Steven Strull has served as the Director of the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) since 2006, and is now based in New York City. Melissa Davis and Donna Reid interviewed him via phone to get his perspective on several topics—including the roots of Critical Friends Groups, the growth of CFG work, equity, and the next NSRF Winter Meeting, which will be held in Houston January 15-17, 2009.
A+: In your letter to NSRF members when you first became director, you said that you began your educative journey as a classroom teacher at DuSable High School in Chicago, where you learned about the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Annenberg Institute. Can you talk a little bit about how those organizations shaped your career and your thoughts on education?
Steven: Absolutely. Two things happened simultaneously when I was a first-year classroom teacher in Chicago. The first was that Bill Ayers and Bill Schubert, who were professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to DuSable High School to begin a series of conversations with us about small schools. DuSable had been a Coalition of Essential Schools school back when there were only Nine Common Principles, and that was the lens we used to frame some of our work. Our principal had introduced us to the notion, as Ted Sizer would say, that "schooling and school reform ought to be a conversation among friends."
So Bill and Bill came to DuSable and started talking about small schools, and I thought, "Well, that’s just about the silliest thing I ever heard of." Ten schools inside of one school? What does that mean, and who goes where, and who does what?" It just wasn’t a natural fit. My image – in fact the collective image of schooling was that a school was a building, a building was a school. Anything else was kind of silly.
The second thing was that Ambassador Walter Annenberg had given the challenge grant to public education. The Annenberg Institute was set up at Brown University alongside the Coalition of Essential Schools. As a CES school, DuSable received the invitation for faculty members to apply to become Critical Friends Group Coaches with the newly formed National School Reform Faculty at Annenberg. My assistant principal gave me the packet, and said that she thought that this was something I should apply for, and the community came around and coached me through the application process. Looking back on it now, it was a very respectful way to enter the work. We wrote the application, which was many, many, many pages long, with many questions and scenarios. A couple of months later, we got word back that I'd been chosen to receive this training.
That was in 1996, so it was the second year of CFG Coaches training, and it was a really, really big deal. I was getting flown to Seattle, we were getting put up at a very nice hotel, all of our expenses were being paid, and we were going to receive a stipend to do this work. So to be told that I was going to travel across the country and be treated like a professional and receive a stipend for my work was big, big, big, stuff.
Those two things together set the course for the career that either I’ve chosen, or the one that’s chosen me.
A+: That's a great story and it’s astonishing now to think of CFG training as being such an elite group because it has spread so far. Now there are so many established places in the country that are offering it, and we’re happy to be one here in Houston. Besides Houston, where do you see the strongholds of the CFG movement?
Steven: It's in a lot of different places. New York is very strong. South Florida is very strong. New England is very strong—everything from an entire high school, Souhegan High School in New Hampshire, to a school district like Brookline, Massachusetts, where Gene Thompson-Grove [NSRF founder] works. Southern California is very strong. Denver and the Colorado area. San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Albuquerque. This is just off the top of my head.
A+: We'll just say, "And the list goes on and on"
Steven: Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Mathis, TX. Just think about how strong the work is just in Texas. And the people – Gene Thompson-Grove always reminds me that it’s about the people. See, you have Stephen Spring moving from Maine to Austin, and the work grows. You have people like Angela Breidenstein and her colleagues at Trinity University in San Antonio, and the work grows because the people are committed to making the work grow. Like you guys do in Houston. You’ve taken the CFG Newsletter and all of the stuff that you are able to pull out is deeper and stronger and more important than anything that National could ever do, because it’s really about teachers and kids and families and schools asking themselves hard questions – critical questions – about the work that they do and the work that they ask of children.
While national organizations might provide a bully pulpit – we might be able to organize national meetings, put out some publications and do some research – the work happens when a teacher and her colleagues sit in a classroom and look at student and teacher work. That's the power of this work. That’s what I did in 1996 when I came back from the training seminar and that's still the core of our work.
A+: Talking about the core of your work, I notice that social equity is front and center in NSRF's mission statement. Why do you think that social equity is so important in public education?
Steven: Because public education is basically an unfair construct. It is a construct that favors white, middle and upper middle class children. The basic dilemma is that the children who need our public schools most often get the least. As a national organization committed to student achievement through adult learning, NSRF would like to have some role or responsibility in changing that.
Race and class ought not to be a determining factor. The hidden curriculum, which is fairly well defined in the literature, should not have predictive value on educative outcomes. For example, I’ve heard that the state of Indiana predicts future needs for prison beds based on third grade achievement data. If we can predict how many prisons we're going to need based on third grade achievement data, we have a big equity problem. To pretend to do this work without addressing that fundamental issue does a disservice to the children we are supposed to be serving.
I tell school faculties all the time that we have our degrees, we have our middle class incomes, we have a degree of comfortableness in this life. Our clients don't have that, and it's up to us to help make sure that they do. When I visit a certain, very complicated school in Brooklyn this morning, I'm going to walk in the front door and know that most of the children inside this building will not graduate from high school, and will be destined to live a life of either abject poverty or some sort of lower, very low or middle class existence within our service economy. And if NSRF can help interrupt that – at all – then our mission is worthwhile.
A+: Why do you feel that Critical Friends Groups and adults getting together to talk about student learning are such powerful models for addressing some of those issues?
Steven: Because, it gives us permission to say "We don’t know." It gives us permission to open up our classroom doors and ask a colleague for help. We can walk into someone's classroom and say, "Since I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing, my guess is that you might not be either. Maybe together, we can figure something out." We can't look to the state standards to figure it all out. We can't externalize our involvement and complicity in the status quo. We can interrupt some of those realities of schooling in this country.
I think that part of it has to do with the misogynistic legacy. Most teachers in this country remain female: they’re middle class, they’re white, they’re in their forties, and they’re women. And most administrators across the country are still men. So you have a situation that began well over 100 years ago where the political authority is being male dominated and the workforce is female dominated. I think part of the isolation in classrooms was a survival strategy, and one that we have to unpack together in order to make the changes that we know we need to make.
A+: Could you tell the people in Houston why you picked Houston for the Winter Meeting and what are some things we can look forward to by having the Winter Meeting here?
Steven: We asked you because we knew that you could do it. We knew that Houston had the resources to help us pull it off, and we knew you had the critical mass of local and district involvement to help populate the Winter Meeting. The depth and breadth of the work in Houston and in the greater Texas area almost demand that we come to Houston for this year's Winter Meeting.
A+: I'm afraid that a lot of people in Houston don’t really associate their CFG work with NSRF, yet. We're working on that, but what are some things you would say to encourage Houstonians to be part of NSRF and to feel connected to NSRF?
Steven: Become a member – even at the smallest level. Don’t let finances get in the way. We can always talk to folks about scholarshipping their membership. Through a robust Center of Activity like Houston A+ Challenge, it’s important to push this notion that NSRF is a collective and a membership organization.
Members get paper copies of Connections and are connected to our distribution listserv to learn about Winter Meetings and facilitator meetings and other kinds of queries that come across the coaches' listserv. Members are involved in a national movement. I think that NSRF is a stronger movement than an organization. Our Centers of Activity are very strong organizations, but I think NSRF national is a movement, and I would encourage folks, if CFG work, as it clearly is, is having an effect in Houston and in Greater Texas and is part of someone’s craft, then they should become a member and officially become a part of the movement.
A+: That's a great call to action to end on, and we’ll let you get out to your next appointment.
Steven: Well, thank you very much. I hope that was helpful.
Are you looking for a way to encourage respectful listening and deep conversations about a topic that is very important to your school? The World Café is a process that allows the collective intelligence of a group to emerge. World Café design principles include setting the context, creating hospitable space, exploring questions that matter, encouraging everyone’s contributions, connecting diverse perspectives, listening together for insights, and sharing collective discoveries.
To try a World Café, first think about some questions that really matter to your work. Invite people to join you in conversation, and let them know that this process is different from business as usual by setting the room up with small tables set with cheerful tablecloths, large sheets of paper, markers, and even candles or flowers. Encourage people to record their thoughts on the paper and to look for the meaning that emerges in the middle. After a while, participants switch tables and build on the thoughts and wisdom that are emerging. Respectful listening is foundational to holding a World Café.
For more guidance and resources, explore the World Café website at http://www.theworldcafe.com/what.htm.
Dear Donna: Can I attend the Winter Meeting in January even if I am not a member of NSRF? What happens at a Winter Meeting?
— NEVER BEEN
Dear NEVER BEEN : CFG Coaches of all experience levels and membership levels are welcome at the Winter Meeting. If you are already a member of NSRF, then you get a discounted registration fee. If you are not yet a member, then your Winter Meeting registration fee includes one year of NSRF membership. Remember that if you were trained here in 2008, then the Houston A+ Challenge paid for your first year of NSRF membership, so you are eligible for the member discount.
Houstonians Tim Martindell, Mary Matthews and Jonett Miniel are on the national planning committee. At Winter Meeting, you’ll spend most of your time in a Home Group that functions like a CFG with a skilled National Facilitator as the coach. Every participant is expected to fully participate by bringing student work, teacher work, or a dilemma to share. Besides immersing yourself in the work of the home group, you will also have opportunities to network with coaches from all over the United States as well as be engaged in new learning from a keynote speaker or new texts.
I am as excited about attending my tenth Winter Meeting this year as I was for the first one that I attended in Cambridge, Massachusetts, back in 1998. Since I was trained to be a CFG coach, I have missed just one Winter Meeting and that was only because I was taking a break from work and travel when my children were very young. I love going to the NSRF Winter Meetings because it is a chance to fully focus on my CFG skills and practices for two and a half days. I get to meet people from all over the country who also value deep reflection and collaboration. On one level, I always leave the Winter Meeting with a few new tools in my toolbox—maybe a text that challenges my thinking about equity, or a new protocol that I can use at my workplace. On a deeper level, I know I will leave the Winter Meeting with a renewed commitment to making CFGs work.
I hope to see you next January 15-17 at the Winter Meeting at the InterContinental Hotel on the West Loop right here in Houston.
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.