Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Alexandra Panos

August 03, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 6
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Alexandra Panos
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Alexandra Panos talks to us about teaching critical literacies through complex topics that are critical to our own communities, focusing on climate literacies and other issues of social justice. Alex is known for her work in the areas of spatial literacies, climate justice literacies, and critical qualitative research methodologies. Dr. Panos is currently an Assistant Professor of Literacy Studies and an affiliate faculty member of Measurement and Research at the University of South Florida.

To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2021, Aug 3). A conversation with Alexandra Panos. (Season 2, No. 6) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/BD92-ECB7-7CCF-D4D7-7CDA-V

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. Alexandra Panos talks to us about teaching critical literacies through complex topics that are critical in our own communities, focusing on climate literacies and other issues of social justice. Alex is known for her work in the areas of spatial literacies, climate justice, literacies and critical qualitative research methodologies. Dr. Panos is currently an Assistant Professor of Literacy Studies and an Affiliate Faculty member of Measurement and Research at the University of South Florida. For more information about our guest, 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. Alex, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Alex Panos:

Thank you for having me. I'm honored to be here.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you. So Alex, from your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Alex Panos:

Yeah, so first of all, I really love this question, because so many formative moments build over our lives and contribute to our research and our teaching in so many ways that are often never named. So reflecting on this question was really meaningful to me. But there are two people that really led to the moments I'm thinking of. The first person that I want to talk about her name is, her pseudonym is Hope. And she chose that herself. And I think it's the perfect name for a kindergarten teacher I worked with in the rural rustbelt Midwest for many, many years. And my work with Hope really led me to think a lot about how important it is to confront, and I use that word intentionally, the holistic role that schools play in the fabric of our social connections, and critical citizenship that we need today and just care for one another at at this time. And this was pre pandemic, but I think post pandemic Hope would agree with that. So the moment that I'm thinking of is Hope herself, is a longtime teacher, and has done a ton of community work and had done a ton of community work by the time I started working with her and thinking with her. And she talked about the experience of this community that she worked in, how it had experienced a rapid economic disturbance when the local plant closed, and she talked about how she went from, you know, doing the kinds of community work, she did work, you know, like working with folks at soup kitchens, or working with folks in community gardens, and how the people that came and needed support from the community had changed really rapidly in their community. And that that was like very shocking to her. She couldn't she couldn't really wrap her mind around the folks that had just been people with very stable incomes, jobs working on a line at an auto plant, now were needing services and supports from the community that they never had before. And that even beyond that when breakfast programs and things like that we're trying we're working to be implemented in a local school system, so many folks that she worked with at the schools were really resistant. They also were shocked by the sudden change and need for the school to be doing things differently. And she took it upon herself and the moment that I want to think about is a meeting she hosted for all kinds of folks from the community at the school, where they talked about what everyone needed to understand and what really the kind of literacies they needed to be able to position the school locally as a service station, as a connective tissue as, as somewhere where children and families move and out of and so an important place. And she talked about it that way she talks about the school as a hub and the school as something special. And that we, as educators needed to retrace what our work needed to be and she gave an example of a child who was getting food at home with her and wasn't eating it, and that so many folks at the school were so frustrated, like, Why? Why aren't you doing this? And Hope traced the food that went home to and from and talked to the little girl and her family really, with care and love and, and figured out that she didn't have a can opener at home. And that was a very simple reason why food wasn't coming to and from and so Hope shared this with this big group of folks and was like, these are the literacies we need. This is what we need to be doing. And it's just like one example of an educator working within a system that was very conservative and neoconservative by Patrick Shannon's Reading Poverty, if folks out there have read that, Reading Poverty by Patrick Shannon it's a wonderful book. His his language would call a lot of the language there neoconservative and what that meant was folks really had a perspective that it wasn't the school's job to be feeding children and Hope disagreed and worked really hard to change that using tools of spatial and artifactual literacies is really to help make that shift. And so she helped me see that like, those things are literacies. And they matter and we as teachers need them and community members need them and to think about them concretely, and that they'll look different in different places. So the other moment I want to talk about is with another wonderful teacher. Her name is April. That's her real name; she elected to use her real name and work that I have done with her. And she also worked in this very conservative context. It was a religious school. And in their school policy, they had the expectation in their contract that teachers would not bring any controversial or political topics into the classroom. And April wanted to teach about climate change here in the state of Florida. And she believed and believes and I agree with her that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. And that teaching about it is everyone in a school and everyone in a community and everyone in the world's responsibility to teach one another all that we know and to learn from one another and, and make shifts in our thinking that are important and to engage with it critically. And she wanted to do it in her eighth grade ELA classroom and so she turned to some research-based best practices to do that work. Things like project based inquiry following Hiller Spires and Shea Kerkhoff's work things like textual critique and reader reflexivity following from some of my collaborators work, James Damico and Mark Baildon's work on textual critique and reader reflexivity, critically engaging with text, but she placed it. She put it in her context, and was really thoughtful about how she did that. Even though 76%, according to Yale Climate Change Communications, of people in the United States believe that school should be teaching about climate change, some schools, you know, that's not... it doesn't feel possible. But what April did was allow her eighth graders to choose topics connected to the climate, to read critically, to scaffold that reading really critically, and to think about climate change is an issue of community, an issue of justice, and her students ended up making it a political issue by writing letters to politicians, and really getting their civic energies going. But she navigated that really complicated environment in ways that I just I continue to be astounded by. Dr. Michael Sherry, who's also at the University of South Florida with you and I, Lindsay, have a chapter coming out about April and her navigation of that weird space. So I guess both of these moments or people-- both of these people have helped me to think about how important it is to situate critical issues of social justice within the schools and communities that we're working in. And that, as researchers, finding those stories of teachers doing work that often goes unnoticed is something that is part of our, our work. And so I orient to my teaching that way, I think, Okay, what can I teach or teach about where they work that I didn't know? And then I orient my research that way, what are the stories that helped me to understand how important it is to situate any of our teaching and in particular, for my own interest in critical literacies and critical equity? literacies What does that mean? What does that look like?

Lindsay Persohn:

I love that your experiences are people to be that that just really speaks to your personality and who I know you to be. But I think it's also so important to note that there are these structures that we navigate as educators. And you've described two teachers who've done that beautifully and very successfully. And I do think that those are often under highlighted areas of teaching, you know, we think so much about the the content, and even the pedagogy but what you've described is so much more than that. It, you know, it has to do with how schools are situated within their own communities, and what it means to support those communities in ways that are both accepted as sort of the norm, but also push against that norm. And I think that that is a really beautiful way to think about the work that we do in education, because we know that often radical ideas aren't accepted right off the bat. But if we find a way or or seemingly radical ideas within these communities, but once we situate them within contexts that are already known, and give students and community members the tools to think with, we might end up with a very different situation. So there's I think there's a lot of exciting possibilities in stories there about, yes, appropriately named Hope. In your stories there this thanks for sharing that, Alex.

Alex Panos:

Thank you. I. Yeah, just a quick follow up. I think that what both of these stories, at least for me, these these women, for me, helped me to hold on to is that confrontation of social justice issues is something that can happen in any place and, and that you need the good tools of, of literacy, to do it often. And teachers have those tools, and sometimes they need supports and things and they need more momentum. And that's one thing but teachers and communities definitely are the leaders in this work, I think and that's what, what I have learned.

Lindsay Persohn:

There, there's something so energizing and thinking about what the community has to offer, and then identifying what our community members need in order to thoughtfully design the way we work with students and the way we interact with communities, through schools and in schools. So Alex, what do you want listeners to know about your work?

Alex Panos:

Yeah, I guess I've just kind of talked about this but I've really learned from the research that I've done with teachers, and then the research that I've done to understand how people engage with complex issues, through text, texts broadly, we're thinking about all kinds of texts there. How powerful critical engagement with complex issues of social justice, of equity, of racial justice, can be when educators focus specifically whether that's for themselves, or working with children, on things that matter to the places they live and teach, while still recognizing those issues as part of a complex, interconnected network. And these social issues connect places to one another. So what I mean by that is and working with Hope and other teachers and that rural rustbolt community in the Midwest, that is a white majority community, white super majority 97% white, as a very community experiencing high levels of economic displacement and insecurity because it is now part of the global Rust Belt. They had very specific things that they had to be confronting and dealing with food access at school and issues of food justice being one of them. But they also were contending with particular orientations to the work of the school that made it hard for the school to teach children who are hungry, or to teach children who are experiencing massive amounts of trauma due to the opioid epidemic. So Hope and her colleagues had to do very specific work. And I've learned what that means to do specific work, and I've learned about it by placing it, but that doesn't mean at least the the big idea here that I've learned is that placing something in one place does not it's not enough, you have to put it in relationship to other places and times for us to be doing work towards equity and justice. And doing that is really hard. But that's that's just something that I think we always are doing as teachers we have to think about who are we in this moment as teachers, and what does this moment have to do with other moments and places and people and times. So that's one thing. And then the other thing I've learned is that while the world is is kind of terrifying in a lot of ways in terms of misinformation and disinformation, climate change being the main topic I've looked at this through, there's a lot of disinformation out there and teachers have a lot of power in thinking about how we can have a generation of folks in the future that don't feel like there's no hope, that we can't read anything, that we shouldn't pay attention to the news because there are so many tools to reading against disinformation and with science and with truth, in terms of verifiable facts and, and acknowledging biases along the way. So so I think that one thing I've learned from the research that I've done on climate change specifically, is not to be afraid to confront complex topics when you're doing it with the tools of critical literacy, because what we found is that by using tools of critical literacy, like critical questioning and textual critique and reader reflexivity, by placing those texts in particular spaces in context by allowing folks to deliberate and discuss, people read more with the science, so they might not read with the science on their own sometimes, but people across all belief systems will read towards the science if, if, if they're supported in doing so. And so schools then for me, become really special places. And I want I would love teachers to take that away from some of the work that I do, especially around climate change.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Alex, you specifically mentioned reading against disinformation. And I know also in a world of education I've worked in in school libraries, this is also a topic we talk about often is Information Literacy, you know, how do we help kids identify disinformation when they see it, or misinformation when they see it? How do we do that? Do you have any practical advice for teachers who are really trying to get started on having these kinds of conversations and encouraging their students to think and to work in these ways?

Alex Panos:

Yeah. So I'm going to speak specifically about climate change because I do think that while there are practices that go across all kinds of disinformation, just like when we place the work of a school and its particular context, disinformation takes on different forms when it comes to

Lindsay Persohn:

What I think I hear you saying is that we as different topics, context of those topics is really important. I just did someone that believes in context, I guess. So things that we have found in our research, and that I've seen to be helpful, are for teachers to select texts that rub up against one another in different ways. So this is not the same as saying that there's two sides to an argument. There aren't two sides to climate change, the science is resolved, we've got more work to do in understanding how climate change effects will hit us. But we know that it's happening. So we can stop that debate and move on to discussions with texts that help confront the complexity of the issue by rubbing up different kinds of ideas next to one another. So for example, in some of the research I've done with collaborators at Indiana University and the National Institute for Education in Singapore, we have looked at texts as diverse as the International Panel on Climate Change communit... climate hange, which is like the main ody of, of thinkers on policy, riters and scientists on limate change, next to an rganization called the Non overnmental International Panel n Climate Change, the NIPCC, which is a funded organization by some Think Tanks that are anti science and denial, and denial the science. So if you pu those up next to one an ther, they look similar, and yo can think about them to ether but students will sta t to point out like, Oh, wai , there's a sponsor here. Oh, the IPC sponsor is the World Hea th Organization and the and the nited Nations, like those are ery reputable places, oh, hmmm that's different. Whereas if yo just looked at them i isolation, you can't really, yo know, like, you're just lookin at one and so it's it's mor difficult for folks that mayb aren't aware of some of thos histories. The other thing i like intentional critica scaffolding, which means givin students time to think abou texts, answer questions abou them on their own, guidin

questions like:

What what are t e claims and evidence? What a e the you know, what are t e biases? What are my own biase ? Things like that, working n that on their own, answeri g questions, and then going to a discussion-based format. Y u can't assume that discussion c n happen without deep engageme t with a text and given the way e read online right now, just fa t fast fast students don't I mea , who does really have a lot f time to sit with the text. o giving students that time, e found helps them read again t denialism, agai st disinformation. The other th ng that I think is important to disinformation and denial m re broadly, in particular with climate change, is that we liv in a context of denial and we can be part of that, which makes it really yucky to feel like that some times, right? Like, we're like, I believe that we need to save our planet. But I'm also you know, buying all like I just bought a case of plastic water. That feels bad, like, w know that we're like, no sitting quite right with things We know that we don't we c n't live perfectly. But r cognizing our own goals, and l ke identifying those and s tting with those can be really h lpful to that engaging with t e context of denial more b oadly, like if, if I can r cognize myself some u comfortableness and students ca recognize that like, Oh, I me n, I say this, but I do this, th n it's easier to sort of see in the landscape of the sea of te t, where things are also ma be not quite right. Like th re's something that's strange ab ut this. And that includes re lly digging deeply into what yo know, the context of denial, th actual situation of climate ch nge, or whatever the di information is about really is the inequities present. So li e climate change, for ex mple, is an issue of justice, a intersectional issue of ju tice, where Climate, the C imate Crisis impacts women, p ople of color, and g ographically disenfranchised f lks of those from the global s uth, in much more profound w ys than it does white folks, m n and people in the global n rth, for example. And so r cognizing that is also part of u packing our own biases, our o n experiences, our own geographical or some other social location situatedness nd then what that has to do ith how we make sense of text. o that's all part of that eader reflexivity. But it's t's really complicated when it omes to disinformation, because isinformation is pulling on very string that it can to try o get you to go long with it. R ght, that's the point. teachers have to get a little bit uncomfortable, and even a little bit personal in order to do this work, in order to really understand how to be critical and how to teach our students to be critical consumers of what they see, what they hear, what they read, and what they share.

Alex Panos:

Yeah, I think it there's no way to be impersonal, right, about our work as teachers. Teaching is political and the political is personal. It's increasingly become that way, which is really hard and makes it hard to be a teacher, to be such a public figure. But also, some of the things that are named to be political don't have to be political. They can be very personal and situated in where we live. So like April, for example, the teacher I spoke of before he taught about climate change in her religious, conservative schooling context, she situated that this inquiry unit of study about water and aquifers and sea level rise here in Florida. She was like, No, we need to know about this here. And it's hard to argue, when you make it so personal, when you bring it close to you, when you when you remove that distance, the political is less heated, it's like well, no, this you know, when we think about what's happened in Tampa Bay recently, the Piney Point Disaster, the red algal blooms on the south side of Tampa Bay by Anna Maria Island, you know, like, Okay, now we're talking about places that people have been, they can see them, they know them. And it's the same with disinformation. When you when you bring it to a classroom discussion and you have some ground rules that are based in critical literacy practices, for example, that are based in careful reflexivity on our own parts, as educators, we can support students in doing that, if we don't do it, we can't support students in doing it. So yeah, I appreciate that point about that personal pointed nature of this work.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah, everything you do, Alex, says to me, personal and contextualized. And that's one of the many things I love about hearing about your work and talking to you because I do think that when we bring topics that maybe seem a little bit bigger than we're ready to tackle, you know, when we bring those close to home, and as you talked about here in Florida, we're talking about sea level rise and algae blooms, that's in a lot of people's backyards. And I think that does remove the hyper political contexts that are created around these ideas once they are translated through multiple news stories and news platforms. When we bring that back to a local issue, it does change everything. Because it, of course changes the context. As you as you said, it brings it closer to home and makes everything about that issue more meaningful. But I think it also makes us better at being critical about it. Because we have some sort of background knowledge, we have some sort of situatedness within the topic that isn't that far removed, something I read about in the news kind of scenario. Instead, it's what's happening in our own backyards.

Alex Panos:

Right. And the education, you know, about issues, you know, like, I will never understand fully the atmospheric science of climate change, like, let's be real honest, like, that is not my area. It's a specialization. I trust those scientists. I trust them, I hope they trust me with literacy, you know, and so, when we think about trust, we can trust ourselves a bit more when we start to, to build on what we know our communities know, when we build on what the people around us know, but also, when we learn where the limits of that are, and that's the relationship to justice. That's what relationship to equity, that's the relationships across time and space that are part of these conversations about texts that can be so often left to the wayside. That's the contextual stuff that can be left to the wayside, because we're focusing on, well, what are the you know, what do we need to know about reading right now. But those contextual factors, we can learn if we focus them locally, often, and then that understanding can start to be come a bit broader and broader and broader. If we go straight to the atmospheric science in literacy at least, what's lost? Well we lose that personal connection, which is something that literacy is it's intimate. It is, you know, it starts in the belly of a mother. We talk to children, right, we talk, we talk to them, and then we sit them on our lap, and we read to them. Literacy is intimate and just because we're talking about bigger problems, bigger issues of social justice, of structural inequalities, of structural racism, of climate, climate crisis, global climate crisis, it doesn't mean it can't be and shouldn't be intimate, as well as critical and equity focused.

Lindsay Persohn:

That idea of starting close to home and then building those ideas out from there, I think is so very important. Because I think we do often in schools start with something that is so big or so removed from from who we are, and what we know that it doesn't feel real and sometimes it doesn't feel necessary. But whenever we start close to home, and then build out from there, I think we end up with a much better understanding of the topic and the ability to be critical about the information that we're viewing. So thank you for for sharing that with us. I think that that those are some really important points that can help teachers get started on this kind of challenging, complex, and necessary work, knowing that we can do it close to home. So Alex, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Alex Panos:

Oh, this question makes me so sad. Because being a teacher right now, being in education, in general is is-- it's a lot. Like there's a lot happening. The policies are backbreaking. The traumas children are experiencing across the world right now are just overwhelming to think about, and our own personal lives as teachers and for the your listeners in particular, K-12 teachers. I, you guys must be so worn out. Um, the past couple years have been really tough. But I still believe that turning to where you work, and it's situatedness, its complexities, what needs to be critiqued, what needs to be understood, from a frame of what's right and good in the world and and how we can move towards equity for for the children we serve and the families we serve and the communities we serve, is a part of our teaching. And no matter what those policies are, we can find ways through and we can push back against ones that we know are are damaging or harmful, but that we as teachers can and should really make space for engaging our students and ourselves in inquiring into the needs and injustices that are situated within the communities we serve. We have important work to do there and it can be supported. It's it's not just diving into something big and scary. It can be supported through your own knowledge, maybe you're an avid gardener, and you can start there like sustainable living, sustainable, urban farming, sustainable, you know, understandings of our spaces can start with something like a garden. But it can also start with understanding your local water systems or your local weather patterns, or your local air quality, how the children you serve, are provided or not with the kinds of nourishment of their bodies and souls that that the school can help facilitate. But knowing our limits, I think, is also part of that. Like, teachers are not responsible for everything. And I feel like that sometimes, but we're not. And I and I have been told by Hope that, you know, she's always said she feels this great sense of responsibility to her community. And that's why she stays a teacher. That's why she's still a teacher. So if that responsibility is something that drives what we do already, and we know that then turning that responsibility inwards and saying where where do I need to turn and what resources are available. So I think about the local university, the professors there that are doing work that could help inform what you're interested in doing. I think about our fellow teachers who are knowledgeable collaborators that like, oh, maybe I am kind of interested in starting a conversation about teaching climate change in my ELA class, but Whoa, whoa, what do I do? Okay, well, you have science colleagues, go talk to them. Or understanding the context of denial across time, hmm, what's my social studies colleague doing? Or if I'm an elementary teacher, wow, this social studies content really could connect with this issue of equity in our community, and I can bring them together to make that more visible. I just think that that work is possible. It is hard, but the work is already hard. I just think that navigating it through knowing who you are, and where you are, makes it more possible to do work aligned with your curriculum line with all the policies doesn't have to get out there and not be possible. And it can be beyond like Hope's work was beyond the classroom. So so yeah, those are just some things that I think about, but I know it's challenge right now.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, Alex, thank you so much for your time today and thank you for your contributions to the field of education.

Alex Panos:

Thank you, Lindsay, for having me and for this amazing podcast. I think it's just so important, and I share it widely.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you. Dr. Alexandra Panos is known for her work in the areas of spatial literacies, climate justice, literacies and critical qualitative research methodologies. Her research is in literacy studies where she focuses on exploring the disciplinary and critical dimensions of literacy and educational research in topics like the environment and geography. Alex's work has appeared in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Theory and Practice in Rural Education, The Journal of Social Studies Research,

English Teaching:

Practice and Critique, Journal of Children's Literature, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Voices from the Middle, and Theory into Practice. She previously taught middle grades English language arts. Alex was a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Award semifinalist. A graduate of Indiana University, Dr. Panos is currently an Assistant Professor of Literacy Studies, and an affiliate faculty member of Measurement and Research at the University of South Florida. 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 ClassroomCaffeine.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.