Writing versus Being a Writer

It is a key distinction, but one we often ignored in daily life—that between choice and recognition.

At lunch, we choose the meal we prefer, or while shopping, we choose the outfit in the color that appeals to us. And it is there that we are a bit careless about words and concepts; those choices are actually about recognition.

After about 20+ years of choosing not to eat beef, a couple of years ago, I returned to steak on occasion. I order steaks medium-rare because I recognize that a wide variety of qualities of taste and texture appeal to me in aesthetic/palpable ways in a medium-rare steak.

As clumsy as all this may seem, after having been a teacher of writing for over 30 years and a so-called serious writer for a handful of years longer than that, I believe people fall into two camps related to writing: those who need to or are required to write and those who are writers, the first being somewhat in the arena of choice and the second, a recognition of Self.

Both those who choose (or are compelled) to write and those who are writers can be taught to write well, I am convinced, but I think in much different ways and with a much different attitude by the teacher (notably, recognizing that one is not better than the other, simply different).

As the fall semester of 2014 ended, which included two classes of first year writing, and as I continued to teach and write simultaneously, I watched the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and read James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Susan Cheever‘s e. e. cummings: A Life.

“I suppose finally the most important thing was that I am a writer,” Baldwin explained to Studs Terkel in a 1961 interview, adding:

That sounds grandiloquent, but the truth is that I don’t think that, seriously speaking, anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are a writer and then you haven’t got any choice. You live that life or you won’t live any. (p. 20)

In Cheever’s examination of poet e.e. cummings, the life of the writer is highlighted:

Cummings seems like a man with an enviably successful career; but like many American writers he had years of anxiety and hardship, of being sniped at and attacked, of struggling to make a living, to buy food and pay the rent. This kind of rejection is part of being a writer. Men and women who are somehow constituted to get energy from rejection—no matter how painful that might be—are the ones who survive as writers. (p. 114)

And here I stress that being a writer is a recognition, some could argue a compulsion, that certainly can and should be fostered, but is not likely something that can be instilled in others. Sontag, cummings, and Baldwin, it seems to me, had little choice in the matter, but also mostly embraced that inevitable of who they saw themselves to be.

Teaching Poetry as Teaching Writing

As a writer and a writing teacher, I often come back to the power of teaching poetry (reading and wrestling with poetry) and asking students to write poetry, fully aware that most people are not poets. This, I think, is a powerful subset of what it means to teach writing broadly: We are not creating writers, necessarily, and it is not our calling as teachers of writing to treat all students as writers.

So let me offer just a brief consideration of teaching writing to those who choose (or who are compelled) to write as that stands against teaching writing to those who are writers (who recognize “[y]ou live that life or you won’t live any”).

As its essence, writing is about producing an artifact, and understanding that the written thing itself is static, although the meaning (Rosenblatt’s interaction of reader, writer, text) is organic. Many other forms of text (film, visual art, etc.) fall under this same quality, but writing is a static thing restricted to the word and both the conventional and unconventional units made up of words.

To write poetry, then, is to confront that poetry shares with prose the conventional word > phrase > clause > sentence grammar of written language. However, poetry is distinguished from prose by the construction of purposeful lines and stanzas (prose tends to remain within sentence/paragraph boundaries, and thus, not conscious of how those words form on the visual page; prose poetry remains poetry because it is a purposeful rejection of conventional lines and stanzas).

For example, William Carlos Williams write, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens”—a grammatical sentence crafted into poetry by the transition into lines and stanzas that impact the reader visually. Or consider “our happiness” by Eileen Myles—a poem remaining fully grammatical but raised to poetry by the craft of lines and stanzas.

To sit down and write poetry, then, the writer must consider the essentials of all effective writing, a complex web of choices that ultimately result in that artifact that is paradoxically both static (a visual construction of words) and organic (reader, writer, text). Those essentials include the following:

  • Form, medium, and genre—conventions. To construct a poem is to face conventions (writers must either conform to those conventions or reject those conventions, purposefully) about form (lines, stanzas, rhyme, meter, etc.—for poetry), medium (print or visual text), and genre (broadly imaginative [fiction] or factual [non-fiction]; and then, narrowly, realism, fantasy, etc.). Writing is not the inverse of reading, but the product of synthetic discourse of being a reader: The more sophisticated the reader, the more craft the writer. For those choosing or compelled to write, this can be overwhelming; for writers, there is pain in this process for sure, but it is both necessary and never-ending.
  • Purposefulness. Although any writer may certainly begin writing without a clear purpose, the final artifact of writing must be shaped with both the awareness noted above and then the guiding purpose intact. Since poems tend to be brief, writing poetry is an ideal avenue to understanding, recognizing, and maintaining purpose in a piece of original writing. In different contexts and types of writing, we call this “thesis” or “focus,” but ultimately, writing is about making purposeful decisions mechanical, aesthetic, expressive, and transmissional. If we turn back to cummings, Cheever notes that many who responded negatively to cummings raised concerns about whether or not he sought in any way to communicate with readers; for a writer, few charges could be more damning.
  • Audience. When I conference with students, I ask questions: What is this thing you are writing (see first bullet)? What are trying to say (second bullet)? And then, who is this for, and why would anyone read this (thus, audience)? If we again return to Rosenblatt, and consider trees falling in the woods with no one around, that static thing called a poem (or essay, or novel) spawned out of a writer’s purpose ultimately seeks an audience in order (again, Rosenblatt) to achieve meaning (the organic and difficult thing possibly most mistreated by formal education). For those choosing to write or compelled to write, the audience is often imposed, mechanical—a key reason prompted and formal school writing is so miserably lifeless. Writers, however, are nothing without an audience, a love/hate relationship not unlike being in a family.
  • Coherence. And finally, as a static thing, all writing achieves coherence—something or some things designed by the writer to hold it all together. Writing is cobbling, crafting, synthesizing, shaping—especially the poem. In those conferences, we talk about framing a piece of writing, organization, and how the student-as-writer has decided to move the reader from here to there and there and then ultimately there.

So let me end with some offerings.

During my most recent semester teaching first year writing, we read “Gate A-4″ by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. My students loved the piece, and we approached it as an essay, but I have seen it called a short story and a poem (so, what is it?). [Pair with her poem, “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change.”]

What mattered most to me, however, is that my students were eager to say that it was clearly written by a poet, and that means to me, although they are far from finished in most ways as writers, they somehow get it. Few compliments could be higher for a piece, for a writer.

I end this musing with something quite wonderful from Nye, about a found poem,“When Did You Stop Being a Poet?” Naomi Shihab Nye ~ the charm of and lesson in “One Boy Said”:

Claiming the Education Reform Narrative

If the education reform movement is transitioning into a next phase and if my call for teaching with our doors open as an act of resistance can gain traction beyond the school house, educators must also begin to lead when our leaders fail, in part by claiming the education reform narrative away from political, media, and non-expert reform advocates.

Here, then, I want to outline the how’s and why’s of raising our professional voices as educators in order to succeed in a public arena:

  • Too often, educators have been on the defensive, historically and during the recent three decades of accountability, in the education reform debate. That has left those without expertise always determining the ground and content of the debate, framing educators as professionals as always rejecting reform and having little to offer as an alternative. Step one, then, is we must begin to initiate the narratives about what educational problems exist and then what policies better address those needs. This must include avoiding both the people and policies dominating mainstream reform. Instead of rejecting over and over the edu-reform leader of the moment, we must speak with authority on our own terms—not as a response to the person or the policy.
  • If Edu-reformer X is wrong and lacking credibility, we must not rush to pat Edu-reformer X on the back if/when he/she expresses a position we have offered credibly often. Our evidence-based professional stances are credible on their own; we do not need those without credibility but with misplaced authority in order to be right. For example, as an alternative to refuting edu-reformers, at the school level, since standardized test scores are problematic across public education, we must not celebrate if our school has high test scores, but instead, find more valid ways to celebrate our schools that also honor all public schools.
  • We must stop trying to out-do the edu-reformers: stop offering better accountability, stop offering better testing, stop offering better standards. The accountability approach to education reform and education is a failure, period. Just as educational leaders have failed by fighting for a place at the accountability table, educators have also too often made this mistake. We must make the case for professional and shared responsibility for the good of each student as well as all students.
  • We cannot fall prey to government bashing. “Publicly funded,” not “free,” is the heart of a democracy, the essential foundation for economic commitments to work well and for a people to achieve justice. When our government has failed, in fact, it has failed to act as government. It is ours to show that public education rests beside other essentials, such as the fire department or roads/highways, that the public tends to embrace positively.
  • Stories matter more than research, and words matter. While as professionals we must assert our evidence-based reasons schools struggle and policies to address those problems, we must take care to craft narratives that accurately reflect that research base; here are real people doing real things, and not “research shows.” But just as we must stop playing at the accountability table set for us, we must set aside the words and phrases at the heart of the failed reform agenda: accountability, grit, no excuses, rigor, achievement gap.
  • More broadly, we must not participate in the decades’ long and corrosive crisis/Utopian discourse framing of current reform: the contradictory education is in perpetual crisis and education is the one true way. They are both false, and they are both counter-narratives to the stories we must tell.
  • One of the most powerful and complicated parts of the flawed reform agenda is the claim about teacher quality, and here, educators have a huge challenge. We must begin to assert that teachers and teacher quality matter, but that value is not easily measured. As I noted above, this will require that we find avenues and techniques to celebrate our schools, our teachers, and our students in credible and complex ways—stories with teachers and children, and not numbers. And thus, we must shape a community narrative; teacher quality is not about one teacher, but about a community of educators and a community of learners, often over many years. Why not take a class of 8th graders at the end of their journey at a middle school and highlight all three years and all the teachers involved—experiences both academic and extracurricular? Teaching and learning are complex, and often messy; thus, we must make this story vivid and compelling.

Yes, some edu-reformers must be confronted, rarely and when egregious, and some policies must be directly and powerfully refuted (as I have with corporal punishment and grade retention), but we now need to shift the balance of our public voices.

The case, however, is now clear that political leaders, the media, and most edu-reformers have weak credibility and support failed policies.

“The challenge is in the moment,” James Baldwin implored, “the time is always now.”

It is time to claim our profession, and part of that includes claiming the education reform narrative, one that is informed, honest, and productive.

To My Students at the End of the Semester

After over three decades of teaching, only two realities about teaching are nearly unbearable for me: the end of class (like parenting, teaching is entered knowing that students, like children, will and must move on from the teacher, parent) and the ugly inevitable of having to assign each student a grade.

Since I do not grade assignments or students throughout the semester, that second reality creates a great deal of tension for you students as well as for me. So I want to take a few moments to emphasize what we were trying to accomplish together, an orchestra I conducted (possibly badly occasionally or even often), as I must add quite purposefully, with all my heart.

As at least some of you heard this story this semester, please indulge me.

Harold Scipio taught me high school chemistry and physics. He was a tall black man, very measured and formal. It is because of Mr. Scipio, I think ultimately along with Lynn Harrill, that I found my way to teaching after thinking I was going to major in physics (that was because of Mr. Scipio, but it was also because I was young and mostly misreading myself and the world).

Mr. Scipio practiced two behaviors that were totally unlike any other teacher I ever had. First, he referred to all of us as Mr. or Miss and our last names, and he explained to us that since we had to call him Mr. Scipio, he should certainly return the courtesy.

In the last days of my senior year at the National Honor Society banquet (Mr. Scipio was a faculty sponsor), as we were cleaning up afterward, he called me Paul, smiled widely, and told me to call him Harold because I was graduating and an adult.

And throughout my junior and seniors years, each time Mr. Scipio would hand out a test or exam, he would quietly gather a wide assortment of lab materials around the room before walking out of the main room and into the back where he washed and returned the materials to the storage shelf.

During every test, Mr. Scipio left the room, sent an unspoken message about not only our very frail and young integrity but also his trust that although we were surely not perfect, that we would ultimately make the right decisions.

I now teach every single day in the wake of Mr. Scipio—often disappointed in myself for failing his lessons about the essential dignity of all people, especially young people, especially students in the care of a teacher.

Teaching isn’t about chemistry or physics, or introductions to education or first year seminars and learning to write.

Teaching is about those becomings and beings that truly matter: becoming and being a citizen of communities grand and intimate, becoming and being the only you that you can be, becoming and being a scholar and student.

And yes, I placed student last because it is nested as least important among everything I placed before it.

But the semester is over. We will not ever share these classes together again, and I must per university directive issue you a grade now.

In my quest to honor the essential dignity of each one of you, then, I have fought the good fight against what I feel is deeply dehumanizing—grading.

My final stone cast at that unmovable and unbreakable window is that I have asked each of you to submit a final portfolio of your work this semester.

That portfolio is your argument, your final artifact of representing not only you but also the you that you have become this semester.

That collection of artifacts should show the you who could not have existed a few months ago, should show a young mind now capable of synthesizing a wide range of experiences and materials into something only you can offer, and should strike a blow against the former you while calling out for the you yet to be.

That portfolio is you, and as Mr. Scipio taught me, you are the most important thing in the world; thus, your portfolio deserves your undivided attention and care.

It deserves to be a purposeful thing of this moment, but it can never fully define you and certainly will only represent you in passing.

In these final moments before you submit the last act of our classes, forgive me your final grades—and I hope I have earned just a small kernel of the respect that Mr. Scipio received from me as I watched his back disappear from the room and then turned to those tests that really had nothing on them I remember today.

Government Fails When It Fails to Be Government

Let’s start with a little game.

Fill in the blanks:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [_____] to sacrifice their independent professional [_____] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [_____] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [_____] administrators hold all the power, while [_____]—and worse still, [_____]—hold none.

Now take a look at the original:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing doctors to sacrifice their independent professional medical judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many doctors from my generation are exiting the field. Others are seeing their private practices threatened with bankruptcy, or are giving up their autonomy for the life of a shift-working hospital employee. Governments and hospital administrators hold all the power, while doctors—and worse still, patients—hold none.

I am a 30-plus-year educator, therefore, this paragraph jumped out at me since many of my professional complaints match this almost perfectly, leading to my version:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [teachers] to sacrifice their independent professional [education] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [teachers] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [school] administrators hold all the power, while [teachers]—and worse still, [students]—hold none.

But there is an irony to all this: The paragraph is in a piece at The Cato Institute and the doctor penning the complaint cites Ayn Rand toward the end; thus, it is intended to be a slam against Big Bad Guv’ment.

The flaw is that in the piece itself, the real problem is not government, but that government fails to be government—”perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures.”

In the U.S., we have a quasi-Libertarian but mostly flawed idealism toward wealth, capitalism, and the misleading free market that has twisted “government” to mean something akin to totalitarianism (in the 12-year-old sort of way Rand fumbles in her garbled attempt at fiction writing and populist philosophy).

As a stark comparison facing us now, police are meant to protect and serve, but when a policeman shoots and kills a 12-year-old or a policeman strangles to death an unarmed man selling cigarettes, we do not have evidence that justice is a flawed pursuit, but that the current system fails justice.

Government as a hand of the market and government as bureaucracy—that dynamic is crippling medicine and education in the U.S. However, the reality is that government in the U.S. is mostly a servant of the rich and powerful, and not a mechanism of the public good—the potential purpose of democratic government because we are the government, not some dictatorial tyrant.

Public funding should be a pooling of resources by a people in order to insure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of each individual; it is not a competition between society and each individual (the Romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau) but a symbiotic relationship between the two (John Dewey): by contributing to the public good, I also contribute to my own individual liberty.

The free market (“perverse incentives,” “economic pressures”) and bureaucracy (“bureaucratic diktats”) have never and will never achieve equity. The market creates inequity, and bureaucracy paralyses most everything, notably the pursuit of equity.

Government rightly functioning would insure that experts (such as doctors and teachers) who serve the public good are free to practice that expertise—not bound to the whims of the market, not fettered by bureaucratic mandates.

Publicly funded must precede (not supplant) all other commitments of a free people—public education, universal health care, highway system, just legal system, etc. Demonizing government (we the people), idealizing the market—both are insuring that the U.S. will never achieve equity, never reach the promise of democracy and freedom.

Government fails when it fails to be government, and people governed fail that government when they fail to understand that government is their collective will.

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

After speaking and guiding a workshop recently, I was struck by some distinct impressions I witnessed among several hundred educators.

First, although teachers and educational leaders coming to a conference are a skewed subset of teachers, I was impressed with their passion for teaching but more so for their students.

However, I must add that these teachers repeatedly expressed a lack of agency as professionals; a common refrain was “I [we] can’t,” and the reasons were administration and mandates such as Common Core (or other standards) and high-stakes testing. That sense of fatalism was most often framed against these teachers clearly knowing what they would do (and better) if they felt empowered, professionally empowered, to teach from their expertise as that intersects with their students’ needs.

This experience came just two weeks after my trip to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, this year in Washington DC—where I presented on the value of books and libraries as well as delivering the Moment of History as the Council Historian. Again, I spent several days with a skewed subset of teachers, but there I would also characterize much of the talk as “I [we] can’t”—because of administration, because of Common Core.

I must admit that during my 13 years as a teacher educator, once our students enter the field of education, I listen as my highly motivated and bright young teachers begin to speak in “I [we] can’t,” often apologizing for essentially never being able to implement in their classes the many research-based practices and robust philosophies we explored when they were in methods courses.

Let me now highlight here that the first experience above was with all unionized teachers; the second example, with active members of a professional organization; and the third, with traditionally certified teachers from a selective university and a highly praised and accredited program.

Earlier this year, Helen Klein reported:

American teachers feel stressed out and insignificant, and it may be impacting students’ educations.

Gallup’s State Of America’s Schools Report, released Wednesday, says nearly 70 percent of K – 12 teachers surveyed in a 2012 poll do not feel engaged in their work. The study said they are likely to spread their negative attitudes to co-workers and devote minimal discretionary effort to their jobs.

…When compared to 12 other occupational groups, teachers were least likely to report feeling like their “opinions seem to count” at work.

And thus, I have a very serious question:

If being unionized, a member of a professional organization, or certified results in teachers feeling the same powerlessness, the same lack of professionalism as most other teachers, how do teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education justify themselves?

I think this question is valid, and I think we now stand at a watershed moment for teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education. And I offer this hard and blunt question because, ultimately, I believe in the promise of teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education as a discipline.

My first impression about this question is that far too often unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have failed teachers and education by racing to grab a seat at the table—eager to contribute to how to implement standards, testing, and bureaucracy. All three arenas of educational leadership have failed educator professionalism by rushing to participate within the partisan political accountability movement over the past thirty years.

Leadership from unions, professional organizations, and teacher education has been overwhelming as fatalistic as the teachers I described above; diligently compromising, eagerly complying, breathlessly trying to excel at accountability and bureaucracy—in effect, leading by following.

If we return to what we know about how teachers feel, Klein noted the ultimate danger of a lack of teacher professionalism:

“The problem is that when teachers are not fully engaged in their work, their students pay the price every day,” says the report. “Disengaged teachers are less likely to bring the energy, insights, and resilience that effective teaching requires to the classroom. They are less likely to build the kind of positive, caring relationships with their students that form the emotional core of the learning process.”

And thus, compliant, fatalistic educational leadership feeds compliant, fatalistic teachers—failing the most important aspect of universal public education, students.

Instead of challenging the assumption that public education needs accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing, unions, professional organizations, and teacher educators have mostly focused on helping teachers navigate each new round of standards and tests—even praising each new round despite no evidence that standards and testing work (or are in any way address the real roots of educational inequity).

Too often, that same pattern has occurred with value-added methods for teacher evaluation and calls for reforming teacher education. [1] The responses have been about implementing policies slowly so they can be done correctly—not substantive rejecting of deeply flawed policy and the dismantling of teaching as a profession.

I do not discount that a powerful consequence of high-stakes accountability is that educators and educational leaders are on the defensive, often frantic because a failure to comply with flawed policy can result in serious consequences—risking funding, lost jobs, ruined careers even.

However, the exact reasons that teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education should matter are the antidotes to remaining trapped in a state of frantic reaction: Collective and professional noncooperation with any policies not supported by the knowledge-base of the field of education and the established norms of professionalism.

So this is my point: Teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have a duty to their own existence and to teachers as well as the field of education; that duty includes no longer fighting for a place at the education reform table, no longer putting organizational leadership and bureaucracy before the integrity of education as a discipline and a profession.

As English educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant announced in 1947: “This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

As James Baldwin declared in Nobody Knows My Name: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

This is about time. It is time to set aside the failed pursuit of accountability, the corrosive insistence on rigor, and the dehumanizing commitment to standardization.

It is time that teaching reclaim its rightful place as a profession, setting the table for how teachers teach, how students learn.

It is time leaders in teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education lead by leading.

[1] We do have examples of resistance, although too rare; see this response to NCTQ by NCTE.