Ralph Córdova: Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning with Immediacy

Ralph Córdova

Alum Ralph Córdova recently received tenure at the University of Missouri, St. Louis Department of Educator Preparation, Innovation and Research. Córdova completed his Ph.D. in Cultural Perspectives in the Department of Education in 2004. He currently holds an Associate Professor position at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where he researches the “intersection where primary & second language and literacy development, collaborative professional learning, and, creativity and the arts overlap.” During his early teaching career, Cordova was a teacher-researcher in elementary bilingual Spanish/English schools in Santa Barbara. Cordova also founded the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory in 2003 and developed ResponsiveDesign in 2009. He recently answered some e-mail questions from the Gevirtz School.

GGSE: Obviously from looking at your bio and the website for CoLab, your time at the Gevirtz School is still influential in what you do. Could you elaborate on what you've taken with you from UCSB?

Córdova: I was a Master’s and Ph.D. student at UCSB from 1999-2003 in the GGSE studying with Drs. Judith Green, Carol Dixon, Sheridan Blau, and Greg Kelly as a member of the Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group and later the Center for Teaching for Social Justice. What would become an amazing doctoral adventure in learning actually began eight years earlier in 1992 when I met Judith Green in Beth Yeager’s 6th grade classroom at McKinley Elementary School where I began my student teaching. Judith and her doctoral students, the resident ethnographers, along with Beth, were studying the situated nature of the co-construction of disciplinary knowledge in Beth’s bilingual classroom. Participating in shaping an intentional learning community, learning interactional ethnographic perspectives in the service of making visible complex literacy practices and becoming a teacher leader were rich elements afforded me in those early experience. Then I began my bilingual teaching career at La Patera School in the Goleta Union School District, where I continued partnerships with the GGSE’s faculty and doctoral students where we together studied how my students and I actively co-constructed interdisciplinary learning communities. All that of that helped me to shape theoretical constructs that what would later become my program of research in the GGSE called Cultural Landscapes for Learning Perspective (CLLP). CLLP posits the teacher and students as active and intentional co-shapers of their classroom, thus we view it an ever-evolving ‘culture-in-the-making.’ And this CLLP would later shape an international group of teacher-researchers from both formal (school and university) and informal (museums, gardens, and neighborhoods) settings called The Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (ourCoLab.org). Our members share a passion and inquiring stance into the ways learning settings are cultural landscapes for learning disciplinary practices in the service of teaching for social justice.

As you can see, the route my academic career has taken is clearly rooted in my time at UCSB studying with the accomplished and brilliant faculty in the GGSE and all the cultural resources that Santa Barbara has to offer. Since UCSB, I have been at two institutions in the Midwest, assistant to associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (2006-2012) and now an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). In 2008 my CLLP work experienced a conceptual ‘growth spurt’ by producing a theory of inquiry and innovation we call ResponsiveDesign (RD). RD is a bias towards action, informed by theories of Interactional Ethnography, Critical Discourse Analysis, Literary Theory paired with perspectives from Art & Design. RD’s iterative phases of Explore, Envision, Enact unabashedly places end-users as protoypers of practice. If you dig a little deeper into RD’s epistemological underpinnings, you’ll see a trail of ideas that make their way back to my GGSE experiences.

The foundational work afforded me earlier on at UCSB became a solid foundation upon which to build at both institutions. Most recently at UMSL I have been playing leadership role in the College of Education’s ED Collabitat (collabitat.umsl.edu) whose conceptual underpinnings are directly informed by ResponsiveDesign. I tell people that like Stanford University’s d.School, the ED Collabitat is an answer among many that will emerge in higher education to questions that are being asked on the role of a research university in the middle of the 21st century. The ED Collabitat is both a space and a way of thinking where we bring the best of what we know from the learning sciences, art, and design that privileges creativity at the heart of professional learning. Through our processes of Explore, Design+Build and Create, we are revolutionizing educational structures, systems and cultures.

GGSE: In addition to your Ph.D. you also have a teaching credential and taught in schools. How did that experience shape your research?

Córdova: Yes, I completed my Multiple Subject Professional Clear Teaching Credential at UCSB in 1993. As I indicated above, my entrée into an academic career is traceable to the powerful and amazing Teacher Educational Program at UCSB. I still remember Jon Snyder, then director, welcoming us, its newest cohort of candidates, and telling us something akin to “Our job is limited to prepare you to teach and to teach well. Our job is also to make you teach from what you learn from teaching.” That reflexive bias toward action, improvement, and development was like a bolt of lightning then, and has continued to illuminate my belief of what it means to be a educator, learner, and human being. I often tell my university students that everything I am pretty good at doing now, I actually began doing in the company of my 3rd graders who were my learning partners. Every single year, that elementary year would hold a promise of becoming an amazing inquiry that pushed students to learning disciplinary perspectives inside the classroom in the service of expanding their knowledge by exploring the larger communities around them. Whether becoming painters, readers, and writers with the late plein air painter Ray Strong and members of his Oak Group (http://bit.ly/1SjFUIY), or becoming geologists with the late field geologist Dr. Tom Dibblee (http://bit.ly/1UzEKj4), my students developed critical literacies in school by connecting them to the world around them. These contextualized and social justice-centered approaches that I learned in my 14-year career as an elementary teacher are the foundational roots that ground my pedagogical, theoretical, and epistemological practices at the university level.

GGSE: And while talking about influences, how did the South Coast Writing Project affect you?

Córdova: Ha! IN BIG WAYS! As if my doctoral work and lessons learned from being an elementary teacher weren’t enough, I point my becoming a member of the SCWriP as new world opening up, where a large family of passionate teacher-researchers seemed to be welcoming their long-lost tribe member. Back in 1992 when I student-taught with bilingual 6th-grade teacher Beth Yeager and then later with kindergarten teacher Lynette Meyer, both SCWriP fellows, I was intrigued by “SCWriP this and SCWriP that”…I wanted to be part of SCWriP! In fact, on the first day of my first day teaching, outside of my school was a parent volunteer telling passersby that “come learn about our fundraising with SCRIP” and my ears perked up and I walked over to him and asked, “Are you with the South Coast Writing Project?” I quickly learned SCRIP is not SCWriP. I love telling that story because it makes visible just how important SCWriP was and continues to be for all educators wanting to get better as individuals and collectively in the Santa Barbara area. And when I was a new professor in Southern Illinois, I co-founded a National Writing Project (NWP) site of my own, called the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project (http://bit.ly/1XZV3Do) that became the premier professional learning community for the region. So, you can say that SCWriP was one dimension where I learned to examine and share aspects of my teaching practices, informed by theoretical perspectives from the Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse group, all grounded in the power of practice nurtured at La Patera School made for a multi-dimensional, and coherent conceptual approach to educational research, practice and change.

GGSE: The CoLab website says, “At the core of habits of mind that the 21st century learner must embody is the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn with immediacy.” What are the key things to learn, unlearn, and relearn?

Córdova: If you go into any classroom, most are organized in ways that look like what they did in the 1950s, 1920s and 1890s. It is unfathomable to me, how we can know so much about learning, culture, schooling, and colleges of education have yet to transform the very basic structure of schoolings for the changed world that we now live in. These structures were useful in our industrializing landscape where conforming skilled workforce was needed, and schools were places to learn necessary facts toward what would be steady and life-long careers. Well those days have not existed in at least the last 25 years, and paired with the rapid expansion of knowledge afforded us in our digitally connected age, when you look at schools many seem to be organized as if we’re still in 1890! My very school was organized as such, and that is why my colleagues and I worked to create schooling experiences for our students that many called “out of the box.” At the time, I wasn’t too keen of that description of how others explained our work for it sounded less than intellectual. And I am realizing now that in fact they were right, at the very basic foundational level, the work we did was creating avenues for students and their teachers to break down the box’s walls for the world outside had completely changed. This is what I mean when I say schools must focus on doing something altogether very hard, but not impossible. We are preparing students and learners for a world that does not yet exist and insisting that they learn facts and figures that might not help them contribute to that world they will enter. So we ask, what then can we do now to ensure we at least will have contributed to our students future worlds? When it comes to preparing educators, we tackle that question by focusing on what we call 3 Durable Practices for Professional Learning: Intentional Collaborating, Intentional Instructing in Academic Practices and Languages, and, Intentional Critically Reflecting. We believe among all the policies, standards and bureaucracies, all which come and go, that we need to commit to doing something that is both durable and decent that elevates the human spirit to a space where it thrives: connecting with others, problem seeking and solving, all in the service of making our local, national and global communities better…and that’s, by the way, the only way we’re going to solve our climate change and political unrest pickle we’re in!