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.

A MOMENT IN NCTE HISTORY – NCTE ANNUAL CONVENTION BOSTON, 2013

A MOMENT IN NCTE HISTORY – NCTE ANNUAL CONVENTION

BOSTON, 2013

Paul Thomas, Council Historian

Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting, 2013 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention

“Not the Time . . . to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”

Honoring our history allows us to acknowledge that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. For those of us teaching English, we recall not only people, their lives, and careers, but also their words—and that words matter.

The Moment of History for NCTE each year, then, confirms our debt to the past and speaks to our obligations for today and tomorrow: And in that spirit, I note that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

In the mid-1800s, public education was called a “’dragon. . .devouring the hope of the country as well as religion. [It dispenses] ‘Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism,’” explains Jacoby (2004, pp. 257-258). Bullying public education has deep roots, at least reaching back to the threat of universal public schooling detracting from the Catholic church’s control of education in the nineteenth century.

Education historian Diane Ravitch (2013), in her Reign of Error, details how this historical trend has manifested itself in the current thirty-year accountability era. The media, in documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and an endless stream of articles in print and online, along with political leadership at the state and federal levels as well as on both sides of the aisle have offered a steady refrain that public schools are failures and public school teachers are mostly to blame. The solutions for three decades have been more accountability, new standards, and better high-stakes tests.

As teachers of literacy we are squarely in the crosshairs of these claims, and since we all love a good story, we are also major characters in competing narratives about education and education reform in the U.S.Ravitch (2013) documents these narratives well, but also exposes that the dominant and compelling narrative—schools are failures and teachers are to blame—is mostly misleading and that the counter-narrative—expressed by teachers, academics, scholars, and researchers—remains essentially ignored.

Let’s go back in time, then, with our current state of affairs in public education firmly in mind. Let’s go back to 1947 and Lou LaBrant, a few years before her tenure as president of NCTE, in the pages of Elementary English when she laments “…the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87). Later in that piece, LaBrant concludes:

Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium [emphasis added]. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources and study the answers thoughtfully. The game of Gossip is not for us. (p. 94)

Just three years later, writing about writing instruction, LaBrant (1950) also sounded an alarm about “word magic”:

There is other semantic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)

Now, let’s jump ahead in history to 2001, when No Child Left Behind codified the accountability era and called for “scientifically based research” over 100 times. The implications of this legislation, of course, were that between 1947 and 2001, education had failed to listen to LaBrant.

If we move just a few years further to 2005, the College Board announced a writing section of the SAT. NCTE promptly responded (Ball, et al., 2005) by warning that research suggested that timed, high-stakes tests were likely to damage effective and equitable literacy pedagogy and learning. In subsequent years, some of the power of the SAT has diminished, but high-stakes testing has increased, both in the lives and learning of children and in the evaluation of teachers and schools.

Today, as we now face the implementation of Common Core and the highs-stakes tests related to those new standards, we are again presented with evidence from the National Education Policy Center:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)

In November of 2013, then, it seems all too obvious that echoing LaBrant is necessary as we seek ways in which we can raise the discourse and change the actions of those leading the reform of public schools to fulfill our debt to our past and our obligations to today and tomorrow.

We face “a considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” and “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.” And finally, as LaBrant (1950) concluded about word magic:

Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)

We cannot afford the word magic of the current reform movement any longer. Words matter, and it is time for resistance.

References

Ball, A., Christensen, L., Fleischer, C., Haswell, R., Ketter, J., Yageldski, R., & Yancey, K. (2005, April 16). The impact of the SAT and ACT timed writing tests. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

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

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

Mathis, W. (2012, October). Research-based options for education policymaking: Common Core State Standards. National Education Policy Center, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. Boulder, CO.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Thomas, P. L. (2011, November 28). “Not the time…to follow the line of least resistance.” Truthout. Retrieved from

SPECIAL CALL: Speaking Truth to Power (English Journal)

SPECIAL CALL

For my January 15, 2014, CALL for my English Journal column, Speaking Truth to Power, I am seeking a column that combines the column focus with the special issue, with guest editors Alan Brown and Chris Crowe and focusing on the theme “A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom.”

Please contact me with a query or draft that combines these elements as detailed below.

Speaking Truth to Power

Editor: P. L. Thomas

“If education cannot do everything, there is something fundamental that it can do. In other words, if education is not the key to social transformation, neither is it simply meant to reproduce the dominant ideology. . . . The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated. . . . We are speaking of that invisible power of alienating domestication, which attains a degree of extraordinary efficiency in what I have been calling the bureaucratizing of the mind” (110–11). (Freire, 1998, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage)
This column seeks to explore the experiences and possibilities that arise when educators speak Truth to power. It is also intended to be an avenue for teachers to speak Truth to power through teacher narratives about the “the bureaucratizing of the mind,” about best practice in critical literacy against scripted and tested literacy, and about creating classrooms that invite students to discover, embrace, and develop their own voices and empowerment.
Submit an electronic Word file attached to your email to the column editor, P. L. Thomas, atpaul.thomas@furman.edu.

A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom

Deadline: January 15, 2014

Publication Date: September 2014

Guest Editors: Alan Brown and Chris Crowe

Love sports or hate them, it’s hard to deny their prominence in American society and their popularity with 21st-century adolescents. Interscholastic athletics in particular can play a significant role in the overall culture of a school and have a substantial impact on students’ daily lives. Despite this influence, the topic of sports in society is often absent from the professional conversations of English teachers, an exclusion that could prove to be a missed opportunity. This issue will examine the possibilities for both utilizing and critiquing the culture of sports as a means of increasing student engagement and promoting student learning in the English classroom. Within this context, we seek manuscripts that explore the intersection of literacy, sport, culture, and society, and we encourage column submissions devoted to this same theme.

A number of important questions guide this issue: What connections or disconnections exist between the perceived physical nature of athletics and the mental nature of academics? What real-world associations have you made between sports and the English curriculum? How can sports-related texts (e.g., young adult literature, canonical literature, graphic novels, poetry, nonfiction, magazines, newspapers) be integrated into the academic culture of an English class? How have you promoted the teaching of 21st-century skills through the use of sports-related media, film, and technology? What possibilities exist for interdisciplinary (e.g., historical, political, scientific, social) connections to sports across content areas? How have you engaged students in critical dialogue about our societal emphasis on sports? How can we extend the definition of sport to be more inclusive for students of diverse cultures, races, genders, ethnicities, and abilities? How can an examination of sports culture open the door to discussions of other cultures that exist in school and society?

Thank You, Ken Lindblom (and Others)

I met Ken Lindblom at a national convention, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) meeting in San Francisco 2003, if I recall correctly.

My relationship with NCTE has been complex because the people and opportunities NCTE has brought to me have been many and wonderful, but the organization itself has often failed what I believe are key commitments.

Nonetheless, I have served as a column editor under Ken’s brilliant tenure as editor of English Journal. His work has been stellar, and I am honored to have been a very small part of this work.

My last piece for this column, Adventures with Text and Beyond, pulls together my argument about the need to recognize and celebrate a wider context for what counts as text. But it also acknowledges the work of Adam Bessie, Dan Archer, and the spectacular graphic scholarship of Nick Sousanis.

For all his support and inspiring work, I want to thank Ken for being the sort of colleague every scholar should experience. I also want to thank Adam, Dan, and Nick for their brilliant work—work that pushes me to seek out the heights they have attained.

Finally, I want to thank Julie and David Gorlewski, incoming editors at EJ because, like Ken, they have become supportive friends/colleagues who have allowed me to remain a column editor at EJ—Speaking Truth to Power.

It is because of this community of educators, scholars, and artists that I hold onto my hope that some day we fulfill the promises of universal public education and democracy for which these good friends work each day.

Educators: “[N]ot the Time. . .to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”

In a major journal from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a teacher and scholar laments the current state of implementing the research in language: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87). [1]

And the discussion of that gap between research and classroom practices leads to this conclusion:

“Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium [emphasis added]. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources and study the answers thoughtfully. The game of Gossip is not for us.” (p. 94)

While those of us living our lives as teachers, especially teachers of literacy in K-12 settings or in teacher education, may recognize many points above in our current debates about education reform—including some of the debates that simmer below the surface of the workings of NCTE—this piece is by Lou LaBrant and was published in the January 1947 issue of Elementary English (now Language Arts).

More than six decades after LaBrant wrote about the gap between research and practice, More than six decades after she implores us that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance,” educators across the U.S. are faced with the failure of leaders, the public, and professional organizations in the face of the promise of universal public education and its potential to drive the great hope we call democracy.

The Locus of Authority: Our Time for Resistance

At the 100th anniversary annual convention for NCTE in Chicago (November 2011), I presented during a panel on the Council’s century of leadership in the field of literacy—reading from the essay above by LaBrant and suggesting how she would have responded to the current calls for Common Core State Standards (CCSS), increased testing, intensified value-added methods (VAM) for teacher accountability linked to those tests, and accelerating mandates driving teacher preparation and accreditation of colleges and departments of education.

I know from my work as the biographer of LaBrant that she was a powerful voice for the professionalism, scholarship, and teacher autonomy—including herself and every teacher with whom she interacted. LaBrant, in fact, during the early 1930s when enrolled in her doctoral program at Northwestern University, faced pressure while teaching English to implement required reading lists, textbooks, and benchmark testing, all of which she knew to be flawed practices.

What did LaBrant do?

She fabricated lesson plans with her roommate, the foreign language teacher, and submitted them each week while practicing the pedagogy she embraced—student choice in what they read and wrote, holistic instruction and assessment of literacy. At the end of the year, LaBrant and her students (yes, in the early 1930s) faced end-of-course testing, and LaBrant’s students received top scores. Consequently, she was praised by the principal in front of the entire faculty for her dedication to the prescribed policies.

This tension between bureaucratic mandates that seek to shift the locus of authority (consider Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”) away from the teacher and within the standards and tests designed and prescribed by the state is not entirely new (except for the intensity), but neither is the need for teachers to own their autonomy, their professionalism—to be that resistance.

Also at the 2011 NCTE annual convention, a convention of celebration, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, Carol Mikoda, Bess Altwerger, Joanne Yatvin, and Richard J. Meyer proposed a resolution: NCTE will oppose common core standards and national tests. [2] This act of resistance, this act of teacher autonomy and professionalism resulted in what Catherine Gewertz in the Curriculum Matters blog at Education Week describes as: “The National Council of Teachers of English was asked by a group of its members to take a strong stand against the common standards, but it declined to do so.”

This is a time when political leaders, the public, and national organizations have abdicated their moral obligation to create and maintain universal public education for all children as a sacred trust between a free people and the promise of democracy.

As the faculty of Garfield High School (Seattle, WA) take a principled stand against MAP testing as a beacon of hope in the fog of corporate education reform, this is also a time for all educators to shine every light of our autonomy on what is right and what is wrong in the day-to-day pursuit of teaching children.

“This is not the time for the teacher of any [student] to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

References

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

[1] Originally posted at Daily Kos (November 21, 2011) and cross-posted at Truthout (November 28, 2011). Reposting here as a call for solidarity among educators inspired by the resistance of Garfield High School faculty (Seattle, WA) to the corrosive impact of MAP and other elements of high-stakes testing in U.S. education. The original piece has been revised.

[2] Revised resolution passed: Resolution Proposal to Support: No Confidence in United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan