We Are Rockstar Educators

We Are Rockstar Educators

I have always liked Billy Joel the musician, but I gained a greater respect for his work last year when Sirius provided Joel a channel for several months as part of an event around his *residency* at Madison Square Garden.  Along with playing his catalog, Sirius opened their vault to play some of his many recorded masterclasses, one of which involved Howard Stern as the moderator.  The masterclasses and interviews provided me more lenses in which to enjoy his work and see things similar to how he saw them.  Billy Joel is not a pedagogue per se, but his knowledge base as well as the passion for his discipline are both evident and infectious.  I found listening to Joel similar to Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz for Young People, although Marsalis’ program has an evident pedagogical foundation (grounded around music theory).

This week, I was listening to Sirius XM when Billy Joel’s All About Soul played through the car speakers.  My first thought at hearing this (or any) somewhat hit from an artist is usually one of dread:  did something bad happen to Billy Joel?  That was inevitably replaced by a joy at hearing the song for the first time in likely over a decade, new ears to engage an artifact of a bygone time.  My wife and I play a game where we try to recite lyrics to less-than-hit songs, so while the song played I fumbled to catch up with the lyrics,  failing and singing along with the excellent harmonizing background vocals instead.

Who is singing backing vocals on All About Soul?


Early 1990s sensation Color Me Badd.  Looking at that picture, lumping their work into Boy Band craze and diluting their hits to All 4 Love posits Color Me Badd as an unfriendly reminder of the loud colors and cultural largesse of pop culture pre-Grunge.  If you look into Color Me Badd’s history, however, and the respect the group had from producers and R&B critics beyond the album C.M.B, the narrative is much more complex and sees Color Me Badd as a collection of respected talent falling prey to a kitschy name and appropriated first album.  Color Me Badd wasn’t taking table scraps from Billy Joel on the way down; Billy Joel was working with Color Me Badd in a long tradition of rockstars and backing vocals throughout popular music.

I have always found background vocals and vocalists fascinating, a space to spend my cognitive surplus.  There are historical example: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and others featured in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom; gospel group The Jordanaires who backed Elvis for the majority of his career, and The New Jersey Mass Choir providing the backing for Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is (and later charting with their own version).  A tangent from backing as a career involves the random places where rockstars provide backing for one another:  Sting backing Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, Luther Vandross backing David Bowie’s Young Americans, Toni Tennille backing both Pink Floyd and Elton John in the late 70s.  Then there are the backing trade-offs:  The Rolling Stones and The Beatles (We Love YouAll You Need is Love), David Crosby and Phil Collins (HeroAnother Day in Paradise), Kenny Loggins & Michael McDonald (trading the 1985 song No Lookin’ Back).  Singing and backing is a time-honored tradition of camaraderie and support amongst rockstars.

Rockstar as a term is problematic in education.  The MOOC phenomenon has led to media pundits and platform developers and their mouthpieces to view teaching from a popularity lens; those at the front of these MOOCs are purported to be regal and powerful by way of their MOOC, the performance on-camera as The Important.  Despite pushback from many of these so-called *rockstars*, the labeling continues.  George Siemens famously said of *rockstars* at the Teacher Tank via #et4online this past April

I’ve never understood why the hell people use the word rockstar because typically they’re into drugs and alcohol, they’re very unproductive, they rarely show up on time…Axl Rose keeps audiences waiting for two hours.  So when you say you have a rockstar team…

I look at this quote as an addendum to an earlier Siemens passage on ‘rockstar-ism’ from 2013, where he blogged,

Additionally, there has been growing creep of “rockstar-ism” in education where we look for “the person” to give us “the solution”. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the view that the answer can be brought to us by someone outside of our system. This view is appealing but completely false.

Siemens is right about the Waiting for Superman problem in regards to solutionism in education.  However, I disagree on the labeling of rockstars.  It is not that George is incorrect, but the rockstar motif is not going away.  Education is viewed by many as a delivery service, which is why people say the system needs to change because we can now Google everything.  For those of us in the profession, we have understood this for generations as seen through learning theories like constructivism, constructionism, connectivism, activity theory, social learning…learning is about transformation and supplementation rather than recitation and standardization.  We work toward providing this for our students in our localized environments and networks, and we aspire to have a reach beyond these networks to see the work seep into other spaces.  We do this in the face of a dominant paradigm ringing a klaxon of Education Hasn’t Changed and Video Is The Way and Quizzes As Personalization.  We do this because we believe in education as a transformational opportunity, well above and beyond training and competency.

Over 30 years after Time Magazine named the personal computer the Man Machine of the Year, there exists a dominant hierarchy in schools and organizations where the computer can do the content work of the teacher as well as assist as a tool for assessment and management, elements beholden to locked-down and narrowly-focused learning.  There is a resistance to this approach, a negotiation borne of transformational opportunity where ownership and identity and activity are paramount, and this resistance is growing and gaining support.  And that support has come with recognition and status.  It is important to criticize the status quo, but it is just as important to be a part of the subcultures doing the good work.

Recently, Jim Groom found hope in this transformational energy, seeing it catch on outside our subcultures and silos

When Bates, Nipper, Garrison and the other giants of distance education scholarship looked at telecommunications and computing as an affordance for transformational learning, it was because of telecommunications as an opportunity for teamwork and communication heretofore impossible in the field.  The excellent work happening today is inextricably linked to this spirit of camaraderie.  The MOOC might have a media connotation of LMS courses with enrollment in the hundreds of thousands, but the urMOOCs, those borne of a connectivist spirit, are growing in number and engagement:  #rhizo15, #clmooc, #humanmooc, #moocmooc, #tvsz, and more.  OER may be in a constant negotiation with paywalls and closed access (not to mention something of a philosophical crisis), but adoption of Openness in education is making significant strides in political and user adoption.  Ownership of digital space as a means of digital identity and externalization of learning (rather than reliance on an LMS or personalized software) is a focus of many Ed-Tech architectures:  a foundation of APIs, the Domain of One’s Own initiative, Federated Wiki, etc.  The practical manifestation of learning theory linked to do to learn to do is alive and well in 2015; better still, the people who are working in one part are predominantly participating in others.

And that brings me back to 1993 when Billy Joel asked Color Me Badd to provide backing for a single on his River of Dreams album.  This is the side of rockstars as collaborators and musicians that we should celebrate, we should negotiate.  A man who has worn the negative label of rockstar but whose love of the music is unquestioned partners with a group whose popular acclaim was replaced by critical acclaim, one partnership in a history of many across music.  These partnerships happen all the time in music; we rarely notice them, and when we do they fade into memory rather quickly, but the collaboration creates a sum greater than its parts.  And these partnerships are happening in Ed-Tech constantly; respected individuals working together, new voices invited to join in to further the discussion and start new ones.  And the result is a landscape where, in the face of declining revenue and suspended safeguards of tenure and solutionism, a rising chorus bands together to produce good work they believe in.  They forge forward and they work together because they love the music.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPxUukyTI2I]

Posted on: June 18, 2015admin

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