10 min read

Dissertating about Our Shared Humanity with Kate Roberts

Dissertating about Our Shared Humanity with Kate Roberts
Cover of Kate Roberts book, "The Heart of Fiction"

My first reaction to seeing the short clip in 2019 of the interaction between the students from Covington Catholic High School and a group that had just been marching in the Indigenous Day Parade was recognition in the pop culture center of my brain. Nathan Phillips, the Omaha man who was recorded facing the boy in the red MAGA hat, features in Skrillex & Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley video for Make It Bun Dem. The song has been on heavy rotation on various playlists of mine since it first came out and I’ll tell ya, it makes an impression. (As an aside, the video is a great way to communicate dynamics around the foreclosure crisis in less than 3 minutes.)  

My second thought, once I got over the dissonance of seeing Mr. Phillips’ in a discordant context, was “where are the adults?” As is my wont, I did a Twitter thread about it and some resources and 5 years later, I still wonder about the decisions made by adults that day. The Wikipedia article does a fairly deep dive into all of the decisions made by adults not there but there is precious little about the actions of the adults responsible for the students. What choices they made, if they tried to move their students away from the Black Hebrew Israelites, or what happened on the bus ride home. 

My curiosity about those adults is anchored in my interest in words about education and teaching, but also because of what I’ve learned about the bystander effect. Like many, I heard the (not true) story about Kitty Genovese and didn’t really understand what it means to be an active bystander. The training, alas, only goes so far. I’ve made decisions about when and where to speak up on-line when I witness someone being jerky (FYI: the simple sentence, “Hey now, no need for that” turns out to be much more effective than one would think) or see a social media friend getting piled on but those are my decisions, based on my boundaries and comfort level. EduTwitter pile-ons - plus the ways in which people use the lessons of GamerGate to target teachers - is for another column but my thinking about being an on-line bystander is what led me to reach out to the brillant Kate Roberts. 

If you were on EduTwitter during the events that Kate and I talk around in our conversation, you may have felt like I did, like a bystander watching really smart people you really only knew as avatars and words on a screen deal with some heavy, complicated matters with seemingly no right way though. You may, though, have seen the events and thought there was one right answer. It was - and remains - messy and complicated when we witness our fellow educators’ bad days. We can hope they have loved ones off-line to keep them safe and moving forward and we can try not to make things worse for them. Or at least, I’d like to think we’d all try not to make things worse for them. Many many thanks to Kate for her time, generosity, and openness. In gratitude for her time, a donation has been made to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

My questions to her are below in bold. 

Plenty of people involved in the EduDiscourse are happy to say Twitter isn’t “real life.” But, we know the boundaries of Twitter are permeable - conversations spill out into our lives and can create the need for or inspire or force action. As you shared in your email about your new book (which I’m very excited for and so glad to see out in the world!), you ended up on a different publication path than the one you originally intended. I’m sure there were many conversations behind closed doors but if memory serves, there was some discussion in public about the decisions and choices people made. The events were covered by The New York Times and I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating that was. I think there’s a lot of important lessons to be learned from what happened, and if you’re comfortable sharing, about how the discourse impacted your decisions (if it did).

It was frustrating to be a bystander to what was happening and knowing so many smart and thoughtful people such as yourself were having to make choices in response to decisions made by people at a publishing house, far removed from the classroom. And of course, it was likely infinitely more frustrating for you, having to make those decisions. Do you have a sense of how the public discourse about the publisher’s choices impacted the decision-making process? That is, did having it covered in the Times and discussed on Twitter complicate things? Allow for solidarity among the authors? Something else?

Of course I can only speak for myself, and how the discourse around that time affected my decisions/experience. I imagine that each person who went through that time encountered the discourse very differently. Such a lesson in point of view, isn’t it? For myself, I found watching the corporate and media machines working online to clickbait the stories and/or smooth everything over difficult to hold, as I care about the people involved and believe in the work, and had hoped for much more accountable, complex, authentic responses. This, in turn, caused me to doubt my ability to participate in an online discourse around the story or issues from that time productively for a variety of reasons - some professional, some personal. So, in many ways, that time was a bit of the nail in the coffin of feeling comfortable engaging in true online conversation, like back in those halcyon Twitter days. 

For each issue that exploded during that time, it was disorienting to watch platforms that I had engaged with (The Times, Twitter) become places where distorted truths seemed spun and then made solid. I think there was some solidarity formed; I know in my heart I feel aligned with a group of people around some things, less aligned with others. But ultimately, the experience was fracturing because something was broken, and in my view, it was very sad. The discourse was a part of that sadness.

The way that the online discourse affected my decisions was in reinforcing the fact that corporate was going to corporate their way through a problem that demanded a decidedly un-corporate response. Which, fair enough I suppose, but if I have the privilege of a choice I don’t want that to be my path. 

I’m so glad you found those connections and alignments. In addition to your new book, you’ve also been expanding your professional development services; your approach is clearly teacher-centered and practice-focused. Something like that only comes about from years of expertise-building and is likely hard to communicate to people who aren’t familiar with your approach. How has the shift from Twitter to X impacted how you connect with teachers and schools to let them know about the services you provide? What changes have you noticed about how school leaders connect with PD providers? 

I would combine the pandemic with Twitter evaporating into nothing to help explain the bulk of the shifts we see in professional development access. PD is changing. Teachers won’t - and/or shouldn’t - tolerate PD that isn’t directly helpful to problems of practice in the same ways they would or did in the before times.

Part of Twitter not being a place teachers go now has less to do with branding changes or Elon’s evilness than educators being totally saturated with content.

Professionally saturated, without enough time or resources to integrate it all. I feel it. I have never worked more diligently to make my work as practically helpful to classroom teachers as I have these last few years. I don’t always succeed, but I believe in my bones that it’s our job right now to make teachers’ lives easier. It’s rough out there. Not to be too pessimistic - I travel all over the country, and things are getting better. There is tons of joy, great learning, and teaching - all of the same things that have kept me in love with schools for decades. But people are also really struggling. So while in 2013 we had it in the tank to jump on a Twitter chat and discuss book clubs for an hour, now, even if we need it, it’s just too much. At least that’s how it seems right now. I’m sure it’s not the truth for all people or all places.

Maggie and I decided to try out something different on our website. We wanted to see if giving away/selling cheaply some of our knowledge around teaching, literacy, and skills based instruction was helpful. It didn’t feel like the time to say “if you want a workshop on nonfiction reading you have to hire me for a day.” It felt like the time to throw it out there. We are still working on it, to be honest, but it’s fun and interesting to try. And certainly we hope to get our work out in a different way after losing connection to a couple professional communities. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like there is a huge appetite for online learning right now, and I find myself in the weird position of agreeing and often feeling the same even though I am producing online content. 

In general, it feels complicated to be in the professional development business. I wonder about the model we have set up for PD, and if it really works for teachers as often as it should. We can’t help students without helping teachers. And teachers need a kind of help right now that doesn’t always align with the PD structures we lean on. 

Well said. Speaking from experience, one of the challenges of being a PD-provider is it can be lonely work. You build relationships with the teachers and schools you support but they’re not necessarily your learning community. Where do you go to build community, or to engage in productive and helpful discourse?

Jenn, are you my therapist right now? ☺ I think that the past five years have isolated me (and many others) quite a bit. I’m getting out of it now, and rethinking what community means to me professionally. I’ve been doing it all a bit on my own, which is my maladaptive propensity in times of struggle. Before, I created a professional community based off employment. The companies I belonged to aligned me with certain brilliant educators and we connected. Many of those connections, of course, still exist and will continue to. These lifelines are one of the many reasons I will never regret my time at any of the organizations I belonged to - the people. I tried building community online, which worked for awhile and I certainly formed some great connections there, yourself included. 

While it’s still possible, for me it’s become tricky to form strong connections online around complex issues. There can be a sense of false intimacy – not out of deceit, just out of a lack of lived experience. 

I guess that’s the thing about community to me now. It is forming and reforming in ways that are much slower, but are based more in a lived, shared reality. Not dogma. Ideas in service of people. Shared experiences. People doing the work together.  

That is such a wonderful sentiment. I really connect with the “false intimacy” framing you offer. And I fully agree - it’s not about deceit. It’s just a reminder that community takes so many forms and we have to be mindful to recognize they look different in different formats and not conflate them. I see your latest book as helping teachers create classroom communities. It focuses on one specific aspect of ELA teaching: fiction. What was the impetus behind this focus? 

At the time of writing this new book, my last one, A Novel Approach, had been recently released. I thought at first of this project, The Heart of Fiction, as a support to teachers who had never focused on deeply and  explicitly teaching a skill before - particularly middle and high school teachers. Most of the educators I work with totally get that it is important to have a layer of our teaching that helps strengthen comprehension and analytical skills. What most people don’t have is a way to teach those skills decently well that doesn’t require hours of study. 

Now it feels less connected to the work of A Novel Approach, mostly because of the time that has passed, but I think the book has found a different focal point for me – the idea that kids need to read and practice thinking about reading at least somewhat on their own if reading is going to get better. I know I have some beliefs about how this goes best – reading that centers around choice and identity and relevance – but I also recognize that many teachers don’t have that option. So, this project does some thinking around what conditions we can set up to help the work of reading go better in general.

At the same time, I was interested in what it might look like if we boiled down reading skills and comprehension work in ways that become kind of golden paths through books for teachers and students, based on the things we most like to talk about when we talk about literature: character, theme, and craft analysis. In some ways, I think we have made some direct skills instruction more complicated than it always needs to be. Under the right conditions, you don’t need that many strategies to help students become more powerful analyzers and interpreters of the books they read. 

Lastly, I felt a need to tie the work of reading fiction and teaching skills to one of the ways reading stays relevant - our shared humanity. One of the reasons we do what we do - teach literature - is to help students form connections to books and stories, and one way to do this is to be sure that we connect our very human lives to the characters, ideas, and voices we encounter in fiction. Without the understanding that we are in this human thing together, reading doesn’t have as many places to plant its seed where it always finds real nourishment - the heart. (I know, so cheesy, but so true!)

Not cheesy at all! What do you see as advantages to the current level of discourse around teachers and teaching? Disadvantages?

I’ve wondered if more of the teacher-run discourse has moved to platforms like TikTok. It’s a different medium, so the discourse is very different of course. And yet, when I’m on that site, it seems like the creators who really shine are classroom teachers. And that is really good. Teachers should have platforms to share their work, ideas, solutions, frustrations, and jokes; By doing so, discourse will happen. 

I remember when I started working in professional development there were people who bemoaned the changes happening then - here we go again, they said, the pendulum swinging again. Not this time, I thought, this is different. This is here to stay. Watching the new curriculums take root, and the discourse around them, is disheartening because I know how those disgruntled vets felt back then. Here we go again, not learning our lessons about holding onto what’s working, about using discourse to get smarter, not to just wrench power from those who came before. 

The advantage that matters most to me is if the discourse helps teachers do their jobs well and sustainably. In my mind, Tik Tok achieves this as best as any other discourse I’ve seen recently. Real teachers teaching teachers how to do the job. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of, um, less than helpful material on there. But there is gold there, too.