By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017
The techno-instrumental music begins to play after a few seconds of laughter as David Naff brings up Richmond School Board member Scott Barlow’s beloved Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl loss.
Next week the conversation starts a similar way – laughter as William Noel, the director of student support and disciplinary review for Henrico County Public Schools, explains how to tie a bow tie. Then cue the music.
Another week, another podcast episode starting with small talk before diving into an issue that affects everyone: public schools.
“People are interested in the story of public education. It affects them. It affects their kids. It affects their lives. They want to know the issues,” said Naff, a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University and host of “Abstract,” a podcast focusing on issues in education.
The podcast is produced through the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium — a collaboration between the VCU School of Education and seven Richmond-area school divisions — where Naff serves as the assistant director. It’s a busy time for the consortium with the launch of “Abstract: Crossroads in Education” and preparation for its upcoming conference on Tuesday in Chesterfield.
Naff came to VCU to try and understand poverty and education. He saw it on the ground as a high school counselor in Winston-Salem, N.C., for four years and misses working in K-12 at times. Now he’s taking his experience – and his curiosity – into the studio to have hard conversations about schools.
Podcast guests come from all sections of the education spectrum: teachers, school board members, superintendents, academics. Conversation topics range from disciplinary practices to teacher morale. Some episodes are done in a round-table format with more than one guest.
Josh Bearman, a science teacher at Lucille M. Brown Middle School in Richmond, was a guest on the podcast last month and said the local focus made it compelling to him. A fan of many politics podcasts, including FiveThirtyEight and Vox, Bearman said he was impressed with the level of attention Naff puts into it.
“There aren’t many podcasts that take a larger look at education,” he said. “The more different voices people hear telling the story of education, the better they are.”
Bearman spoke on the podcast about bringing more equity to education.
“This podcast is a perfect way to bridge the gap of research and feet on the ground,” he said. “It lets us teachers hear and think about these issues without having to read a paper or attend a conference.”
While the podcast dives into issues normally relegated to those conferences and academia, the consortium, which was founded in 1991, still sets aside one day a year to bring many different education voices together in-person at its annual conference.
This year’s MERC conference, called “Public Education at a Crossroads: Connecting Voices of Research, Policy, and Practice in a Changing World,” is Tuesday at the Chesterfield Career Technical Center, 13900 Hull St. The all-day conference features 14 sessions and two panels, one in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Session topics will dig into issues similar to those talked about on the podcast: “Rethinking Student Discipline and Intervention,” for example, will have Noel as a speaker. Many of the podcast’s guests, including Noel and Barlow, will speak.
Jesse Senechal, the interim director of MERC, said the conference, which has about 140 registrants as of last Tuesday, is built on bringing people from across the region together to have the same conversation.
“It’s a great space for bringing people together and people from all kinds of different stakeholding positions,” said Senechal. “We’re all coming to this with the idea of making schools successful for students and our community.”
“If we’re going to address a challenging issue like how to improve public education, it’s really going to require a community effort and a lot of different perspectives.”
Naff put recording more episodes on the podcast on hold until after the conference but he’ll soon be returning to the studio to record more and channel his inner Michael Barbaro, the host of “The Daily,” the popular weekday podcast from The New York Times.
“There are so many common issues in school divisions,” said Naff. “We need to be having these conversations.”