Why do we fear expertise?

A few years ago, a colleague and I wrote an article about coaching pre-service teachers as they established themselves as literacy educators (Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014). We spoke about this relationship as a knowledgeable other supporting the developing understandings and reflections of a novice. Several of my colleagues questioned this view, because as constructivists, they didn’t feel there was room for expertise. Instead, they believed that we should learn as much from the pre-service teachers (about the teaching of reading) as we expected them to learn from us.

This is problematic. You see, I have actual expertise in literacy. My expertise is borne of both classroom experience (in the K-12 sector as well as years of working with pre-service teachers) and a deep understanding of the research in literacy studies. In this case, I do know more about the teaching of reading than someone who has yet to teach for the first time as the instructor of record. And it is my responsibility to ensure they are equipped with as much knowledge as possible before they enter the classroom and begin working with children.

There are certainly experiences I want my students to have that allow them to come to understand themselves as educators, and those experiences will largely be co-constructed. But, those experiences are different than the ones I expect them to have when teaching children to read. Because children get one chance at an education, and we as teachers must educate them with as much urgency as possible. We must have a purpose and we must be explicit with the content that supports our purpose.

Like pre-service teachers, children need opportunities to explore. Those opportunities, however, are best offered when they have a foundation on which to build new understandings. The same is true for pre-service teachers. In our study, the scaffolds we provided were essential to the pre-service teachers we coached, because they needed that explicit support in order to ascertain how to best support children’s understanding (Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014).

I can not hold that back in hopes my students will come to it automatically. Most won’t. They need my expertise to grow into the kind of teacher that can support children’s literacy learning, just as children need their teacher’s expertise to grow as literacy learners. For the life of me I cannot understand why educators want to withhold this from either pre-service teachers or children. Doing so is what another colleague and I referred to as instructional malpractice (Dennis & Parker, 2010).

If we fear expertise in education because we do not believe those teaching are truly expert, then we need to rethink the way we prepare teachers for the classroom (Dennis, 2016). But, if we fear it because we think using it somehow disadvantages our students, we need to reconsider our epistemological views and address that students have very real needs to learn content in order to develop their own expertise.

Dennis, D. V. (2016). A teacher residency melds classroom theory with clinical practice. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(7), 14-18.

Dennis, D. V., & Parker, A. (2010). Treating instructional malpractice: Reflexive protocols for entrepreneurial teachers. Childhood Education 86 (4), 249-254.

Gelfuso, A. & Dennis, D. V. (2014). Getting Reflection Off the Page: The Challenges of Developing Support Structures for Pre-service Teacher Reflection. Teaching and Teacher Education, 38, pp. 1-11.



Have you loved enough?

Like so many of you, I am angry and sickened by the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. Beyond that, I am appalled, though not altogether surprised, by Donald Trump’s response to the hate-filled violence we witnessed. After waiting 48 hours to denounce any wrong-doing on the part of white supremacists, Trump came out on Tuesday, took back his words, and proved himself to be the maniacal racist apologist so many of us saw him for during the election cycle.

But, I digress.

Driving to work today, I listened to a podcast in which Paulo Cohelo, author of The Alchemist, said that when we get to the gates of heaven God will ask us just one question, “Have you loved enough?”

At this point in our history, I am not willing to say that love alone will solve our problems. The problems are too great, the chasm too large. And, it certainly is not enough to turn inward and only focus on ourselves as individuals, rather than society broadly.

In this vein, I am reminded of an art exhibit I saw this summer at the Tate Modern Museum in London. The exhibit was called Soul Nation. It focused on the contributions of Black artists in the US during the Civil Rights Era (which can be argued we never exited given the continued struggle for all Americans to experience justice). There were points in the exhibit where I was literally holding my breath because the images were so powerful. It wasn’t until I reached the room with the abstract art that I exhaled, only to begin holding my breath once again at the descriptions.

Outside the exhibit hall were several videos of Civil Rights Activists speaking to their beliefs (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, etc.). The videos themselves were powerful, and an eye-opening introduction to the artwork we were about to experience. In particular, one activist, Angela Davis, resonated with me. Over the past few days, I’ve been reminded of her quote:

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

To me, this is how we will begin to answer the question when we reach the gates of heaven. We will have only loved enough if we not only love everyone regardless of their background, but if we have fought for their civil rights in the same way we would fight for our own; if we stand alongside those who are already using their voice for this cause, and add our voice to make it louder. The idea is not that we give others voice — too many have been fighting this fight without us to act like saviors. Instead, we must speak up when those around us disparage others. We must speak up when our elected officials are racist, or claim to be non-racist, and continue speaking up and acting until the only leaders left are anti-racist and fighting for us all.

On a daily basis, we need to ask both ourselves and each other, “Have you loved enough?”





The Simplicity of Forts: Musings on #Brexit from an American living in England

Like many children, I spent hours building forts out of blankets. When the fort was ready, I climbed in with my stuffed animals, books, and office supplies (my addiction to the latter began at an early age), prepared to change the world.

You see, forts are safe. You build them, you make the rules, you decide who is/is not allowed in them.

But, forts are also isolating. They can trick you into believing yours is the right way, the only way. And, even if the fort has a window, it offers a narrow view to the outside world.

It is difficult to change the world for the good when you view it through a narrow window. There are too many complexities to believe you can develop policies and practices from within the confines of your fort, and do so in a way that acknowledges the diversity of those you serve.

Forts don’t foster a sense of community. They are about keeping people out, rather than inviting people in. They are about competition and strategy, rather than openness and dialogue. Figuratively, a fortress is “a person or thing not susceptible to outside influence or disturbance”(Google). A fort, then, is all about the person or people within them.

In a 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, novelist David Foster Wallace conceded, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” If we remain in the forts of our existence, we do not explore beyond this idea of ourselves as centre of the universe. We do not embrace ideas that challenge our thinking, or people who encourage us to explore a world outside our own.

Being challenged by these explorations can be uncomfortable. As those things we were taught to believe shift, expand, or retract, we question our reality to that point. The desire to retreat into our fort can be great, but the freedom gained from packing away the blankets is greater. But, to gain that freedom, we must first persevere through the inquietude.

Because we profit more than most in a globalized world, the UK and the US should be leaders in the plight from isolationism. The Brexit vote, as well as the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, shows people who are instead driven by fear of globalization, fear of ideas and others different from themselves. Although I hear this shouted as “racism,” I see it more as xenophobic anti-intellectualism, which to me is far more frightening, because it infects every nook and cranny of our being. It scares us into believing we are better off in this world on our own.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.


Exploring Berlin On Foot

The PDK International Study Tour is a 10-day professional development experience for educators. This year’s tour traveled to Berlin, Prague, and Krakow to learn about the culture and education of these areas. I have the privilege of serving as PDK’s Ambassador on this trip, as I did in 2014 when we traveled to Amsterdam and Paris.

Our third day in Berlin was one of the most emotional experiences I can remember having while traveling (a couple of days in Kenya while on a UNESCO/International Reading Association professional development trip being the exception). To this point, I’ve been sharing the study tour experiences via Instagram, but felt there was too much to Day 3 to try to express it with photos.

We had a choice of tours on Day 3. One was a bus/walking tour led by a local guide with a Ph.D. in History. The other was a walking tour of two communities with our EF Tour Guide, Aidan. In the morning, I was torn on which of the two to select, but decided a considerable amount of walking would feel nice after traveling and sitting in schools the day prior.

The two neighborhoods we walked, Mitte and Wedding, were situated in the area where the Berlin Wall once separated East and West Berlin.

The first stop on the walking tour was at a refugee shelter where we met with two of the Residents, one from Afghanistan, the other from Syria. The man from Afghanistan traveled for 45 days to reach Germany, paying a smuggler 8000EUR/person for each of the 28 family members in his convoy. They traveled with his wife and two young children, one under two years, the other under one. In Afghanistan, his family owned a transport company that was contracted by the U.S. military. After the Americans pulled out of Afghanistan, however, the Taliban began hunting down and killing anyone who had supported the U.S. military during their occupation of the country. Given this, his family was forced to flee. He is 25, his wife 23.

The man from Syria, whose job was one that for his safety, I won’t share on social media, fled the country with his wife and six children, but was forced to leave them in a Turkish refugee camp because they did not have proper documentation to cross into E.U. countries.

Both men are looking for work in Germany, though neither have the necessary documentation to gain employment, and there is no timeline for when they may be able to get that documentation. The man from Afghanistan at least has his family, while the man from Syria does not know whether he will ever see his again.

One hundred eighty people reside in the refugee shelter we visited, a fraction of the 800,000+ refugees Germany has allowed cross its borders this year. Each has their own story like those I shared above.

With a heaviness descended upon us, we left the shelter. As we did, we learned we were in a largely Turkish neighborhood. The photo below shows apartments in which a mostly Turkish population resides. They were invited to East Berlin in the 60s and 70s as skilled workers. The intent was that they would be in the area for 1-2 years and then return to Turkey, but they instead put down roots, mostly living in the less expensive housing near the wall where East Germans did not want to live. From the photo, you will notice that many of the balconies have satellite dishes, which provides the families’ access to Turkish TV. For our tour, this is relevant because it indicated that the children in those apartments spent their home life speaking and listening only to Turkish, which means they enter school knowing little to no German. Having just left the refugee shelter, we wondered how (or whether) Berlin would learn from the educational challenges presented by the Turkish families as they begin to incorporate the hundreds of thousands of new refugees into communities and schools.
IMG_2097Though we’d barely been away from the hotel an hour, much was weighing on our mind at this point in our tour.

It was then that we came across a group of Kindergartners and their teachers demonstrating on the street. They were carrying orange balloons, wearing orange headbands, blowing whistles, and chanting. We learned that they were fighting for more resources and support for Kindergartens. Not only was it adorable watching toddlers waddle down the sidewalk blowing their whistles in support of their school, but it was an early introduction to the way individuals are empowered to speak for their rights.



We later had the opportunity to visit their school. We learned that Kindergarten (ages 2-5 in Germany) is focused on play, rather than academics. One point that resonated with me was when the teacher shared that they have no manufactured toys in their school. They have only unfinished materials that force children to be creative problem solvers, rather than passive players. The level of independence expected of the children also struck me. They served their own food, cleared their own plates, took off/put on their own shoes, etc. The teachers guided them and reminded them of next steps, but they were in charge of their learning.

Our roller coaster of a morning led us to a rose garden and park in the middle of these neighborhoods. Being autumn, the roses were waning but still beautiful, the leaves were changing, and the air was crisp and cool. It was a lovely stroll, and a nice reminder to enjoy one’s surroundings.


We continued our walk, passing several landmarks from the Berlin Wall, including a reconstructed section of the wall that allows you to understand the danger in attempting to cross the Death Strip.



We also happened upon a place called the Factory. This is a space for start-ups to be born. Largely funded by Google and Lufthansa, the Factory is a site built for innovation. It had a very hipster vibe, with transparent, open spaces for collaboration and conversation.

We met up with the part of our group that went on the bus tour and walked to the Berlin Parliament. There, we met with a Deputy from the Pirate Party, Martin Delius, who spoke with us about policies impacting Berlin broadly, and education specifically. Delius is the kind of guy I’d like to grab a beer with and talk politics, as I get the feeling he tells it like it is and doesn’t shy away from explaining why he believes what he believes. As a Socialist, he said he would increase the debt in order to pay more for education. He believes Germany’s economy can absorb such spending in order to strengthen one of their fundamental rights. After listening to him, I know I must learn more about the philosophies behind different political parties.


Our evening was especially powerful. We had an optional gathering at Café Schönherr, which is located where the Death Strip once was. Aidan (Tour Director) had invited two women to speak with us about their experiences living on either side of the Berlin Wall. They shared touching stories about their families, about their schooling experiences, and about the struggles of integrating the two sides once the wall fell. Both of these women could speak to times in their life, or the life of their parents, when they were forced to flee and themselves became refugees (or, in one case, her mother was a refugee). Given the current situation in Germany, and the fact Aidan also invited no less than a dozen of the refugees from the shelter to the café, their messages were poignant.

Although most of our group left following this conversation, a handful of us stayed to speak with the men from the refugee shelter, including the two we spoke with earlier in the day. They shared how they came to be in Berlin, who they were in their home country, who they left behind, what their dreams are for the future, and what they knew about how to integrate into their new home.

These men were from Afghanistan, Albania, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, amongst others. Most were educated professionals that left for their safety. Gut wrenchingly, many were forced to leave because the foreign militaries that once occupied their country left them with no safeguards after their withdrawal. They’ve lost everything, and in many cases this includes their identity. These proud and hopeful men were also bewildered and haggard. They dream of a life free of war and full of family and prosperity, but they struggle with knowing the steps they need to take to reach those dreams, or whether any such steps exist.

Nearly 10 miles walking and a short night’s sleep later, I am still reeling from these experiences. I am filled with guilt and slightly sickened by the U.S. role in so many of these men’s reasons for fleeing. We have Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in our history, but we’ve never experienced a Berlin Wall or, more recently, a Gulf War on our soil, yet we were intimately involved in both and left remains of that involvement in ways that have completely disrupted the lives of so many. As an educator, I was made aware of the education we stole from children in these war zones. By bombing their schools and leaving their towns unsafe, they will not learn to read and write unless their family flees to unknown lands.

I am not entirely sure how long it will take me to process these experiences, but I know they’ve left me forever changed.


A response to “Treat Teacher Education Like a Medical Residency”

The New York Times ran an opinion piece on March 3 entitled “Treat Teacher Education Like a Medical Residency.” In this piece, Jal Mehta (Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), recommends that the US raises standards for teacher licensure, significantly revise teacher preparation programs, eliminate tenure in its current form, and place pre-service teachers in a model similar to a medical residency.

I agree.

The University of South Florida (USF)/Hillsborough County Public Schools Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program (UTRPP) is already focused on a “radical revamping” of teacher preparation, using a residency model. Our innovative approach to teacher preparation was recently recognized by being awarded a U.S. Department of Education i3 (investment in innovation) grant. This 5-year, $3.4 million grant will evaluate the efficacy of our approach to preparing undergraduate elementary pre-service teachers to work in urban settings. We believe our model will improve teaching quality throughout the six schools that we partner with, simultaneously increasing the retention rate of high quality teachers.

Although the State of Florida has not changed teacher licensure requirements in the manner Dr. Mehta suggested, Residents in the UTRPP are required to demonstrate actual teaching skill in order to graduate. We focus heavily on developing Residents’ pedagogical content knowledge in literacy, social studies, math, and science, with a particular focus on the STEM fields in the second year of the program, given the research that clearly indicates elementary teachers’ difficulty with this subject matter. Our Residents go through teaching cycles in each of these content areas that are supported by an expert of that content (faculty or doctoral students with specific expertise in that area). The Residents spend several weeks taking the lead in planning, instruction, and assessment in one of these subjects. They video tape their teaching, provide the video to the content coach, both the coach and the Resident code the video based on criteria specific to the content, and then they meet to discuss the codes in order to keep a focus on the content of the lesson and evidence of student learning. These cycles are continuous throughout their year-long Residency (their entire second year in the program).

This Residency is made possible through a deep and committed partnership between USF and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS). We work closely with faculty and administration at our six elementary partnership schools — all of which are urban, Title I schools with 89%+ of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Thus, as Dr. Mehta suggests, we are breaking the trend of teacher preparation and school experiences as separate entities.

As I stated earlier, our goal is to attract and retain high quality teachers through the many opportunities that are available as a mentor teacher — including supporting novice teachers, increased and connected professional development, and teacher leadership coursework. We agree that teachers with an interest in mentoring and engagement with USF will want to teach at these sites with cutting-edge research and innovative practices. For that reason, we consider ourselves an “innovation incubator” where ideas lead to research (not only by faculty, but Residents, teachers, and administrators), and changing practices.

So, I agree. I agree with Dr. Mehta’s ideas whole-heartedly. I have served as Director of UTRPP since Day 1.

But, it isn’t easy. It is far from it. And it takes time…so much time. Time to develop new programs, develop relationships, break the mold of “how things have always been done” — and in a university or school district setting this time is often on top of the full-time jobs we already do. This time doesn’t become part of our full time job until we’ve built the program, or until we receive a 5-year grant to study it.

Residencies are more expensive than traditional models of teacher preparation. While I believe they are worth the expense 1000 times over, it is more challenging to impart that belief on higher education administrators who only see declining enrollment numbers in teacher preparation programs. Those declining numbers make it harder to explain why it is necessary for faculty — who are content area experts — to work directly with small numbers of undergraduate students in the field in order to support the development of Residents’ pedagogical content knowledge (rather than working with graduate students who pay higher tuition and generate more research). Those numbers make it difficult to describe why it is necessary to have fewer numbers of students assigned to a field supervisor in a Residency program than it is in a traditional program (and I would guess that both are higher than the faculty to intern ratio in a medical residency), and why those same supervisors need to have some of their time dedicated to the act of building and maintaining partnerships with teachers, administrators, and the larger school context — because that time does not generate student credit hours.

Both universities and school districts have some inflexible structures that make innovative work challenging. Universities are often inflexible in terms of course innovation, meeting times, and classroom schedules, making it particularly challenging to run a course/lab experience together. School districts typically have specific curricula (which is even more pervasive in urban settings) that makes it challenging to put innovative practices into place long enough to study their efficacy and build teachers’ knowledge of children and curricula. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they are not addressed over night.

Our Residents make a significant commitment to the UTRPP. They sign a contract to be in class or schools Monday-Friday from 7:30am-3:30pm (a teacher’s contracted day) for both years of their program. They must then plan lessons and complete their coursework after that contracted day. Since they do not get paid for this commitment (as a medical resident does), most of them also work 20-30 hours per week. They then enter a profession that does not offer much in the way of compensation for high quality practice — the kind of compensation that a partner in a law firm, a doctor, or even a tenured faculty member would expect — a profession that is often portrayed as one that only includes teachers of a low quality that we must constantly focus on improving.

Our mentor teachers make the commitment to work with Residents without compensation. Our partnership administrators are compensated no more for their oversight and support in these programs. Our faculty, supervisors, and coaches earn no more despite longer hours in the field. While I will not purport to know the pay structure for those working in medical residencies, I have a hunch they do not lack compensation for their work.

Medical residencies are built on capitalistic ideals. Teacher preparation programs — schools in general — are not. So, while the structure might be a goal, the infrastructure is vastly different. It is not an automatic tracing of programs and principles.

Nothing I have shared here is an excuse for not “radically revamping” teacher preparation, nor is it a reason to avoid the challenge of programs modeled after medical residencies. However, this shift is seismic for reasons that extend well beyond the desire for high quality teachers. These programs and their required partnerships must be entered with both eyes wide-open, and the understanding that the shift will take significant time both to implement and see results.


Taking care when using assessment data to make instructional decisions

I’ve spent most of today providing feedback on my MA in Reading students’ Literacy Instructional Plans (LIP). The LIP is essentially a case study in which my students select one K-12 student and:

  1. Administer 3-5 literacy assessments.
  2. Analyze the assessment data to determine instructional needs.
  3. Review and synthesize literature related to the area of instructional need.
  4. Make instructional recommendations for the student.

For the most part, my students use standardized assessment data (FCAT, FAIR, SAT-10), coupled with informal reading inventories for this assignment. And, for the most part, they are able to complete the steps listed above and articulate reasonable and appropriate instructional strategies.

However, three things stand out to me about the analyses:

  1. The area in which a child tests lowest is not necessarily an area in which the child “struggles.” This word is thrown around all too often, and can have negative implications on children’s literate development. A child in the fall of grade two, who is testing at a level 1.6 is not generally defined a “struggling” reader in the literature, but in schools these results are often considered dire. And rather than seeing the area of lowest assessment scores as the child’s ability foundation on which to begin instruction, I see it looked upon as a deficit to be overcome. It may seem semantically insignificant, but the labels and language we attach to children have great implications for their development.
  2. If we know a child is reading below grade level, but then assess them with grade level text, we should not be surprised at the results of the assessment. Of course the child will find the text difficult to read and comprehend. That is why we assess to determine their reading level, so we can provide them with appropriate reading materials in order to accelerate their development as readers and writers. It should also mean that we are assessing their growth with materials that match their reading level.
  3. If we know a child is reading below grade level, but then assess them with grade level text, we should take great care in using those results to make instructional decisions. I read one LIP in which my student indicated that the child she was assessing was now showing evidence of weaknesses in comprehension she didn’t know were there – so she was glad she’d given the child the 3rd grade assessment. However, the child was reading (on every assessment discussed) around early second grade. So, we actually can’t determine that the child is struggling with comprehension, because so many other factors are at play when children are being assessed using materials that are outside their reading abilities.

Teaching and assessing reading is not easy. Developing the skills to be responsive teachers of reading takes time and careful attention to the way children develop as readers and writers. It takes nuanced understandings of assessments, instructional materials, and most importantly children. Continual assessment of children will not support their development unless they have teachers who are skilled at using those data and what we know about literacy instruction to make sound instructional decisions.


Bringing Tenure & Promotion to the Digital World

A lively discussion erupted on a listerv I subscribe to in regards to this column by Nicholas Kristof— and I think it is relevant to discussions regarding faculty annual reviews. The column implores university faculty to become more relevant in debates on policy and practice. Our system of peer-reviewed journals and conference presentations largely dismisses practitioners, policymakers, and the public as key audiences for our work. While I don’t ignore the importance of these tools historically, I think it is time that we look more broadly at the literacies that will make our voice heard in the broader debate — not to dismiss journals, but to include digital technologies. With as quickly as information is currently shared, the lengthy process of having an article published often means we are outdated before our paper copy of the journal arrives in the mail. But blogs and other online portals are not considered in our world as academic vehicles, despite the fact that they are likely to reach a much broader audience and make our research (more) relevant in public circles. My colleague, Greg McVerry, writes about both digital spaces and community engagement, and how both need a bigger space at the table when it comes to annual review and T&P (particularly the latter), so that these aren’t expectations in addition to what is currently the gold standard, but that we find some algorithm for determining their weight as equal partners to traditional literacies in academia. Currently, neither are mentioned within the research section of annual review draft in our college.
These are not easy conversations to have, because they challenge us to reconsider the ways in which we disseminate high-quality research. They challenge us to think beyond what has typically been considered the standard for tenure and promotion — for what it means to be an academic. But, I think these are conversations we must have if we are going to keep up with the ways in which information is disseminated on a daily basis. Our penchant for reform efforts is generally overshadowed by think tanks and for-profit entities because they are consistently present in digital spaces, and we are busy waiting 9-18 months to get published…and once we do, we can rarely share the actual article widely. So the public has access to the documents that threaten our existence as public servants (particularly given the interest in privatization of education P-20 in Florida), but not to the documents that we develop.
I fear that without these conversations we will lose many smart, young, digitally savvy academics from the professoriate. The methods for gaining tenure and promotion are inconsistent with how we gather information in our daily lives, and are archaic compared to the ways in which we work with out community. Universities should be on the cutting edge, not stuck in the rut of how things have always been done.