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Dissertating about change with Larry Ferlazzo

Dissertating about change with Larry Ferlazzo
Larry Ferlazzo's Website of the Day

Figuring out how to human and teacher well is hard. Figuring out how to human and teacher well in public is in even harder. There's the tension between public/private and how much we share or don't, how we seek to change minds or don't, how we talk about others in our lives be they students or family members and somehow, it seems Larry Ferlazzo has figured it out.

If you're not familiar with who Larry is, know that one of our first exchanges gets at the gist of his vibe.

 Jennifer Binis @JennBinis · Jun 22, 2016 I'll repeat my refrain. Posts like these are a gift to the field. ("Here's what I planned. Here's what happened.") Quote Larry Ferlazzo @Larryferlazzo · Jun 22, 2016 I Didn't Learn Much From How Students Evaluated Me This Year, & Here's What I'm Going To Try In The  Future http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2016/06/22/i-didnt-learn-much-from-how-students-evaluated-me-this-year-heres-what-im-going-to-try-in-the-future/ Larry Ferlazzo @Larryferlazzo Thanks for the kind words, Jenn!

We've been chatting for years on social media about all sorts of things, including pedagogy, discourse, and politics. Full disclosure: Larry is a client and as he mentions in our conversation, I'm supporting him and his co-author, Katie Hull-Sypnieski, as a developmental editor as they work on the second edition of their book. I've also written a few times for his EdWeek column (being a conscientious objector during the so-called Reading Wars, Native-themed mascots, and on improving standardized tests, and teaching controversial topics.)

Through his EdWeek column ("an experiment in knowledge-gathering"), he is able to regularly provide outlets for teachers to share their thinking on a variety of issues. On his blog, he writes about pedagogy, assessment, and curriculum. He has a Pinterest board where he keeps everything organized. He's even on TikTok. If there is an OG-uber-edu-discourser, it's Mr. Ferlazzo.

My questions to him are below in bold.

I think of you as the OG of teacher social media - you seem to have a regularly updated account on all the socials, including Pinterest. Your website and Best Of lists are fantastic and you’re even on TikTok. What’s the story there? What made you such a fan of teacher/educator social media?

Seventeen years ago I began my involvement in social media with what was then a key part of it - by starting a blog for teachers (which is still very active).  Back then, sharing ideas through commenting on posts was a key way for educators to connect.  I began the blog when I was teaching an extremely challenging intervention class, figured that online activities could be one way to promote student engagement, and thought that other teachers might find those resources helpful.

I learned so much from other teachers who were commenting on my blog posts, and from dialogues I was having with teachers on other people’s blog posts, that I expanded participating as the social media “scene” grew.   There’s no question that I am a far, far better teacher for my students because of what I have learned and what I am continuing to learn from teachers around the country.  And, as they say, writing is thinking, and social media involvement has provoked a lot of internal dialogue.

Social media connections have also brought me many professional opportunities like invitations to write books and my Education Week teacher advice column/blog.

I also have an interest in organizing for broader change (more below).  Though I have been very involved in our teachers’ union at times, especially during last year’s strike, I’m getting older now and don’t participate as much in grassroots level organizing.  My writing about systemic issues, and trying to lift up voices of others, especially teachers of color, makes me at least feel like I’m doing something to promote social change, even though it’s just a faint echo of what those who are on the ground organizing are doing.

Though I do follow a fair number of who I consider to be thoughtful people on social media who have wildly differing perspectives from me, one thing I seldom, if ever, do on social media is get into any fights.  Life is too short, time is too precious, to spend it arguing with people who really are not interested in engaging in an open-minded way.  Most of the time, it seems like the people who want to fight are leading with judgment, instead of inquiry and curiosity. 

It also seems to me that not many of the people doing the attacking on social media tend to be actual teachers in the classroom. 

I think most of us teachers know we’re all just trying to do our best, often under difficult circumstances.  I do sometimes receive criticism online (some of which I learn from), which I seldom feel any need to respond to.  Few people have to develop thicker skins than community organizers, so that has served me well on Twitter.

Of course, having people want to read what I write or watch what I say is often a nice ego boost, too.  

It’s my understanding you’re a second-career educator, that you were previously a community organizer. What was that transition like and what compelled you to make it? 

I was a community organizer for nineteen years, most of that time working for the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by Saul Alinsky in the 1930’s.  During that career, I was continually moved by how people transformed their lives in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and even at older ages by what they learned from organizing - about their leadership potential, about the assets they and their communities had even though many people outside their communities viewed them through the lens of deficits, and about the principle of subsidiarity - that the people closest to problems generally have excellent ideas about how to solve them.

And I started thinking to myself, “Geez, if people improved their lives so much by learning this stuff at those ages, what could their lives be like if they learned it as children?”

To be truthful, nineteen years of a common worklife composed of twelve hour days, six days a week was also getting to me.

And, so, I decided to become a teacher.  My father has worked part-time as an adult ESL teacher, was an immigrant himself, and I had spent most of my organizing time working in immigrant communities, so I was specifically interested in working with English Language Learners.That was about the same time the last refugee camp for the Hmong was closing down in Thailand, so I got an opportunity of a lifetime in my first year as a high school teacher - I got to work several hours a day with incredibly motivated high-school age youth who had never been in a school before!  It was amazing!

Change is a funny thing - we notice big ones when they happen but often miss the small ones until they’re well in the rearview mirror. What changes have you noticed around the work of being a teacher? Or the conversations around the work of being a teacher? 

What a great question!

It does seem to me that often the teaching profession is a circle, or like an infinite loop in many ways.  Change occurs, but it goes through similar cycles.  It’s like the old saying, “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”  For example, when I started teaching, instructional scripts and “fidelity” (the “Open Court police” who demanded that all teachers in a school were on the same lesson were well known)  to them were very popular (not among teachers, but among our bosses).  Then, they went out of fashion, but now they’re back with many “Science of Reading” programs. 

And the debates about constructivism versus direct instruction today seem to echo similar debates from years past.  

There seem to me very viable compromises available in these kinds of areas to escape these “rhymes,”  but, candidly, it seems to me that many who hold the more conservative positions on these issues tend to be more committed to an all or nothing approach than many progressives.  As we used to say in organizing, there’s not much compromise possible when the other side wants half a baby and you want half a loaf.

I’m a big fan of your new book! Is this the last one for you or something new on the horizon? 

And the second edition of The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox will be better because of your involvement in it as a developmental editor!  

One of the big reasons that my books, and the books that Katie Hull and I have written, have been successful has been because we are day-to-day practitioners in the classroom.  I think that comes through in our books in a way that’s just not possible for someone who is writing who is not there now, especially someone who hasn’t taught during the pandemic.  And writing the books has made me a much better teacher.

That’s a long prelude to my answer to your question.  I’m sixty-four years old right now, and anticipate retiring in two-or-three years.  I’m teaching in an ideal situation, so it’s really hard to step away.  But I don’t expect to write any more education books after I retire.

But Katie and I are committed to write a new book geared to all teachers,  and we should get that done before I’m out of the classroom.  It’s even possible that we may be able to fit in doing a third edition of The ELL/ESL Teacher’s Survival Guide, but I would still have to persuade Katie on that one.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be done with book writing once I retire.  I’ve got some fun - for me, at least - plans to write some fiction post-retirement, so that will keep me busy, along with playing basketball and pickleball, and hanging out with grandchildren.

Any advice for people looking to discourse with classroom teachers? Especially on social media? 

We’ve got seven weeks left in the school year as I write this and I, like many teachers, am running on fumes.  It’s a bit trite, but true: You never know what someone else is going through.  Constructive dialogue leading with inquiry (“Why do you think that?”  “What was your reason for writing/doing that?”) would be my recommendation for how to lead into any conversation with any teacher at any time, and particularly near the end of the school year.

In gratitude for Larry’s time, a donation has been made to Make It Happen, a nonprofit in the town where Larry lives that provides support to transitional age youth (young people transitioning out of foster care).