DRAFT NCTE Resolution: Grade Retention as Flawed Education and Reading Policy

DRAFT Proposal for Resolution [Please email your support, allowing your name to be included and note if NCTE member, and any edits ASAP to paul.thomas@furman.edu]

NCTE Resolution: Grade Retention as Flawed Education and Reading Policy

Grade retention as a major element in education and reading policy has been adopted by at least 14 states, with 32+ states linking reading intervention to high-stakes testing (Rose, 2012). These policies ignore four decades of research on the negative consequences of grade retention and the significant body of research on effective and supportive literacy instruction.

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good, including: (i) retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective, (ii) grade retention, especially when based on high-stakes tests, will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, ELL students, and special needs students, and (iii) grade retention is strongly correlated with behavior problems, increased drop-out rates, and discipline issues.

As such, grade retention represents a system of policies increasingly adopted based on misleading advocacy , resulting in a recursive cycle of punishment for young people, diminishing their sense of belonging and reducing their opportunity for educational equity. The academic benefits of retention are limited, short-lived and far outweighed by the negative consequences on students’ development in reading, writing, and all aspects of literacy. In fact, negative social, emotional, and academic effects of grade retention, at every level, are ongoing and persist into adulthood. Educators, policymakers, and political leaders must oppose the practice of retention.

The current pattern of political and public embrace of grade retention as a significant element in reading policy ignores solid decades of research refuting grade retention.

Resolved that NCTE strongly opposes the growing practice in several states of enacting into law grade retention requirements that children be retained in any grade who do not meet criteria in reading and other subjects.

And be it further Resolved that NCTE strongly opposes the use of high-stakes test performance as a major criterion for making judgments about retention in grade at any level or graduation.

If this resolution is adopted the NCTE staff will publicize this resolution to the public and urge similar actions by professional and other organizations. And the NCTE executive committee will schedule an agenda item to consider further implementations, including a plan to contact states with grade retention policies in order to advocate for repealing those policies and implementing sound literacy policy instead

Grade Retention Research

Signed

NCTE Members

Yetta Goodman, Regents Professor Emerita
Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus
Julie Gorlewski, Assistant Professor
David Gorlewski, Assistant Professor
P.L. Thomas, Associate Professor, Furman University
David Schultz, Assistant Professor
Janis Mottern-High
Steven Heller
Tara Seale
Renee M. Moreno, Ph.D.
Jesse P. Turner
Jeanne Gilliam Fain, Ph.D.
Joan Kaywell, Professor
Marjorie Siegel, Teachers’ College, Columbia U.
Renita Schmidt, COE, U.of Iowa
Dorothy King, retired
Connie Weaver, retired Endowed Professor of Reading and Writing, Miami U.
Diane Stephens, U. of So. Carolina
Prisca Martens, Towson U.
Jack S. Damico, U of Louisiana@Layfayette
Margaret Phinney, U. of Wisconsin River Falls
Amy Barnhill, U. of Houston, Victoria
Patricia L. Anders, U. of Arizona, COE
Michael Shaw, Director of the Reading Collaborative
J.C. Harste, retired Indiana U
Barbara Flores, San Bernadino City Unified School Board Member
Paul Crowley, Sonoma State U.
Yvonne Sui Runyan, NCTE Past President
Caryl Crowell, teacher, Tucson Unified School District
Eliane Rubinstein-Avila, Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies, U. of Arizona.
Elizabeth Jaeger, Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies, U of Arizona
Susan Seay, School of Ed., U. of Alabama, Birmingham
Richard Meyer, Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies, U. of  New Mexico
Denny Taylor, Garn Press
Christian Z. Goering
Lenny Sanchez, U. of Missouri
Mitzi Lewison, Literacy, Culture & Language Education, Indiana U.
Koomi Kim, Mexico State U.
Kathryn Whitmore, Endowed Chair Early Childhood, U. of Louisville
Jan Turbill, U. of Woolongong, NSW, Australia
Carole Edelsky, retired, Arizona State U.
Dawn J. Mitchell, Adjunct Instructor Furman University/ Spartanburg Writing Project, USC Upstate
Sandra Wilde, City U. of New York
Bess Altwerger, Towson U.
Carol Lauritzen, Eastern Oregon U.
Nancy Patterson, Literacy Studies, Grand Vallley State U.
Scott Richie, Kennesaw State U.
Jane Baskwill, Mount Saint Vincent U.
Howard Miller, Mercy Coilege School of Education
Reade Dornan, retired Michigan State U.
John Stansell, Chair Teacher Education and Administration U. of North Texas
Karen Packard, retired
Dr. Geneva Smitherman

Additional Support

Dan Kenley, Retired K-12 Teacher, Principal, and Director
Bill Boyle, Principal
Tom Gallagher, Teacher
Russ Walsh
Jack Awtrey, Title I Academic Specialist, Elementary ELA

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):

Spiegel

  • 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.

Recommended

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.

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

Posted at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled, college instructor Rick Diguette offers a grim picture of first year college writing:

Once upon a time I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall.  But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I read this just after I had been mulling Jessica Lahey’s What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator, and I recognize in both pieces several overlapping concerns that deserve greater consideration as well as some warranted push back.

“Students Today…”

Let me first frame my response by noting that I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina—where I focused heavily on student writing—and now have been in teacher education for an additional 13 years. My primary role is to prepare future English teachers, but I also serve as the university Faculty Director for First Year Seminars, and thus support the teaching of writing at my university.

In both Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces, we must confront a problematic although enduring sense that “students today” are somehow fundamentally different than students in the past, and that difference is always that “students today” are worse. Students today can’t even write a complete sentence (Diguette), and students today are cheating like there is no tomorrow (Lahey).

This sort of “students today” crisis discourse fails us, I believe, because it is fundamentally skewed by our tendency to be nostalgic about the past as well as by shifting far too much focus on lamenting conditions instead of addressing them.

I offer, then, a broad response to both Diguette’s and Lahey’s central points: Let’s not address student writing and plagiarism/cheating as if these are unique or fundamentally worse concerns for teachers and education in 2014 than at any other point in modern U.S. education.

And for context, especially regarding students as writers, I offer the work of Lou LaBrant on teaching writing (see sources below) and my own examination of teaching writing built on LaBrant’s work; in short:

In “Writing Is More than Structure,” LaBrant (1957) says that “an inherent quality in writing is responsibility for what is said. There is therefore a moral quality in the composition of any piece” (p. 256). For LaBrant, the integrity of the content of a student’s writing outweighs considerably any surface features. In that same article, she offers a metaphor that captures precisely her view of the debate surrounding the teaching of writing—a debate that has persisted in the English field throughout this century: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (p. 256)….

…LaBrant sought ultimately through writing instruction the self-actualized literate adult, the sophisticated thinker. She never wavered in her demand that writing instruction was primarily concerned with making sincere and valuable meaning—not as a means to inculcate a set of arbitrary and misleading rules, rules that were static yet being imposed on a language in flux.

Lou LaBrant remained paradoxically rigid in her stance: The writing curriculum had to be open-ended and child-centered; the content of writing came first, followed by conforming to the conventions; and English teachers had to be master writers, master descriptive grammarians, and historians of the language. It all seemed quite obvious to her, since she personified those qualities that she demanded. LaBrant was one of many who embodied the debates that surround the field of teaching English, and she left writing teachers with one lingering question: Do we want our students drawing blueprints or building houses? The answer is obvious. (pp. 85, 89)

Instead of framing student writing and plagiarism, then, within crisis discourse, we must view the teaching of writing and the need to instill scholarly ethics in our students as fundamental and enduring aspects of teaching at every level of formal schooling. In other words, the problems in student work we encounter as teachers—such as garbled claims; shoddy grammar, mechanics, and usage; improperly cited sources; plagiarism—are simply the foundations upon which we teach.

Along with the essential flaw of viewing “students today” as inferior to students of the past, the urge to lament that students come to any of us poorly prepared by those who taught them before is also misleading and more distraction.

We certainly could and should do a better job moving students along through formal education (see my discussion of common experiences versus standards), but the simple fact is that each teacher must take every student where she/he is and then move that student forward as well as possible. Formal standards and implied expectations about where all students should be mean little in the real world where our job as teachers is bound to each student’s background, proclivities, and all the contexts that support or impede that student’s ability to grow and learn.

Now, before moving on, let me introduce another point about our perceptions of how and when students “learn” literacy. Consider the common view of children learning to read by third grade, for example. As reported at NPR, this widespread assumption that students acquire reading by third (or any) grade is flawed because children and adults continue to evolve as readers (and writers) in ways that defy neat linear categories.

As educator professor and scholar Peter Smagorinsky notes in his response to Diguette, “Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.”

On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

None of what I have offered so far relieves teachers of this truth: All students need (deserve) writing instruction and that must include serious considerations of proper citations as well as focusing on the ethical implications of being a scholar and a writer (and citizen, of course).

And while I disagree with claims that “students today” are fundamentally worse writers or more prone to plagiarism than students in the past, I do recognize that we can expose why students perform as they do as writers and why students plagiarize and settle for shoddy citation.

Whether we are concerned about the claims or organization in a student writing sample, the surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage), faulty attribution of citations, or outright plagiarism, a central root cause of those issues can be traced to the current thirty-years cycle of public school accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Smagorinsky does, I want to urge anyone concerned about student writing to consider the conclusions drawn by Applebee and Langer regarding the teaching of writing in middle and high school (see my review at Teachers College Record).

Applebee and Langer present a truly disheartening examination of the consequences related to the accountability era as they impact student writing: Although teachers are more aware than ever of best practices in the teaching of writing (due in no small part to the rise of the National Writing Project in the 1970s and 1980s), throughout middle and high school, students are not writing in ways that foster their abilities to generate original ideas; establish, support, and elaborate on credible claims; and polish writing that conforms to traditional conventions for language.

The primary reasons behind this failure are not “bad” teachers or lazy/stupid students, but the demands linked to high-stakes accountability. Just as one example, please consider Thomas Newkirk’s challenge to the unintended and corrosive consequences of writing being added to the SAT in 2005.

The writing section of the SAT has negatively impacted the teaching of writing in the following ways, all of which can be found in contexts related to preparing students for other high-stakes testing situations related to state-based accountability (although NCTE warned about these consequences from the beginning):

  • Writing (composition) is reduced to what can be tested in multiple-choice format. In other words, students are being taught and assessed for writing in ways that are not composing. Here we have the central failure of allowing testing formats to correlate with holistic performances, and thus, students are not invited or allowed to spend the needed time for developing those holistic performances (composing). See LaBrant (1953) “Writing Is Learned by Writing.”
  • Students write primarily or exclusively from detailed prompts and rubrics assigned by teachers or formulated by test designers. Ultimately, by college, few students have extended experiences with confronting the wide range of decisions that writers make in order to form credible and coherent ideas into a final written form. If many college students cannot write as well as professors would like, the reason is likely that many of those students have never had the opportunity to write in ways that we expect for college students. Students have been drilled in writing for the Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and state accountability tests, but those are not the types of thinking and writing needed by young scholars.
  • Students have not experienced extended opportunities to draft original essays over a long period of time while receiving feedback from their teachers and peers; in other words, students have rarely experienced workshop opportunities because teachers do not have the time for such practices in a high-stakes environment that is complicated by budget cut-backs resulting in enormous class sizes that are not conducive to effective writing instruction.

The more productive and credible approach to considering why students write poorly or drift into plagiarism, then, is to confront the commitments we have made to education broadly. The accountability era put a halt to best practice in writing for our teachers and students so we should not be shocked about what college professors see when first year students enter their classes.

But another source of shoddy student writing must not be ignored.

Within that larger context of accountability, student writing that is prompted tends to have much weaker characteristics (content as well as surface features including proper citation) than writing for which students have genuine engagement (see the work of George Hillocks, for example). In other words, while students are not composing nearly enough in their K-12 experiences (and not receiving adequate direct instruction of writing at any formal level), when students do write, the assignments tend to foster the worst sorts of weaknesses highlighted by Diguette and Lahey.

Shoddy ideas and careless editing as well as plagiarism are often the consequences of assigned writing about which students do not care and often do not understand. (Higher quality writing and reducing plagiarism [Thomas, 2007] can be accomplished by student choice and drafting original essays over extended time with close monitoring by the teacher, by the way.)

And this leads back to my main argument about how to respond to both Diguette and Lahey: As teachers in K-12 and higher education, we have a moral obligation to teach students to be writers and to be ethical. Period.

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter why students struggle with writing or plagiarism at any level of formal education because we must address those issues when students enter our rooms, and we must set aside the expectation that students come to us “fixed.”

In other words, like most of education, learning to write and polishing ones sense of proper citation as well as the ethical demands of expression are life-long journeys, not goals anyone ever finishes.

However, in the current high-stakes accountability era of K-12 education—and the likelihood this is spreading to higher education—I must concur with Smagorinsky:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.

And I will add that if college professors want students who write well and ethically, they (we) must commit to continuing to teach writing throughout any students formal education—instead of lamenting when those students don’t come to us already “fixed.”

Writing and ethical expression have never been addressed in formal schooling in the ways they deserve; both have been mostly about technical details and domains of punishment. The current accountability era has reinforced those traditional failures.

I find Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces both very important and seriously dangerous because they are likely to result in more misguided “blaming the victims” in that too many of the conclusions drawn about why students write poorly and often plagiarize remain focused on labeling teachers and students as flawed.

That students write poorly and often plagiarize is evidence of systemic failures, first and foremost. In order for the outcomes—effective and ethical student writers—to occur, then, we all must change the conditions and expectations of formal education, including understanding that all teachers are obligated to identify our students strengths and needs in order to start there and see how far we can go.

Final Thoughts: Adult Hypocrisy

Many of you may want to stop now. The above is my sanitized response, but it isn’t what I really want to say so here goes.

If you wonder why students write poorly and too often plagiarize, I suggest you stroll into whatever room has the biggest mirror and look for a moment.

As someone who is a writer and editor, I work daily with scholars and other writers who submit work far more shoddy than my students submit.

And as an increasingly old man, I witness the adult world that is nothing like the idealized and ridiculous expectations we level moment by moment on children.

Plagiarism? You too can become vice president of the U.S.!

Lazy student? You can become president of the U.S.!

Now, I absolutely believe we must have high expectations for our students, including a nuanced and powerful expectation for ethical behavior, but many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet. The adults in the U.S. (especially if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are a man) play a much different ethical game than what we tell children.

Children see through such bunkum and that teaches a much different lesson that doesn’t do any of us any good.

For Further Reading

The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?, Thomas Newkirk

On Children and Childhood

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

References

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About IntegrationThe English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writingElementary English27(4), 261-265.

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P. L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P. L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

2014 NCTE Annual Convention - Participant Announcement copy

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

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Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

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Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”

GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

Guest Post by Peter Smagorinsky, The University of Georgia

NCTQ’s announcement of its new edition of its Teacher Prep Review predictably exalts its own role in improving public education by requiring colleges of education to raise students’ test scores through the instruction of its teacher candidates once they are members of school faculties. I will briefly respond to a few of the claims that they make, which rely on rhetorical characterizations about “success” and “achievement” that spuriously elevate their belief that standardized tests reflect the whole of learning, a claim that few teachers or teacher educators endorse. In contrast, most teachers and teacher educators believe that the NCTQ’s narrow focus on standardized “achievement” tests undermine an authentic education that prepares students for work or life.

The report claims that “The training that teachers receive has to set them up for success.” Well, who doesn’t want successful teachers and students? The question that many of us within the profession ask is this: How is success defined here? For NCTQ, teacher educators are successful when graduates of their programs teach students who do well on standardize tests. But it’s pretty well documented that the best way to have students get good test results is to teach kids from affluent families. The best way to be a successful teacher educator, then, is to encourage teacher candidates to teach the wealthiest kids possible, rather than those residing in impoverished communities. Given that social justice is inscribed in the mission statement of just about every college of education in the nation, being successful according to NCTQ means betraying the values to which we are committed as educators.

The recent judicial decision to eliminate teacher tenure in California may well negate the claim that tenure decisions will now include data from “student achievement.” NCTQ overlooks the fact that in many “Right to Work” states do not have tenure, collective bargaining, unions, or other job protection rights. In any case, the idea that the only measure of “student achievement” is standardized tests overlooks other ways in which students may achieve in school.

The “troubling ‘capacity gap’ between what teachers were being expected to do and what their training equipped them to do” is only troubling if one accepts the fact that teacher educators reject the idea that they should focus on one thing: training prospective teachers to train children and youth to take multiple choice tests. I use the word “train” here because narrow, tedious learning of this sort involves little constructive or open-ended thinking. These tests, first of all, are often not related at all to the curriculum but instead test students on their ability to get correct answers on test items constructed in relation to brief passages by psychometricians who may have little understanding of curriculum, instruction, human developmentexcitement about learningopen-ended thinkingcreativityartistic expressionkids’ home livesauthentic work readiness, cultural ways of thinking, kinesthetic learningthe needs of learners with special circumstancesthe cultivation of committed writersrelating instruction authentically to students’ lives, and other aspects of school learning.

The emphasis on narrow testing abilities further overlooks the many contributions that teachers make to schools: caring for emotionally needy studentsproviding pathways to persistingmaking a long-term commitment to schools and their communitiesfostering the ability to form healthy relationshipsinvolving community members in school activitiesbeing good colleaguesbuilding the confidence of young people at fragile points in their lives, and other aspects of cultivating the whole person.

The report further claims that “new teachers don’t feel like they can even get to the business of teaching and learning because they haven’t been taught the most basic classroom management techniques.” They are right in that many colleges of education have eliminated classes in classroom management, in many cases because without unruly students present to illustrate procedures, the abstraction of management textbooks are of little value in learning how to manage increasingly large classes of kids who are subjected to a deadly dull curriculum oriented to multiple choice assessments. The NCTQ appears to have little understanding of the relation between an engaging curriculum and student engagement. Rather, colleges of education should train teacher candidates how to prepare kids for standardized tests and manage (i.e., punish) those who find the experience despicable. It’s easy to see why an intelligent, dedicated teacher educator would find that prospect both unappealing and educationally bankrupt.

Safe Spaces for Teachers’ Professional Voices in a Public Sphere

It is a bittersweet irony that words are mostly inadequate to express my appreciation to be nominated for and then recognized with the National Council of Teachers of English 2013 George Orwell Award—”established in 1975 and given by the NCTE Public Language Award Committee, recognizes writers who have made outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse.”

I am first humbled to be added to the powerful list of previous winners. I also fear I pale in comparison, but having been included, I now take on the obligation of fulfilling this recognition that my work does belong here.

So let me highlight briefly that the 2013 Orwell Award directly recognizes my blogging, identifying Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence.

As both public intellectual work and a part of New Media, my blogging is fraught with minefields in the context of my life as a university professor  and scholar as well as my status as a teacher, identifying myself always as someone who spent 18 years teaching in a rural public high school in South Carolina.

Public intellectual work and blogging remain marginalized ways of being for academics and scholars, while they both are risky ventures for public school teachers.

I am cautiously optimistic that NCTE’s Orwell Award this year is about much more than me—it is about the New Media of blogging and about the importance of professional voices in public spheres.

And thus we have two obligations before us as educators, scholars, and academics:

  1. We must work diligently to create safe spaces for all teachers’ voices in public spheres. Currently, safe spaces exist for tenured professors (my status), but such is not the case for public school teachers and their students; as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
  2. And once those safe spaces are created, teachers must bring our individual and collective professional voices to the public sphere.

Because, as Orwell cautioned, public discourse is dominated by partisan political voices and “[p]olitical language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Professional teachers’ voices in the public sphere must, as NCTE suggests “[contribute] to honesty and clarity in public language” as a form of resistance to the continued failure of partisan political discourse, especially as that partisan political discourse impacts our public school, our public teachers, and our public school students.