Article & Interview by Josh Ramos and Chris Smith
When Josh first pitched the idea for a series of interviews to highlight initiatives addressing educational disparities, it struck me just how deep the two of us are into careers as educators. Neither of us were overachievers in school, and yet here we were: two teachers committed to education as a tool of liberation and empowerment.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reignited the conversation regarding the institutional racism ever present throughout all facets of society, education has become a hot bed for reform, civil activism, and decolonizing of school systems. Three initiatives that Josh and I decided to highlight in this educational series operating outside the traditional school structure are the volunteer organization Norwood Community Library, the literacy based non-profit Start Lighthouse, and the consultancy and social entrepreneurship school Basecamp.
This is the third interview with Basecamp to highlight the benefits that these programs hold for the educational community outside of the classroom. It is our hope not only to highlight the necessary work that must be done outside of the educational system to ensure that we continue to elevate, but also to inspire others to give back to their community in any way they deem possible. Whether donating time, funds, or developing their own community ideas, investment in educational programs and the community around us is a clear cut way to work against the injustice that is rampant throughout society.
Learn more about the series here.
In the charter world, it is common for a teacher with 5-6 years of education to enter into the process of becoming a school leader or vice principal. Every charter system has their own cultural style. If a teacher is able to fit well into the system’s style, in-network development is very common. In DOE and private schools, however, long term experience is still common before teachers make a jump into administration. One such educator is Christian Talbot, founder of Basecamp school. After teaching English at Regis High School for 14 years, including leading the English Department, Talbot would work as Head of School for Malvern Prep for five years before founding Basecamp school in 2017.
Talbot is a lifelong educator who can “tell you exactly where I was when I decided I wanted to be an educator.” Following that passion and moving into the world of Jesuit education, Talbot has picked up enough socio-political cues to understand the finer points of education that are often lost in our data-driven, capital-indebted educational landscape. While Talbot understands “you have to have workers,” his belief that education is not adequately preparing students for a life in the real world nor meeting students where they are has led to the creation of Basecamp and its expedition program.
Combining Talbot’s experiences as classroom teacher for 14 years and Head of School, Basecamp is a two-fold school that directly works with administrations of schools or non-profits and facilitates student led social entrepreneurship projects dubbed expeditions. With expeditions being the student focused aspect of Basecamp, Talbot’s theoretical understanding of school as a place to practice solving social issues creates an environment that intentionally fosters each student’s individual skills and personal abilities. By working with adult administrators, Talbot is also working to reimagine how systems of education and team collaboration function. Through the implementation of pluralism, Basecamp looks to promote diversity and inclusion holistically through reliance on people’s natural strengths. This concept not only encourages a more equitable world, but gives leeway to the slow dismantling of white surpemacist aligned structures. Running Basecamp with design partners, Talbot acts as principal and as writer behind the Basecamp blog Ed:Future, covering the future of learning.
Check out our interview below where we discuss the purpose of education, the expeditionary social entrepreneurship program, and Twitter as a necessary resource for every educator.
Josh: Who are you and how do you identify?
Talbot: I am Christian Talbot. I identify as a male, a dad, an educator, social entrepreneur, and probably a bunch of things. That’s the entry point for identification.
Chris: What originally drew you to education? Did you always want to teach, or did some experience spark your interest?
Talbot: I was in a very specific classroom at Regis High School. I was 15 years old. I could draw you exactly where I was in the classroom, where the teacher was, no joke. I remember thinking to myself, “what this guy is doing for us, I want to be able to create those experiences for other people.” It was my sophomore American History class. From that point forward I pretty much focused on imagining what it would be like to be a teacher. I went to a college that didn’t have any educational programs at all, but I spent all four years running a tutoring program at a D.C. public high school, I taught SAT Prep classes, and actually taught a full class at a D.C. high school while I was still an undergraduate which is probably breaking the law somehow as I had neither a degree nor a certification. As soon as I graduated college, I went into teaching and have been involved in education ever since.
Josh: Where did the inspiration for Basecamp come from? What was the initial lightbulb moment and how did it come together?
Talbot: It was probably more of a matter of convenience than anything else. I had been the president of [Malvern Prep] in Pennsylvania for five years and my family and I were moving back to Northern New Jersey. I had spent five years doing a massive change project at that school. I had been hired pretty much to transform the school and it was a very rewarding, but also very difficult experience. Difficult because changing an existing institution is just a massive, massive lift. I decided I didn’t want to go back into another school to repeat that, at least not right away, and the easiest thing to do was to start a consultancy which is what Basecamp is. Separate from that is expeditions which is the social entrepreneurship bootcamp that we run, so it sort of fits underneath Basecamp as one of our programs, but that’s the only thing that’s sort of a real student-teacher learning experience.
The origin of that is part of the same story. We were trying to figure out what would be the most leading edge thing we could do that was student centered learning and connected with the school’s mission. It is a Catholic school so working with and for those who have been marginalized and those who are on the edge of society, either financially or because of race or ethnicity or some other aspect of their identity, is core to the Catholic social teaching. So we created a social entrepreneurship program. I started it, I taught it, which was not easy to do while being Head of School for a middle school and high school, but I felt like I had to kind of lead the way with that. If it was going to fail I had to be the one who failed and not let somebody else take that risk. When I left I knew I wanted to keep doing that, but not within the container of school because the container of school really neutralizes a lot of great learning. That’s how expeditions came to be born right after I left Malvern in 2017 as this four or five day intensive social entrepreneurship bootcamp.
Chris: I want to know a little more about the expeditions. What are the highlights you feel personally and could you give you some positive examples that students have had with these?
Talbot: Yeah, I think the thing I need to say first about is why we do them. There’s a few reasons and it’s like filling out a Venn Diagram and different reasons overlap. One reason is that I’ve come to the conviction later in my education career that pretty much every kid is capable of doing exceptional things if you put them in the right situation, and if every kid isn’t doing something exceptional, it’s because that container of school is probably boxing them in and hiding what their natural strengths are. Part of the reason for doing expeditions is to create conditions where every kid is contributing their strengths because every kid has strengths and they’re not always clear or obvious. Sometimes even kids themselves don’t know what they are so as I said one reason is to create conditions where kids can contribute their strengths.
Another reason is I don’t think there is any more urgent and important purpose for education than to create positive social change. You have to develop people to contribute to the economy, you have to have workers, that sort of thing, but in the end the real point of an education is to develop people who are going to be good citizens and good contributors to some purpose, some common good that is bigger than them. It’s really hard to look at the curriculum in a typical high school and say, “the reason you take that class is so you can contribute to things bigger than yourself.” So that’s sort of a gap for me that’s missing in the typical school experience and it shouldn’t be a one off thing either but that’s a different story.
The third reason is school is really good and really important for giving kids practice at working on problems for which we already know the answers. I think of it like if you’re a basketball player you have to do your drills, you have to shoot your free throws, you have to do your post up moves, you have to run the offense. These are all discrete separate building blocks or skills. If you can’t dribble a basketball you can’t be on the basketball team. It’s as simple as that. There are these things that we know what they are, we know how to practice them, we know how to coach them and teach them. That’s what practice is for, but you can never fully prepare for a game. You can scout your opponent, you can watch video of your opponent. You can even play them, but the second time you play them they might come at you with a completely different offensive set. They may come at you with a completely different defensive set up. There’s no way to prepare completely and fully ahead of time because there are always these unknowns. School is good at practice, but not good at the game. It very rarely does a good job of preparing kids to play the game of life and work on problems that they’ve never seen before, that the teachers have never seen before. Problems to which there are no clear or obvious answers. Problems in which there could be ten different good answers. Maybe one hundred bad answers, but more than one good answer. School doesn’t really prepare kids for that, but that’s what life is really about.
Where those three things overlap is where we find the purpose of doing those expeditions.
We did an expedition over the summer and there was a kid who lives around Grand Concourse, another kid from the South Bronx, and a kid from Mount Vernon I think. They were working initially on this problem that fascinated them with over-policing of Black and brown immigrants. That was how they were initially coming at the problem and I don’t really remember how they evolved the problem but rather than put this negative frame on it they wanted to put a positive frame on it so they said what if instead of treating the police as the problem, what if we treated young Black and brown business owners as the solution. They came up with this idea of an app that would sort of combine Google maps with Yelp with kind of community engagement. It allows you to identify in this particular pair of neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Mott Haven and Grand Concourse, where are the businesses that are owned by Black and brown youth so you can essentially go with your dollars and contribute to your community. You’re putting dollars back into your community, you’re supporting the economic welfare but also the connective tissue of the community. And then the really cool part of it was they wanted to create this in partnership with local law enforcement so that local law enforcement would pay special attention to and keep an eye out for these different storefronts. It’s a way of signalling a partnership and a collaboration between the community and law enforcement. It’s sort of a spin on community policing. And it’s such an ingenious idea, it’s simple and not really overly complicated but it was a way of putting a positive spin on an issue. And what struck me about that solution was at no point did the adult facilitators say to the students “Here’s what you should be working on.” They identified the problem and they identified a whole host of possible solutions. They picked one, the prototyped it multiple times, they used feedback, but they really owned it. Chris, I think to answer your question at a higher level, every single expedition is organized around the kids exploring these four questions. Who am I? Who are we? And that could be the small team or the bigger cohort or the community in the South Bronx. What matters to us? What are we gonna do about it? And the adult facilitators, we don’t ever tell the kids what problems they should be working on. It’s really important that they pick the things that matter to them. We basically say here are some tools and we can give you feedback, but you gotta figure this out.
Josh: A lot of educators dream of becoming consultants. How did your experience as a classroom English teacher prepare you for that roll or would you give most of that credit to being head of Malvern Prep?
Talbot: No I would definitely attribute it to being head of Malvern. So, two things: being a consultant is not a glamorous job [laughs]. Any educators who aspire to be a consultant, I would suggest you rethink your life goals there. One of the things that’s really frustrating about being a consultant is you’re at arms length to what’s happening so there’s a limit to the change you can create because you’re not actually doing the work. Hence the term consultant. Personally I find that to be one of the things that’s frustrating, so I like to pick my clients and let them know up front “here’s how I work and I need to know what your ambition level is, how serious are you approaching this question of changing whatever it is you want to change.” And that comes directly from my experience at Malvern. So the second thing I’ll say is I left Regis as a full time teacher and when I started that job at Malvern, the title is head of school but in actuality my function, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, I was the CEO of a nonprofit that had a $23 million a year budget and 150 employees. So there was literally nothing I had ever done prior to that moment that prepared me to be in that role, other than being a teacher in a school so I knew what an education operation was supposed to accomplish. But I didn’t know anything about how to do that job. So in five years I learned a lot and that’s really what qualifies me to be a consultant.
Chris: Are there any distinct differences between leading Basecamp programs for adults at non-profits vs expeditions with high school students? Any unique challenges to either?
Talbot: I had spent twenty years, well more than that if you think about my time in college and at Regis doing service projects, I had spent over twenty years working with middle and high school students. In that time I had been exposed to kids who were younger and kids who were older, and I came to believe that middle school/high school is the period of your development as a human being where you are most open to being shaped and formed. Which is a huge, massive responsibility when you’re the educator. You can indoctrinate people and that’s obviously a really toxic thing to do, or you can look at the people who are in front of you and say “there’s some best version of you and it’s my job to help you bring that out.” I think the people who are indoctrinators think of teaching as a very technical mechanistic sort of job, it’s like you need to know these things and it’s kind of like the industrial model of education. I think my best educators, and I certainly aspired to be this kind of educator, were sort of like gardeners. When a gardener plants a seed, they don’t point at the seed and say “grow.” It doesn’t work that way. What the gardener does is makes sure the soil is rich, makes sure there’s exposure to adequate sunlight, water, gets rid of any pests. I used this phrase at the start of this interview, you’re creating conditions for that seed to grow but in the end that seed is either gonna be the best version of what’s inside that seed or a not so great version of it. Working with kids is very different from working with adults because they’re still at that moment where they could go one way or the other and a lot of adults, it’s not like they’re fully baked but they’re much more baked than the kids are. It’s harder to challenge beliefs and preconceived conceptions about what school should be like for example. We could go down a rabbit hole talking about why someone who’s been teaching for awhile might stick to a certain approach for reasons of personal cognitive bias. But when people see that things can be different, then they can believe that there is another possible way to approach teaching and learning. And once they have a different belief system then they can think about different steps to take, then they can act differently.
One concrete example is what is probably the most prevalent mindset that I find among educators, which is a zero-sum mindset. The whole model of grades is based on a zero-sum mindset. You either got a 100 or you got something less than that, or you got an A or an A-, it’s very much on a vertical axis and there are points off. Then you can rank kids, there can only be one person who is number one and everyone else is below them. All these zero-sum things we have in education that really stem from a belief about the world. People who see the world as zero-sum believe that is the way reality is ordered. And if you believe the world is zero-sum, then you’re going to place a strong value on something like competition where there’s a winner and there’s losers. So you go from it’s true that the world is zero-sum, that’s a true/false proposition as a belief, to “well if I believe that the world is zero-sum, that’s a truth, so of course I’m going to value competition,” and once you value competition then you’re going to grade people and rank them, and say this one’s good and that one’s bad. This has a lot of implications and we rarely think about those kinds of questions.
If you have a positive-sum mindset, then you don’t see the world as a bunch of winners and losers, you see the world as possible win-wins, you see that it’s not good to compete but it’s good to collaborate. You don’t look at biology and see survival of the fittest, where it’s species against species, which is partly true, but instead you see nature is full of symbiosis and all of the collaborative relationships among species and ecosystems. All of a sudden you start to see a completely different set of realities and you act differently. When you think about expeditions, no kid is operating alone. Every kid has to work in a team because we have a positive-sum world view, so collaboration is good.
Josh: What quick fixes do you think schools can do to add pluralism into their classrooms and culture?
Talbot: I think just to define the term, for me I think pluralism is a diverse community that is inclusive, equitable, and just by design operating at its highest potential. I know a lot of schools talk about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and then when it comes to making decisions that align to that professed value they often default to the old behaviors. But if you really want to be a pluralist community, if you take that seriously and it’s not just a bunch of words, then you have to make decisions in alignment with that as a core value. For example, for expeditions, and this is true for Basecamp with the consulting practice as well, but with expeditions it’s even more prominent, at least 50% of students who participate in any cohort are students of color and at least 60% of them come from families with significant financial need because we are designing the enrollment for racial and ethnic diversity, for socioeconomic diversity and that’s just a set of preconditions. That’s the diversity piece, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be inclusive, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be equitable or just with those kids. Once they’re a part of the enrollment then we have a different set of steps starting with a get to know you gathering, a brainstorm gathering where not only do we talk about pluralism as a value, we pair kids to talk about their own experiences, we do empathy interviews, there’s a strengths-based assessment that every kid takes so they get to know what each other’s strengths are. They come to see it’s not just the Black and brown kids and the poor kids get to have the same opportunity as the white kids and the affluent kids, but everyone in this room has a set of differences that they can contribute. And those differences, in the right conditions, are actually super powers. Yeah we’re diverse, but we’re inclusive of every meaningful dimension that we can take advantage of in a kid’s identity. And it’s equitable by design so we have obviously financial aid and scholarships for kids who can’t afford it. Nobody ever has to worry about not being able to pay for the experience. In terms of justice, the whole emphasis of the program is social justice. We try to model that as well. The adult facilitator thing, same thing. At least 50% people of color. The CEO panel which is the culminating experience, at least 50% people of color. Actually two-thirds of our CEO panelists have been women as well. I just think if you’re gonna sit here and claim pluralism, prove it. What are the things that you do that truly demonstrate pluralism, and it can’t be a page on your website. That doesn’t cut it.
Chris: This is something that’s happening right now at my school. The focus last year and this year has been on DEI and I’ve seen the places where it works and the places where it’s just lip service. There has been criticism about non-profits, such as charters, being too data driven in the educational world. What role do you think nonprofits should play in the educational world?
Talbot: Non-profit is really a tax status. There is in theory a set of criteria that you have to meet in order to obtain a non-profit status and at a very high level means that you’re supposed to be doing something that’s benefitting society. But that’s a really really low bar. If you look at the IRS code, it’s not difficult to get non-profit status. And by non-profit status I’m using that as a synonym for 501(c)(3) tax status. I would be skeptical of talking about non-profits as inherently virtuous. It’s tax status, it means you’re not redistributing revenue to shareholders pockets basically. There are a lot of educational institutions that are technically non-profits that it’s not entirely obvious to me how they are contributing to the common good. Except insofar as education is a public good that we should want to promote. The schools that I have in mind are really engaged in social reproduction. They’re taking rich people and making sure they stay rich. For non-profits to play a meaningful role going forward, they’re going to have to revisit their mission statement and figure out what are we really doing that is taking the existing equilibrium, because every society exists in a state of dynamic equilibrium, and shifting it so that it is more just. I don’t think we’re gonna get to the place where everything is perfectly just, but there are greater and lesser degrees of distortions in the equilibrium. Right now, when you look at socioeconomic disparities we are at a point of divergence that we haven’t seen in almost fifty years in terms of income levels across the socioeconomic spectrum. In the last thirty years broadly and in the last ten years more specifically, the 1% has gotten so much richer than everyone else. That’s unjust. So how does a non-profit take a reality like that and begin to shift that dynamic? I don’t want to be prescriptive about that, but I do think you need to look at your mission statement and say “because we’re not driven by a profit motive we have a unique opportunity to do something that a profit-driven organization cannot do or isn’t likely to do.”
Josh: Do you have any advice for a teacher looking to add “systemic opportunities” for engaging with social justice ideas but receiving no support or pushback form their institution?
Talbot: I spend a lot of time on Twitter not posting but reading. To me that’s the best form of professional development. There are a whole bunch of micro-communities on Twitter that focus on questions of social justice. So I think the first thing I would say is get on Twitter if you’re not already on there. Start following people who are involved in social justice in education. The one person who jumps to mind immediately to follow on Twitter is Kaleb Rashad, he’s the former Director of High Tech High in San Diego. I think he’s now the creative director of their Graduate School of Education. I actually had the privilege of interviewing him last year. Just an unbelievable human being. Super connected, so if you follow Kaleb he’s like a node in a mass network of social justice educators. That’s probably the number one thing I would do, and then look for organizations like expeditions and find out “Hey are you running a program soon that I could audit or facilitate at?” Then intrapreneurship is also an important thing. I know Josh you framed the question as though there might not be support from someone’s employer but I think entrepreneurship whether it’s social or otherwise is basically an experience of failure, failure, failure, failure, and then success. I think anybody who wants to engage in that kind of education needs to experience it firsthand. You can’t design and deliver an experience for kids that you haven’t’ experienced yourself, so create something, create a program. It could be an hour, a day, a course, it could be an afterschool program, and take it to your school leadership and say I really want to do this. And if they say no, ask for feedback, ask for the things that would get them to say yes to it, and pivot until you’ve gotten to a yes. And if you keep getting a no, then maybe you’re in the wrong place.
Chris: Is there one book you think every American educator should read?
Talbot: I can’t say there’s only one book that every educator should read, but if we’re on the question of social entrepreneurship then I would say Getting Beyond Better by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg. They are the ones who taught me this concept of social entrepreneurship as a way of shifting an unjust equilibrium. If you forced me to pick one book for every educator I would probably say Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, which came out last year. It is a painful book to read because it exposes the ongoing systemic racism and injustice that is a part of the DNA of our country. But I don’t think you can be the best educator you can be without understanding of that history and how that history is alive right now. I mean we just saw this on January 6th and it’s not gonna go away soon. I could give you ten other books off the top of my head, but that’s the one I would feel most strongly about.
Josh : How have you been taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Talbot: I live with my wife and my kids and we are all here in this house. My kids are doing virtual school, my wife works from home, I work from home. So fortunately we all get along with each other and that makes a good starting point for mental health for us. We’re very privileged to live where we live so we get to go on walks outside or just sort of enjoy the calm of the spot where we live, but I know that’s not true for a lot of people. I also feel fortunate that I have those conditions.