Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Earl Aguilera

July 20, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 5
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Earl Aguilera
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Earl Aguilera talks to us about interest-driven instruction, multimedia literacies in practice, and taking a critical stance toward literacy and educational justice. Earl is known for his work in the areas of digital media literacies, social justice issues particularly related to first-generation college students, and critical studies of the narrative in digital contexts. Dr. Aguilera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at California State University, Fresno.

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. Earl Aguilera talks to us about interest driven instruction, multimedia, literacies and practice and taking a critical stance toward literacy and educational justice. Earl is known for his work in the areas of digital media literacies, social justice issues particularly related to first generation college students, and critical studies of the narrative in digital context. Dr. Aguilera is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at California State University Fresno. 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. Earl, thank you for joining me, welcome to the show.

Earl Aguilera:

Thank you very much for having me.

Lindsay Persohn:

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

Earl Aguilera:

Sure. So the first was, in my first year of teaching, I was teaching sophomore English high school English class for sophomores. And in the middle of a lecture that I was giving, I don't remember what it was about. And there's probably a reason that I don't remember what it was about. I remember one of my students getting frustrated, and maybe there was a lot of sort of pent up frustration that she was feeling, right. But I remember in that moment, I had assigned something to read. And in what seemed to me, like a moment of frustration, she stood up in the middle of a class, I can still remember her name, I won't say it on on the podcast, but I can I can tell you her full name. And and said, you know, why don't we always have to read what you tell us to read? Why can't we just read things that we want to and at the time, right, being a first year teacher and not really having a whole lot of relational approaches that I had built up over time, I gave, you know, your sort of standard, boilerplate, weird appeal to authority? Oh, because I don't know, I studied things and I know better. I don't know what it was, but it was something something with that vibe. And, you know, she was appeased for for that particular moment. But the reason why that stood out to me was because I didn't in that moment, feel any conviction for what I was saying, right? I didn't really know what the answer to her question was. Why should she read things that I tell her to read, and not read that the things that she wants to, right, things that the students want to, and not one year later, in my master's program at New Jersey City University, I did a master's in reading there, I learned about the importance of independent reading and free choice reading and developing students passions, right for the kinds of texts and topics and inquiries they want to engage with. And just slowly began my journey of building out a classroom library and independent reading program, which I brought to every school that I taught at since then, right. And it stands out to me because if I wonder if I had listened to her in that moment, right, if I've really taken her words to heart and seriously and acted on them, would that have made the rest of that first year better? Could I have started on this on this journey toward a passion and an interest driven approach to literacy education? Could I have started that sooner? I don't know. But I like telling that story, because it's one of the low points in my teaching career, I think, but it's a very instructive one. And it's one that I actually tell all of my pre service teachers every year so that folks can learn, you know, the importance of listening to our students. The other moment that stands out to me was a few years later, same school. I had learned, you know, a lot of that out independent, free choice, passion driven reading. I had learned a lot about approaches to teaching, writing and composition. And realized at that point that that was a thing that I was really interested in. Right, I was really interested in supporting adolescents sort of creative and generative literacy practices. And so we had a little kind of choose your own adventure project that I set up that we were studying short stories at the time, right, your your standard, you know, curricular unit on short stories. And so our, our culminating project was to take a story, right, a narrative that we had studied or read together and create an adaptation in a different media form, right, so you cannot write another short story adaptation of this short story, you've got to turn it into something else. What could that something else be? Well, that's really up to you. It could be a video, it could be a poem, it could be dance, you know, however, you want to kind of interpret that. I remember one of my students again, I could tell you his name, won't say it on the podcast. But we're actually still connected to this day. A couple of students did their projects using using video games and the tools at the time, right, this was about a little over a decade ago, the tools for video game creation were I think, still relatively in their infancy in terms of like, gamers themselves, in terms of player player facing tools for modifying or creating games. Those were still pretty young at the time, not nearly as developed as they are now. But I remember he took a game called Little Big Planet, which at the time was one of the few games that had a very robust content development system. And he adapted Ray Bradbury short story, There Will Come Soft Rains into a level in the game. And so you could play the level and feel like you were in the house is this this house that was sort of, you know, automated and driven, you know, kind of by this computer, and you could walk around and experience lines from the story, there were some great intertextual moments where the Sara Teasdale poem from the story appeared in the game. And so that moment, really got me thinking about the sort of potential of digital media, not just as something students could consume, but something students could create with. Something students could generate ideas and content and just ways to showcase their knowledge and use their knowledge to impact their own communities. And so I think thinking about those two stories, I think that's, those are a good encapsulation of what really kind of set me down the path to to where I am today. And in a lot of ways you could argue those are sort of the origin stories for the ways that I look at teaching the ways that I look at teacher education, and the ways that I look at literacy research today.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Earl, I want to pick back up on a couple of things. You mentioned you, you asked this question of yourself, that really resonates with me, you know, this idea of could I have started this interest driven instruction sooner? And it makes me think about or wonder, how far are we ready to push ourselves in our first few years of teaching? You know, it's the reminds me of the age old question, you know, how do you how do you know what you don't know? And I think that there's really no way around that there's really only a way through that. And that is through that experience of working with different students, really hearing their questions. I think that's another really important part of what you said there is that, you know, you may have given that kind of pat answer when your student asked the question, but it certainly sounds like it made you reflect on what your teaching was all about. And I think that those are such important defining moments in a teaching career, you know, whenever you, you may come back with an answer at the time, but it really makes you think about what's most important. And I know, in my own teaching career, I don't want to be a puppet doing what some distant entity or person suggests that I should do. Obviously, we have standards, and we have guidelines, and we have common texts for reasons. But I think it really speaks to the point that you can't just sort of blindly follow that you have to put a little bit of humanization in in that work. Otherwise, it's not meaningful to anybody, certainly not the students but but not the teacher either. And, and part of me feels like this is where a lot of teacher dissatisfaction comes from, is trying to play the role to read the script, when it means very little to us. And we don't really understand the context of the learning or what's supposed to come of it. We just do. I can think of defining moments like that early in my career also where you know, a student said or did something that really made me think, what am I doing here? What is this all about? And it's exciting to think that that sent you down this path of having students create their own content based off of those things they're air quotes supposed to learn, right? They're able to turn that into something that is a meaningful context for them. And it really does demonstrate such a different kind of thinking than just the simple kind of regurgitation of information we've given them. And I, I think that that's such an important point for for us are a place for us as teachers to think and to play a little bit, as you know, how do we take what we know we need to get done and turn it into something that is meaningful for our students? And for ourselves?

Earl Aguilera:

For sure, yeah, that's a really great point. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I spend more time in teacher education, is how ready? And how comfortable are the candidates that we're working with? And how do we do our best to support them to draw on their experiences, but also to be realistic about the different kinds of expectations and norms and standards and policies they will have to navigate? It's it's such an incredibly complex position to inhabit. And I think the more conversations I have with both my teacher candidates, and my in service teachers, I think, the more I, I'm learning to appreciate that complexity, and that they're just the challenges that they have to face and the nuance in that the skill they show as they navigate all of those complexities.

Lindsay Persohn:

And thinking about how complex that world of teaching is, I know, for me, sometimes I feel like the best job I can do for my students is to let them know that's coming, right, we can't necessarily give them solutions when the solutions are so highly contextualized. And we can't really predict where they're going to be or exactly what those tensions may be. But I think that sometimes it's just really important to let them know that they exist, and that there are ways to think and to think differently about the way we approach content, people, policies, the stuff of teaching the curricular kinds of items, and, and to think critically about those things. And so that thinking critically I think segues pretty nicely into talking a bit more about your work. So what do you want listeners to know about your work Earl?

Earl Aguilera:

I'm fairly convinced at this point, that there is really no such thing as as ideologically neutral educational research, right? You may or may be able to make that argument in some of the basic sciences, maybe, maybe, but when you get into the applied fields, like education, it becomes much, much more challenging to identify something that has no kind of ideological or philosophical commitments, right. So what do I what like, what do I mean by all that, right, all of this research is is that we produce that I produce is working toward different ends. And I think unless we are very clear about who our research is serving, what the assumptions are that inform our work, what kinds of things might people do, or what kinds of decisions might people make based on the work that we put out into the world, I think we run the risk of getting into that that zone of unintended consequences very quickly, right. So there's, I think, there's a lot of talk these days about the values that we have, and the kind of philosophical stances that we adopt, about our teaching and about our research. And I think those things are great. But it's also important to look at how those things are being put into practice in our in the actual work that we put out there into the world, right? So I, I highly encourage anybody who reads my work, or any other work of educational or literacy research, to ask those really, really hard questions of what is the logic of participant selection in this right? What are the ethics of this experimental method? If we know this one thing, if we maybe not know, but if we have a feeling that this one thing is really, really good for kids isn't really fair to withhold that thing that we know that we feel is really, really cool? Is it fair to like withhold that from from other students or in the area of literacy research, if we are ascribing to a particular view of literacy and what counts as literacy, where does that view come from? Who says that the big five are what counts as reading? I know who says that the National Reading Panel says, but ultimately, a lot all of those decisions have kind of an ideological basis. And I think that the clearer we can be about that as both consumers and producers of research, I think the better the field will be over overall. And I think the more aligned our goals will be, and our work will be to the communities that we say, we want to serve. You know what I'm saying?

Lindsay Persohn:

Yes, definitely. And as you're talking, there's I'm making so many connections in my mind, because it really, I think that part of what you're saying here is that even in every explicit choice we make, there are dozens of implicit choices that maybe kind of go unchecked or even undiscovered. And I think that's, that's obviously very true in research. But I think that's also very true in our teaching practice as well, is that for every instructional decision we make it is backed up or, or sometimes not backed up by by lots of implicit things that either, you know, I've said before, the things we don't know, we think with. Also, I think sometimes the things we don't know, we are thinking without, you know, some of those structures for understanding ideologically, who we are as educators who we are as researchers, and as you said, Who are we ultimately serving in the work that we're doing. And I think that, particularly in the tense political climate that we've been living in for the last several years, I think, really supports that, you know, those kinds of questions about who does this ultimately serve? And what is this really all about? And I think that that's also one of the sets of questions, that's hard to get to when you're a new teacher. But once you've been doing it for a while, if you've still got the energy, and that, that spirit of continuous learning, and really thinking critically about your own thinking and about your own practice, I think those questions become so very important.

Earl Aguilera:

Right? It's one of the things that my graduate students have have specifically mentioned, right? They're really thankful to have in the classes that we do together, right? I do courses in educational technology, and in multicultural education, and just having the space to step back and like, reflect on what do we do? Why do we do it? What are the assumptions that are there? whose interests are we serving? Who Who are we accountable to right? Who are we in relationship with? What are those relationships? Like? They seem to really appreciate that right? Even down to what for some people are, are kind of simple, take it for granted assumptions, but I have I've had graduate students who have been interested in in doing studies on their English language learners. And when we, when we pause in early conversation, and I asked, Well, what do you mean English language learner, like, who gets? Where does that label come from? Who gets labeled as an English language learner? When the reality is, given the, the absolutely massive variation of this thing that we call English around the world, the reality is that we're all in language learners, but that label isn't applied equitably to all students and oftentimes attracts on racial and class lines. And so then when we have those conversations, we get a lot of the mind blown emojis. But there I think, you know, those are those are really important assumptions for us to interrogate because they do have to do right with issues of power and politics and shared social grids, and what what is public education, if not one of the most fundamental social goods that democratic society is based on?

Lindsay Persohn:

What I think that those, those labels as they are become such a day to day part of what happens in schools, that we do often become a bit blinded to what they actually mean, and all of the assumptions they carry. Because, you know, you hear English language learner, ELL, ESOL, you know, any of those terms slapped on the backs of kids, you know, over and over, and as you said, at various different levels, and, and in various contexts as well. So, so asking those questions about okay, what does this actually mean? What kind of assumptions does it come with, I think can help us to better support the individuals, once we start to think about what those labels actually mean, and where they come from? Who says right, so, yeah. What else would you want listeners to know about your work Earl?

Earl Aguilera:

I think another really important thing to know and this might have been talked about by other folks as well, is absolutely 100%, a work in progress, right? If I'm if I'm being real, right, with all the listeners here, this is my third year. Right? I'm coming up on the end of my third year of being a professor, right. That's, that's a yes, on top of 10 years of high school and adjunct instruction before that, but in terms of like, sort of my scholarly agenda that is still very much in flux, right, that is still very much a work in progress. Right. And, you know, a conversation that we had off camera before we started, I think is a good, that's a good encapsulation of that right? There are things that I deeply cared about and that was really interested in when I was a grad student and even in my first year of scholarship that I maybe am a little bit less interested in. Now, there are ideas that I have written about and focused on in my dissertation and in other pieces that again, at one point, were deeply important to me, and were very good descriptors of the world that I saw. And now feel a little bit like blunt instruments. And I've, you know, I feel like theoretically, I'm trying to develop things that are a little bit more fine tuned, write things that are a little bit more precise. And I think that's a really important thing for folks to know about, about my research in, well, I think all of our research, but I can only speak for myself here is it's just like when you turn in your final drafts in English class, right? You see my publications, and they seem neat and clean. Oh, here is a research question. Here is a methodology. Step one, step two, step three, like here are the findings. But what you don't get to see is all of the work that went into that all the cycles of revision, iteration, failed projects, right things that crashed and burned that I thought would do really well, but didn't. And so I think a lot of that is for me constantly in formation. And so when I think about the work that I've done so far, I think it's really important, rather than to look at kind of one individual study and say, oh, yeah, that's what this person is about, is to kind of look at this broader trajectory, and see what are the big ideas that this work seems to coalesce around, right. And for me, some of those big ideas include the role of digital media, and its relationship to literacy in the 21st century, the importance of kind of a critical stance critical, not in the sense of critical sort of thinking necessarily, right, not in this sort of blooms, higher order thinking stuff. Although that is important work. That is that is not the work that I do, critical in the sense of really examining issues of power and ideology and representation and the ways that different kinds of things language, media, social relations, political structures, can reinforce or transform those those different kinds of relationships. And I think in terms of the the folks that I work with, and the folks that I choose to be in a community with, I think another kind of big piece of that is pursuing a sense of educational justice. Justice in the sort of structural sense of the word right in terms of like, really transforming what we currently label as education into a system that really is in the service of of all, right, and that really is in the service of supporting students in becoming the best selves they can be and the most full participants have society, which again, you could argue, in theory is what education is really about. But I think I'm much more interested in making that a reality in practice, right? In looking at the structures and the policies and the curricula, and the pedagogies, that can bring that ideal, which I think is a great ideal, it can really bring that ideal to fruition.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, and that's such a great connection back to what you were saying earlier about yourself, as, you know, early in your teaching career, beginning to think critically about you know, who is this curriculum serving? Why are we doing it this way? How do I explain it's important to my students who question it, or even to those who don't question it so that they can maybe take a more critical approach to what they're learning and what they want to learn, in order to full circle, bring it back to what where do they want to go with their lives? What is their trajectory look like? What kind of work in progress, are they? And and I think that, for me, that is a real tension in education, because I think it's something we always say we're doing and that we want to do. But we often lose sight of the forest for the trees, I think because the those trees just kind of slap you in the face day after day, and you have to do something to confront them. But when you can take a step back and say, Okay, what is this really what am I actually doing here? And is it important? And is there something that's more important for me to dedicate our time and energy to? To me that that's one of the really refreshing things about teaching, maybe more so than some other career choices is that you do have this opportunity to take a good look at at what you're doing, take a look at yourself and what kinds of ideas you're sharing, and you get to reinvent yourself year after year after year and to me that's always been an exciting part of being an educator is continuously growing, knowing that we are all works in progress, and that we can build off what we know. And maybe it wasn't perfect last year, but we can take what we've learned and move forward. And the same thing happens in education research, I think you know, each new project, you start, you take what you've learned, and apply it in a different context to learn even more from it.

Earl Aguilera:

Yeah, it's really one of the most important things that I think my graduate students get out of an advisorship or a mentorship with me, right, they don't get wisdom from above, what they get is a peek into how messy this process is, right. And that goes for students who I advise on projects of their own, where I am only involved as kind of a, you know, methodologist, or a writing coach or a content specialist. And they really get to see that when they collaborate with me on projects, and how really, how really messy this stuff is much, much messier than what we actually turned into the teacher, I mean, the publisher.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's so important to acknowledge the messiness of it all, because I think it's true of research and of teaching is that sometimes we do sort of have this pile of information we have to sift through and and again, determining what's most important and how we present that. And how do we get others to engage in this kind of learning? You know, how do we make it important to others. So I appreciate you acknowledging just how messy that whole process is, because we are works in progress. You know, it's just, it's never linear. There's always maybe more raw information than we can actually work with in a finished product. And so I think that that is just a, it's helpful to hear someone else say that, that, you know, we don't just step by step, plod along, and suddenly poof, it's all done. It's definitely a long and winding road.

Earl Aguilera:

Sure. And who knows, you know, ask me in 10 years asked me in 20 years, maybe my answers will change. Maybe I will think I bring voice down from above, right. But but I imagine I don't I don't. I don't know if that's really ever going to go away for me. And I think the reason why I don't think it's ever going to go away is the people that I mentored by people, including Jessica Pandya and Frank Serafini, who were previously on your show, it's the same for them. Right? They are modeling for me, what it looks like to constantly be in a state of learning and curiosity and rethinking and questioning, even questioning ourselves. So I don't I don't know what my answer will be in 10 or 20 years, but based on the people I learn from, I don't know if it'll be much different.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah. Well, I know, for me, the more I learn, the more I know there is left to learn. You know that that kind of age old, you know, you you only think you know everything when you don't know a whole lot, right, when you're, I don't know, I hate to use the example of teenagers. But I'll think of myself as a teenager thinking that you kind of have it all figured out. And then you take a few more steps in life and realize that no, there's actually not a whole lot that you actually know.

Earl Aguilera:

Oh, that's the that's the dirty secret of the PhD, y'all you will not come out knowing everything. In fact, you will feel like you knew, you know, less than when you came in.

Lindsay Persohn:

Absolutely agree with that. Yes. So Earl given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Earl Aguilera:

I think if I had to, to, to boil it down, it would be something along the lines of, you're doing the best you can in this moment and at the end of the day, no matter what the hardships are, no matter what the challenges are, no matter how much you feel like you could be, should be doing more, you know, going back to our conversation at the top of the hour, we're making the best decisions that we can based on the knowledge and the information that we have, right, in that moment. Now, that is not to say that we should not constantly right, the striving to be better to do more for our students, for our community for our world, of course, right all of those things are true. But I think that aspect, right, that disposition in terms of like self selection into the profession, I feel like a lot of teachers already have that on lockdown, right? I don't need to remind my in service teachers, if they could be doing more, they will remind themselves of that right? Oftentimes, what I feel like I need to remind them of is that they are doing everything they are they may be doing everything they can in this moment. And whatever that is for each person is going to be different, right? Growth is always going to look different. And no matter how hard we try to standardize, and metrisize and data-fy and measure things like growth and achievement and you know, insert whatever label that people want to insert these days. Growth itself is very nonlinear, right, at least in the view that I ascribe to, right. It's it's recursive, iterative, iterative. It's, it's relational. But the more I spend in the learning sciences, right, and studying literacy, the more I realize it's anything but linear, sometimes you'll, you'll get a big win today, take a couple of steps back tomorrow. And that's, it's uncomfortable, but it's it's part of the process. And hopefully, that mode of thinking about our own teaching and about our own work, we might also carry that over when we meet our students. And when we are socialized, right in our professions to think about things like growth metrics, and grades and achievements and raising phonological awareness scores. There, those things might have a purpose. But there I argue there's there's much more to understanding how people are learning and growing than, than just those things. And I've got a new piece that I'm working on right now with one of my graduate students that is tackling kind of exactly that issue, right? It's looking at datafication, and platforms in education, and how those might be shaping our shared cognition, especially our teacher candidates' understandings of what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be a learner in today's world. So coming soon, that's my little shameless plug.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's great. You know, it makes me think about how particularly in education, we have tried so hard to quantify things that maybe aren't so quantifiable. You know, like you said, they're not linear, they're interconnected, they're relational, yet we try to, to assign numbers to these things. And, and sometimes without questioning who the numbers are serving back to our earlier conversation, so just sort of interrogating some of those things, I think is it's an important place for us to work in education, to think about how, like you said, the datafication of everything education and how that has, it's put a lot of pressure on students, for sure, on teachers, for sure. And I have to wonder if we've gained as much as we've lost from from some of those movements. So yeah, what I appreciate this opportunity to think really critically about what education means and, and you know, how it shapes what we do day to day, how those ideological assumptions and things we don't know, we're thinking with how they manifest in our day to day, so thank you for that Earl.

Earl Aguilera:

Sure. Yeah, I just thought of one other thing, I'd like to add in terms of talking about my research, and that is, if somebody listening has questions about something, or like, wants to talk more, or needs a copy of something, you can ask me, right, like, just let me know, and I'm sure you'll be able to share the contact information. I'm happy to, to be in conversation about those things and to share those resources. In fact, that's almost one of the most fun parts right of doing scholarship is being in conversation with other people about it. And I, you know, again, speaking from personal experience, a lot of folks that I know that do this, they do really high level work in education, they are more accessible than you might think they are great. So oftentimes, what I tell people is if you're not sure, like, give it a shot, ask, you know, that was one of the big lessons I learned when I was in a master's program.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's such a great point. And no, you're right, I found the same thing that even when I thought someone might be a bit out of reach, you send them an email and you might be really shocked at the the reply that you get so that that's such a great point. And certainly we will put your email address and any other contact information you want to share in your profile your guest profile on the Classroom Caffeine website. Well, Earl, thank you so much for your time today. And thank you for your contributions to the field of education.

Earl Aguilera:

You are most welcome and thank you very much for being in conversation.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Earl Aguilera is known for his work in the areas of digital media literacies, social justice issues, particularly related to first generation college students, and critical studies of the narrative in digital context. He is an award winning teacher educator, as well as an internationally recognized scholar on issues at the intersection of literacy, technology, and critical pedagogy. Working with his colleagues and students he has published in venues such as Literacy Today, The Reading Teacher, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Literacy Research Theory, Method and Practice, Journal of Children's Literature Pedagogies an International Journal, Journal of Information and Learning Technology, and Theory into Practice. Dr. Aguilera is the recipient of the Literacy Research Association's Scholar of Color Transitioning into Academic Research institutions or STAR Mentoring Fellowship program. Prior to earning his PhD, he worked as a high school English language arts teacher, k 12, reading specialist, an adjunct professor of Literacy Education. Dr. Aguilera is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at California State University Fresno. 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 raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.