Stir the Pot
Although Nancy Sommers' brilliant course, Teachers as Writers, is foremost a class on how to develop your writing through the creative essay, the entire class was required last semester to write an op-ed and then try to get it published. Since the op-ed is a markedly different assignment than the essay, Sommers felt the need to convince the class of the assignment's merits. "If you get published, then you get your opinion out there," she said. "This is your chance to stir the pot."
Since every student in the class had a different background, we all chose different pots that we felt needed stirring. One student wrote an entreaty to her home state, imploring state officials to resist their seemingly reflexive urge to once again cut funding for the arts. I chose to write about the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, and more generally on the new research challenges today's media presents to students. Regardless of our topic, we were all inspired to write about something that mattered to us -- something from our experience as students or teachers that we felt needed to be addressed. If you're going to stir the pot, then you better stir it with feeling.
Many of my classmates were fortunate enough to get their pieces published; however, the results were often less glamorous than we had hoped. The classmate who wrote about arts education realized the repercussions of stirring a pot close to the boiling point. "Maybe we should teach kids math before we teach them how to draw," was one of the many negative comments she received from readers. My article was published online in Education Week, but to read the piece required a subscription, which neither myself nor my classmates had. I wanted my voice to be heard, but after being published, I felt like I was shouting from some unknown location deep in cyberspace.
In light of these experiences, you might ask yourself, "Why stir the pot?" After all, opinions are stubborn things, and even the most cogent op-ed is much more likely to evoke the ire of the opposition than change anyone's mind. Besides, these issues are already being debated by policymakers, politicians, and parents. Surely whatever flavor I add to the mix will be lost within the myriad other ingredients already crowding the pot.
One op-ed certainly will not change the world, but my opinion draws from my unique experience, and therefore I can provide new insight into an ongoing debate; I can enter the conversation with the voice of a teacher. As a teacher, I am keenly aware of classroom issues -- like Wikipedia usage -- that are too small for policymakers and too classroom- specific for parents. And when teachers write about these issues, it gets teachers talking.
I rescued my op-ed from the online void by sending it to my former department head. He replied by saying, "Do you mind if I post this? I think it could spark some good debate." I was ecstatic. The impetus to write the op-ed came from my concern over some of my former colleagues' attitudes toward Wikipedia. Now, because I stirred the pot, that policy might actually be reviewed.
Stirring the pot can be a dangerous affair, but if you care about an issue, it ultimately will be a rewarding endeavor. People will disagree with you, sometimes vehemently, but that's exactly the point. When we as educators put our opinions out in the open for everyone to see, we spark debate on a topic that might otherwise be lost in the stew. The debate may be relegated to your own school, but at least you've been heard. My op-ed may not have changed a lot of minds, but perhaps it changed the one mind that inspired me to write the piece.
-- Matt Shapiro graduated in May of this year. Before earning his degree, he taught science at the middle and high school levels in New York City and Concord, Mass.
Illustration:Jeff Hopkins, Ed.M.'05