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Teacher Authors--Are Your Books "Big Brother-Proof"?

I've recently had the opportunity to speak with two different English teacher authors, who've written books about teaching methods. Hearing the perspectives and stories of people who have vastly more experience than I do in territory I'm just entering, as a new teacher-author, is inspiring and intriguing to me. One pattern I noticed in their stories that has my mind turning is that, while they've written books that share ideas and practices about "how to teach" various elements of English Language Arts, they're uncomfortable knowing that in some cases their books are interpreted and presented to teachers as a set of directives for how to teach. In other words, through their writing, they sometimes become a voice in a process in which teacher decision-making is not made welcome. However, none of the teacher authors I know, myself included, intend for their work to be interpreted in a way that suggests teachers should not have authority over their own teaching.

I started to think about this while I was writing my own book and even more when I had finally finished it and started engaging with teachers around the method. Most (maybe all) of the teachers I've talked to about the book have read it of their own volition. They are determining their own professional development paths, and so they come to the conversation with genuine interest, as well as a firm sense of authority over their teaching and learning. I know we are speaking peer to peer, and that their experiences and knowledge are as valuable as mine. I'm certain that many of the teachers or former teachers who write books on curriculum and instruction feel this way too.

The situation could get more complicated, though, if a district mandated its teachers to read my book and adopt the approach I share. I'd be happy about this on the one hand, but cautiously so, because I'd wonder this: would it be clear to teachers that they should feel free to pick and choose what they want to implement and to make adaptations to suit their students' needs and their own teaching styles? I know I make that point generally throughout the book, but can I be sure that it would come through if the book were forced on people? In other words, is my book "big brother-proof"?

One book that is truly "big-brother-proof" is Teaching In High Gear, by science teacher and fellow Collaboratory member, Marsha Ratzel. In it, she shares her process of determining her own professional development path, finding support in a virtual PLC and shifting her teaching dramatically. All teachers, especially science teachers, will learn a ton from her methods, but there is another layer of learning from the example she provides of how she goes about making change. Leading teacher-driven PD by example, her reflections and decision making are transparent at every step. Readers could never misinterpret her book as didactic.

I'm sensing an opportunity for thought leaders in pedagogy, especially those who are or were classroom teachers, to make it much more clear to their readers and to policy makers that teachers must have a voice in any change that is to happen in their classrooms. I know a strong message on the necessity of teacher voice would not lessen the impact of a book on its readers--in fact, I think this would increase the likelihood of teachers thinking seriously about the ideas.

Would experts in pedagogy see a worthwhile endeavor in "big-brother-proofing" their books? Would they be willing to use their wide-reaching voices to speak up about the need for teacher agency in implementing their and other' ideas? Could this be a lever toward seeing not only more student-driven classrooms and teacher-driven schools, but also entire districts that let teachers lead their own learning?

8 Comments

Scott Diamond commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:59am:

Authoritarian culture

Perhaps we have to make our books "big brother-proof" because we have an authoritarian school culture. How can we change that? By leading by example changing it in our classrooms.

Brianna Crowley commented on February 16, 2014 at 1:57pm:

For teachers as it is for students...

Ariel,

What an insightful and crucial conversation you've begun here. As a teacher who is an amatur writer but I believe a capable and effective educator, I can see the fine balance between embracing a new idea, experimenting and discussing it and the whole sale adoption and forced implementation of it. This seems to follow some of the thoughts of Bill Ferriter's recent discussion on student compliance vs. ownership. We often discuss how we engage, encourage, and promote students to examine themselves as learners and to choose the best tools/strategies for their own learning. But we rarely apply this same concept to teachers who, like students, need autonomy to have authentic ownership and learning in their practice.

I see parallels here to the current education technology climate as well. So many times tools are bought by a district and implemented through mandatory training and arbitrary requirements that rarely provoke the kinds of innovation and deep implementation that would actually make a difference in teaching and learning in our classrooms.

I thought your questions could provoke commentary beyond just the education authorship space, so I cross-posted this blog to GOOD.is.

Marsha Ratzel commented on February 16, 2014 at 3:24pm:

Dear Ariel,

Dear Ariel,

Great post and food for thought.

Don't you think the difference is a book you pick up and can implement today vs a book that makes you think about your practice?  Both have a place and a need.

My bottom line is this:  if you write your book from a good intentions-place and without an agenda, it's something that should be read and published.  If someone comes along and uses what you've written in a way that you don't agree with, you can speak up and say that.   But realize that if your book is being used as a hammar on someone's head, it's not you and it's not what you wrote.  It's all about the organization doing the hammering!

Don't be intimidated from saying what you need to say---your voice is important to your field!!!

My book is different because I don't have any insight in how anyone but me should be teaching.  I don't feel comfortable suggesting a way and/or a method but don't mind sharing the questions that bug me or that poke at my thinking all the time.

We need both kinds of books....actually we probably need your kind of book even more because it helps people see possibilities.  My book only leaves them with their own questions!!!!  It's all good.

Renee Moore commented on February 16, 2014 at 11:18pm:

Cost of Going Public with our Work

Every writer (not just teachers) has to deal with the possibility of his/her ideas being misused or misapplied. In education, we call this fidelity of implementation. It is very common, unfortunately, in education for school and district leaders to sometimes grab at an idea that they see or hear and thrust it on their respective faculty and staff [rather than share or suggest it].  Discerning readers may separate the quality of your work from the context in which it is being presented, but not always.

I agree with you about Marsha's book, and I think yours falls into this category as well. The more authentically we write about the bumps, twists, and many professional decisions we have to make as we work with our students--and avoid the publisher's trap of giving readers "The Five Easy Steps to Helping Your Students Zap the State Test," the more likely we are to undermine big brother's usurpations.

Ariel Sacks Ariel Sacks commented on February 17, 2014 at 1:02am:

Not responsible, but is there room for a proactive message?

Thank you for your comments! I agree that it is the often authoritarian culture of our school systems that creates the top down mandates, often using teacher-writers' work as a tool.  And I also agree that the writer is not responsible for misimplementation. But writers/ experts in curriculum and instruction *could* use their voices to make explicit the role teachers should play in their own PD. 

I think I'm in a somewhat unusual position (but not unlike some others here on the Collab) in that I first started writing by engaging in this virtual community and publishing this blog, both of which focused mostly on issues of teacher leadership and policy and the relationship between policy and practice. Much later, I wrote about curriculum and instruction in my subject area in my book (though this was the culmination of years of development, the writing came later). Since my book is pretty much exclusively about classroom practice and I'm now developing community with teachers around English instruction, I feel like my mind is trying to bridge the gap between these two large conversations.  I think there are some interesting possibilities there...

Marsha Ratzel commented on February 17, 2014 at 9:30am:

Writing about the invisible

Are you asking if there's a way to merge your C&I message and teacher leadership?

If so, I'd say yes.  I think your wisdom comes from two places...the expertise you've developed is because you are a thoughtful and reflective practitioner which has informed your practice and allowed you to develop ways of thinking, responding to student needs and the evolving nature of your discipline AND being a collaborative, connected kind of teacher who transparently shares with others.

I'm just wondering if you reveal the thinking behind each of these wouldn't accomplish what you are asking about?  Writing about that invisible part of the classroom practice is tricky and hard work.  I'd bet this week's pay that most people that have been through the National Board process would tell you that it was the toughest and most tranformative part of their journey.  This invisible thinking/analysis is what makes our profession so tricky...when it's done well, it's not obvious to the watcher.  I've heard Barnett speak about it as the nuanced part of our teaching practice.

It is bold to take on that challenge as a teacher leader and as a blogger.  So few write about it and it is a place where we all long to "see and hear".  You could merge these two things and create a new kind of teacher leader.  Go for it!!!!

Ariel Sacks Ariel Sacks commented on February 17, 2014 at 1:02am:

Not responsible, but is there room for a proactive message?

Thank you for your comments! I agree that it is the often authoritarian culture of our school systems that creates the top down mandates, often using teacher-writers' work as a tool.  And I also agree that the writer is not responsible for misimplementation. But writers/ experts in curriculum and instruction *could* use their voices to make explicit the role teachers should play in their own PD. 

I think I'm in a somewhat unusual position (but not unlike some others here on the Collab) in that I first started writing by engaging in this virtual community and publishing this blog, both of which focused mostly on issues of teacher leadership and policy and the relationship between policy and practice. Much later, I wrote about curriculum and instruction in my subject area in my book (though this was the culmination of years of development, the writing came later). Since my book is pretty much exclusively about classroom practice and I'm now developing community with teachers around English instruction, I feel like my mind is trying to bridge the gap between these two large conversations.  I think there are some interesting possibilities there...

David Cohen commented on February 17, 2014 at 2:17pm:

good question

I think any author, consultant, trainer, etc. needs to be cognizant of these issues, and the boundary between approrpriate and inappropriate promotion. And there are some ideas that do deserve or require a higher degree of fidelity in system-wide practice, though anyone expecting that fidelity, and operating from a position of authority, would be wise to build a consensus rather than lay down a mandate. The fact that you raise the issue yourself speaks to your credibility and intentions, and it would seem to me worthwhile for any author to be explicit about such matters within their book.

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