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Dissertating About “The First Days of School,” Collective Mourning, and This Newsletter

Dissertating About “The First Days of School,” Collective Mourning, and This Newsletter
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The first time I felt part of a collective mourning for someone I’d never met was when I was 15. While I was one of thousands of students who watched the Challenger explode live on TV four years before, my memory tells me that moment was more about confusion and bafflement. The astronauts, far removed from me, were adults who died in an accident; Ryan White, however, was a few years older than me, and he had been wronged. I was sad for the adults, especially Christa McAuliffe, but when Ryan died, it felt personal. I didn’t realize the specifics of his illness until I was older and, at the time, had zero understanding of the tensions around the media connecting his name being associated with AIDS resiliency rather than the queer activists who’d been fighting that fight for years. Teenaged me just knew this kid many states away had been sick, and adults had been mean to him, and then he died.

Watching the evening news on April 8, 1990, I felt connected to all the other children and adults mourning one awkward, funny kid who just wanted to go to school. Five years later, when I was a Sophomore in college, I went to DC with a group of classmates and ended up part of a crowd at his square on the AIDS quilt. White remained an abstraction, but for the second time in my life, I connected with strangers over another stranger’s death.

I felt that sensation of collective mourning last week when I learned via social media that Dr. Harry K. Wong had passed. I was sad because someone I’d never met, was never going to meet—someone who had no real personal impact on my life—was no longer on this blue marble. Clearly, I’m still maudlin about White’s death, and if you asked me to take a seat on a couch, I’d likely babble about his passing and my dawning understanding of death and something about innocence, and if I kept talking, I’d probably realize I had the same connection to Dr. Wong.

The book he and his wife wrote, “The First Days of School,” sits in my memories alongside a period of my life filled with unmatched energy, optimism, and nuclear-level confidence and/or anxiety. There are few people who can rise to meet the brio of newly hired teachers, but Harry K. and Rosemary T. Wong sure tried. The first edition was published in 1991 and offered answers to those of us who were about to hear Miss, Mr., or Mrs. LastName in our own students’ voices for the first time. To be honest, I don’t remember much of my undergrad teacher prep days, but I do know that my final supervising teacher presented me with the second edition on the last day of my student teaching placement. She wasn't alone. Ed Week did a retrospective in 2013 and reported 3.8 million copies had been sold. I lugged that oddly shaped book around for years, from school to school, house to house, even loaning it out on occasion.

One of my tried and tried procrastiwriting strategies is re-arranging my bookcases, and during the latest round, I realized my copy was missing. I ordered a new one (thanks Thriftbooks!), and it arrived the day before I heard of Wong’s passing. Funny enough, there’s a kid on the cover of the second edition who looks just a bit like Ryan.

By the mid-2000s, I was a full-time professional development provider and how to be a classroom teacher was no longer something I needed to concern myself with. Instead, I focused on how to support teachers and how to avoid wasting their time. When I was no longer able to confidently do that, I stepped away from PD and made my part-time work, being a developmental editor, full-time. Which means reading the book in 2024 is a very different experience than it was in 1998. The book itself serves as a time capsule of the education discourse gestalt in the 1990s. To a certain extent, it reflects a period of liminality in American education; A Nation At Risk was slowly disappearing over the horizon behind us just as No Child Left Behind was starting to take shape ahead of us. Some passages are sexist, while others are so prescriptive they read like they’re designed to make teachers feel bad about a lesson that doesn’t go well (or the state of her wardrobe.) I have no idea what the writing process for the Wongs was like and who wrote what, but based on talks he gave and his other writing, the book is very much a glimpse into Dr. Wong’s opinions about teaching and, perhaps more consequently, the expectations around how to be a certain kind of teacher at a certain moment in time.

And so here we are at the reason for this newsletter. At this particular moment, there is no need to buy a book to read people’s opinions about teachers. Just open a social media app, turn on the news or radio, or hang out at your local dinner. Opinions by non-teachers–or from teachers about their teaching or other teachers–are just a click and a scroll away. That’s what I want to write about. That’s what I hope you want to read about.  

I’ve been planning this newsletter for a while, and it’s taken a few different forms and/or names. While brainstorming and debating if anyone actually wanted to read the words I’m putting out in the world, I came across the word dissertate (verb: to speak or write at length) and realized I’d found the loveliest word possible for describing my lastworditis and my need to negotiate that sense of collective mourning I suspect a whole bunch of us are feeling about the state of education and teaching in America at this moment.

To draw one last parallel to the Wong’s book, in much the way they wrote about how to be a teacher more than they wrote about the craft of teaching, Dissertate will be about the discourse around teaching. Many newsletters talk about addressing topics or issues face on. Not this one. Instead, I’m going to focus on the peripheral by regularly writing about the three Rs.


First, in the style of Parker Malloy’s The Present Age or Anne Helen Petersen's Culture Study, it'll be more about rhetoric than reporting. As if were. I’ll be writing about what teachers and teacher-adjacent people are saying about teaching in the various places they are saying it, including TikTok, Instagram, Twitter (X), and Facebook. I’m not going to be writing about education journalism, as other newsletters do that, but rather, how people respond to pieces.

Some of that will come from spillover from my book. I will follow shiny objects and ideas related to teachers and thinking and revisit some of my older threads and #PairedTexts. First on deck? The mixed messages teachers are getting around the Science of Reading. I’m looking into the overlap (and/or disconnect) between various Science of Reading tools (especially definition guides and rubrics.)


Second, Dissertate will also give me an excuse to talk to some of the brilliant people putting their words out in the world, including some of those I’ve been lucky enough to read as a freelance developmental editor. I love talking with people who have deeply immersed themselves in teaching and teachers and I’m eager to provide them more space and time to talk about their word children.


Finally, I’m reaching out to people I’ve discoursed with in the past on social media. In some cases, it’s because my thinking has changed since we last talked, in others, it’s because of l'esprit de l'escalier. (If you’re reading this and you’re one of them and want to chat… hit me up.)

I’m going to keep the newsletter free for now and see how it goes. Looking forward to dissertating with you.

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