Assessing My Writing: A Look Backward

A month ago, a colleague wrote to me and asked me to write about my career as a practitioner/scholar over the past half-century. I accepted. Part of the request was to include what I have written about policy and practice as a historian of education that contributed to both research and practice.

Sure, there are metrics that suggest what a “contribution” may be. There are Google scholar and Edu-Scholar rankings. There are Web of Science citations. All well and good but influence or impact on practitioners and researchers? Maybe yes, a bit here and there. And maybe no, not a trace. Rankings and citations are, at best, no more than fragile, even shaky proxies of a “contribution.”

I thought about these metrics a lot and decided instead to describe those works that gave me the most satisfaction in writing. This is not false modesty. What I think may be a contribution, others may yawn at its banality. What I think is a mundane article,  I will receive notes from readers about how powerful the piece was in altering their thinking. Writing to me is a form of teaching: some lessons fly and others flop.

So what follows is my self-assessment of those writings that gave me the most satisfaction and feeling of pride in doing something worthwhile.  Others would have to judge whether what I have written over the past half-century has contributed to what practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and the general public—audiences I have written for—know and do. In all instances, what I offer are publications that were prompted by questions that grew out of my teaching and administrative experience and what I learned as a researcher. Both have played a huge part in what I chose to research, write, and teach.

How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993)

This study of three different generations of reformers trying to alter the dominant way of classroom teaching (1900s, 1960s, and 1980s) was my first historical analysis of teaching. The question that prompted the study came out of my visits to Arlington (VA) public school classrooms over the seven years I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s. I kept seeing classroom lessons that reminded me of how I was taught in elementary and secondary schools in Pittsburgh (PA) in the 1940s. And how I taught in Cleveland (OH) in the 1950s. How could that be, I asked myself? That question led to a three-year grant to study how teachers taught between 1880-1990.

I used district archives, photographs, and first-hand accounts to cover a century of policy efforts to shift teaching from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. I documented the century-long growth of classroom hybrids of both kinds of classroom instruction. Few historians, sadly, have since pursued the question of how reform policies aimed at altering teachers’ classroom behavior actually get put into practice.

 The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership (1988)

Here again, a question that grew out of my being in classrooms as a teacher and a district administrator nudged me. What I saw and experienced in classrooms and administrative offices looked a great deal alike insofar as the core roles that both teachers and administrators had to perform. Was that accurate and if so, how did that come to be? So I investigated the history of teaching, principaling and superintending. I saw that three core roles dominated each position: instructional, managerial, and political. I compared and contrasted each with vivid examples and included chapters on my experiences as both a teacher and administrator.

Reform Again, Again, and Again (1990)

The article that appeared in Educational Researcher looked at various cycles of change that I had documented in How Teachers Taught and The Managerial Imperative. The central question that puzzled me was how come school reform in instruction, curriculum, governance and organization recurred time and again. I was now old enough and had experienced these reform cycles.

I presented a conceptual framework that explained the recurring reforms. My prior studies and direct school experiences gave me rich examples to illustrate the framework.

Tinkering toward Utopia (1995)

David Tyack and I collaborated in writing this volume. We drew heavily from the “History of School Reform” course we had been teaching to graduate students and each of our prior studies. In only 142 pages (endnotes and bibliography excluded), we summed up our thinking about the rhetoric and actuality of school reform policies in curriculum, school organization, governance, and instruction over the past two centuries in the U.S.

Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001)

In 1986, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom use of Technology since 1920 was published. In that study, I looked at teacher access and use of film and radio in classrooms during the 1920s and 1930s, educational television in the 1950s and 1960s and the first generation of desktop computers in the early 1980s. The central question driving that study was: what did teachers do in their lessons when they had access to film, radio, television, and later computers?

The question derives from the larger interest I have had in school reform policies and the journey they take as they wend their way into classroom practice. Like new curricula, governance changes, and shifts in how best to organize schools, grasping at new technologies that promise deep changes in how teachers teach is simply another instance of school reformers using policy mandates to alter classroom instruction. In short, adopting new technologies is simply another thread in the recurring pattern of school reformers seeking classroom changes during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fifteen years after Teachers and Technology appeared, computers had become common in schools. So in Oversold and Underused, I asked: to what degree were teachers in Silicon Valley schools using computers in their classrooms, labs, and media centers for lessons they taught? Such questions about classroom use go beyond the rhetoric surrounding new devices and software. I wanted to see what actually occurred in classrooms when districts adopted policies pushing new technologies into pre-school, high school, and university classrooms.

Teaching History Then and Now (2016)

The question that prompted this study came out of writing for my blog on how I taught history in two urban high schools in the 1950s and 1960s. I wondered how history was taught in those very same high schools a half-century later. Those personal questions led to reconstructing my teaching a half-century ago from personal records and archives I found at each school and then traveling to those very same schools to do observations and interviews with current teachers of history.

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These publications have given me great satisfaction in writing. Converting questions and ideas into words on a screen or jottings on a piece of paper is what I have done since I published my first article in 1960 in the Negro History Bulletin. Have I written things that have never left my home and remain in closets and bottom drawers? You bet. But writing, a different way of teaching, remains important to me and as I long as I can I will write about the past as it influences the present, especially policies that aim at at altering how teachers teach.

Yet the act of writing historically remains mysterious to me. Why do the words flow easily and excite me in their capturing illusive ideas and rendering them in a graceful way and other times what I see on paper or on the screen are clunky sentences, if not clumsy wording? I do not know. Immersed in writing about policy and practice historically (as it has been for me in teaching in high school and graduate seminars) has given me highs and lows over the years and much satisfaction. While I may not understand the mystery of writing, I remain most grateful to Clio, the muse of historians.

 

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