Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Check Out "On Teaching" At The Atlantic

I've been poking through the thirty-three articles posted by The Atlantic as part of their On Teaching series, and it requires a little more recommendation than my weekly Sunday round-up. If you're only going to read one batch of articles this month, read these.

And if you're only going to read one article this month, start with the anchor essay, just published today. In it, Kristina Rizga writes about her two-year quest to answer the question, What is good teaching? The beauty of this-- and of the entire package-- is that she looks for answers by talking to actual veteran teachers. The focus of the project was the soon to be lost wisdom of the boomer teaching cohort. Check out this part-of-a-paragraph:

The majority of Baby Boomer teaching veterans—who just over 15 years ago constituted more than half of the teaching force—have retired or will retire in the next few years. “On Teaching” aimed to collect the wisdom of some of the nation’s most accomplished veterans to find out what has helped them bring out the best in their students. The 15 teachers I got to know closely—from rural Oklahoma to Mississippi, subarctic Alaska to suburban Arizona, California, Texas, Kentucky, and Michigan—told me that effective teaching depends on paying attention to students as individuals, addressing their needs with cultural sensitivity, and seeking the active support of peers. But they also told me that their capacity to teach successfully has been weakened by misguided, top-down policies, chronic funding cuts to public education, and growing structural inequities. To do their jobs fully, they said, they need basic resources—and they should be viewed as experts on what their students need.

The variety within the pieces is impressive, from "Why a Career and Technical High School Has a Genocide Studies Class" to "Teaching Theater Through Four Decades of Social Change" through "The Questions Sex-Ed Students Always Ask." There are several good pieces about the teaching of writing. And while several writers have contributed to the collection (Melinda D. Anderson, Emily Richmond and Alia Wong, to name three), the bulk of the work is from Kristina Rizga, one of my edu-journalism favorites. She is credited as the co-creator of this project, and her contributions (18 of the 33 pieces) are top notch.

The project doesn't deal with teachers who are necessarily famous outside their own corner of the world (which is how it usually is for most of us), but what's really striking about it is that it treats the teachers with respect. The writers act as if these teachers are actual experts in their field and worth listening to, and as such get to comment on many major issues in education, as well as tracing the influence of policy ideas in the last few decades.

This shouldn't be a big deal, but of course, it is. So many education journalists turn to bureaucrats, edu-preneurs, thinky tanks, and advocacy groups (okay, I may have been redundant there) when they want to write about education, as if all these barnacles on the great ship of US education know as much as the sailors sailing the ship. You can go days reading about education without seeing a single actual teacher quoted, while Mike Petrilli turns up in every other article.

Some of it, I'm sure, is practicality. You have a piece to get done right now, and teachers are all working, but the advocacy guys are right at their desks, ready to take your call. Edu-preneurs send you ten pitches a day, while actual classroom teachers send out, generally, zero pitches a day.

For years, I read and read and read and read about education, and even when you know better, you just become numb to the fact that writing about education rarely includes the voices of educators. To have a series of articles centered on those voices is just such a breath of oxygen.
My hat is off to Rizga, the other writers, and The Atlantic itself. I'll even take it off for the funders of this project, who are the same deep pockets we find elsewhere in education (Hewlett, Spencer, Gates) for funding something worthwhile for a change. The two year span spent on this project was time well spent. It should be a book, or a monthly series that runs forever. I'll leave you with the final paragraph of the anchor piece. Speaking of the teacher featured in this piece, Rizga writes:

Moore summed up the consensus among nearly all the veteran teachers I spent time with for the “On Teaching” project: “The people who set the policies for how we do education are not the people who do education, and the very best teachers are rarely invited to help shape the policies or the structures.”


  1. Kristina Rizga wrote this excessively uncritical piece promoting Summit Learning - without mentioning all the ill effects and student & parent discontent in schools using the platform throughout the country She didn't appear to ask for the results of Summit's own surveys of teachers or students, and instead repeated false data provided by Summit as fact, such as only 10% of schools quit using it each year when the actual figure turned out to be higher