5 min read

Dissertating about the last 10 minutes of "Sold A Story"

Dissertating about the last 10 minutes of "Sold A Story"

I suspect there are people who do not believe me when I say I am agnostic on the topic of the AMP series, Sold A Story, but I assure you, I am. During an extended Twitter exchange a while back, I told someone I have no interest in discussing reading instruction with strangers on Twitter and received several scoldings as a result. Which I totally understand! It is incredibly frustrating to see someone dismiss something that is or even feels like the most pressing issue in the world. I see it as a time-saving device: I am not the audience for messaging about how to teach reading. Just like I'm not the audience for how to parent, the best way to get a deal on a new car, or if the 1956 Yankees were better than the 1993 Patriots. I never intend to come off as dismissive and I try not to be. In my defense, I am not a person of faith and identify as agnostic when the occasion calls for it. I'm comfortable sitting under a sign that says, "I do not know and do not have an opinion on this particular topic worth sharing or listening to." I'm not asking anyone to join me but rest assured, I'll always save you seat.

Sold A Story, though, isn't just about reading instruction. It's about teacher professional development, the role of experts and rock stars in education (the line about the Maserati!), what we ask teachers to do - or not to do, and negotiating perpetual tensions around parent-teacher dynamics. It's also, most importantly, in my opinion, about how systems change. The last ten minutes or so of the last episode make that explicitly clear. First, there's Emily's conversation with Reid Lyon. From the conversation (bolding is mine):

What [Lyon] learned is that information is not enough. He says the key thing to think about is – how do complex systems change? What’s the best way to do that? And one of the lessons from Reading First is that top-down policies are not necessarily effective when the goal is complex systems change. That’s why Reid has concerns about laws that are telling schools they have to do things, and they have to do them fast. 
Lyon: Where my fear is it takes us away from the details I’m talking about and the love for learning the details back to a combative stance where you’re blowing out a lot of epinephrine and norepinephrine and cortisol. 

I was thinking about those brain chemicals while I was writing about in-group and out-group dynamics and when I advocated for being a Conscientious Objector in the Reading Wars. I think we do a huge disservice to the work of change if we dismiss them.

Emily goes on the describe the larger climate that's emerged.

But there are intense debates going on right now on social media and among teachers and researchers about the details of how to teach kids to read. And how to do it at scale. Because that’s the task here. Getting thousands of school districts to make the right kinds of changes so that millions of kids can become better readers. It’s a tall order. 

I'm a huge advocate of those debates and hashing through those details. I went on at length in last week's newsletter, the current approach to discourse is not helping anyone. When she talks to Mark Seidenberg, the conversation shifts a bit but the focus on "now what?" remains. I don't know if the word "dogmatism" is Ms. Hanford's or Dr. Seidenberg's but I am a fan - as someone who works with words as a day job and as a listener.

And something that’s troubling [Seidenberg] is a kind of dogmatism that he’s noticing in conversations these days around the science of reading. People expressing strong beliefs. Joining teams. And becoming committed to new programs and new authorities. 
Seidenberg: One thing I see is, there is this sort of authoritarian strain where people want to have someone they can rely on for guidance. It’s like we need to have an authority who we can rely on to tell us what to do. And one of the problems with people like Lucy Calkins were – well, she took on that role. And she was a flawed resource. 

My sense is people are hearing different things in the conversation and that's understandable as that's the joy of communication. My take is that he's not talking about Lucy Calkins herself ("people like") as Ms. Calkins, despite a few efforts to assert herself and try to reclaim some of her legacy, has been largely moved from the list of trustworthy voices in education. Rather, he's talking about those who are being lifted to the level of authority or have worked to establish themselves as such. I'm not going to use this space to muse on the nature of earned expertise or how to know if a designated expert is trustworthy or not, but will offer if someone is asking you to take a side, to join a team, be part of an in-group, or they call the other "side" a cult ... there's something else going on.

And that's because people are messy. To quote one of Ms. Hanford's last lines:

And now it’s kind of messy out there.  

It's been messy out there and it's going to keep getting messier. I'm fairly confident asking anyone apologize is going to add to the mess, not help. So, please don't do that. Just like asking people to join a team is about egos and our desire to belong, asking for apologies is about our need to be right. That's what in-groups are for, friends. Yell to your loved ones around the dinner table you were right, those people were wrong. Light up that group chat with quotes that prove, all along, you knew something was a mistake. Compose artful and vague Grams and Toks. Subtweet. Consider, though, in public, with others, with members of the out-group, picking up the messy bits you see and keep poking at the details.


Although I'm mostly linking to their original publisher's site, most of the books listed below are available from Thriftbooks or your favorite second-hand book seller. If you listened to Sold a Story and were interested in:

how ideas spread through education

I would recommend two books by education historians, Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education by Robert L. Hampel and From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider.

the history of curriculum in American schools

Tom Loveless recommends The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 by Herbert M. Kliebard. Tanner and Tanner's History of the School Curriculum is also very solid. (As an aside, this 1990 review of the book where I first learned the delightful phrase, "sticky wicket.")

state-level involvement in literacy laws

A great book that bridges the past and the present is Shawna Coppola's wonderful Literacy for All: A Framework for Anti-Oppressive Teaching. You can hear her talk the book with other authors in the same series here. Shawna builds on the work of Dr. Arlette Ingram Willis and her book, Anti-Black Literacy Laws and Policies. I'll be talking more with Shawna in an upcoming newsletter about the tensions around public/private content on social media.

I'm going to go more in the history of the Reading Wars in a future newsletter and will be sharing my first attempt at an explainer video about education discourse and as always, if you're interested in having a conversation about the discourse, drop me a line and we can gaze at our navels together!