A Species of Moonshots

A Species of Moonshots

By Angela Schroden

Humanity’s progress is a series of amazing, audacious thinking. We are a species of Moonshots.”

History is full of moonshots. A title reserved for the innovations that changed mankind. The world-altering actions that ensured life would never be the same- the printing press, anesthesia, the light bulb, Google. When Edison…snatched up the spark of Prometheus in his little pear-shaped glass bulb,” German historian Emil Ludwig observed, “it meant that fire had been discovered for the second time, that mankind had been delivered again from the curse of night” (Bradley, 2011).

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The moonshot changes everything.

Moonshot thinking is the Steves (Wozniak and Jobs), seeing massive, clunky computers filling rooms and thinking, “I want that to be smaller, sleeker, and in everyone’s home.” Their 1970’s moonshot resulted in the Apple I and eventually Apple II- the first PC to have a color screen, keyboard and applications to make work and life easier. If you use spreadsheets or give presentations, you can thank them for being able to do it without completely losing your mind.

“Every moonshot begins with a noble cause – a vision by the founders to make the world a better place” (Sculley,2014). A moonshot is not merely a great invention, nor a brave action. It is a decision to be bothered by that which holds man back. To look at history’s impossible and say, “What if…”.

What if we do things differently? What if we change the status quo?

What if we choose to be bothered by schooling being done TO children rather than being done FOR children?

What if we teach literacy through the lens of using reading and writing to take actions that literally change the world?

An Audacious Dream

My moonshot is for children to learn to read the word and the world (Freire & Macedo, 1987). That our students come to realize they have a voice. That what they have to think and say matters. That learning to read and write can be the vehicle to effect change in their world and the world at large. That, in fact, the whole point of reading is to DO SOMETHING with what they’ve read. Harvey & Goudvis capture this idea in their Comprehension Continuum (Comprehension Toolkit, 2016), “With new insights and understandings, learners can actively use knowledge and apply what they have learned…to take action.”

When I became a mother four years ago the phrase I heard more than any other was, “Cherish this time. It goes by so fast.” Three weeks ago, as I watched my four-year-old with his Nemo and Dory backpack half the length of his body teeter up the stairs to pre-K my heart and mind cried out, “Where did the time go? How are we already here?” In the quiet moments when I reflect on our time together, questions creep in- Did I prepare him for this? Does he know he is loved? Does he understand how much he has to offer? Does he realize how smart he is? Will his teachers ask him about his love of butterflies and trains as much they ask him to answer correctly? Will he learn how to be his uniquely human self? Will his teacher help him discover his moonshot?

Smokey Daniels and Sara Ahmed speak to these questions eloquently in their important book Upstanders (2014). “Today, we need to nurture a new generation of Upstanders—active and informed human beings who will make brave choices in their own lives, their own communities, and on the ever-shrinking world stage.” (p.4) Through this lens school isn’t something that prepares you for life, it uses life to prepare you for now. In the moments we are in. This active and informed stance supports students at all ages to wrestle with hard questions, realities and conversations around important and very real issues– hunger, homelessness, equity, prejudice, power.

In That Workshop Book (2007), Samantha Bennett and her colleagues demonstrate the ability of kids K-8 to tackle these complex topics when they are provided a meaningful idea, quality text, expert teaching, tremendous amounts of time to read, write, think and talk, and an opportunity to speak. “The beauty of learning is that everything is interconnected, so no matter where you start, it will affect a whole bunch of other things. There is really only one thing to do: dive in and persist in the pursuit of understanding these really important things. Children need us.” (p 208).

All interaction with text should move us towards understanding, where learners merge their thinking with content to acquire knowledge and insight. Students can use their knowledge and insight to take action when they feel strongly about an idea, issue or challenge. In essence, students are empowered to have their own moonshot thinking.

The Reality

In 1981, after being asked if he was nervous about making his first space shuttle flight, John Young responded, “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.” Truth.

Moonshots are hard. Terrifying. Complicated. So many things can go wrong. So many actions require forethought, precision, expertise. The same is true of teaching students to read the word and the world. Sometimes the desire to get them to the important things– concentrated thinking, deep understanding, courageous action, is interrupted by the reality that we have readers who don’t yet have ownership of the reading process. The strategic systems and actions that make the mystery of the written word and the meaning it holds are still a work in progress. What then? Is the moonshot forfeited for technical assistance? Do we focus on what isn’t and place the what could be aside? Do we have to pick the word or the world?

In short, no.

The question is not, “do I teach the reading process or taking action”; rather, the question is “how will I teach the reading process with the goal of taking action in mind.”  

My mentor, friend and boss, Stephanie Harvey said it best when she exclaimed, “The whole point of learning to read is to do something with what you’ve read!” Whether that is writing about your reading, creating new content, illustrating what you’ve learned, taking formal action or simply talking to someone else about what you’ve read- there is little impetus to learn the process absent of real purpose.

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How do we get there?

Moonshots are many things; remarkable in their creativity, ambitious in scope, energizing to the mind and spirit and transformative to all involved. Simultaneously, they are overwhelming in their day-to-day operation of managing every decision, action and observation, putting out fires, changing course, admitting failure, wallowing in failure, getting over failure, finding another way, finding yet another way, finding another way with less people, less funding, less time…

How, then, do we keep the passion for the moonshot amidst the noise of the everyday? How do we, in the words of Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, teach children that in order “to construct any kind of meaning in our literacy learning and our life learning, we must find ways to cull and prune the details with which we are bombarded. We must reorganize and create our own explanations for what we are learning, our own definitions of our lives at any particular juncture”(Mosaic of Thought, p242).

How do we teach the word and the world?

While there is no prescription nor plan for guaranteeing any moonshot, here are four specific actions I and the courageous educators at Booker T. Washington Elementary are taking on our journey to teaching literacy for the purpose of changing the world.

  • Focus on the systems and behaviors proficient readers use.. Decades of research point to specific actions proficient readers use to read accurately and comprehend deeply. In my work I have found most teachers have few experiences looking at and for these behaviors specifically. (Due in large part to a myopic view of literacy focused solely on standards rather than the reading process). Knowing what the behaviors are, spending time observing readers for those behaviors and collaborating with colleagues to understand how readers use those behaviors, dramatically increases the likelihood of pinpointing what readers need and planning precise instruction. Resources for these systems and behaviors can be found here. (Link to Ellin, Duke & P. David, F&P)
  • Pledge to find out what STUDENTS are interested in and passionate about.  When school is done FOR children rather than TO children, they are included in the decision making. In addition to knowing about our students, who they are, what they do when they aren’t with you, who they love, respect, and admire, we must find out what makes them excited to get out of bed every morning. What and who are they passionate about? What bothers them? What do they have an opinion about? What problems do they want to solve? These answers, which are often discovered by chance when talking to students in stolen moments between scheduled activities, can also be captured purposefully through conferences, surveys, quick writes, and targeted questions. Decide what you want to know about your students, then ask them. Their answers allow us to choose text and topics of high interest and to plan short and long term inquiries resulting in tremendous amounts of time spent reading, writing, thinking, talking and creating. Let’s not forget to ask students for feedback about their learning often. How is school going for them? What do they wish school could look and sound like? Human beings have an innate desire to succeed. They don’t always know the next step to take toward their success. Let’s include students in the process of moving forward by receiving their feedback and acting on it.
  • Embrace the Learning Dip.  Moonshots = Failure. Guaranteed. Plan for it. Embrace it. Celebrate it. The Implementation Dip illustrates what happens to all of us as we try new things. This is how it works. Suppose you want to implement reader’s workshop in your classroom after years of whole group instruction. You are comfortable with whole group. You and your students know the routine. This is your current level of performance. On the day you begin to implement workshop (your desired level of performance) you are most likely going to take a performance dip. You may feel uncomfortable, a little fearful that this workshop thing is going to be a disaster, frustrated at the lack of control you’re experiencing. Celebrate! This is where the learning happens! Reflecting on the failure and then planning a course of action to address the problem is what gets us closer to where we want to be. The goal during the implementation dip is to reduce the length and depth of the dip. Go as slow as you need and as quick as you can by using your tribe to support you through the process. All learning comes with failure. With the right feedback and support, failure is what propels you forward. Forward is the only way to reach your moonshot.

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  • Find a tribe. NASA has 18,000 employees. Google over 57,000. Apple employs more than 627,000 in their iOS ecosystem. Moonshots don’t happen alone. They can’t. They’re too complex, too vast, too difficult. It takes a tribe to make a moonshot. Your tribe may be your grade level team. Or, it may not be. Your tribe may include a colleague at a different grade level, a coach, a mentor, a teacher down the street at another school. It doesn’t matter who it is, what matters is the common desire to want more for your students. Tribes believe in each other, have a vision for what they want to achieve, push one another to reflect on student learning and personal practice, and above all support each other through the guaranteed failure of implementing new ideas. They buy into your moonshot and want to come along for the ride.

These are critical elements for any moonshot to happen, but first you have to ask: What is your moonshot?

What is the audacious thinking you have for the students you’ve been blessed to serve?

How will you honor the fact that they have experiences, thoughts, and voices that not only deserve to be heard but are desperately needing to be heard?

How will you change mankind?


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