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At the Chalkface Radio Program Bucks the Education Reform Trend

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Scoop Nisker used to say, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Two educators, Shaun Johnson and Tim Slekar, have taken up this challenge, and have entered the fierce world of commercial radio, with a provocative show called "At the Chalkface." This weekly broadcast goes out online here, and features guests who offer an alternative to the dominant education reform narrative. Recent guests have included Diane Ravitch and Bill Ayers.

I asked the hosts, Pennsylvania education professor Tim Slekar and Maryland education professor Shaun Johnson, and the producer of the show, Rex Charger, to share some of the story of this improbable venture.

Question: You've been in talk radio for 15 years. What makes @The Chalkface unique?

Rex Charger (Producer and Engineer):
There seemed to be a void in the radio landscape for a show like this. The demographic is wide open: anyone with kids, anyone who's a teacher, anyone concerned about education. Tim and Shaun also offer a unique perspectives, teaching kids and now teaching teachers.

Question: Tim and Shaun are educators, not radio guys. How is it working with them?

Rex Charger: Both of them are rarely at a loss for words, so that part's easy. From a radio format standpoint, it's really been more of a refining process, as opposed to starting from scratch. They're inherently conversational, which is a huge plus. They understood right away that you're talking with the listener, not at them.

Question: So you went to the Occupy the DOE event, what was your experience like? Why did WTDY think it was worth covering this event?
Rex Charger: Occupy the DOE was an interesting experience, for sure. Seeing people from across the country converge on DC to speak their minds and share ideas was something I hadn't been a part of before. This kind of event is important for WTDY because it hits home, with the recent public education happenings in Madison and throughout Wisconsin. chalk.jpg

Question: How did @The Chalkface begin?

Shaun Johnson:
I actually started an informal podcast a couple of years ago, just me talking into my Mac using Garageband and uploading the audio to iTunes. Someone convinced me to use Blog Talk Radio as an alternative. I was always looking for someone to host it with me, but it never worked out. Then, Tim Slekar and I met through the education blogosphere, so to speak, and started doing the show together. He actually knew someone out in Madison and that transitioned the show to a traditional radio audience. We still do the informal show on Blog Talk Radio, however.

Question: What does the name mean?

Shaun Johnson:
The phrase "at the chalk face" was something I encountered in some readings from authors overseas. Apparently, it's an expression used to refer to a teacher who is in front of the class, lecturing or something. When addressing the class, a teacher is at the chalk face. It's sort of evolved to mean, in the context of our show, a conversation about controversial ideas in education. So, do your homework and get ready, you're at the chalkface.

Question: What is unique about your approach to education reform?

Shaun Johnson:
The main reason I started the podcast a couple of years ago was what I perceived to be a huge hole in the education reform debate and the potential for free, online platforms to fill it. I've been a classroom teacher, I still teach during the summer in a charter school, and I'm now a teacher educator that spends a considerable amount of time in elementary schools each week working with new and veteran educators. I noticed that prominent commentators and pundits on education don't have that kind of background. Instead, they tend to be policy-minded, journalists, or politicos. And they're only telling one side of the story here, the side that thinks reforms like the common core and test-based accountability are done deals. They're not and there's a lively debate happening out there. But Tim and I are also not boring guys. We have an edge and a sense of humor that usually don't play out in the education reform debate.

Question: What have been some highlights from your broadcasts?

Shaun Johnson:
Our less formal weekly podcast on Blog Talk Radio addresses a huge range of contemporary topics on education, usually three topics every half-hour show. Our national radio broadcasts featured Diane Ravitch, Bill Ayers, and other education activists. Actually, what was great about WTDY in Madison was the station sending Rex Charger out to DC to help us cover the Occupy the USDOE rally in early April. Tim and I recorded spots with folks in attendance like Mike Klonsky and edu-documentary filmmaker Brian Jones. We actually recorded audio from an eclectic cast of characters during the rally: teachers, scholars, filmmakers, and parents. Those interviews are going to be rolling out over the next couple of weeks.

Question: What has been the reaction from listeners?

Shaun Johnson:
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People tell me at least that they're so glad there's something like this out there. Folks appreciate the sense of humor and wit we bring to the conversation, but listeners also recognize that we know what we're actually talking about. This is not some detached and unemotional topic for us. We've lived it in the classroom, we've buried ourselves in the research and commentary, and we feel very strongly about protecting the public in public schools. So, despite some of the sarcasm and humor, we take this very seriously because the consequences of not speaking out are monumental.

Question: What have you learned about the world of commercial radio and podcasting?

Shaun Johnson:
I've learned a ton because I really knew nothing about it prior to doing the show. I'm entirely self-taught in terms of blogging, coding, social media, and podcasting, all of the stuff you need to know to produce and contribute your own content or media. I'm also not a marketing guru or anything like that; I come right out of the classroom. As an academic, for several years, I've relied on very traditional means of communication in education, the research article in peer-reviewed journals and professional conferences. I'm learning all the time that this is a very new platform for higher education, particularly in colleges of education. It's sort of a scary medium for those that may be unfamiliar with it. But I've said over and over again that educators and academics ignore these kinds of platforms at their peril, or perhaps will usher in further obscurity of their ideas. I mean, academics all the time in education at least lament the lack of praxis, or connection between theory and classroom. Tim and I are trying to do that with @the Chalk Face.

Question: Where do you hope to take the show in the coming year?

Shaun Johnson:
We really want this thing to take off, of course. As far as education is concerned, there's nothing like At the Chalk Face. I know that some new media folks out there will say that traditional radio is over and online platforms, like Blog Talk Radio or straight up blogging, are the ways to go. I get that, so we blog, podcast, Tweet, and have Facebook pages. Yet, the same thing can be said about the print newspaper. I still feel that our new connection to traditional media is one step closer to challenging the mainstream narrative on education, which is sorely needed. There's a lot of misinformation and spin out there. Policy centers, think tanks, and foundations have a lot of money to get their voices heard and many really smart people who can offer alternatives languish in obscurity. This is, however, ultimately about ideas and not fame or notoriety. Tim and I do give out some really good ideas At the Chalk Face. Yet, there's a sense of urgency here, for me at least. An entire city school system in Philadelphia has been dissolved. Who's covering that on the big networks? Teachers are losing jobs, kids are being miseducated, and communities are being destroyed. We can't wait for that book chapter or journal article. We can't wait for that conference proposal to get accepted, the paper written, the paper submitted, the paper discussed, and the paper finally accepted, revised, and published. Education can't wait. Kids can't wait. Communities should not be left waiting. We need to do this now and @the Chalk Face is one way for Tim and I to get the message out.

Question: What is unique about your approach to education reform?

Tim Slekar:
The uniqueness is in the fact that we are using commercial radio to take on the "failing schools narrative" of the corporate reformers. We are delivering an alternative (true) narrative about the attack on public schools and we have no problem calling out Republicans, Democrats and anybody else trying to dupe the public into believing that our public schools should be dismantled.

Also, Shaun and I really try to make sure that the content is directed at the general public. We use humor and edginess to keep the listener interested because we believe the content of the show is so important. We don't want the listener to feel like they're listening to just two boring Ph.ds whine about the state of public education. We want the listener to hear what we're saying and think to themselves, "Wow I never thought about the future of public schools and the attack on children and teachers."

Question: What have been some highlights from your broadcasts?

Tim Slekar: We have interviewed some great guests such as Diane Ravitch, Bill Ayers, Ceresta Smith and Peggy Robertson. However one of the best moments happened during the Diane Ravitch interview. I had found an old quote Diane had made concerning testing. The quote was, "nothing concentrates the mind of students, teachers, and parents like a test." I presented the quote and asked Dr. Ravitch about the origin of the quote Diane's response was priceless. She quickly pointed out that she was comparing testing to public hangings. We all genuinely laughed immediately.

Question: What has been the reaction from listeners?

Tim Slekar: We have heard incredibly positive feedback. One listener from New York took the time to research me and actually found my office phone number. She called to tell me how happy she was to hear of a progressive education talk radio show. Her suggestions were minor but it was what she said before we hung up that convinced me that we were on to something. She said, "Your show cannot fail! It is the only show where regular people can actually learn about what's really happening in our public schools."

Question: What have you learned about the world of commercial radio and podcasting?

Tim Slekar: Our first lesson from Rex Charger (Our producer and engineer) was to make sure that we referred to the audience as the "listener." The idea is that individuals listen to the radio and as hosts we are having a conversation with the individual. Makes sense when you think about it.

We have also learned that having an engineer for commercial radio really makes a difference. When Shaun and I do At The Chalkface on the internet it is done live and any and all mistakes make it "on the air." When we are working on the commercial version of @the Chalkface with Rex in the studio; mistakes, stupid comments, and the occasional brain freezes are magically removed from the show (Rex is also a magician).

Question: Where do you hope to take the show in the coming year?

Tim Slekar: We have a list of guests (you being one) that we are planning to interview. The question of "taking" the show is also a great one because that is one of the things we are trying to do. For example, the management at WDTY made a commitment to covering the Occupy the DOE event sponsored by United Opt Out. Shaun and I were able to interview a list of "players" committed to fighting the corporate reform movement in public education. So hopefully you will see @ the Chalkface at the SOS convention in August.

Also, as the audience grows we hope to convince other major radio stations to pick up the show. As Rex pointed out, we have a unique perspective and we are covering a powerful topic that should appeal to anybody concerned at all with public schooling. We have a powerful message--public schools are an essential component of American democracy.

What do you think? Have you heard At the Chalkface yet?

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