Ernest Morrell with Cati de los Rios

18707_ernestphoto2Dr. Ernest Morrell is Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Director of the Institute of Urban and Minority Education (IUME), and President-Elect of National Council of the Teaching of English (NCTE). Prior to becoming a professor and researcher, he was an award-winning high school English teacher in his hometown of Oakland, California. In this conversation, Professor Morrell shares how his path to teaching and his experiences with students in the classroom has influenced his research trajectory as well as his vision for the future of education, with Cati V. de los Ríos, a doctoral student in English Education at Teachers College, and Research Fellow at IUME.

 

CATI DE LOS RÍOS 

Who and what influenced your passion for literacy as child and young person?

ERNEST MORRELL

The three people who influenced my ideas about literacy most as a child were my mom, my dad, and my grandma. We all lived on same street in East Oakland: 107th Avenue. My grandma had 9 kids and they all lived in Oakland when I was a youth. Most of them had kids, so there were a ton of us, like 50 of us on this block, and my grandma was the default babysitter. She worked the swingshift, so she would go to work afterschool when my parents got home and she’d still get up in the morning to watch us. She was pretty incredible and in her 50s. My parents were in the process of going back to school to become educators. We lived in a part of town that, you know, they wanted something more for us and the family. So I can think of explicit messages that they gave us that to me were really about who they were as examples of literate people, people who were reading books, people who were thinking serious thoughts.  And it was a time in the neighborhood… it was 1970s and The Black Panthers… so literacy and being articulate and having a voice was pretty esteemed. There was also this undertone that you had to be smart and that you had to be literate if you were going to survive. Watching my grandma and parents enact that was powerful, and as powerful as those examples were, there were a lot of counter examples…folks who did not have an education, people walking the street, people unemployed. So I think they instilled in me two things that were important: one, this is possible, two, this is necessary… and sometimes I think young people get the message that this is necessary, but not enough people show them it is possible. I needed both at a very young age. And you know, I talk a lot to my sons about this. I can’t remember a time where my notion of literacy was not politicized, or where I didn’t associate a literate identity with some kind of political enterprise, that we had to help our people, help our neighborhood. You had to be smart so that you could change things, so that you could speak truth to power, stop police brutality, end poverty. Being literate was associated with being powerful, and being powerful was associated with helping the community.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

This makes me think of how you’re always telling us to create defensible work and defensible communities, and this feeds nicely into my next question. Tell me a little about how and why you become a high school English teacher in Oakland?

ERNEST MORRELL

It’s funny because it came full circle. During that interim though, I was fortunate to have had some successes as a student. I was able to secure admission into the University of California and when it came time to pick a major I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I chose business because I figured they make a lot of money and that seemed like a real concrete thing. I had no idea what a major in sociology meant. I had no conception in my mind about that. I thought there was pre-med, pre-law, business, and engineering. And of those, I thought business seems good, it makes the most money. I ended up getting an internship at the bank and that led me into thinking that I was going major in economics and become a banker. That was the plan the first two-and-a-half years of college, even though I was very much into writing. I saw writing as not professional labor; it was just a hobby. I was a published author, I wrote for school paper in high school and college, I wrote plays and poems. But real work was being an economics major until my Junior year when I switched and became an English major, and I thought that this would just help me major in business and law. But, then Rodney King happened. The Rodney King verdict was announced three days before my 21st birthday, and it was April, it was the end of junior year. I just remember that night being called by the club president of 100 Black Men of Americasaying we’re taking it to the streets and not knowing what’s going to happen. We were at UC Santa Barbara, not Los Angeles, but it was still pretty wild. But the aftermath of that event, you know… the Black Panthers came, David Hilliard spoke, Jesse Jackson came, just seeing the city burn. The reality of… what are we going to do about a world that allows someone who looks like you to be beat up?… and have that beating taped, and have the people who did that beating walk away free… really radicalized my mind to begin thinking about myself as an instrument larger than me, in a way that my journey through the bank, which at that point had been three years, did not seem very much about me becoming a banker, whereas some larger social justice purpose seemed like becoming part of something. I remember Jesse Jackson coming and saying, “For us [Black Folk] it’s either Penn State or the state pen,” and I thought about my own family, all my family, all my male cousins that year I graduated from high school who were not on some type of educational trajectory, had matriculated into the criminal justice system which was basically all of them except for me. All my mom’s family, eight brothers and sisters, all their kids who had not chosen a Penn State were in a state pen. And I began thinking about going home. I felt really drawn to going back to East Oakland and do something. My mom was a Kindergarten teacher in the city at the time and she said, “You should come back and teach.” That’s what brought me back. I think it was important because it was a whole different connotation of education, that it began with this idea of a liberatory possibility that went back to my childhood notions of literacy being about liberation. I think that still informs how I think about it, you know. Reading was associated with some kind of liberation and I didn’t have language for it at the time, but I read Theresa Perry’s book where she talks about the African American traditions of literacy and creating a freedom for literacy and it dawned on me that yeah that’s what it was for me. And even going back to W.E.B. Du Bois’s work and the African American tradition, it was about conscientization. Becoming a different type of person. I brought that back at 22 years old, “more Penn State, less state pen,” and just representing literally and physically an alternative for them because my students knew that I was from the block, that my dad had been a preacher in Brookfield (deep East Oakland). They knew where I was born and raised. So, that’s ultimately what brought me to teaching.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

Beautiful. Can you tell me what it was like to teach in Oakland in the early 1990s? 1993 to be exact!

ERNEST MORRELL

Yeah, 1993 is when I went back. It was an amazing time, you know. I just felt like we clicked, I had enough distance from the kids, and enough proximity to them. I didn’t having any other responsibilities. I was married at the time, but we had no children and my wife was also teaching. We didn’t need any money, we had no other life, and so it was complete immersion in the life of the school and the kids. And their response to that was…well, it was special. You know that’s not just nostalgia, there weren’t classroom management issues, they believed in it. We were able to do amazing things, to have what I thought was a rigorous curriculum that was really centered on this idea of becoming transformative individuals. We did all sorts of things. We brought hip-hop in, we had the students do court trials, they marched into the district offices, they wrote letters to senators and mayors, they graduated from high school and went to college. This continues to, I think, inform the work I do now, and people are, I hate to make this sound negative and too broad-brushed, but too many people hold such collective low expectations for our young people, constantly saying what they can’t do, “these” kids, these “urban” kids, you know, and my childhood experiences and my experiences as a teacher were so counter to that. It wasn’t a brilliance with an asterisk, these kids were just really bright and it wasn’t this mob of unmotivated kids from bad homes who didn’t want to do anything in school. These were kids who really felt a deep responsibility to their families and to their communities, and kids who had a sincere desire to become good students. And in some ways it’s almost harder to live with that reality juxtaposed against the reality of underachievement. And to have all of these kids out there who want so much and have so much ability, how do we allow so much failure to exist? I think about that a lot, the difference between educators who have such powerful classrooms and others who hold such low expectations for kids.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

Your career really almost began as a teacher researcher. Can you describe your transition from teacher to researcher/professor? What was it like to be a teacher researcher? How were you received as s teacher/researcher in your school at the time?

ERNEST MORRELL

41-hDLaOBnL._SY300_Well, there certainly wasn’t a language back then about it. I know now, but that same year I began teaching, Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle wrote a book about teacher research and knowledge and it was well received but it was peripheral. But in terms of Oakland, that book or that language hadn’t infiltrated. What I encountered was opposition, and people who did not believe that the things that myself and a few colleagues were trying to do were good for kids, so there became these debates about what instruction should look like. What I was seeing in the classroom were what I thought were good results, though I was challenged by some of that district’s leadership to “prove it.” I ended up my second year being really challenged around hip-hop curriculum and pedagogy. Like, why are you doing this hip-hop stuff with kids? It’s just vulgar street music. And, why would you take away time from Shakespeare and real literature to do that? I remember going to my colleagues, because I got my credential at Berkeley, so a lot of those folks ended up becoming my advisors when I went back for my Ph.D., and I was in touch with them. I told them, I need to do research, and you need to help me put together a research project so that I can show my colleagues in the district that this pedagogy works.  I remember telling the students, “What we do in this class will fundamentally change the way people think about kids and education.” It just seemed ridiculous at the time, being 23 years old. But we sat up the video camera in the front of the classroom, videotaped ourselves, kids had all their work in binders, so for me teacher research became a way to make a case, otherwise it just seems like an opinion. But if you really want to change people’s minds you have to have information. We call it data or whatever. So for me, research was a very connected process, that if I do research well I can create more space for the kinds of classrooms that I think are possible. And then I became hooked on it, like there are people who do this for a living? In my optimistic youthful moments, 25-26 years old, I began to think, what if I could actually do research that would change the way people think about education? What if I could make that statement that I gave to the kids true? That what we do in this classrooms and classrooms like it, and document and share it, would change people’s minds? That’s when we made a case to the district that using hip-hop would increase motivation, increase connection to poetry that wasn’t hip-hop, like looking at John Donne’s “The Canonization,” and Refugee Camp rap lyrics, so it helped kids to connect to John Donne. At the end of the day, the students were writing more, they were writing poems and writing essays, and doing the things that even the standards documents said that they wanted. And the district relented in many ways; it was well received, actually. And we felt powerful. You can speak with a powerful voice if you can research. That next fall, I applied back to graduate school at Cal Berkeley.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

Jumping 20 years and three different positions later….Can you speak to me about your thoughts regarding what education should look like in the 21st century?

ERNEST MORRELL

Well, I have a couple of philosophical and more structural thoughts. I guess I’ll start with the structural because that’s easier. Desks and rows and lectures and unidirectional flow of knowledge seem very outmoded. That’s a factory model that was under the assumption that an educated person was one who could receive knowledge and regurgitate it. It wasn’t about independent thinking, creativity, diversity of views or argument or anything like that. So in the 21st century, it seems like there should be small circles, collaboration, production, creativity. It should be multi-voice. Young people have the power to not just be consumers of knowledge but real producers of knowledge, not just for the teachers but for the world. Second and third-graders could be producing outward facing knowledge that could change what people think. It’s got to be more technologically mediated, multimodal, it has to move beyond chalkboards and into tablets and digital production.

But in a larger sense, what I was going to start with philosophically is, I just don’t see what logic is for an achievement gap in 21st century. There is no shortage of a need for human capital. There doesn’t seem to be a resource that should be intentionally kept sparse. How could it be a disadvantage for the planet if everyone is educated? We certainly have the technical capability to do that. To me, when I think of education in the 21st century, I think of that collective multimodal image of students hunched over a keyboard and computer, creating something scientific, but I also think about another more philosophical understanding of education in the 21stcentury. Education should be more universal. It should be equitable. I think of those sort of things. I don’t know what logic is for a drop out. I don’t know why there would not be enough colleges for everyone to have a postsecondary education. I can’t wrap my mind around illiteracy, or why there would be illiteracy. I say that because I think those are the results of intentional decisions by folks who think that education should be a scarce resource. It isn’t scarce; there are enough people who know how to teach. An overwhelming amount of people on the planet have the intellectual capacity and the desire, so the knowledge is not a scarce resource, nor is the time or space. So I think we need to ask real questions about why Americans are okay with the 60-70% graduation rate. They say 75%, but with some groups there exists a 50% + drop/push out rate. How is that good for the country? We certainly know that that doesn’t work for the kids. So I work from an understanding that that is not necessary, nor is it inevitable. It’s not inevitable that education continues to exist this way.

You have to look at history in a couple of ways – you need to be criticalist but not a relativist. A relativist would say “nothing ever changes and it’s all the same.” A criticalist would look at existence of inequity. You can document the existence of inequity but also document the change that happens. Cati, the idea that you and I can have this conversation in this very office at this very college, is a result of changes that people who came before us made. It wasn’t inevitable that there would be racial and gendered exclusions in the college, because in 1887 it would have been very difficult for you and I to be here. We can’t exist in a space like nothing ever changes.  Gloria Ladson-Billings talks about that.  Who would have thought that as a kid in my lifetime there would be a post-apartheid South Africa? These challenges we face, people have faced challenges before. I firmly believe that they can be overcome, but they do exist.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

9780807754399_p0_v1_s260x420You just co-wrote a powerful book with three outstanding teachers and comrades of ours (Rudy Dueñas, Veronica García, and Jorge López) entitled, Critical Media Pedagogy: Teaching for Achievement in City Schools. How is the underlying philosophy, or rather, the political philosophy of this book relevant to future educators and researchers?

ERNEST MORRELL

Well, I think in a couple of ways. The first one is authorship. It’s a book written with teachers, I mean we’re all teachers, but teachers who are currently in the K-12 system. The book is on critical media pedagogy, but it began as this collaborative inquiry group working with teachers, I guess in the same way I was working unconsciously almost 20 years ago, asking oneself as a teacher researcher, “What are some of the problems you see in the classroom? How can you collect information both about the problem and about possible solutions to the problem? How can you understand this process as an inquirer?” As opposed to waiting for someone from the outside to diagnose the problem and provide the solutions. So we began thinking about the readings we had in common, and then real questions of practice, like what does it mean to teach humanities in the media age? That was a collaborative inquiry question that myself and the teachers of those schools thought about. We began reading together. They began modifying the units that they were teaching. We would ask, what do we need to learn in order to be able to do this? What do we need to learn about what we are doing? How will we know if we’ve been successful? And those are the questions I still ask when I’m out working with students and teachers in classrooms. What information do we need to bring to this problem that we’ve identified for ourselves externally, like what does our bibliography need to be? What do we need to read together?  But then what do we need to learn about our reaction to this process that’s more like our ethnographer research hats. What information do we collect from practice? And when we collect that, then what do we do with that information that helps us understand whether we are on the right track? I think part of the future of education is working with teachers in that way, this collaborative inquiry process, collaborative planning time, action research groups, teachers writing books for each other, where the university researcher may have a role to play but is largely facilitating that cultural work with teachers.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

And for educational practices?

ERNEST MORRELL

Now, what it means for the future of educational practice, I think a lot of the things I said before about the purpose of education and the role that young people play in creating their own knowledge, and using the latest technological tools to do that, a lot of that is in the book. Whether that’s kids becoming filmmakers or artists, critical interpreters of media and that sort of thing, I definitely think it’s a part of the future of education. Like for example, in a student’s digital portfolio there will be a place where she wrote about a film she put together, and it will be on her website, alongside her blog, and not just these five paragraph essays that are read and gone from the teacher. It means that we have to regard young people and their stories differently, and we have to regard young people and their productive capabilities differently.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

Thank you so much for sharing these rich and intimate experiences with us. I will conclude with this last question. What projects are you working on currently and what does future research look like for you?

ERNEST MORRELL

There are two more books that will probably come out this year that have already been finished. One is from a series of lectures that I gave in Boston, MA, a couple of years ago on powerful teaching. The other one, a co-edited book that deals with the teaching of English. There are some collaborative projects engaging in a critical pedagogy of social studies at large. Our Ethnic Studies Project, led by you [Cati] through IUME is certainly important in thinking about how, as people are alluding to this demographic shift in the population of this country, like what does it mean to have a culturally, socially, and technologically relevant pedagogy brings us back to the study of culture and ethnicity. What does that look like in K-12 settings, in high school settings? So the work that you’ve been involved with on the ground, and that of others with teaching Ethnic Studies, is important and will become another book I co-edit with you and Jorge López. I also want to do a book that looks at our larger comprehensive model of school engagement. I don’t like to think of it as school reform, but one that focuses on instructional leadership and school climate, youth engagement, parent engagement and social supports. I will probably do that book with Pedro Noguera. We also have a special issue of a journal that came out onfile “City Youth and the Pedagogy of Participatory Media” in The Journal of Learning, Media and Technology. It’s a British journal, so I definitely think that more of this work in youth and media production is work we will continue to do. So I guess that seems like a lot, but really, it’s still moving down the same path. More of the new work will look at larger comprehensive schoolwork and teacher learning, where some of the other work is books on student learning.

CATI DE LOS RÍOS

Incredible, Profe, you’ve accomplished so much and you’re still so young. Your past, present, and future is more than compelling, Dr. Morrell. Thanks again for your time, your mentorship, and for shining vast light and inspiration in so many of our academic trajectories.

ERNEST MORRELL

Young? I’m not young?! I’m old!

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 4.12.59 PMCATI V. DE LOS RÍOS is a doctoral student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) in Harlem. She holds a B.A. in Chicana/o Studies and Spanish Literature from Loyola Marymount University, an M.T.S. in Theological Studies and Secondary Education from Harvard University and an Ed.M. in Curriculum & Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught high school Literacy and Ethnic Studies courses in California and Massachusetts for six years, Adult ESL classes for many years, and is currently an adjunct instructor at City College New York and Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include the aesthetic contours of Latina/o critical literacies, immigration & curriculum studies, emergent bilingualism, critical pedagogy, youth activism, and high school Ethnic Studies. She is also a community organizer and Core member of New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s