Humanizing Distance Learning with Paul Emerich France (Ep 38)

March 08, 2022/ By

Paul Emerich France is a National Board Certified Teacher and author of two books, Reclaiming Personalized Learning and Humanizing Distance Learning. He currently works as a private teacher and consultant in Chicago, specializing in literacy instruction, elementary education, equity, and humanized technology integration. He is a proud husband to David and dog dad to Barley. Follow Paul on Twitter at @paul_emerich and you can find more out about him at

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, there. This is Nathan and welcome to the program. I was so excited to have my friend Paul Emerich France on the show today. He is the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning, and also his latest book, Humanizing Distance Learning and we had a chance to talk about both books in the program. I think you'll really enjoyed this episode. Paul is such a high-level thinker and such an eloquent speaker. I think you'll definitely have a lot of wonderful ideas after listening to the show.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Just a little bit more about Paul he's a national board-certified teacher. He is currently working as a private teacher and consultant in Chicago specializing in literacy instruction, elementary education, equity, and humanize at technology integration. He's a proud husband to David and dad to Barley, his dog. You can find more about him at I hope you enjoyed the show. (singing)

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, Paul. It is so great to have you here on the podcast. Thanks for being a part.

Paul Emerich France: Thank you so much for having me, it's my pleasure.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: We've been friends for a few years now and I've followed you on Twitter. I've really enjoyed the posts that you put out. It really causes me to think, which is always what I'm looking for in Twitter content, is some content that really causes me to scratch my head and I think you do a fantastic job at that. So thank you for your courage and for sharing your thinking out on the social media.

Paul Emerich France: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's great to reconnect too, I can't believe it was five years ago, six years ago we met in San Francisco for the first time.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. And now we've both left in Chicago area and I'm in Maine, so we're in different parts of the country, but we're still able to reconnect which is nice. And of course the pandemic has definitely put a kind of refocus on connecting through virtual, which is very timely now.

Paul Emerich France: Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, I'm also highly impressed that you've been able to put out a book so quickly during the pandemic. I loved your reclaiming personalized learning book and I'm thankful that you have a signed copy from you so that's pretty cool. So you came out with Humanizing Distance Learning, your new book. So I know our listeners would love to hear about both books, but definitely interested in hearing about how you came to write the second book.

Paul Emerich France: Yeah. So in some ways I think that... In a lot of ways, I should say, I think both of the books are very related to one another. In some ways I think of Humanizing Distance Learning as an extension of Reclaiming Personalized Learning, just because there's so many obvious overlaps with humanizing digital learning. In my first book, I talk about the difference between humanized personalization and de-humanized personalization. For this new book in particular, it was interesting because I was talking to my editor and we were kind of wrestling with some ideas for new projects and he said it's really timely right now to write something about distance learning and not a lot of people are formerly talking about the equity concerns related to distance learning.

Paul Emerich France: And so he kind of planted that idea in my head and I was thinking about it and in one day, truly, it just kind of popped into my head. I think from reflecting on my experience with distance learning, interacting with teachers on Instagram and Twitter and just getting an understanding of what was really hard for teachers. And I came to this idea or this wondering, I guess, that has distance learning been so challenging for so many because we're trying to replicate so many of these practices, so many practices in our classrooms that maybe weren't working that well before the pandemic and certainly aren't going to work very well when you're teaching through a computer. I'm talking practices like an overemphasis on worksheet-based learning, emphasis on rote memorization, practices that require a lot of compliance.

Paul Emerich France: In the distance learning environment, our kids have a great deal of autonomy. They're literally in their homes, in their own spaces. And so I came to this question, in some ways shouldn't we always be teaching from a distance? And is it perhaps our inclination to hover over our students and micromanage them and is that what's made taking distance learning so hard? Are we trying to micromanage and hover over them through distance learning and is that what's making it so hard? So that is the inspiration for the book. And I came to this idea that part of the problem with, I don't know if you can call them mainstream distance learning practices or even just mainstream digital learning practices is that a lot of those practices really are grounded in the dehumanization of learning in the sense that a lot of web-based adaptive programs that you see being pushed right now for distance learning aren't really child-centered, they're really just about content acquisition and getting as many points as you can get or watching as many videos and answering as many questions as you get.

Paul Emerich France: And that really is the antithesis of when you really think about why do human beings learn in a really basic level. It's not to hold up the economy or just for jobs, right? It's truly so that we can build this collective space that we can all live in and thrive in. And so I just always come back to this idea of humanity. It's like what's most important right now is our humanity. And I truly believe that if we use this moment in time as an opportunity to evaluate our practices and evaluate just the structures within the education system, that we actually could forge a new vision for the education system that really does put everyone's humanity at the center. And once we put everyone's humanity at the center, right, we start to see that there are certain students that are left out of that, that were left out of this system.

Paul Emerich France: We start to see that there are certain students that this current system wasn't actually built for and I'm referring specifically to students of color, low-income students, working class students, LGBTQ plus students. And so I really hope that this new book, Humanizing Distance Learning, it's really not just about distance learning. There are some stories about distance learning, there are some practical tips for distance learning, but it really is about re-evaluating where we are and thinking about where we want to be and using the idea of humanity or humanization as a foundation for this new vision for teaching and learning.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Paul so much greatness you shared and so I was writing frantically to capture some of these things because I wanted to ask you about them. And what I heard you say was that really, the purpose of education, and this is my own interpretation so please correct me if this was not your perceived interpretation, but the purpose of education has shifted. It was created years ago for a different society than what exists today, it was created to be a industrial model, it was created to be scaled, and it was created to ensure that students are prepared for jobs.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: But whenever you're planning for that is the why or the purpose, then a lot of the tools and structures and resources are going to be very mechanical and very factory-like, and the human element is inherently pre-move. So I think what you're saying is we have to really get back to what is the purpose of education. And I love what you said about it's not necessarily about preparing for jobs in a career. Obviously, it will inherently and naturally do that to the process, but it's more about giving students opportunities to reason and to make impact with their voice and when they hear something and be able to question it and be able to feel confident about their own way of seeing the world. Did I get that right?

Paul Emerich France: Yeah, I think you did. And I think there's more as well like I think what we need to have more Frank conversations about is that not just was the education system built to uphold, or at least the current version, right, it does have that very sort of industrial feel to it. I refer to that with the web based adaptive programs, right? It's really about efficient content consumption and not really about critical thinking and inquiry, but we have to come to terms with the reality that our education system was built for wealthy white male landowners, right? You go back in time, our whole country was founded to continue to funnel privilege to white wealthy male landowners. And so we live in a society where there still are a lot of white male wealthy landowners, and we live in a society where they are still making a lot of the decisions, right?

Paul Emerich France: But the reality of the demographics of our country is that we are the most diverse we've ever been and we still have a system. I mean, it was unfair hundreds of years ago too. I'm not trying to say it was right then because it wasn't right then, but I think part of we're in this really interesting time politically. Interesting is probably not the greatest word, but it's a challenging time politically and we need to rebuild, I'm not talking even like reform the education system because I think when you just put new gadgets on an old system that never worked in the first place for everybody, it's actually something called second system theory, you just create a more complicated system that still doesn't work.

Paul Emerich France: I think we truly need to rebuild it. We need to rebuild it in the image of all of our students, not just the white cis-gender wealthy people really do make a lot of decisions in our country. So I think that's part of it. We also, I mean, along with that, right, we need to have really frank conversations about white supremacy in our education system, but also in our pedagogy. And this is one of the things that I read about in the book is that there are these 14 characteristics of white supremacy which were originally developed by I believe their name is pronounced Tema. I actually don't know for sure, it could be Tema or Tema or Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones and these characteristics of white supremacy are things like a fierce sense of individualism or paternalism, that notion of hovering over somebody and trying to micromanage them is paternalism or thinking there's only one right way to do something or either or black and white thinking.

Paul Emerich France: All of these are really symptomatic of white supremacy. We can see them in our economy, we can see them in the way that we're trained to think, and we can see them in our pedagogies, right? A multiple choice test is a really great example of either or type thinking when we know full well that deep, meaningful learning is not about there being one answer, it's about understanding multiple answers. It's about understanding duplicity and complexity and all these just really nuance things which I think again, takes us back to the idea of humanizing learning, right? It's not about having one right answer, it's about soaking in all the possibilities of the world. And so I think if we look at white supremacy and white supremacist thinking, or if we examine it, if we analyze it, I think we can start to see it in our everyday practices.

Paul Emerich France: And I say this like I don't want to conflate white supremacy with white nationalism. I'm not saying that someone who gives a multiple choice test is a Nazi, right? What I'm saying is our country was built within within white supremacy. And so there are still vestigial structures of white supremacy in our culture and I think especially white people, especially white teachers need to look, define white supremacy, examine it, analyze it, and then find where it exists in your life. I don't want to pretend I came up with all this because I certainly didn't. There are numerous people of color who have been doing this work for years and years and years and one book that really changed my thinking and helped me just do a lot of self-examination recently was Layla Saad's, Me and White Supremacy. It's a 28 day challenge. And my friend Nate and I, we did it together.

Paul Emerich France: So we read it together, we talked about it together. And while the work is never done, it was a great jumping off point for me and just examining my own life and my own thinking and I think teachers need to do that. Because in order to really rebuild a new system that has everyone in mind, we have to come to terms with the fact that white supremacy exists in all of us and that means it exists in our actions. And as teachers it exists in our pedagogy since we have to analyze it, dismantle it and change.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, Paul. This summer with George Floyd and Briana Taylor and so many others and the injustices that have been exposed. And even this summer, even personally, being able to connect with educators across the spectrum and having black educators also come on the show and talk about what we need to do to make changes. And I want to connect to something you said earlier about how it's not really about reform anymore, it's more about recreate. And I wonder too, I sometimes will catch myself using the word integrate, but I also feel like integrate is one of those connotations that is carried with this reform. You're still using maybe new tools and new kind of resources, but it's still a part of old systems.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And so I wonder, even to stop using the word integrate, even though I know what people mean when they say technology integration, and I know what I mean, I don't mean to keep the same structure, but maybe it's time to change that word too and look at how it's really not about a new technology or a new tool, it really is completely transforming the way that we see education and transforming the way that we are preparing students to be active as citizens in this world. What are your thoughts about that?

Paul Emerich France: Yeah. I mean, I agree with you. And I think in some ways, it can be back to basics too. I think a lot of the tools that come out, we have to remember that we live in a capitalist society. Our education system is partially capitalist in the sense that we're dependent on these industries that produce products, right? And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I went through this phase where I was like, "For-profit and education is terrible. No for-profit entity does anything good." And then I sort of walk myself back and, well, that's not necessarily true, right? There are some really ethical companies out there that are looking to keep their businesses alive, but also do some good in the world.

Paul Emerich France: In some ways, we can go back to basics, right? We don't need all of these tools that were created partially out of an economic demand, right? Part of the problem is that things are being created just for the sake of making money off of schools. And so if a company is making a product that truly helps schools, right? That truly adds value and is worth the investment, great. But the problem is that a lot of, I think edtech companies in particular, create products that don't actually add value to schools, but instead take too many resources. So I think, and this is what I talk about in humanizing distance learning a bit is there just simple practices like dialogue and discourse.

Paul Emerich France: There's nothing more human than having a conversation with someone like you and I right now, right? We are together exploring this topic of distance learning, exploring this topic of rebuilding the education system, not through a video where someone deposits information into our minds, right? We're bringing our background knowledge into this conversation, we're exchanging ideas and I think you and I are going to leave, both are going to leave having learned something. And so when you're engaging in distance learning, right, it just doesn't have to be so complex to the point where you're downloading a whole bunch of apps that you don't need when you could very easily, using tools like Zoom or Google meet, create numerous opportunities for discourse at the whole group level, but also at the small group level and even in one-to-one conferencing.

Paul Emerich France: And so I think that in some ways, it is about rebuilding the education system and in some ways, it's going back to really basic things that allow students to learn with through and from one another. And it's just it actually then makes things a little more sustainable, hosting a conversation or a series of conversations as a distance learning teacher is way more sustainable than preparing a ton of digital materials then having to go through all the data afterwards. And it just creates so much more complexity than I think is necessary.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. First of all, I have to say in regard to edtech, I think that schools are really examining tools now to get to what is your mission, what is your purpose and what are our students now able to do because of a tool. And I will say this personally, that's why I jumped into wee video and why I'm still there is because it wasn't about making videos. It was about giving students an opportunity to make impact with their voice, and I think that's something very human. If I know at the end of the day that I was able to help a student magnify their voice and felt they now have confidence to share their perspective, then that makes me happy and I feel that I've kind of lived my purpose.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So that's something I think that always has to be evaluated. What is it that our students can now do as a result of using a tool? I also wanted to comment on your back to basics because sometimes whenever that statement is communicated, there's usually more of let's go back to tradition undertone, let's go back to these stuffy research-based strategies. And I know that's not what you're talking about, but my thinking is as human beings, we have to be able to communicate effectively. We have to be able to share our experiences and to me, that's a very basic, fundamental human component of living. Is that more what you're talking about?

Paul Emerich France: Totally. Yeah. What I mean is going back to basic humanity. I mean, if you think about it too, right, hundreds of years ago when education was only able to be accessed by wealthy white men, right, they were actually able to learn a lot and do a lot without the tools that we have today. And I think the problem with today is not necessarily... I mean, I do think there are some flawed pedagogies out there that teachers use, not because necessarily they want to, but because a lot of school systems force them to, but I don't think the problem is really the teachers are teaching at its core, I think problematic pedagogies are sort of a symptom of the system.

Paul Emerich France: I think we could do a lot with really basic pedagogies. What I'm trying to say is I think we could do a lot with really basic pedagogies, like dialogue discourse. We could give students a lot more choice in the classroom if we had a system that was built with everyone in mind. And because the system isn't built with everyone in mind, it sets certain kids up to fail. And then all of a sudden we look at our data or we look at what's happening in our schools and we go, "Oh my gosh, these kids are failing. What do we do?" And then we put in all of these interventions and all these new tools that really don't address the root cause of the problem. And the root cause of the problem is that the education system just simply wasn't built for everybody.

Paul Emerich France: So when I say back to basics, I mean go back to the basics of humanity. What does every child need to succeed? I think if we started there and if we had really critical conversations about that question, we would see that the root causes of the problems in the education system are things like income inequality. And the fact that our schools are funded based on property taxes, which property taxes are inherently racist in the sense that there have been racist housing policies that have affected home values which affects property taxes. And I read about this in Humanizing Distance Learning too.

Paul Emerich France: And so, yeah, I don't mean go back to traditional pedagogies necessarily. I mean, I guess you could argue in some ways that dialogue and discourse like Socratic circles are somewhat of a traditional pedagogy in the sense that they're not super digital, but what I really mean is go back to the basics of humanity.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So Paul, I'm a teacher and listening to this podcast, you have inspired me to rethink protocols in my classroom, rethink resources I'm providing or not providing. And let's say that all these things we are fired up, we want to make a difference, what advice would you have for the classroom teacher to make this difference to not really reform, but recreate. To think in a new fresh way about what they want their students to be able to do.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Obviously, we know that as a classroom teacher, I think we have a lot more power than we probably say we do, but many times, for a classroom domain, we don't have a lot of influence on the property taxes in our school system or some of the systemic. So maybe we need, and we recognize that we have to change systemically, but maybe we only have that influence on our classroom. What advice would you give to that teacher?

Paul Emerich France: I mean, if I'm talking really practically, I would say find the small things you can change. I think small changes do amount to big changes over the long-term. So I would find little things that you can alter. I mean, I remember my second year teaching, I was working in the suburbs of Chicago, pretty affluent district, pretty "high achieving" district, somewhat ethnically diverse, pretty small low-income population. But I remember that I was doing a very traditional form of grading where it was like every activity I gave them, I assigned a point total and I added up all the points and that was how I got their grade. And I no longer do that. So I remember looking at that grade book and thinking, "This is so silly," right?

Paul Emerich France: I have these kids that it's making them look like they have all these weaknesses that they don't have when really it's just getting their assignments in on time, or they made an error because they're kids and they're learning. And it didn't actually tell me anything about who they were as learners or what they were good at or what they were struggling with. And so I made small changes to my grading practices to get myself to transition towards standards based assessment. That still worked within the confines of my team. I was still giving letter grades for a while. I was still doing things that I was at odds with philosophically, but over the long-term, this is my 11th year now as a teacher, I look at where I am now. And I know it's because I started making those small changes then.

Paul Emerich France: So I think we have to respect, right? That teachers are an oppressed group of people. I hear from a lot of teachers that say, "I got to choose between standing up for what I think is right and my job. I have kids, I need health insurance. I can't lose this job over something that feels little." And so that's why I say find the little things that you feel comfortable enough changing because over time, I think they do make big progress. I also just think in a broader context, we have to be more politically engaged, we have to. We are not going to change anything if we have the same leaders we've had in the past. We need to vote people in, at a local level, at the state level and at the national level that are going to support us and actually help us make these changes.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I think that goes to the earlier statement, I think we have a lot more power than we realize. And one of those pieces are our civic duty to vote and so I'm glad that in perfectly timed for our current landscape that we're in now with election day coming up, I think it is important and education is created from policy. So I agree that it is very political in a sense that policy does govern a lot of what happens in the classroom. And so I'm thankful that I know our listeners are thankful and grateful for you being able to provide some good practical advice on how I can make those changes. And I was thinking about you giving the points based on the point system in second year of teaching, this is what you did. That there is no reason to challenge it because maybe as a teacher in training, that's what you did.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Everyone kept a grade book. And a very similar thing happened to me and I've told this story before with a student coming into my class, exclaiming that they were bored and I think I took it personally but I did a quick self-examination and thought, "Yeah, there are times in my own classroom I'm bored. And if I'm bored as a teacher, someone who..." And I started off as a high school science teacher. I loved the content. If I get bored, I can imagine what my students must be feeling.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So that one experience transformed how I started teaching. And I started doing more experiential learning. We started going out and testing the water and doing projects for our water quality, and it completely transformed my experience. And that was a very tangible, practical thing I was able to do to make those kind of incremental changes. But I think it does take us for reflecting and stepping back and not just saying, "Oh, that's awful. And I can't change it," but saying, "Oh, that's not a good thing. That's unfortunate and I want to be a change. I want to take that feedback from my student and be able to do something with that.

Paul Emerich France: Yeah, absolutely. You just made me think of something. I think sometimes when we start to feel like things are hopeless, right. I read this recently somewhere online, too. I can't remember where, but I think it's like actual political theory that once we start to feel like things are hopeless, it makes us even less likely to try and make a change. And I think that's also somewhat of a big broad idea, but also somewhat practical just to find the things that keep you hopeful because I think once we lose hope and disengage entirely, we have no motivation to actually make those little changes.

Paul Emerich France: And so I just, I mean, I hope it's a really hard time. It's like there's no way around it. It's a really hard time and I just, I guess, anyone who is listening, I would just encourage them to find any little more soul that you can hold on to, because I think Barack Obama says this, right, that history usually bends towards justice. It may not always feel that way, but I believe that too, whether it's in the short-term or the long-term, and I just hope we all can hang on through this and get to a place not where things necessarily feel normal again, because I don't think the old normal is what we really want, but to a new normal where we all feel like we matter and we're all included and that we can go to work every day, right, and be teachers and really feel like our classrooms are forums for changing the world.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, Paul. I also carry this hope and just being able to talk with you today and have this podcast is an inspiration and reminds me of all the positive change that is possible. So yeah, I think that a little more hope now and positive thinking than I did when we started this podcast so thank you for that.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I also want to say that for our listeners, and unfortunately, we are coming to the end of our episode, but I wanted to ask you, is there anything that you wanted me to ask you that I haven't or anything that you wanted to share as we wrap up?

Paul Emerich France: I don't think so. I mean, anyone who's listening, I would love it if you check on my website, check out the book, Humanizing Distance Learning. It really was a labor of love, it's a labor of hope and I hope it's a provocation for helping us go back to those basics. And again, not the traditional necessarily basics, but just the basic human component of teaching and learning. I really appreciate you so much having me on today.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Completely honored and a pleasure, Paul, and it just makes me want to make sure that you get invited back and then offline you and I can have a lot more conversations. I miss having these conversations so it's fantastic that we've been able to connect today and talk more. And I want to make sure too that our listeners have your website and your Twitter handle. I'm on your website right now, it's, correct?

Paul Emerich France: Yep.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And that's spelled P-A-U-L-E-M-E-R-I-C-H. And then how about on Twitter?

Paul Emerich France: Twitter, my handle is @paul_emerich and my Instagram is the same.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Perfect. Paul, it has been again, just an honor to have you on and thank you so much for all of the great work you do. And I know that a lot of our listeners are excited to go and pick up your book so thanks again for being on the show.

Paul Emerich France: Thank you so much.

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