Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Elizabeth Moje

April 27, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 1 Episode 24
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Elizabeth Moje
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Elizabeth Moje talks to us about justice and equity, valuing difference as a way to new ideas, and critical thinking across our lives as learners. Elizabeth is known for her work in the areas of disciplinary literacy, adolescent literacy, racial justice, and teacher education. Dr. Moje is dean, and George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education, and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture in the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

Lindsay Persohn:

Education Research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom caffeine is here to help. Each week I invite a top education researcher to sit down and talk with teachers about what they have learned from years of study. This week, Dr. Elizabeth Moje talks to us about justice and equity, valuing difference as a way to new ideas and critical thinking across our lives as learners. Elizabeth is known for her work in the areas of disciplinary literacy, adolescent literacy, racial justice and teacher education. Dr. Moje is Dean and George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of education, and an Arthur F. Thurnau, professor of literacy, language and culture in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. For more information about our guests, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn. For classroom caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Elizabeth, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Elizabeth Moje:

Thanks for having me.

Lindsay Persohn:

A couple of questions for you today, from your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Elizabeth Moje:

Well, it's really hard to choose one or two. So I'm actually going to try to squeak in three, if that's okay with you. It's just such a, you know, a pastiche of experience. And, and, you know, I, even in my, in my writing about identity, I write about the fact that we're always just sort of laminating, to borrow from Kevin Leanders work, these identities, and we never, you know, we build on every history of participation that we have. So I would say, the first is probably my work, teaching, as a high school teacher, teaching history, and biology and a number of other things that I really wasn't actually supposed to be teaching, but also directing plays after school, and finding myself with young people in our high school history class, who wouldn't engage with text or couldn't engage with text, or just didn't engage with text, who would then show up at play practice having memorized a play, and, and memorize their part and performed it with clear comprehension because they were using all the right expression and emotion. I mean, I, of course, I had to direct a little bit, I was the director, but but the point is that they obviously could read, and they did read, they just weren't reading history, they just weren't reading the Federalist Papers when I handed them to them. And so it was a moment of recognizing that this wasn't about the young people. This was about me, or the texts or my teaching. And that really led me to the study of literacy as socially and culturally constructed and mediated and situated and motivated. And, you know, I have a piece that I've written called motivating texts, motivating contexts, in which I really am trying to push people to take the concept of motivation out of the individual out of the learner, and put it where it belongs, which is in the material that we're asking children and youth to read and make sense of and right, and into the context and the activities that we're building them. So that's, that was one that's just profound, because it led me, you know, on this journey, to a master's degree and a PhD and research that is all about literacy as as socially and culturally constructed. Then I think, a second moment was when I was teaching literacy in alternative education to people who had not achieved High School degrees. And also, when I was teaching literacy in an auto plant, there, people had actually, in many cases gotten High School degrees, but had never learned to read had never read books had never engaged with text in in deep and profound and meaningful ways that changed their lives. And seeing, first of all, the ways they were disenfranchised, the ways they were positioned as struggling or non readers are or unmotivated, really was jarring. And it taught me so much more about my high school teaching that my high school teaching had taught me. And it taught me so much about the power of success in a reader's life and a writer's life, when I saw them, feeling that success, and and talking about how they had never read an entire book, in their whole educational careers. And yet, in this, you know, literacy, workplace literacy course that we were doing, they have read 15 books and how proud they felt right. So that just was such a profound experience for me. And then finally, I'd say, the current moment is, is really shaping who I am, as an educator, you know, 30, some years after, after beginning my work as a high school teacher, really working explicitly to be anti racist, and decolonizing. In my practice, learning to question assumptions that I've had about students, even with all the things that I've just talked about, in my mind, realizing that there were some assumptions that were entering into my practice, either my university teaching my work in classrooms and in research settings with with young people. And one thing that I'm finding is, I work a lot. And I like working, and I'm very task oriented. And I tend to, you know, walk into a setting and just get to business. And so I'm really taking the time I teach in class right now 29 undergraduates, and really working to be mindful of inviting them into a community space together so that we're all together and and acknowledging who they are, and where they are, emotionally, where they are intellectually in that moment. And trying to build that community that way. And I think that's part of being anti racist, and decolonizing, not making the work prime, but making the people prime.

Lindsay Persohn:

You've made some really clear and important distinctions, I think, between what goes on with people and what goes on with maybe tasks or materials. And I think we do often conflate those two things, in fact, a really kind of plain example that came to mind for me, when you're talking about motivation, and how we always sort of put that back on people, it reminds me of being in a dressing room, and you try on a pair of pants, and you think there must be something wrong with me, because these don't fit well. Right. You know, I think that's often a message we give ourselves, but really, it's no, it's the pants. You know, that's the problem. It's not me, but I think we you know, I had never recognized that in a literacy setting before to say, No, this isn't a problem with people, this is a problem with the the stuff we're asking them to do. And what a mind shift that is to think, from your own experiences that when when something is not resonating with folks, when they are not really experiencing that, that lamination then, you know, what is it that's going wrong here? And I think that really thinking about that in a different way, is so impactful, you know, it really lifts some of that burden off of us to think that okay, what do I need to change about me, but instead, what do I need to change about the habits around me and the things that I'm choosing to do? It becomes a little easier to take at that point I think

Elizabeth Moje:

It does. It does. I agree.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you. Thank you for that. So Elizabeth, what would you like teachers to know about your research?

Elizabeth Moje:

Oh, great question. First of all, I'd like teachers to know that my all of my research is rooted in my own experiences as a teacher from early on, and you know, 1983 when I started my career as a teacher, to this moment, so I you know, I'm still a teacher. I am a researcher, but I study teaching and learning and so it's all about trying to help teachers better serve children so that children can learn and learn, you know, with equity. Like really have those options opportunities, those rich, deep, meaningful opportunities. I'd say I want teachers to know my research is justice oriented. It is anti racist, anti sexist anti classist, all of the ways that we position people in negative terms, it works against that. Even even when I'm talking about disciplinary literacy, and I'll say more about that in a moment, um, I would say my work values and builds on difference and diversity Homi Bhabha talks about, you know, the place where the in between where things come together, is where newness enters the world. And I love that phrase, I love the idea that we don't get new ideas, if we just follow the same ideas, right? Like, if we just transmit some received knowledge, we're not actually creating something new, it's when, when things come together, Mary Louise Pratt talks about the contact zones. And I love that notion to that it's actually in conflict and difference that we create. And so I'm really committed to that. My work is all about supporting young people in navigating the many different domains of their lives. I think we take for granted that, you know, as as children enter, what we call adolescence, that they're they just, you know, continue developing, and they've got some hormones going. And, you know, we put everything that they're going through down to these, quote, raging hormones. Certainly there's, you know, there's physical work being done in adolescent bodies. But there's also navigating work being done. And I don't think we pay enough attention to that. And my research assumes that young people are really powerful agents, who are often ignored or dismissed and even vilified in our society. And the way we talk about adolescent is heartbreaking. To me, it's literally makes me cry, when I think about how we position young people as surly and mean and defensive. And you know, I have a 23 year old daughter, so I've been through adolescence with her. And, you know, certainly some of those things are, are visible behaviors. But if we think about the navigating work that they're doing, and the work of becoming more and more independent, we should all really check ourselves as we think about how we talk about young people. My research is all about learning from these amazing young people. So we can teach them the literacies of the disciplines more effectively. And sometimes people think it's strange that my research is really about following kids around in all of the domains of their lives. What does that have to do with disciplinary literacy? And what does that mean for learning literacy in science, or in history or mathematics, but it's for me all about navigating and navigating all of these domains or cultures. So that's another thing I'd like teachers to know is that I think disciplines are cultures, they're their cultures, just like any other culture, there are certain ways with words, certain words, first of all, and then ways with words that people use, and they're highly specialized in the disciplines. And that's all part of keeping people out of disciplines. So, you know, like my, the good side, right? The well intentioned side of this is it's a, it's a shorthand and a way that people can work together inside the disciplinary discourse, community, but it's also a way of excluding people. So it's a form of power. And that's how then disciplinary literacy work is all about justice and equity. Because if you first engage young people in the practices of the discipline, and then help them learn the language of the discipline, both oral and written, but then also engaged in them in, you know, critiquing that language, then they have more power, and they have the power to gain access to those spaces, but also to transform those spaces. And for me, that's what disciplinary literacy is all about. It's about access and transformation. It's about reaching the third, the third space where you don't just become proficient in the discipline. But you also don't just try to dismantle it and say it's all bad. You actually try to use the language and the power of the discipline to build something new. Again, where newness enters the world.

Lindsay Persohn:

These ideas are, are so interconnected the way that you explain them the idea of why disciplinary literacy is an important set of understandings for young people to develop to give them that access to different fields. But also it speaks right back to the idea of justice and equity for for everyone to be able to have this sort of keys to those different ways of thinking or different ways of knowing the world or, or understanding very specialized kind of aspects of the world as well. And I certainly don't want to want this to read as though I was dismissive of your work around racial equity, when I brought up an example of being in a dressing room, and trying on pants when the pants are the problem. But I think that that this idea of bringing literacies sort of full circle, and really helping everyone to reach a point where, what they read, what they write what they listen to what they say in the world, is meaningful and accessible, and, and does help to lift everyone up and give them those experiences that help to create the difference that makes for the newness in the world. And I guess I think that that's just so full circle to think of it in that way. And quite honestly, I've never thought of it in quite that way. So I really appreciate that, that way of putting those ideas together.

Elizabeth Moje:

Well, thanks. And I just want to say Lindsay, that I would never think a good metaphor is dismissive, I loved the pants metaphor, I think it's brilliant. And actually think about what it calls up, it calls up ways that in particular, women are positioned in terms of their bodies, and that we internalize that positioning, and we blame ourselves instead of the pants. So I'm totally going to use that in the future. And I will, I will cite you.

Lindsay Persohn:

Great, thank you. Thank, you know, it's, it's certainly the thing that first came to my mind when you were talking about, you know, taking the the blame off of the individual, because really, it's got nothing to do with us. You know, and and putting it where it actually lies. And like you said, whether it's in the content of a course and saying, Hey, we need to re envision this, because this just isn't engaging for most folks. But you know, thinking about the kind of agency that we as educators can find, whenever we have those sorts of realizations, I think it can change, not only a teacher's world, starting today, starting tomorrow, but certainly for all the students in that class, when it's no longer the fault of the student, for not being interested, but instead the fault of the material for for not inherently sort of bringing some kind of stimulating thoughts or conversation to the group of people. So

Elizabeth Moje:

Yeah, absolutely. And also the purpose for which the material is being read. I mean, the material, you know, sometimes we have to read stuff, that's hard. I do read the Federalist Papers, you know, they're hard. But it's, it's why am I reading these, these materials. So it's always about that relationship between or among the activity, the text, and then the reader and write it all situated in context, which is very familiar model of comprehension. And it drives everything that I do as a teacher that I've seen it lived out, I've seen how if I, if I just change up an activity, the same text that was just as boring as all get out, suddenly has meaning, and it might still be really hard to read. But now, the the readers the learners will persevere through it. But before they didn't see the point.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah. And that motivation for learning is such a key piece in what we do in classrooms. And I know that that that's for me as a teacher, it's it's motivating, whenever I understand why the big Why, why are we doing this? And thinking about that, and framing that for students to or for our learners, I think is essential as well. And in a really meaningful kind of way, a rich and meaningful way. I don't just mean putting a statement on the board that we may be referred to once or you know, I talk about those kinds of things with my own students as wallpaper, you know, you can make the most beautiful anchor chart in the world. But if you don't use it, if students weren't involved in creating it, you've got wallpaper.

Elizabeth Moje:

That's right. That's right. That's why I'm you know, the work that we're doing in Detroit with the school that we're building is all about project and place based learning. And you know, working with brilliant teachers there who are doing things like when when we got shut down in the pandemic, our engineering and design thinking teacher engage the kids in thinking about and designing solutions for maintaining physical activity while learning online. So they were really, you know, situated very much in the learning was meaningful and real to them. And real work, they were actually designing those solutions. So, you know, it's that kind of work that then motivates using literacy using mathematics using science using history. And, and then you want to learn it,

Lindsay Persohn:

Right. And those, those real connections do change everything. I want to just sort of loop back to this idea of justice and equity and thinking about, you know, I often like to give teachers something that they can start thinking with or start doing today. So I'm wondering if you might be able to offer, whether it is questions for thinking or actionable steps for any teacher who, you know, doesn't quite know what to do with these big ideas around race, and particularly equity and justice in their own classroom? Where do we begin with something like that with it with a topic? That is? It's difficult, I think, and it's, you know, it's hard for all of us to talk about, but it's a really necessary conversation. And I think that it does require some reflection on everyone's part. So where, where do we begin there?

Elizabeth Moje:

Such a great question. And of course, you know, part of me wants to say it depends, it depends on, you know, who the learner is who the teacher is, because, you know, you shouldn't try to reach for something you're not ready yet to, to get to, because it might, it might backfire. Right, you might actually produce something harmful. But I think there are a couple ways I could I could go with an answer here. One would be, it sounds a little self promoting, but just to suggest thinking about my own framework that I use for disciplinary literacy, which I developed actually, out of, you know, a need to try to put some organization to the way we think about teaching disciplinary literacy. And it's, I call it the Four E's framework. It's an act, the practices, engineer students capacity to engage in those practices, examine words and ways with words, and then evaluate words and waste with words in the discipline. So as you're engaging in, let's say, a science experiment, you've got to get kids, you know, studying a real problem or question. And then engineer or scaffold their ability to take that real problem or question on, it's got to be done in an age appropriate way. But then where the, the really critical work comes in is actually thinking about, well, why do we, why do we write about it this way? Why do we communicate it this way? Who said who developed this? How did it get developed as a lexicon? Or, you know, a tool that we use in in this field? Let's say it's chemistry, and we're talking, you know, about the elements? And we're looking at the periodic table? and and you know, who developed that? And is that the only way we could organize the elements? Well, it turns out, there are many ways that the elements could have been organized. And that starts to deconstruct the hold that the discipline has over knowledge. Now, someone might say, well, how is that anti racist? Well, first of all, you know, the disciplines as currently conceived in our our nation, schools, at least are pretty white, pretty male, pretty mainstream, right? So that's one way that we're starting to disrupt because we're saying, Well, wait a second, what if? What if someone else had come up with this tried to organize this? What might have shaped the way they organize? What kinds of knowing ways of knowing what cultural practices and that allows you to start looking at other cultures, whether those are indigenous cultures, whether those are cultures outside the United States, to think about, who said that this is the way that Yeah, chemistry works, or that the elements should be organized or whatever it is that you're studying. And of course, it at the same time, it does give some respect to those to those organizations and allows our students to see like, Oh, you know, there's some use to this. It is allowing us to develop kind of new inventions, new ways of doing things, but we should Also ask, whose interests are served by this? And what are the unintended consequences of these inventions, these discoveries? We should interrogate what the word discovery means. And and, you know, did someone else no, this before, the people who popularized it and named it and or it was named after, you know, discover this. So it I think when when you start to open teaching and learning to this, the asking questions, right. And to that I use this language of examining and evaluating. I think that's when you start to then open the space to thinking about how, you know, race is manifested in so much of what we do and how white ness and white privilege dominate our our discoveries and our knowledge and our language and the ways we use words, what counts is good grammar versus, quote, bad grammar. I had to say, quote, because it's a podcast, and no one could see my fingers moving there, except you, Lindsay. And so I think, you know, those are those are some of the steps that I would take that I think always engaging students in questioning, encouraging. I mean, if that's even just the first move, encouraging, questioning, encouraging the kids to ask why. One of the things that we've found in in the work we've done in schools is that that students aren't asking why. But four and five year olds ask why all the time. And I always say foreign five year olds are like members of disciplines. They're wanting to know the answers to things, and they're questioning, and somehow school pushes that questioning down and and relegates questioning to only to the teacher as the authority. So I think, you know, engaging students in that questioning activity, could be a first step. And then, you know, if people want to use my heuristic, that's great, it helps me, it helps me figure out how to organize instruction. So that I'm always thinking about those four dimensions.

Lindsay Persohn:

And thank you for that very concrete kind of way of thinking about how we can can tackle a really complex and important issue, as we were talking about before the show, it's it's a very public issue now. But it's been a it's been an issue for a long, long time. And it's about time that it becomes public. And we get a lot more people thinking about how we can include others in the conversation. And I love this idea of interrogating, you know, where does this knowledge come from? Why do we think we know these things, you know, Says who? I think that that is a really engaging way to think about learning in schools? And what a gift to give students, or maybe it's the gift we don't have to take from them as they go through school to encourage them to keep up that questioning, because you're absolutely right, young kids ask questions all the time. And we know that by the time they've spent several years in school, that drive to know why how, you know, how does the world work? Why did things do you know, why does it work like this? That is largely gone at some point. Um, so yeah, that's, that's a pretty important step, I think is to kind of give that back to students to give them a little bit more autonomy in their learning, and engage them in concepts that they want to know about. So thank you for that. And one more question, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Elizabeth Moje:

Well, I want teachers to understand that they're in the most important profession, because, of course, it is the profession that touches every other profession. It's critical that they recognize their value in society. Teachers are essential to our society, to all societies in every way. And some societies do a better job of recognizing and rewarding teachers than us society. And I think in this moment, it's really hard for teachers to feel valued. So I would say society can't function without you, all of you, doing your very best work every day. Everything you do matters, every single thing you're needed. You're valued. You're respected, and you are professionals. And I think that is a message that is not getting out there enough. And we're seeing a chipping away at the professionalization of the profession, I'm very, very worried about this. That's why we built our teaching school, because we're going the other direction, and we're going to try to do more training, not less training, we're going because people need training, everybody needs training to be a, you know, real professional. So I think there's just enormous work to be done to really show teachers, we value them. But I value teachers, I learn every day from amazing teachers in my life, and I want them to know they are valued. And please, please don't leave the profession.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's a very important message. We know this last year has been particularly hard, but it's never an easy job. So yeah, keeping keeping that light keeping that that flame keeping that spark for learning and teaching, I think is so important. So thank you for for that message. I couldn't agree more. Teachers are really our most valuable asset in society. I think without teachers, where would we be? I know I personally wouldn't wouldn't be sitting right here today. So well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for your work in education.

Elizabeth Moje:

Thank you, Lindsay. It's great. It's great to talk with you and to know that people care about the work and, and and about children and youth and teachers. So thank you for doing what you do.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you so much. Dr. Elizabeth Moje is known for her work in the areas of disciplinary literacy, adolescent literacy, racial justice and teacher education. Elizabeth has published five books and numerous articles and journals such as science, Harvard educational review, Teachers College record, reading research Quarterly Journal of literacy research, review of education research, Journal of Research in science teaching science education, International Journal of science education, Journal of adolescent and adult literacy in the International Journal of qualitative studies of education. Her research projects have been or are currently funded by the National Institutes of Health, John S and James L. Knight Foundation, National Science Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation, international reading Association and the National Academy of education. Dr. Moje formerly chaired the William T grant foundation scholar selection committee and is a member of the National Academy of education. Elizabeth formerly served as the AERA vice president and as the chair of the NAEDs Professional Development Committee, and she was inducted into the reading Hall of Fame in 2017. Dr. Moje teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in secondary and adolescent literacy, cultural theory and research methods and was awarded the Provost teaching innovation prize with colleague Bob Bain in 2010. A former high school history and biology teacher, Moje's research examines young people's navigations of culture, identity and literacy learning in and out of school in Detroit, Michigan. Dr. Moje is Dean and George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education, and an Arthur F. Thurnau, professor of literacy, language and culture in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. listeners are invited to respond to our guests. Learn more about our guests research, and suggest a topic for an upcoming episode through this podcast website at classroom caffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please subscribe to this podcast. I raised my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me