Q&A with Amy Grillo on Education Studies

In addition to teaching at Wesleyan, Amy Grillo works with a nonprofit media/production company that makes films about teaching and teachers. “Our aim is to make visible the actual work of excellent teaching … (and) also to inform and inspire those currently in the classroom or those considering the profession.”

In this Q&A, we speak with Amy Grillo, associate professor of the practice in education studies. This spring, she is teaching Schools in Society and Practicum in Education Studies.

Q: You joined Wesleyan’s faculty during the fall 2018 semester. Welcome to Wesleyan! What are your overall thoughts so far on the University?

A: I keep pinching myself, which is to say that I am incredibly happy to have landed here. I’ve found the students to be lively and engaged, both with their academic work and with the world beyond Wesleyan. The staff and faculty seem similarly energetic and positive. I was most impressed getting to know this year’s batch of new faculty during orientation in August because they seemed to hit the ground with a natural interest in collaborating and supporting each other in both teaching and research, and very open to thinking creatively about pedagogy. Few things could make me happier than working with people who care about teaching as much as I do.

Q: What led you to Wesleyan? Where were you working/teaching prior to Wesleyan?

A: Immediately prior to coming to Wesleyan, I spent six years at Mount Holyoke College, where I taught in the Psychology & Education Department and also in the graduate Master of Arts in Teaching Program. That was supposed to be a one-year visiting faculty gig, but it kept expanding. Prior to that, I was a core faculty member at Vermont College, an unorthodox, low-residency BA program for working adult students. This was an amazing little college, where students met all the requirements of a liberal arts degree by designing and conducting a series of 16-credit interdisciplinary independent studies with the guidance of a faculty mentor and a group of peers. We did teacher education through this model as well, which was a wonderful way to prepare teachers who know how to break out of the boxes that the current system of public education so often puts them in. I’ve also taught at places ranging from Harvard to Hampshire College, I’ve served as senior class dean at Mount Holyoke, and I was a dean of students at the tiny, democratically run, progressive Marlboro College, in Vermont. In all of these settings, my work has always been about looking closely at how we think about and conduct various processes of teaching and learning. So, when I saw that Wesleyan was looking for someone to work with the Center for Pedagogical Innovation and develop and teach courses in education studies, it seemed too good to be true.

Q: What age groups of students have you taught in the past? Do you prefer working with college students?

A: I’ve actually taught every age, from preschool through the elderly, except for middle school (and I love middle schoolers—the opportunity just never presented itself). In the middle of my undergraduate years at Brown University, I took a year off to give teaching a try and worked as an elementary school art teacher. Back at Brown, I taught papermaking and printmaking to undergraduates and community art classes for the elderly along with some grad students at RISD. For about a dozen years, I worked with teenagers in a summer program at Bennington College. In between graduate degrees, I taught elementary school in Boston, and I’ve taught graduate students in psychology and education at Antioch N.E. University, Harvard, and Mount Holyoke. Honestly, there are things I love about teaching each of those groups. What I enjoy most about teaching undergraduate college students is that people’s intellectual and creative capabilities are pretty well-developed at this point, and then they are met with this sense of endless possibility, challenge, and rich resources when they enter college. Ideally, the diversity of people and experiences one encounters in college are both mind-blowing and life-changing. I find it a real privilege to be part of that process.

Q: You’re Wesleyan’s first professor of the practice for the University’s education studies minor. How does having both an academic and practical background, and experience in teaching, help you be a successful faculty member?

A: Well, there are a few different ways to think about that question. In my field, having an academic or scholarly background without a connection to the practice of education is highly problematic, and perhaps one of the reasons our education system is struggling. You can take all the research on “best practices” in teaching and implement it in schools, and it won’t work unless you understand the reality of the particular classroom or learning environment you are working with. Part of that context is to be found in studying the history, philosophy, and sociology of education, for sure, but one also needs to be aware of the particular social realities of public education in a given community at a given time, and this requires involvement with real schools and practicing teachers. I have not been a regular K-12 classroom teacher in many years, but I have remained deeply involved in activism and advocacy for public education and that happens from the ground up, not the top down. My work in teacher education and teacher leadership has also kept me connected with the pragmatic lived experience of schools and schooling, as well as the political and theoretical. At Wesleyan, I think this allows me to teach education studies within the framework of the liberal arts, but in a way that connects students to the very real needs of the field at this time and the urgency of getting smart, creative people engaged with teaching and schooling.

Q: Why would students choose to major in education studies? What types of careers would this minor help them achieve?

A: Our education studies program does not lead directly to teacher licensure, but teaching is certainly one career path that we can prepare students for by giving them solid foundational knowledge in the history, philosophy, and sociology of education, as well as educational psychology or the science of human learning. We are building a support system and set of pathways that students can follow if they want to end up in a teaching career, and we now have a practicum seminar that allows students to get experience in classrooms in the context of an academic study. But there are many other careers that students may pursue which would be supported by the ed studies minor. I speak with a lot of students interested in education policy and research, social justice and community organizing, working in youth empowerment, after school programs, outdoor education, and environmental education.… The list is long. In many ways, studying education can be helpful to anyone who aims to take on a leadership role in any field. A very large percentage of Wesleyan graduates end up working in education-related fields. One of the projects I am working on is developing a network of Wes graduates doing great things in education, since I have already discovered that there are a bunch of them in high-level positions making great contributions to public education. Ultimately, though, a liberal arts education is not only about career preparation, and the study of education should be relevant to learning how to think about important questions in so many fields. We need to think, for example, about how education is related to democracy, to social justice, to globalization, to economics, to sustaining cultural expression in art, literature, architecture.… So the minor can be enriching to students in many ways.

Q: Do you collaborate with other colleagues/faculty in education studies? If so, who and how?

A: The coordinators of the minor, and the faculty members who really developed it, are Associate Professors Anna Shusterman and Steven Stemler in psychology. We’ll be working hand-in-hand to develop and expand the offerings in the minor, building upon their hard work. There are many faculty members across the curriculum who serve as advisors to the minor because their teaching and/or research intersects with the study of education. One of my goals is to solidify and make more visible a kind of “map” of the many resources that already exist here at Wes for students interested in studying education. This may also make it easier for faculty to discover areas of possible collaboration. I’ve also been working with Clifton Watson in the JCCP, Makaela Kingsley in the Patricelli Center, and Peggy Carey Best in Service Learning, since many of my students will be doing community-engaged experiential learning in conjunction with their more theoretical studies. I’m just beginning to get the lay of the land, but I see endless possibilities for collaboration with initiatives like Upward Bound, our campus preschools, summer programs, and offerings in Graduate Liberal Studies. I also want to build stronger collaborative relationships with school districts and agencies in the greater Middletown area, because I believe that a university has some responsibility to engage with and support the community and also because I know this will enrich the experiences of our students.

Q: Where did you attend college and what are your degrees in?

A: I hold a bachelor’s degree in education studies and studio art from Brown University, a master’s in counseling and consulting psychology and a doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Q: What is your own research or area of expertise?

A: I have a few different strands of research interests at the moment. One has to do with self-direction and self-regulation in learning, and the ways that promoting self-direction and internal locus of control in K-12 education may be one pathway towards supporting social justice. Another has to do with teaching as a “profession,” exploring how and why it has never actually functioned as a true profession and what might happen if we were able to get to a place where it was, in fact, a self-regulating profession. Around the edges of this second strand, I am interested in a large-scale project mapping the relationship between school funding and policy-making, state by state, district by district, in the United States. Making these relationships transparent would tell us a lot about the current predicament of teachers and teaching in our public schools, and I think it may be one key to saving what is left of our public education system. Looking backwards a bit, my interests have focused on the purpose of schooling and the relative absence of discussion about purpose in educational reform, curriculum design, assessment, and the idea of “accountability.” I also spent about eight years studying adolescent girls’ development and my dissertation research was more epistemological—a study of how graduate students in the social sciences get socialized into a culture of belief about what constitutes “valid” or “rigorous” academic knowledge in their field.

Q: I understand you’re interested in working with nonprofit and activist groups aimed at elevating the teaching profession. Can you elaborate?

A: Sure. In the last 10 years or so, there has been a real grassroots movement on the part of teachers across the country to reclaim their profession. Much of it started in online groups on social media, and these groups have had a very real impact. For example, it was a national social media affinity group that built the Opt Out movement that has raised awareness about the problems with standardized testing in public education; and a group called the Badass Teachers Association (irreverently named by a Fordham University professor who was integral to its formation), started in 2013, has amassed over 60,000 members and has become influential in terms of policy and research. These groups create space for teachers, parent advocates, school leaders, scholars of education, and politicians to work together towards improving schools. Technology allows us to carry on sustained, substantive conversations about the work, and to democratize and reclaim the idea of “reform,” rather than having educational change dictated by corporate interests and philanthropists who know little about education. I’ve been active in these groups from the beginning. I also work with a nonprofit media/production company that makes films about teaching and teachers. Our aim is to make visible the actual work of excellent teaching, not only to demonstrate the complexity of the work and its value and shift the current false narrative that all our schools are terrible and teaching is an easy, low-status, unrewarding job, but also to inform and inspire those currently in the classroom or those considering the profession.

Q: What should we know about you outside of work? What are your hobbies and interests?

A: When I am not here in Middletown, I am home in southern Vermont with my partner, Peter, and my two teenage daughters. I recently gave up raising chickens for multicolored eggs, as well as rare breeds like Ayam Cemani (all-black chickens, including bones, meat, combs, and wattles!) and Rapanui jungle foul. For fun, I like to tinker, build, and repair things, from small buildings to old houses to wooden boats to my 1978 VW bug, or to cook for people. If I’m not doing any of those things, I’m likely to be talking/plotting with fellow education and social justice geeks, or curled up reading a book by John Dewey or Paulo Freire or an obscure modern poet.

Q: Is there anything else you’d wish to share about your role at Wesleyan or about yourself?

A: Part of my new role is working with the Center for Pedagogical Innovation on a number of different projects and initiatives. I’m located on the ground floor of Fisk, and I welcome members of the Wesleyan community to stop by and discuss anything at all related to the art and science of teaching and learning.