to make a difference

Today* I had a change of plans. The intent at 2:25 PM MDT was to be in Ballroom B, find the table that was hosting one of the 20 discussions taking place, sit down, and listen to the presentation and discussion of five different papers. I admit that I was losing enthusiasm for it all, especially since I’d already been to one of these sessions, had already seen firsthand how difficult it was to hear and interact, and the paper set was actually only loosely connected to what I was looking for. There was a second choice, but it was my second choice for a reason.


Then the clincher: Getting to the ballroom and realizing I didn’t have the right table number written down Trying to find the correct listing in the conference program, a 450 page “guide” for the 10,000 conference goers to who/what/when/where wasn’t immediately helpful. First, find the right day, then the right time, then the right session, the peruse and scan to find something that looks familiar.** “Fuck it,” was more or less my conclusion at that point, especially because Linda Darling-Hammond was giving a plenary address the next ballroom over. It wasn’t specific to the line of things I was trying to understand and study, but I knew it would be important and holistic in scope.

The thousand or so chairs were full. I sat along with others on the floor off to the side. I could see most of the screen and could hear just fine. I used the 450 page conference program as a cushion while typing out a few notes with a keyboard*** balanced on my lap. I was cramped and my butt was numb. It was the best thing I did since I’ve arrived at AERA, and probably will remain so.

Darling-Hammond is doing the kind of work that actually makes a difference. In short, she looks at and spreads the word about data that show the duress and tension of our educational system in the United States. The message is that we could fix almost everything else if we did a few systemic things: Make sure people have health care, make sure there’s equitable educational opportunity for all people and all ages, and make sure that we actually invest in teachers, their education and the promotion of the profession. The story she tells is not about innovative pedagogies or new programs that need to be invented. We actually already know about these. Rather, we need to address unequal opportunity that plagues our nation like no other “leading” country. Moreover, we know how to do it because we had been seeing decreases in the achievement gap in the 70’s. We’ve just enacted social policies that have turned things in the other direction. (Interestingly, even though Darling-Hammond was the educational advisor to the Obama campaign, her rhetoric was critical of current administration practices as well as other administrations and legislation.)

Later in the afternoon I went to a session with presenters demonstrating the use of blogs and wikis in classrooms. The results? Sometimes these web 2.0 technologies are helpful for learning; sometimes they aren’t. No shit. The bigger point that I take away? It doesn’t matter.**** If we continue to have a system where we have inequalities in how schools are funded, a lack of attention and dedication to teacher preparation and support, and an overall system in which we place blame on underperforming schools rather than push for — demand — support for success for all schools, even those that aren’t our own, we’re doomed to fail. Even if we have blogs.


*This was back on Monday, actually.

**Yes, there’s an online, interactive version. That’s what got me to this moment in the first place. That’s all I have to say.

***I’m using a wireless keyboard to type notes on an iPad that I throw into my bag. I get envious glances, and it starts more conversations than anything that’s actually substantive that I do.

****The following day I went to a paper session whose first paper was about the learning stages of dentists. I was equally unimpressed with the importance, but it was probably just my mood.


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