One Podcast’s Mission to Jumpstart a Revolution in Education
Q&A 14 April 2021
By Chris Unger, Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University, and Jim McCue
We want this to feel like we’re provoking an awakening at every level. There are educators, school leaders, and district leaders—who know something is wrong but don’t know what to do about it.
Faculty, Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University
We recently connected with Chris Unger and Jim McCue, cohosts of A Revolution in Education podcast, to explore the need to design a space for proliferating ideas within the learner-centered education movement, why their podcast can be a catalyst for inspiring advocates within that movement, and why these conversations need to amplify the voices of young learners.
Q. What does it mean to start a Revolution in Education?
Jim: When I think about the term “revolution”—especially within the day-to-day work that I’m doing with schools around culture, identity, teaching, mindset shifts, transformation, and advocating for anti-racist pedagogy—I think about deliberate mindsets that need to be manifested across an entire system.
The trauma of what’s happening in conventional education is felt by everyone. It’s felt by those who have historically been the most marginalized by their experiences within conventional education, and it’s experienced by those who continue to benefit from the power given by not being marginalized.
That begs the need for a true, diverse revolution. And, as a co-host of the podcast, I see my role as akin to a conduit in the back taking notes or passing around a microphone.
This is about giving communities the autonomy to recognize their own voices and serving as a bridge for those communities doing rad, disruptive work. Communities need to know that they can connect with others around best practices, protocols, and problem solving approaches.
And, a revolution can be small or large, but it always starts in communities, and hopefully, spreads from there.
Chris: When I think of inspiring a revolution, my thinking always returns to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Everyone remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but there were thousands of people, in every corner of the country, who rose up (and are still rising up) to make contributions to advance social justice.
And, the larger groundshaking advances that have been made were catalyzed by small acts, by such individuals as John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and countless others who often go nameless in the history books. I feel like there are parallels to the movement of transforming education. There’s a small, but growing, group of people like Education Reimagined (featured in Episode 7 of Series 1) and Getting Smart (featured in Episode 6 of Series 1), taking action to spark conversations that provide beacons of hope for others across the country through storytelling and convening.
These groups are talking to each other about how we can do school differently, but I’m willing to guess that most educators, parents, and kids don’t know these conversations are happening and what possibilities are out there. There’s no broad-reaching mechanism for delivering that information to them and sparking their imaginations. That’s another reason why this podcast exists—if we can build enough community and connections via mechanisms like this, who knows what’s possible?
I’m inspired to think that someone will be introduced to the podcast and think, “Wow, they’re speaking my language. I feel like the young people I’m serving are being harmed by the system, and now, I’m hearing there are other people who see that as well, and even more, are trying to do something about it. I want to join that revolution.”
I do the work of connecting people in this field all the time, and some people call me an educational mad scientist or matchmaker. I embrace that. I love connecting aligned people and empowering individuals to discover that they can play a role, even if it’s a small one, in transforming the education system.
Q. What inspired you to create A Revolution in Education podcast?
Chris: Inspiring and empowering people to think differently about education is a concept that I take very seriously, as someone who teaches an educational entrepreneurship class. In my work, I’ve talked to a lot of organizations in the education space, including hundreds of schools across four or five dozen districts and almost every state department of education along the Eastern seaboard. Through this, I have explored just about every layer of the education system. One common theme has emerged: a feeling of disconnection.
I know the education environment incredibly well, well enough to know that the policies and funding structures that dictate that environment are inherently not serving students well. I knew we couldn’t, as a field, continue to walk around the edges of these issues anymore. The system is broken, is completely inequitable, and we need a revolution. And, I thought, “So, what am I going to do about it?” I wanted people to know that you don’t have to do school the way it’s currently done.
Then, it occurred to me that I know a lot of cool people doing really innovative work in education and thought that a podcast would be a great vehicle for amplifying their work. As a medium, podcasts are incredibly accessible and convenient: people listen to them when they’re running, driving, or just going about their everyday life. It’s a low lift for listeners to get relevant and thought-provoking information.
In April 2020, I took that idea and focused Series 1 on engaging 28 educators from around the country in a conversation about the need and opportunity for a revolution in education. In July 2020, this seven-part Series 1 was released.
Q. How did this partnership between the two of you emerge?
Chris: In October 2020, I met Jim as I was preparing for Series 2 of A Revolution in Education. He’d read an article I’d written about Philadelphia schools, and I knew that he was thinking, “Who the hell is this guy writing about ‘superhero schools’ challenging the status quo in education?” Then, I told him about my journey to be a catalyst for transforming the education system, and he thought that sounded like a cool idea, so here we are.
I immediately enlisted him in the design of Series 2. We then began recording in January 2021 and released in mid-March. While Series 1 focused on the need and opportunity for a revolution in education, this series uplifts the stories of revolutionaries working to make a difference in education. We are really digging in on spotlighting the lives of those pushing the envelope in education, including what inspired them and the work that they are doing
And, we already have aspirations beyond the podcast, including wanting to figure out how we can leverage these relationships to bring people together in more virtual and physical spaces.
Jim: The way Chris tells it, it sounds like a really awesome trip from the ‘70s, where you’re on the road and meet a stranger, on the same mission as you, that you never thought could become your soul brother (or sister). That’s how I relate to this podcast. It was a beautiful connection.
When I reached out to Chris, I had just moved back to Philadelphia after being away for almost a decade. Chris responded, and we started chatting about our experiences in education.
I’m so moved by students being a part of this podcast, because as a teacher, I want to model how I’m hoping, one day, all students will be able to engage the world.
I’ve taught in a lot of different environments, including a very segregated rural community in Mississippi, where I learned a lot about students, education, and the policies and oppressive structures that marginalize students of color.
Then, I moved to Seattle, to do some organizing within a community of East African families and youth, before going to San Diego to work at a very progressive charter school that emphasizes student voice and teacher autonomy.
Coming back to Philadelphia, I really wanted to continue growing alongside individuals who are really mindful about equity, empowering leaders and young people, and transforming education. When I listened to the first season of Chris’s podcast, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of, and the friendship and partnership have only grown from there.
Q. Why is it important to insert a variety of voices in the conversation about a revolution in education?
Jim: This podcast is about us structuring and facilitating a dialogue around what a revolution in education could be. Chris and I have been really attentive to moving beyond our perspectives on education, and instead, focusing on inserting the voices of all those that are being impacted by the failings of conventional education—kids, parents, community leaders, and others.
This is about building a way for powerful communication to be developed and proliferated and not about stripping away communities’ agency or power. They will have to be the ones who lead the charge.
Chris: We want this to feel like we’re provoking an awakening at every level. There are educators, school leaders, and district leaders—who know something is wrong but don’t know what to do about it.
There’s so much bureaucracy. Too often, wanting to do something differently means going to a school committee and other governing bodies to get approval. I can imagine the process itself being disheartening. We want to be mindful of the people in the trenches doing this work.
We want to, through gathering insights and inspiration from others, find a better path to serving youth. If we ask ourselves, “Are we fully harnessing the potential, creativity, and passion that inspired adults to go into education and make a difference in kids’ lives?” I don’t feel we can authentically answer with a “yes.”
Instead, educators are stuck playing a losing game. They are stuck in an Industrial-era system of education that’s going to take years to dismantle, but they need to be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel and know that they aren’t alone. That’s how you start a revolution.
Q. Why was it important to engage young learners in the production of this podcast and the forwarding of a revolution?
Jim: I’m so moved by students being a part of this podcast, because as a teacher, I want to model how I’m hoping, one day, all students will be able to engage the world. What message would it send if we were to take on this podcast and not incorporate students in this work? It would go against everything we stand for. We can’t simply bring a group of adults in to talk about young learners’ future if young learners aren’t a part of shaping that dialogue.
So, in that spirit, Chris reached out to a friend at Barrington High School in Barrington, Rhode Island, to explore if some of their students, particularly any interested in pursuing pathways in multimedia production, wanted to help produce the podcast.
We then asked the team of students who responded—Jack Culton, Xan Maddock-Mark, and Hunter Kuchenbaur—to craft their vision for the podcast and outline their potential contribution to its creation. What’s emerged from their intentional and authentic guidance is a podcast video series, led by Jack; a redesign of our website, led by Xan; and a broadening of our social media reach, led by Hunter. We also now have a newsletter. This evolution of our online presence and the creation of Series 2 would not have been possible without their tremendous work.
And, the truth is, they coordinate a lot of the production themselves. These kids don’t need a revolution, they are how this podcast runs. They are so innovative, curious, and entrepreneurial. For example, we often give them the outline of a complex task, and they’re able to run with it. I think it’s really meaningful to give students the opportunity to create without a blueprint. That enables them to dream up something authentic and original.
This experience also gives our students a sense of autonomy, builds relationships, and fosters trust that allows space for warm pushes to be manifested. I can easily go to Jack, Xan, or Hunter and say, “How can we make this better together?” And, they respond positively because they know my feedback comes from a heartfelt place. They are also given the space to offer the same constructive guidance to me.
Chris: We felt an overwhelming need to be true to our mission and create a space that advocates on behalf of and empowers young people. When I think about the place where this is happening with consistency, I always think of learner-centered organizations, like One Stone in Boise, Idaho, who are very intentional about immersing kids in the world and empowering them. In fact, at a minimum, two-thirds of the One Stone board is always made up of students.
They are enabling young people to ask the question, “Why are you preparing me to make a contribution in the world later, when I’m capable of doing that right now?”
Through this podcast, we’re really trying to forward practice, speak to the art of teaching, spark young people’s passion and creativity, and give them the runway, mentoring, and structure to cultivate skills that will be valuable throughout their life. This isn’t just practice, this is a real and authentic enterprise.
Jim has done a great job of empowering these students by letting them explore their abilities, receive positive feedback, and reinforce the feeling that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world right now.
Our education system needs to provide opportunities like this to kids, to create the cohesive communities we want to see. We want to leverage the relationships and partnerships we’re cultivating through this podcast, and support the design of better mentoring and apprenticeship programs. We need to engage kids at every level—from late elementary, to middle and high school—in real world work that centers building strong, empathic, nurturing, and loving relationships between young people and adults. It will be a beautiful thing when that starts to grow and spread in communities.
A Revolution in Education team is hoping Series 3 can be entirely student-run and specifically feature students talking about what they want to see regarding changes in the education system. Reach out to Chris Unger (email@example.com) or Jim McCue (firstname.lastname@example.org) to provide recommendations for potential podcast guests.
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