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Author: Elijah Snow-Rackley

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Educating for Democracy: Snow-Rackley ’20 at Critical Exploration Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mar 25, 2018

What do we value most in education today? What does it mean to be smart? A lot of children might respond that what’s important are the answers. They might suggest that knowledge, fundamentally, is simply knowing the answer to a problem. In education, our focus as a society is largely centered on knowing the correct answers to complex problems. We educate so that people know, but there’s something crucial that’s lost when all you’re focused on is the end result. What we don’t seem to focus on, and maybe what’s most important in any classroom is the development of independent thinking, confidence and consistent engagement with lessons and classroom materials, and the growth of intellectual autonomy.

I wasn’t a teacher over this past co-op (though I did get to spend some time in schools). Instead, I was a web development intern at Critical Exploration Press. My focus was on developing a website using a content management system (CMS) that my employers could take over using without their having to have a substantial background in web development. While I spent countless hours over this co-op focused on WordPress development, I started off this co-op in an MIT classroom here in Cambridge, MA where, through my employer, I got to take a class over their Independent Activities Period (IAP) term. All of us had come to class having done our readings and sat down and waited expectantly for our professor to start guiding the conversation. Instead of lecturing or pitching her ideas on the readings, it was up to class to decide what they wanted to talk about. The discussion didn’t center around the teacher as an authority, but rather a teacher responding carefully to the thoughts and ideas of the students in the classroom.

While I can’t do it justice, I’d like to try to explain what that means in the classroom.

The pedagogical approach our professor took is known as Critical Exploration in the Classroom (CEC). Rooted in the thought of Jean Piaget, CEC is built on the desire to understand how students understand a concept, material, or problem. Eleanor Duckworth, an educational theorist and student of Jean Piaget became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she formally developed Piagetian theory and the work of associated scholars into a pedagogical approach. Critical Exploration Press internally describes this approach as:

“Listening-focused practices such as CEC position student thinking center stage. Such practices are designed to slow discussions down and to complicate them by welcoming unanticipated questions, by opening topics up to the ideas of all, and by probing for the thinking underlying much of what students say and do. In addition, experiences with CEC are designed to challenge students in two distinctive ways: Students are given responsibility both for framing the questions that structure their investigation and for evaluating the ideas and theories that emerge (Mayer, 2012).

Although enactments of CEC can vary in a number of ways, the underlying dynamic always involves:

  • Engaging students with an intellectual challenge;
  • Providing them with the materials they will need to pursue that challenge themselves
  • Following their thinking
  • Insisting that they also follow each other’s thinking;
  • Insisting that everyone refer back to the shared materials in order to support all claims and arguments they make.”

Not only did I get to see this kind of pedagogy in action for myself, I had the opportunity to sit in at a local middle school and observe it being put to use with a sixth grade class. The experience of getting to wonder and engage with the class was exciting at MIT, but even more thrilling was the look on these students faces as they picked apart maps of the Holy Roman Empire completely engaged in what might have otherwise been a mundane geography unit had it been taught any differently.

The mission of CEPress is broad, but it isn’t vague. Their goal is to spread the work of CEC, engage and connect a disparate professional community, consult with schools and engage more teachers with the CEC approach, publish theory and research in the community, and serve as a focal point in the continuing development of education that serves a democratic society.

Even though I’m moving on from this co-op at the end of March, I know I’ll be carrying a lot of what I learned along the way with me. This co-op experience really solidified my interest in education and I think I will continue to explore my options in the field.


ESOPs, Cooperatives, and Sputtered Optical Filters: Snow-Rackley ’20 at Chroma Technology Corp in Rockingham, Vermont

Jun 22, 2017

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can tell you what makes an optical filter a ‘sputtered optical filter’, but here at Chroma, that’s what we do. An optic filter is a flat piece of glass that is coated in order to filter out different wavelengths of light and color. These are used in a variety of technologies including microscopes, biomedical equipment, and have military applications (although Chroma does not work with the US Department of Defense – a decision made by their democratically elected board of employee owners). I’m not very well read in the sciences, but as a political economy major Chroma Technology Corp had a definitely pull. Chroma Technology is an employee owned company meaning that the owners of the stock in the company are the workers themselves. The company also has, as I mentioned before, a democratic structure which means that the workers all have a shared stake in the operations of the company. While Chroma still supports a hierarchy that can be found in many workplaces, the employees have more of a say in the day to day work operations than usual. Paul Millman, a founder and the current CEO of Chroma, professes that socialism is his religion. Follow this link to find out more about Chroma Technology.

My role is in the IT department helping to facilitate the 130 employee company’s move from Microsoft tools to Google’s enterprise package: G Suite. Since the workers here are also the owners of the company, many employees have been here for years. As a result, it can be very hard to implement large scale changes in the day to day processes in both the office environment or on the production floor. Moving all of our tools over from one software suite to another was a serious challenge. It didn’t help that I arrived at a time where the Chroma campus was undergoing serious construction as the company moves to double the size of their facilities. My job was to develop a curriculum and host training sessions for the employees to help ease the transition and to make sure that people understand the features of the new software.

To start things off, I took surveys of the company in order to determine which tools would need the most attention. Unfortunately, Google Forms, the survey tool I used, didn’t produce individualized reports for the respondents. It was difficult to use these initial results as a benchmark for much of anything. Here I was able to put my background in software development to some use and, using a scripting language known as R (typically used for statistical analysis), I was able to generate a complete set of reports for each of the respondents which I could use to develop the curriculum to cater to the needs of the company’s employees. It doesn’t seem like there’s much sense in going over material if people are comfortable with certain features already. Since we have such varied skill levels here at Chroma, I think it’s crucial to make sure that the course curriculum addresses the needs of each employee individually.

A view of my desk/work station in the IT office.


From here I was able to develop a set of eight presentations and schedule and host over twenty two-hour training sessions on the new software. To go along with these presentations I developed a set of evaluation materials which could be entered into the company training record so that they could track employee proficiency in the software. In-between the training sessions I would act as a helpdesk analyst helping to troubleshoot problems at other employee’s workstations while addressing questions/concerns they had over using the new software. Where needed, I was also able to provide one-on-one training sessions which is useful if employees have trouble scheduling or working with the material in a group setting.

As a whole, I feel like I’ve gained invaluable experience during my time with Chroma. I have a better understanding of how employee owned companies operate, a more complete perspective into the inner-workings of the IT departments in larger scale companies, and a set of skills in presentation, teaching, and curriculum development I didn’t have before this co-op experience. If I didn’t have to get back to classes I would seriously consider continuing on with a company like Chroma.