understand who they are and what they bring, and then working together to accomplish something together. In my dream world, if we could shift curriculum around what’s called a problem-solving curriculum, where the school community in conjunction with the local community identifies problems within the community, and the students and teachers do the work to help solve that problem. Then [that way] everybody counts. Everybody’s expertise counts, the teachers can guide and bring their expertise, students know the neighborhood the best, and we can work to solve those problems, and all the content areas come together. Of course, you have to get rid of standardized testing, and that’s a big deal.

SK: I want to leave it there, but thank you so much Professor Larson, I think I could talk to you all day.

JL: Thank you, you’re welcome.

SK: That was Joanne Larson. She is the Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education at the Warner School of Education. I’m your host Sandra Knispel. Thanks for listening to the UR Quadcast.

Category: Quadcast