Beyond Caricatures: On Dewey, Freire, and Direct Instruction (Again)

A former colleague while we both taught high school in rural South Carolina, Ed Welchel, and I addressed [1] the continuing importance of both John Dewey and Paulo Freire, despite the decrease in requirements for education philosophy in certification and degree programs, in “The Practitioner Has No Clothes: Resisting Practice Divorced from Philosophy in Teacher Education and the Classroom” for Kincheloe and Hewitt’s Regenerating the Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey (Progressivism) and Freire (Critical Pedagogy) share significance for how we should implement universal public education, they also share a pattern of being discounted and discredited through caricature more often than through valid criticisms of their faults.

I have noted several times the work of Lou LaBrant, who I would identify as a “true” progressive, specifically her own efforts to unmask misguided and mislabeled progressive practices (see “Masquerading”). LaBrant’s work and career help expose (i) that progressive claims have often been misrepresentative of progressivism and Dewey and (ii) that some progressives (LaBrant) offer more accurate representations of just what being a progressive educator looks like in the real-world classroom.

Complicating the matter is the century-plus struggle to reform education, which I have represented as four competing arenas (also well teased out by Jack Hassard):

Education reform camps fall into two broad categories—Mainstream and Radical—with two divisions within each broad category: Mainstream Reform includes bureaucratic reformers and technocratic reformers; Radical Reform includes libertarian reformers and critical reformers.

Whether debates are addressing Dewey/progressives or Freire/critical educators, the issues tend to focus on the role of the student, the role of the teacher, the nature of curriculum, and the nature of instruction.

As a thirty-plus year educator who has worked through my progressive stage and settled solidly into critical pedagogy, I want to highlight the central misrepresentations of Freire with the following excerpt from the co-authored chapter noted above:

“My theoretical explanation of such practice ought to be also a concrete and practical demonstration of what I am saying,” Freire (1998) explains, thus connecting the philosophical with the practical (p. 49). Without a careful consideration of what we believe about teaching and learning, we are ill equipped to measure what we do with any precision, a precision unlike the traditional view of the term (not mechanistic quantification, but holding the real against the ideal as an act of qualitative validity). Teaching and our classrooms, then, must be “something witnessed, lived” (Freire, p. 49).

The progressive challenge that pushed against the traditional and mechanistic assumptions of teaching and learning offers practitioners a consideration of alternative views of education, but without a critical perspective, practitioners are left vulnerable to a dualistic and thus incomplete understanding of a classroom that creates the conditions necessary for the pursuit of democracy and freedom. Here, we find the necessity for the critical perspective that becomes a way of being, one that is “ethical” as teaching and learning are acts of empowerment—“to ‘spiritualize’ the world, to make it either beautiful or ugly” (Freire, 1998, p. 53).

The most damning result of either/or thinking is believing, falsely, that classrooms must be either authoritarian or chaotic. Freire (1998) explains the critical alternative:

“It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical.” (p. 59)

The empowering classroom is far more complex than any either/or dynamic as such dynamics oversimplify and necessarily distort human endeavors (Kohn, 1993). But it is Freire’s recognition “of being ethical” that poses the greatest argument for the need to explore philosophy fully and rigorously.

A wrestling with the ethical implications of teaching and learning exposes “the dilemma arising from the tension between authority and freedom. And we invariably confuse authority and authoritarianism, freedom and license” (Freire, 1998, p. 60). And this, I believe, is the crux of why practitioners balk at any pursuits they deem impractical. They are trapped by the false dichotomy of what a classroom can be, primarily because they themselves have experienced and excelled in those exact settings that critical pedagogy challenges for being mechanistic and oppressive. When practitioners call for “practical” over “philosophical,” that call is masking a fear of deconstructing the exact assumptions that housed their own success as students—and often their own physical and psychological safety as professionals.

The practical becomes in effect a perpetuation of the status quo, a fixed thing. A philosophical perspective, one augmented with a critical lens, however, is an embracing of a state of flux: “This permanent movement of searching creates a capacity for learning not only in order to adapt to the world but especially to intervene, to re-create, and to transform it” (Freire, 1998, p. 66). With the practical, we have a sense of security; with the theoretical, a sense of risk. The classroom that seeks and embraces risk is a classroom that confronts authority; thus, the practitioner trapped by dualistic assumptions believes confronting authority can only lead to chaos. Without a critical perspective, the practitioner is left without the possibility of authoritative (instead of authoritarian), without the possibility of freedom (without slipping into license).

Classrooms guided by practitioners who have ignored a careful consideration of philosophy—of progressivism and critical pedagogy—slip into an authoritarian, and thus oppressive, dynamic that contradicts democratic ideals by silencing students. The mechanistic assumptions of these classrooms embrace a traditional view of objectivity as both attainable and preferable to the contextual arguments made by critical pedagogy: Freire (1998) maintains “that the school. . .cannot abstract itself from the sociocultural and economic conditions of its students, their families, and their communities” (p. 62). Education without a rich philosophical understanding embraces a clinical view of humanity—oppressive in its narrow view of “scientific.” [2]

And thus we come to some clarifications:

  • Progressive educators and critical educators—while embracing many overlapping concerns, beliefs, and practices—are not the same as unschoolers, exsitential educators, and “naturalist” educators.
  • For critical educators, a teacher seeks to serve as teacher/student while a student serves as student/teacher. Key here is where authority lies (not that it is absent). Authority for a teacher should grow from that teacher’s expertise, and not primarily or solely from that teacher’s status as “teacher.” Critical educators are skeptical of authoritarianism, but embrace their authoritative status.
  • Progressive and critical educators do not reject direct instruction, but are skeptical of direct instruction that is isolated and determined for students without any evidence of student need/interest or input. Again, the problem is isolated direct instruction, and the question is not if we use direct instruction, but when, how, and why. (Read carefully again the quote from Freire [1998], p. 59.)

So rejecting Dewey/progressivism or Freire/critical pedagogy with caricatures ignores the need to criticize both on substantive grounds (bell hooks has taken Freire to task well, and Lisa Delpit has dismantled failed progressivism, for example) while also perpetuating a reality that I find most troubling: Neither progressivism nor critical pedagogy has ever had any real and substantial place in U.S. public education.

The irony of this is that those who are most apt to criticize both progressivism and critical pedagogy by relentlessly calling U.S. public education a failure are in fact criticizing the policies and ideologies they claim will “reform” schools because those classrooms have been dominated by transmissional practices, content- and teacher-centered commitments, and technocratic policies driven by prescriptive standards/curriculum and high-stakes testing.

I end, then, with the final paragraphs in the essay excerpted above:

The empowered student necessarily requires the classroom offered by the empowered teacher. Any who teaches must first work through the philosophical evolution that Dewey and Freire represent—as well as continuing beyond the possibilities offered by Dewey’s progressivism and Freire’s critical pedagogy. The pursuit of an educational philosophy, then, is a journey that inseparable from being a practitioner—not something we “finish” in undergraduate courses and then mindlessly build upon.

Choosing between the status quo (norms and traditions) and progressive as well as critical possibilities is a choice between the moribund and the fecund. Norms and traditions are moribund—but the mind requires the fecund classroom that works against norms and traditions (thus progressive and critical) instead of bowing mindlessly to them. Philosophy is not something merely academic, something that wastes a teacher’s time better spent on the practical. Again, as Freire (1998) argues, “Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply ‘blah, bah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism” (p. 30). The soul of teaching, then, is an act of the mind and the heart that rises above the limitations falsely separating theory from practice.

[1] Co-authored with Welchel, E. (2011). The practitioner has no clothes: Resisting practice divorced from philosophy in teacher education and the classroom. In Eds. J. Kincheloe & R. Hewitt, Regenerating the philosophy of education: Whatever happened to soul (pp. 43-54). New York: Peter Lang USA.

[2] See Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. (Trans.) P. Clarke. New York: Rowman & Littlefield;

Kohn, A. (1993, September). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from

The Great Media-Disciplines Divide

Posting at The South Lawn, Robert Reese, a PhD student in sociology at Duke University, confronts the marginalized role of the disciplines in the popular media:

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”

In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.

As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.

What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?

Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.

I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.

But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.

From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.

That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.

While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:

An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …

Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.

I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”

That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”

So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:

  • If you think some issue, practice, or debate in education (or any discipline) is new, take a deep breath and then assume that it is not (likely, it is not). Immediately seek out an expert in the discipline, one that has expertise in the history of the field, and start from there. (Just as a related note: Many rushed to glorify Howard Gardner when he became “hot” for multiple intelligences. In my doctoral program—deeply steeped in the history of education—we were quickly disabused of believing that ideas was “new” because similar ground had been covered many decades before Gardner.)
  • If you think a major issue or practice doesn’t already have a rich and complex research base—and thus it is you who shall examine it for the field—take a deep breath and then realize that (i) the discipline surely has a research base and (ii) idealizing the outsider viewpoint is the most offensive thing you can express to those in a discipline who have spent their lives considering that field carefully. (Note: I am primarily in the field of education, but I taught journalism for 13 years and have been a professional writer, including journalism, for most of my adult life. I confess that I do not have formal training in journalism, but I certainly have credible expertise in that field, enough so to make the claims I do here.)
  • And finally, if you insist on maintaining a commitment to “presenting both sides,” you are guaranteed to misrepresent the disciplines (see, for example, my discussion of sentence diagramming) and you have failed to learn from the disciplines since disciplinary stances are grounded in the body of research, honoring clear and convincing evidence. To present Side X equally with Side Y is to suggest the two sides are equal in credibility and weight (see the Oliver Rule); few issues have such simplistic balance. The disciplines honor positions with the most credibility and weight, driven by evidence (although there is nuance among the disciplines in issues such as what counts as evidence, etc.).

Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Having been a serious competitive and recreational cyclist (not “biker”) for all but a handful of years over three decades, I cringe and must bite my tongue every time people refer to their bicycle “seat” (it is a “saddle”). During those years committed to cycling, I have also become well acquainted with the history of the professional sport and a fairly accomplished bicycle mechanic.

I can take apart and assemble a high-end road bicycle, and I know the proper names for all the parts.

All of that knowledge and skill, however, have not made me a better cyclist. And since I have spent those same approximate years also pursuing careers as a writer and teacher (mainly of English, specifically writing), I remain baffled at both recurring arguments found in Juana Summer’s NPR piece and the public responses to it:

When you think about a sentence, you usually think about words — not lines. But sentence diagramming brings geometry into grammar.

If you weren’t taught to diagram a sentence, this might sound a little zany. But the practice has a long — and controversial — history in U.S. schools.

And while it was once commonplace, many people today don’t even know what it is….

But does it deserve a place in English class today? (The Common Core doesn’t mention it.)

I found this article through Facebook, where the original posting was praising sentence diagramming and many who commented followed suit. Oddly—although not surprising—when I weighed in with a century of research refuting the effectiveness of sentence diagramming for teaching writing, my comments were brushed off as a “viewpoint” and one person even boldly stated that no one could convince her that sentence diagramming wasn’t effective.

During a teaching career—mostly in English—that spanned over six decades and included a term as president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Lou LaBrant [1] confronted the grammar debate, including sentence diagramming, in 1952:

Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.”

Six years previous, LaBrant identified the research base examining isolated direct grammar instruction and teaching writing:

We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing.

In 1953, although there is a danger in her simple phrasing, LaBrant offered an eloquent argument about the job of teaching writing:

It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it.

And thus, we come to LaBrant’s most powerful metaphor for teaching writing:

Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house….The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right.

At mid-twentieth century, then, LaBrant expressed evidence-based positions on teaching writing (and the ineffectiveness of isolated direct grammar instruction and sentence diagramming) that have been replicated by numerous teachers and scholars for decades—notably the work of Connie Weaver and George Hillocks. Hillocks, for example, has shown that isolated direct grammar instruction has negative consequences on students as writers:

grammar negative

Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, George Hillocks


NCTE has catalogued the same debates, misunderstandings, and research base: Guideline on Some Questions and Answers about Grammar and Resolution on Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing. And despite a cumulative and clear recognition of the effective and ineffective approaches to teaching children to write (see Writing Next), we find articles such as the NPR piece above and the responses I witnessed on Facebook.

And while I don’t suffer the delusion that I can stem the grammar/sentence diagramming debates, I want to offer here some framing clarifications that I think may help both teachers and the public better understand the issues:

  • Isolated direct grammar instruction (including sentence diagramming) is ineffective in general for fostering students as writer. If our goal, however, is to teach grammar, then isolated grammar instruction would be justifiable.
  • And thus, isolated direct grammar instruction fails writing instruction because (i) it too often replaces time better spent reading and writing by students, (ii) it requires a great deal of instruction related to terminology and systems that (a) does not transfer to composition and (b) again consumes huge amounts of classroom time, and (iii) formal and isolated grammar instruction remains decontextualized for students since grammar (like geometry) requires abstract reasoning by children and teens who may have not yet reached the level of brain development necessary to navigate or understand the system at the explicit level.
  • However, the two key points here include the following: we are discussing writing instruction as the primary goal and we are confronting isolated direct grammar instruction. So let me be very clear: No one in literacy suggests not teaching grammar; the question is not if, but how and when. Thus, once students are required and allowed to have rich and extended experiences reading and writing by choice, direct instruction is very effective after those experiences and when anchored in those students’ own demonstrations of language acquisition, misunderstanding, or gaps.
  • Connected to the context and when of direct grammar instruction is the importance of balanced literacy, which calls for literacy teachers to incorporate any practice (including sentence diagramming, including grammar exercises) that helps individual students (which may rub against generalizations found in the research base):


  • And finally, many people have a distorted nostalgia about why they have learned so-called standard English. While people are quick to ascribe harsh and traditional grammar instruction as effective in their own learning, that doesn’t make it so. In fact, many people grew as readers and writers in spite of traditional practices—or what is often the case, they can’t recognize their existing facility for language (often brought from home), which made them good at direct grammar exercises and sentence diagramming, as the actual cause of that success.

So I return to LaBrant, and her plea that teaching young people to write is about goals and weighing what truly matters:

There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach. He may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say.

If we seek to teach young people to write, and thus to think, in complex and original ways, we remain confronted by the need to see that writing is learned by writing—just as I have honed my skills as a cyclist by riding a bicycle about 5000 to 10,000 miles annually for most of the last thirty years.

Naming correctly the parts of the bicycle, taking apart and putting together a bicycle—these have not made me a better cyclist. For students as writers, blueprints, still, are not houses, diagramming is not composing.

Simply stated, then: The effective writing classroom must never be absent the direct teaching of grammar (again, not if, but when and how), but the grammar-based classroom has often been and continues to be absent writing by students—and therein is the failure.


Teaching the Unteachable, Kurt Vonnegut

[1] See Chapter 7 in Missing Chapters, Lou LaBrant: An Annotated Bibliography, and Lou LaBrant: A Woman’s Life, a Teacher’s Life.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

Complicit: On Facing the Mirror Before Casting Stones

“Let me begin,” admits George J. Sefa Dei in “‘We Cannot Be Color-Blind': Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking,” “by making clear that I see myself as fully complicit in the discussion that I undertake in this chapter” (p. 25).

As we face large and powerful social forces such as poverty and racism—along with more narrow issues of education—I believe we all must address that first concern of who is complicit.

Let me begin with something that echoes in my mind almost continually, from Oscar Wilde: “But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.”

Consider taking that frame and using it many contexts: “But to recommend _____ to  _____ is both grotesque and insulting.”

Also consider who makes such recommendations. For the poor, the affluent and powerful—who do not live up to the same standards they impose—are the who.

Today—at this exact moment—we watch as a white authority structure recommends to a dominantly black community that which is “grotesque and insulting.” And then on a narrower scale, those with power and money recommend to educators that which is “grotesque and insulting.”

So whether we are confronting poverty and racism or education, we all must begin with who is complicit.

People in poverty and African Americans in the U.S. share one disturbing but distinct quality: disproportionately the impoverished and African Americans are excluded from the power structure.

Who, then, is complicit in the existence and tolerance of poverty and racism? It cannot be those without the power; therefore, it must be those with the power.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

White high school drop-outs and African Americans with some college have the same economic opportunities.

Whites and African Americans use recreational drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are targeted, charged, and incarcerated at much higher rates.

Those born wealthy and not attending college have greater economic power than those born in poverty and completing college.

To be white, to be wealthy—in the U.S. is to be complicit.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

While I think my field of education is of a magnitude smaller than issues of poverty and race, I must end there because the picture is hard to confront.

And because education is and always will be inextricable from the fight to end poverty and racism; as George J. Sefa Dei concludes, “Antiracism is about changing current processes of schooling and education delivery” (p. 39). We may say the same about poverty.

I have taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina and then been in teacher education for another 13 years. Teachers and teacher educators persistently complain about the bureaucracy of education; it is a relentless refrain among educators.

Recently, I received an email about how to anticipate what may be demanded of us when political regimes, once again, change; the email included: “No other profession has to deal with such crap.”

My response: “No other discipline would put up with that crap.”

Educators are complicit in the crap that is education reform. Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit.

All those scrambling to have a seat at the Common Core table, a table inextricable from the entire reform agenda—unions, administrators, teachers—all are complicit.

It is time to face the mirror, to examine who is complicit.








Democracy can mean a range of concepts, including freedoms, rights, elections, governments, processes, philosophies and a panoply of abstract and concrete notions that can be mediated by power, positionality, culture, time and space. Democracy can also be translated into brute force, hegemony, docility, compliance and conformity, as in wars will be decided on the basis of the needs of elites, or major decisions about spending finite resources will be the domain of the few over the masses, or people will be divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. because it is advantageous for maintaining exploitative political systems in place to do so. Often, these frameworks are developed and reified based on the notion that elections give the right to societies, or segment of societies, to install regimes, institutions and operating systems that are then supposedly legitimated and rendered infinitely just simply because formal power resides in the hands of those dominating forces.

The book is interested in advancing a critical analysis of the hegemonic paradigm described above, one that seeks higher levels of political literacy and consciousness, and one that makes the connection with education. What does education have to do with democracy? How does education shape, influence, impinge on, impact, negate, facilitate and/or change the context, contours and realities of democracy? How can we teach for and about democracy to alter and transform the essence of what democracy is, and, importantly, what it should be?

We are particularly interested in the notion of decency in relation to democracy, and underpinned by forms of meaningful, critically-engaged education. Is it enough to be kind, nice, generous and hopeful when we can also see signs of rampant, entrenched and debilitating racism, sexism, poverty, violence, injustice, war and other social inequalities? If democracy is intended to be a legitimating force for good, how does education inform democracy? What types of knowledge, experience, analysis and being are helpful to bring about newer, more meaningful and socially just forms of democracy?

Some of the themes to be explored might include:

  • peace, peace education and democracy
  • media, media literacy and democracy
  • pedagogy and education for democracy
  • curriculum and education for democracy
  • race, anti-racist education and democracy
  • poverty, class and education for democracy
  • environment and ecology within the context of democracy and education
  • the meaning of kindness in relation to democracy and education
  • what is decency within the context of democracy and education?

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please submit the following to by September 30, 2014:

1)    a 400-word summary of your proposal, including:

  1. title
  2. focus and research questions
  3. the connection to the subject of the book
  4. the theoretical and/or conceptualframework
  5. the major themes to beexplored
  6. other pertinent information

2)    8 keywords for the chapter

3)    a 100-word biography for each author


1)    Call for Proposals (August 25, 2014)

2)    Receive Proposals (September 30, 2014)

3)    Communicate with contributors regarding decision on proposals (October 15, 2014)

4)    First complete draft of 5,000 words due (January 15, 2015)

5)    Comments from editors regarding first draft to contributors (Februrary 15, 2015)

6)    Final complete draft due to editors (April 1, 2015)

7)    Review by editors, and follow-up with contributors (May 1, 2015)

8)    Liaison with publisher for final editing and proofing (May 15, 2015)

9)    Publication (Summer 2015)

For all other inquiries about this book, please contact Paul R. Carr at