#NCTE14 MOH: The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

A Moment in NCTE History – NCTE Annual Convention

Washington DC, 2014

Paul Thomas, Council Historian

Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting, 2014 Annual Convention

The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

In late November of 2003, I sat on the floor in a crowded luncheon just a few feet and slightly behind Adrienne Rich, speaking and reading her poetry at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held that year in San Francisco. Appropriately, Rich was reading from her then-upcoming collection, The School among the Ruins, and talking about teaching, teachers, and education. I was struck by many things that day, but one of Rich’s most enduring messages from her Arts of the Possible confronts our choices about education in the U.S.:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (162)

If anything, history is a tapestry of choices—the story of human commitments, choices that shape us. Universal public education in the U.S. is such a tapestry of choices, choices about the possible as well as the possible ignored.

Writing in the November 1985 English Journal, novelist Walter Dean Myers reflected on his journey to loving literature:

I would read a library book under my desk with the assigned text on the desk itself. It happened that I had no library book one day, but I had discovered a store which sold used paperbacks for ten cents a piece. The cover of the book I had selected featured a young woman, sword in hand, blouse carelessly pulled down from her shoulder, standing before a billowing mainsail….

Now, I’d like to think that I read today because I enjoy the finer things in literature. I’m sure that’s the case. I remember, years later, icebound on a cargo ship on Baffin Bay, I actually experienced Coleridge’s “wondrous cold” and the “dismal sheen” of Arctic fog. But sometimes…sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t reading for at least a few years, at just the right time in my life, in hopes that I would find another really juicy line the likes of “he silently padded over her.” (93-94)

And then in 2014, the year he passed away on July 1 just a month and one day before James Baldwin would have turned 90, Myers returned to why he loved literature, why he wrote in“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

And thus, Myers in the January 2005 English Journal explained: “As a writer I especially want to reach the uninspired reader. I believe it is vital for the country and important for social order, and I relish my shared experiences with inner-city youths” (37).

Like Myers, Rich wrote in 2004 about Baldwin in her “The Baldwin Stamp.” Rich had encountered Baldwin’s work when she was 19, and then met him personally in 1980, explaining, “I did not need to introduce myself to Baldwin nor raise my hand in a question. His work was what I needed” (51). Later, Rich adds,

Baldwin was a moralist, a role which many writer today are apparently uncomfortable, since morality has become hostage of various fundamentalisms, or Hollywood/TV “good guys and “bad guys,” or relegated to the critical trash heap of “post-” discards. But there was no self-righteous or simplistic moral scenario for him. (52)

In the U.S. where our streets and schools are increasingly hostile to young black males—the threat of being shot and killed by the exact police meant to protect them or destined to be suspended, expelled, or failed by the exact schools meant to teach them—we teachers of English, among all teachers, have become hostage to yet another era of accountability, standards, and tests that keep us from our central calling—one identified by Rich and Myers, one voiced by Baldwin at the Non Violent Action Committee Los Angeles (December 18, 1964): “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.”

With each passing moment, we are contributing to the ever-growing tapestry of history, too often adding the possible ignored. Instead, let’s create the possible; let’s offer our students those mirrors for their quests for their own identities.

In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (97). The possible, then, resides in the words of Rich, Myers, and Baldwin and the faces of our students who come to our classes seeking themselves.

Works Cited

LaBrant, Lou. “Language Teaching in a Changing World.” The Elementary English Review 20.3 (1943, March): 93–97. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean. “How I Came to Love English Literature.” English Journal (1985, November): 93-94. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The New York Times (2014, March 15). Web.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Writing for the Uninspired Reader.” English Journal 94.3 (2005, January): 36-38. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

#NCTE14: Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

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

Panel presentation, 75 mins

Gaylord National Resort – Annapolis 1

11:00-12:15

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

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

Abstract

“[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.

“It is 1956, and I am thirteen years old,” begins Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo.  The opening scene reveals DeSalvo’s teenage angst and her desire to flee:

I have begun my adolescence with a vengeance. I am not shaping up to be the young woman I am supposed to be. I am not docile. I am not sweet. I am certainly not quiet. And, as my father tells me dozens of times, I am not agreeable. If he says something is true, I am sure to respond that it is most certainly not true, and that I have the evidence to prove it. I look up at the ceiling and tap my foot when my father and I argue, and this makes him furious.

In the middle of one of our fights, the tears hot on my cheeks, I run out of the house, feeling that I am choking, feeling that if I don’t escape, I will pass out. It is nighttime. It is winter. I have no place to go. But I keep running.

There are welcoming lights a few blocks away. It is the local library. I run up the stairs. I run up to the reading room, sink into one of its comforting, engulfing brown leather chairs, pull an encyclopedia down from the shelf, hold it in front of my face so that no one can see me, so that no one will bother me, and pretend to read so that I won’t be kicked out. It is warm and it is quiet. My shuddering cries stop. My rage subsides. (Prologue, p. xiii)

Libraries, librarians, and teachers return often throughout DeSalvo’s life story that reads as a slightly revised version of Tennessee Williams’s fictional “kindness of strangers”—this a retelling of the kindness of teachers, and of the library as sanctuary.

“There is more than one way to burn a book” (p. 209), Ray Bradbury warns in the “Coda” included in the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451—a comment that motivated a poem of mine, “The 451 App (22 August 2022),” a speculative poem about how the move to electronic books could lead to the dystopian end to books and reading.

Bradbury’s novel, of course, emphasizes the importance of books, and of reading, but Bradbury’s writing of the novel and life also present powerful messages about libraries.

Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time” (p. 168). Further, Bradbury drafted early versions and then Fahrenheit 451 itself in the UCLA Library, working at a dime-per-half-hour typewriter.

Bradbury explains as well in the audio introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians, and book people, and booksellers. (p. 196)

It makes a great deal of sense and offers some literary symmetry, then, that Neil Gaiman wrote the Introduction to Bradbury’s 60th anniversary edition—Gaiman who is the source of a mostly satiric piece I wrote calling for Gaiman to replace Arne Duncan as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Gaiman, like, Bradbury is an advocate of books, of reading, of libraries, and then of children choosing what they read:

It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur….

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them….

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant….

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

As I am writing this, it is late in the year 2014. No dystopia like Bradbury envisioned has happened, and at least potentially, books are more abundant than ever—both in print and electronically.

But a much more insidious dystopia does exist, one that is little different than decades before us and one that comes in the form of policy and what former NCTE president Lou LaBrant called “adult weariness” (p. 276).

Reading and books—and children—have long been the victims of prescribed reading lists, reading programs, and reading legislation. By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had 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).

Nearly 65 years later, Common Core, the related high-stakes tests, and rebranded concepts such as “close reading” are poised to have the same chilling effect Bradbury dramatized in Fahrenheit 451, and directly warned about, again: “There is more than one way to burn a book.”

From LaBrant to Stephen Krashen, literacy teachers and scholars have called repeatedly for access to books in the home, well-funded public libraries, and children having choice in what they read.

Instead, we close libraries (and public schools), we defund and underfund what libraries (and schools) remain, and we invest in reading programs and reading tests. That is a very real and painful dystopia.

Like DeSalvo, Gaiman recalls the library as a safe haven:

Nobody is giving you a safe space. I used to love libraries at school. Because school libraries had an enforced quiet policy, which meant they tended to be bully-free zones. They were places where you could do your homework, you could do stuff, whether it was reading books, or getting on with things that you wanted to get on with, and know that you were safe there. And people responded to your enthusiasms. If you like a certain writer, or a certain genre, librarians love that. They love pointing you at things that you’ll also like. And that gets magical.

Here, Gaiman answers his question from his Introduction to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Why do we need the things in books?” (p. xv).

Books as magic, libraries as sanctuaries—we must cast spells, then, to erase the dystopia before us in the form of yet more standards and test, yet more libraries closed, and then yet more children taught to hate the very things and the very places that have made life worth living for so many.

Books and libraries created Gaiman, spawned his belief: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Let’s hope so.

References

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

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.

*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”

See Also

Neil Gaiman: Libraries are cultural ‘seed corn’

It’s a Book, Lane Smith

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

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

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

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

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.