Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Kevin Leander

September 28, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 10
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Kevin Leander
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Kevin Leander talks to us about responsiveness, presence, relationships, and energy in education. He is known for his work in the areas of digital literacies, literacies in social and geographic spaces, and embodied literacies. Dr. Leander is a Professor at Vanderbilt University. 

Lindsay Persohn:

Education Research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Leander talks to us about responsiveness, presence, relationships, and energy and education. He is known for his work in the areas of digital literacies literacies, and social and geographic spaces and embodied literacies. Dr. Leander is a professor at Vanderbilt University. 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. Kevin, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Kevin Leander:

Thank you, Lindsay. It's great to be here with you, virtually and to be part of your show.

Lindsay Persohn:

So I have 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?

Kevin Leander:

Yes, I'd be happy to I um I'm going to cheat a little bit on the question, though. But I think it the way that I'm going to cheat will help sort of introduce kind of how I think or what's what's influenced me that my cheating is that I'm going to talk about two moments that are sort of really outside of education proper. And the first one is, is maybe more of a face than a moment. And that is my first degree when I was an undergraduate, many moons ago, was in French. And so my understanding of language and literacy, but especially language has really been shaped by being in another country and learning another language. And that's something that just that I returned to all the time, which is why I'm sharing it. Now I'm not a person, as a teacher who specializes in what you would say English language learning. But I think about...I think about the relationships between taking up language and taking up writing, taking up literacy, and culture and issues of power and issues of understanding just what's going on in the world, in relationship to each other. So that was really powerful for me. The second one is a little bit more of a moment, but also outside of school. And it's more directly linked to some of what I wanted to talk about today. regarding some efforts that we're making, with transforming teaching. About a decade ago ago or so, my wife, Ana de Silva invited me for the first time to go to a, an improv show. And actually, we were at, I think we were at a conference in San Diego. In any case, we went to this improv show, and I didn't know what I would think. And I didn't really even have a frame to hang it on 10 or 12 years ago. And the thing one of the impressions that I left that show with it stayed with me for such a long time, even till today was how could it be that people in improv with seems so smart and so joyful? In with it? Like how is it possible that people can be engaged in a kind of activity, where they seem so incredibly smart and joyful and creative? Like, what's that? Like? I want some of that, I don't even know if at the time I was thinking of how can we translate that for education, but that's been on my mind. You know, since then, at that time, I think it was just like, what's that all about? Like, what is that form of life all about? And how can life seem so energetic and so lively and so full of joy? In some things that we do, and kind of emptied out of those things and other and other things that we do? Is that necessary? Is that just how life is like you can't be happy all the time. You have to have like a certain percentage of drudgery and happiness, and how is it related to learning? So that's something that I've thought a lot about and so yeah, those are I guess those are my two opening moments that frame something about how I think,

Lindsay Persohn:

Thinking about improv comedy and I actually have a cousin who did long form improv in Chicago and which was something I wasn't familiar with until I went to one of his shows. But it is smart. And it is joyful, and it is playful. And and as you're saying that I'm, you know, I'm thinking about how much of the improvisation the joy and and that quick witted kind of intelligence has been lost in education over the last couple of decades. So I think this idea of really recovering that or understanding what that can mean in education, it gives us a lot to think about and and that's exciting to me to think about how improv relates to education. So thanks for sharing that. That's a that's an exciting idea, I think that we can play with.

Kevin Leander:

Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I agree. And, and long form has some very, some different kinds of possibilities than short form does. And I think, especially for literacy, because, you know, fundamentally, we're storytellers and story listeners. And so long form is about story building. And I think a lot of times also that improv improv is like, good. improv is often very funny. But improv, at its heart is and this is what they'll train you when you're taking training improvisation classes is not about the with the intent to be funny. It's the intent to be responsive. And that I think, is the piece that we can really glean from an education. Because at the end of the day, and one of the things we're really trying, we're trying to do many things, right. And I don't want to be one of those people who says it's all summed up in this thing, we're always trying to do many things, but one of the important things we're trying to do is to be responsibly alive with the, with the students that we're with, and how do we respond in the moment, and so kind of taking off a little bit on the improv thing, one of the ideas that we're working on, is this idea that as teachers and in for those of us who are in teacher education, we spend a lot of time and energy in sort of the idea of planning. And you might even say designing, but really the planful moment of is so much of what Teacher Education ends up being is about, you know, working from small segments of planning to longer segments. And it's like this time management piece. And of course, all of that's incredibly important. If you can't manage time, and you can't plan, you know, your classrooms will probably be a disaster, all of that's really important. But sort of Yes, ANDing that and saying, and also, if you're only planful, and only thinking outside of the moment that you're in, you won't seem to be present with the students that you're with, they won't experience that presence. And so I think that it's something that I want to see more in my own teaching practice, but seems to me that when we look back on our teaching, and we we think about what seemed most powerful, as a teacher, you know, we we really throw ourselves into the planning, and we get some joy in the plan. And then from the actual classroom activity, we're like, ah, actually, the plan was more. And so how do we come into a kind of presence in those moments? So that something that if there was something that was unanticipated, that could happen? That would be powerful? How do we be? How can we be ready for that? And how can we have a sort of repertoire of practices at our fingertips, so that that's not just a departure, but that, in fact, is part of our practice? I mean, of course, it may be a departure. But that is not, it's not like this is just a once in a while thing that most of the time we do exactly what we're planning to do. But that this is actually part of our repertoire of practices of moving with others as they're responsive to whatever's in front of us. And I want I want to really be clear, because I know the audience that we have is, is his audience of teachers. I want to really be clear that I'm, I'm not I don't have the answers to this. And I'm offering this up as a gift wrapped box, but that this is an investigation that I'm doing about my own practice. And that I want to you know, I'm thinking about together because I think it's there's some capacity to transform something to bring some more life into it.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah, Kevin, this idea of responsiveness and being present really resonates with me because as you're describing this idea, I'm thinking back to my moments in the classroom and some of the most memory most fun moments certainly were not planned on paper. They were those authentic in the moment interactions between my students and me. And they're the moments that's that stick. They're the ones that do bring that sense of joy. And also, I think those are the moments that can often help kids to feel really smart. Right? Because they're, they're also kind of in concert with you as you're talking. And when they're involved, and they're engaged. I just think there's so many magical things that can happen at that time. But like you said, yes, you plan. But those are often the things that really aren't in the plans. But that also makes me wonder about how this works for teachers who are just getting started. You know, if you are a new teacher, how do you? Do you have any ideas about how you prepare for that kind of presence, that responsiveness that being in the moment?

Kevin Leander:

I think, I think that's such a great question. Because here's the thing that sometimes what we do is we say, in teacher education, we say, learn everything in advance, that is generalized, learn everything, as if as if it's a skill set of techniques, and later on, you will personalize it, or later on, you'll find the joy or you're fine. And I think there's a lot of that is all wrong, I think we need to make, we need to restore to teaching the personalization of it early on. Every teacher brings for the most part, herself, or himself themselves to the classrooms. That's what they bring. That's what they're teaching the first thing they're teaching, and to be able to give people permission to say, you know, showing up as yourself and the teaching is fundamentally relational. It's about a relationship. And where it comes through the relationship, not the other way. And I mean, that, of course, they're entangled, but though it's fundamentally relationship based. And so the personalization of it, I think, is really significant. The the how do we question? So what we're trying right now is, we started a new class, we've done this class for two years, it's one of some different efforts that we're doing. And in this class, what we've done for new teachers, and we've had some experienced teachers and a two who are coming back to get master's degrees or whatever is where we've developed a course called teaching and improvisation. And what we've done in this course, is we've built in an introductory 10, week, improv level one workshop for learning long form improv and, and it's built in, it's wrapped inside the class, which is a class around teaching and sort of responsiveness and teaching, and teaching as a relational, creative enterprise. We do readings in the seminar part of it and reflect on what we're doing. And we do improvisational work together. And then what we do is we bring in teaching artists who have more experience in the improv side who work with the students on the improv piece, teaching an addition to the sort of responsivity that these, this kind of responsivity is actually built into our bodies. It's just not a mindset, it's actually an embodied activity. I remember hearing somebody talk about this was, like, from a science studies perspective, but they said, you know, if you if you set up an office with a desk, and this is an old example, so it involved a calculator, but a desk and an adding machine or whatever, and, and, and a desk chair and these things, all that stuff, tells a person what to do. All that person, all that stuff is informative about what the action is, in fact, in some ways, it's sort of, you could say it almost structures, it doesn't determine it, but it has some kind of structuring hold on it, right. And so we can say the same thing about our classroom once whether or not you can move your chairs or not, you know, once you have a certain set of things in place, it sort of informs everybody in the room about what to do, right, and what to do also with their bodies. And so part of this responsibility, and part of this idea of bringing energy and vitality to the classroom has to do with what posture do we give our bodies or what permission do we allow our bodies both are individually sort of, you know, bodies but also the corporate body of the classroom, how we exist physically together. This idea, for instance, to make that more concrete. This idea of listening in improv is so critical and oftentimes You know, that's also called attunement. Or there's other terms for this, but this sense that I'm paying attention to where you're at, not to get caught not like, you know, sometimes in classrooms, what we do is we set up circumstances where people are just waiting for somebody else to be quiet so they can have a turn to talk. improv is not like improv Is that what you say right now, is vital for my response. And not only what you say, but how you're feeling about it, and what your posture is toward it. So my learning is to really attend to where you're at. And then my gift is to set you up, or somebody else up in the group for a response. That's powerful. So I see myself as somebody who's, who's attending, and who's making an offer, because the game is at the end of this thing, what I want to have happen is to have a powerful group experience like, you know, make everyone else look. I think that's just kind of hilarious in a way. I mean, in terms of I mean, it's, like, positively hilarious in the sense that sometimes it's actually sort of the opposite energy sometimes of classrooms, which is, you know, how do we break? Or how do we disrupt this radical individualism that we have in schooling. And so I think that's part of what's on offer. I'm sorry, that was a very long rant. But I got excited.

Lindsay Persohn:

I think that that's too, I got excited too, as you were talking and thinking about how we this idea of attending to what's going on, and then offering offering back and response, this opportunity for someone else to sort of have this powerful moment or to create this powerful moment. And it makes me think about the energy and momentum in a classroom. Right. And, you know, I think that so many times I've seen in classrooms, even if the day starts out on a positive note, by the end of the day, kids are tired, teachers tired, and you know, the, the, the energy has spiraled downward throughout the day. But the image I got, as you're describing sort of this, taking this idea of improv and what that means and those techniques of improv and putting that into a classroom, I can imagine leaving feeling excited for the next day energized, ready for the next thing. And they get how transformative that would be of the school experience if we were able to participate in those things ourselves, as you know, as the adults of the room as the teachers, but also to give that opportunity to students so that they want to come back to school the next day, you know, it's just a, it really flips kind of what happens in a lot of schools on its head. And it puts us in such a much more productive and positive way to think about the schooling experience.

Kevin Leander:

Sometimes, yes, and sometimes I think what we think about when we say energy in school, I'm thinking about this, as a former middle school and high school teacher, sometimes what we think about is, like, energy is trouble. You know, it's like, ah, or we link it to hormones are something right. And this is like, ah, and I get that I mean, all that, you know, I'm not denying that reality that it's, but the idea that there is some love how you're sort of using energy there, and this idea that there is energy and that, and that and energy waxes and wanes and that energy has not been is not something that's been captured very well, in research literature. You know, I know, this is research to practice. But every teacher knows as it exists, every teacher knows that you can have the same plan for two different classrooms that have a very different energy and you and you can't quite put your finger on and maybe you can't collect data on it very easily. But you know, it exists and everybody in the group knows it exists. So how do we how do we think about energy as a resource? How do we raise energy or have energy modulation so that there's variation? So that because people love variety, and and how are responsive to the energy of, you know, good teachers do this all the time, they often do it very intuitively. And so, I guess I would also want to say, you know, to be clear, that I'm not saying that good teachers have never thought about the things that improvisers do because they think they do they do it intuitively. So a lot of I think a lot of what I'm saying is making some of that more explicit and more available as part of what good teaching is, is the improvisational movement and responsivity.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yes, and, you know, making that connection to improv also gives us a set of established structures to work with whenever we're thinking about, you know, how do we harness this positivity Energy? How do we generate new positive energy with our students and for ourselves? And I'm really intrigued about this idea of thinking about how we use the skills of improvisation. And again, that transfer of energy between people. So I think had I never seen improv on stage, I might not totally get what you're talking about. But you know, quite honestly, I've seen some great improv and I've seen some that isn't so great. And I think that it is that that setup and the way that that folks take over for each other, and that that transfer of ideas and and you said that opportunity, that powerful opportunity, when you see that on stage, you recognize it, but as you said, I think that's one reason why it is something that's under studied in education, because it's very hard to describe, it is an embodied kind of, of literacy. Really, it's an embodied kind of energy, that, you know, when you put it on paper, something happens there. And it just, it goes a little flat, but to experience it is one thing, and yes, to write about it, to capture it. And also, I think when we think about, you know, the way we work with research, you know, how do you show the the validity and the reliability of something like how we describe the energy in a room, I think it is just a really complex and tricky thing to talk about in order to really retain how magical it actually is, if that makes sense.

Kevin Leander:

Yeah, I also think that we're at a moment right now, kind of extending that just a little bit wrote a moment right now, where, you know, schooling, has had online schooling in particular, has been pretty traumatic for a lot of people, both teachers and students. And teachers have worked incredibly hard. Students have worked hard people collectively have fought through depression, kids have, you know, rolled up on beds with their, their phones, you know, and trying to connect in some way and wanting to disconnect all of that. And I think we're at a moment where we're going to be healing from that for a bit. I really believe that both personally and collectively. But I also think that we can use this experience that we've been through of being, you know, digitally separate, mostly disembodied, just sets of talking heads, and say, What did we miss? What did we lose? And what was that? And how can we understand that this idea of being together, of having energy transfer between us of having joy of just being physically present, is one of our most precious resources that we have an education to feel ourselves being part of something? And not to say that, you know, online education does have its place? Because I definitely think it has its place, but how do we, how do we, I think I'm thinking about this question, like how to, is this also a good moment to to reestablish the value and the beauty and the possibilities of being together in classrooms? And not to make the return, simply reproduction, but to say, All right, let's not take this for granted anymore? What does this look like this togetherness? And how do we make this togetherness more powerful?

Lindsay Persohn:

You know, I teach classes online, and I will likely teach classes online in the future and thinking about what have we learned from this sort of emergency state of online learning and what's what are the best parts of being face to face, and that improvisation and responsiveness that we can maybe bring to a kind of online learning that maybe does have a bit more forethought and joy infused in it? So I think there's there's so much to learn in multiple educational contexts here about how how we respond to each other and how we set each other up for those powerful opportunities and powerful moments to have that connection, whether we are there in person or or whether we are still, you know, these these talking digital heads through an online setting.

Kevin Leander:

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Kevin, is there anything else you'd like listeners to know about your work?

Kevin Leander:

So I've been my my research and work has as address some different areas in education. I've done research on thinking about geography and literacy. I've done research on digital literacies. And I can research on afic theory and embodiment and I've talked more around that with with this work. Regarding you know, improvisation is one mode of being with ethic theory and embodiment. So I think I think what I would want to say that would be more of a top level kind of concern is that I have a deep commitment to to school and to thinking About the transformation of school, school has been very important to me personally, and has offered me a lot of opportunity. Education has been powerful for me. And I have a deep commitment to school until into thinking about learning in school and its connection to learning outside of school. And my work has really attempted to think about how to make school more humane or to humanize education and to connect across these dimensions of human ness. And and so I think what I want to say is that, with respect to education, I think my struggle has been, I think it's a shared struggle with lots of some other educators is how to how to keep the humanity at the forefront, and to think about how it is that we think and enter into relationships to learn, in ways that allow for really multiple ways of thinking and multiple modes of expression, that aren't single sided. So I think oftentimes, education kind of wants to close us down, whether it's schools, as institutions, or even higher education or teacher education closes down to think about, here's the new one thing you should pay attention to. And I and I do think that these sometimes these new emphases are important, but I what I think is that, that the invitation really is to, to think about, to continue to think about education as a kind of way of playing chess on, you know, three boards that are stacked on top of each other with multiple pieces in different and multiple dimensions. And so, education is ethical, it is relational. It's got a spiritual dimension to it. It is rational, and intensely creative. And if we take any single piece of this, and we say no, it's only that education is only critical thinking, I think we we can really miss something even so not no single piece drives all of it. And that's why I think for me, that stitched a little bit to this idea of why we need both in ongoing teacher education, but also in pre service, Teacher Education, this idea that people are bringing themselves and their gifts and their orientations into the school and into the classroom. Because without that diversity of gifts, diversity of backgrounds, and that what you have is nobody wants a set of sort of mechanistic teaching machines that think that they're, they're all doing the same thing. That's not a world that we want. And so both across our individual gifts, but also in each one of us, you know, keep thinking like, maybe it's a yes and mode of thought, I don't know, going back to improv, I keep thinking that, you know, yeah, this is this, what we're trying to do together operates on multiple levels. And if you're trying to make education more humane, which I think we're all trying to do, you have to bring to that then a view of humanity that is rich, and complex and multifaceted. People sometimes say, well, education can do to everything. I think we should, you know, die trying, I think we should say, you know, if we're going to make it more humane, that the everything of being human is, is what we're encountering in the classroom. And that use if you, you know, just, you just make it about one thing, I think we've taken away our own our own gifts of what we actually are doing relationally,

Lindsay Persohn:

At least in my mind, and in my experience, I think that's the sort of stripping those humanizing elements from the world of teaching, I think is one reason why teachers do feel so burned out all the time, you know, they kind of have to check themselves at the door. And so often, I think we also ask kids to do that. And that certainly sends a really harmful message, right that that you know, you can't be who you are here, you need to do this thing that someone you've never met in a you know, faraway place who's maybe never even set foot in a classroom and a teaching capacity has said you need to do you know that there, you lose that relational element, you lose that ability to be responsive, and that certainly in everything we do as humans and so when we take that out of education, it does feel very inauthentic and taxing right overly taxing to have to leave your your the human side of you outside, you know that i think that's just a that's too hard. That's too much to ask of any person and we shouldn't be asking it in First place.

Kevin Leander:

Yeah, I think that's right. One of the things I really like about what you just said is, as we're, like I've said sort of "post COVID"... putting that in, in quotes, because I really hope we are like, who knows, you know where this is going to go. But in this next phase, really thinking about how do we sustain teachers? Like, and how not just kids in classrooms, but what was it that would bring? Because good tea, we really want good teachers to stay in teaching, like when I saw some of your earlier questions, and you said, like, what I think one of your questions was like, What do you want to say to teachers or something like that? I was like, Well, how about thank you? Like, just thank you? Because you're doing the most important work? Like, yeah, I think that's, that's what I want to say. Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah. I think our conversation led very nicely into that third question, that what message do you want teachers to hear, and perhaps teachers don't get quite enough? Thanks. In fact, I think quite certainly they don't get enough thanks for the job they do. And and really understanding the importance of what teaching is and how it not only does it shape individual lives, but it shapes our society, it shapes our culture for the future. And that's not something to be taken lightly. Although I don't want teachers to feel they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, but it is an important job. And yes, I certainly think it's one of the most important jobs out there, because without teachers, there are no other professions, there are no other career paths without an education.

Kevin Leander:

Right. Right. And, and I think, I guess, if I added one thing, the version of education that we have at any given time, is not how it's always been an education goes through different trends and goes ups and downs. And in many ways, the sort of institutional statewide and federal version that we have, is just bullshit. And so teachers, good teachers know that. And that kind of knowledge is not knowledge, that means that you should necessarily run away I mean, maybe that's what you need to do. But if having you having teachers present, caring teachers, relational teachers, teachers, who are bringing themselves into that work into in thinking about how to be adults that, you know, are committed to young people to children, that recognize that institutions can get in the way of development, and they're going to, you know, stand in that gap and be something else, I think, is really powerful. I think good. I mean, it's almost cliche to say that good teaching is always included a pretty high dose of sort of resistance, I think that probably now more than ever, and, and that, I think I just want to say that the hope of something different coming from that resistance and difference coming in the future has a lot of evidentiary support, historically, because education has always been moving, has always been changing. And sometimes people in the field, whether they're administrators, or teachers, or states, act as if, you know, there's some kind of direct line back in history, that means that this is the way it should be done. But we've always had serious questions about how education should be done. There's always going to be movement for transformation and change. And without the without teachers and administrators and people doing work, you know, and academic works. And without people with transformative mindsets, it certainly won't change. But I'm very optimistic in those ways. And I, although I know, it's really hard, you know, to have a heart and mind for kids. And it's really hard to be really smart as a teacher, and to have a system to say that they don't value your smartness. And I guess what I want to say from sort of my teacher, heart and academic heart is I see your smartness and I value it and keep using every ounce of it inside the classroom and outside the classroom as you advocate for kids, because without smart teachers, sensitive teachers and resistant teachers, we're kind of sunk. We might as well just hand over something to a publishing company and a software company and say we give up

Lindsay Persohn:

Right install robots. That's all we did that, you know, but for a while it did feel like that was the solution is that you know, robots were being installed in classrooms and I could not agree more with what you're saying about you know, the smart teachers. The resistant teachers, the ones who think the ones who know their students. And, and can, I will say can and will step up to resist the pressure to do something they know isn't right for kids. And and I think, you know, acknowledging that there are some teachers who really aren't in that position. You know, that is that is difficult, you know to be that is the ultimate difficult place to be. But whenever you you can stand up and you can say, here's what I know. And here's what I believe to be true. And therefore, here is how I will respond and react to those situations. That's such an important message. And I thank you so much for sharing that today, Kevin. So I really want to thank you for your time. I've so enjoyed talking with you. And you've given me personally a whole lot to think about, and I hope that listeners will feel the same way I think they will. So thanks again for your time. And thank you for your contributions to education.

Kevin Leander:

Thanks for inviting me to do this.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Kevin Leander is known for his work in the areas of digital literacies literacies and social and geographic spaces and embodied literacies. Dr. Leander has authored or co authored more than 75 books, articles and chapters, and his work has appeared in reading research Quarterly Journal of literacy research, computers and education, culture and psychology. Journal of curriculum studies research in the teaching of English, British Journal of educational technology and Journal of adolescent and adult literacy. Notably, he is the co-editor of an effect in literacy, learning and teaching pedagogy, his politics and coming to know media and migration, learning in a globalized world, and spatializing literacy research and practice. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and by the Peabody college at Vanderbilt University. Kevin is a former American Educational Research Association and Spencer foundation doctoral fellow and a former member of the National Conference on research in language and literacy. He has won multiple awards for his outstanding service and research excellence at his home institution. Dr. Leander is a professor at Vanderbilt University. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. listeners are invited to respond to an episode, learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at classroom caffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raised my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me