The Power of Superhero Mythology: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

Risking hyperbole, I believe Spider-Man saved my life, much like Max Dillon/Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2except mine was metaphorical.

Watching the sequel of the 2012 reboot that had the cinematic guts to replicate possibly the most important moment in the Spider-Man Universe (and even the entire Marvel Universe)—“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”—I was powerfully forced into two minds paralleling the Peter Parker/Spider-Man duality: my 53-year-old academic mind as it interacted with my teenaged self, a traumatic period in the 1970s when I found myself strapped into a full body brace in hopes I could overcome scoliosis without major back surgery.

In the summer of 1975, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a medical shock tossed on top of my frail self-concept wallowing in the typical throes of adolescence. I was scrawny, and I was destined not to become the strapping young male and athlete I believed my father wanted. And then, scoliosis—a curving spine and an affliction mostly common among females.

Perfect.

The body brace I wore was a torture device of straps, metal rods, and a solid plastic body mold, designed to force my spine straight so that the defective vertebrae could regain their proper shape. Wearing the brace 23 of 24 hours a day was how I spent my ninth grade, an adventure horrifying all on its own without the brace waving out to everyone, “Hey, look at the nerdy cripple kid!”

And then there was Spider-Man.

My wonderful parents not only sacrificed financially for the brace and seemingly never-ending visits to the orthopedist, but also scrambled to find anything that would help off-set what they must have recognized as a significant blow to who I was becoming, how I saw myself.

The saving choice was comic books. And to this day, I cannot set aside how hard that must have been for my very-1950s, rugged, working-class father, a four-sport athlete in high school who lost all of his teeth to sport and fights before graduation.

At first, I began buying comics mostly to stand at the long bar separating our kitchen/living room and draw (starting with tracing, and then freehand with pencil followed by teaching myself how to ink those pencil drawing as comic book artists did).

Drawing led to reading and reading, to collecting. One of our spare bedrooms became my comic book room, and I even built a chest to hold my comics in my ninth-grade wood working class at school.

Those familiar with Peter Parker/Spider-Man likely already anticipate what had to happen; I fell in love with Spider-Man comics—the Holy Grail of low self-esteem nerd superhero mythologies.

Science nerd, orphaned, painfully thin and wearing glasses, Peter Parker walked into my life both as a stark reflection of my Self and a promise that transformation was possible (although with a price). But in 1975, I was dropped into the post-Gwen Stacy world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but that was about to change.

“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

As my comic book fascination grew, somehow my father was snagged in the collecting bug, taking me to the local pharmacies and quick shops in my small hometown that carried comics and even to one comic book convention in Atlanta, GA. But he also noticed comic collections being sold in the ads of the newspaper.

Over two visits spurred by the ad of a 20-something still living at home but obviously making a decision to shift into adulthood, we bought about 1000 comics, essentially a complete run of Marvel comics spanning most of the 1970s.

Sorting, cataloguing, and carefully placing each comic in the prerequisite plastic bags of true comic book nerdom—these were my solitude. I also ravenously began to piece together the Peter Parker/Spider-Man Universe, significantly the death of Gwen Stacy.

In The Power of Myth, an interview between Bill Moyers and popular comparative religion guru Joseph Campbell, I came to understand many years later the mythological patterns in superhero comics and the science fiction I would also begin to consume.

Throughout 30-plus years of teaching, I have grown more and more fascinated with genre and form; and as a reader, I can now trace my early comic book love that fed into Arthur C. Clarke to the logical path through Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, leading then to Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami.

Mine is the story of the power of secular mythology—as Campbell may explain, the Truth beyond the narrative that need not be factually true (in contrast to the literalist Christianity of my Southern childhood).

That brings me back to watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as both teenage-Me and current-Me.

The updating of the Gwen Stacy arc (set in contemporary times, for example) hurts my soul, but I found the film ambitious for remaining true to the only conclusion possible in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man narrative, the death of Gwen Stacy.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man has always been a bit about working-class insecurity, but the current-Me feels deeply uncomfortable about the failures in the original Silver Age arcs absent sophisticated portrayals of race and gender (the latter captured in the character of Gwen Stacy, blonde, pretty, and more Ideal than person).

I want to set aside, however, a critical re-reading of Spider-Man to embrace again why I believe the myth remains enduring and ultimately important, despite the many flaws.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man is grounded in the central superhero motif of duality: the mere human and the masked superhero.

Spider-Man grew out of the seminal Marvel method—personified by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby—of collaborative creation and genre blurring (superhero, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).

As the domain of child, teen, and young adult males, comic books from Marvel in the 1960s succeeded by tapping into teenage angst and alienation, relationships, and the transition from formal school to work.

While often misquoted, however, the ethical dilemma of Peter Parker/Spider-Man endures: “WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME — GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”—anchoring the final panels of Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin of Spider-Man.

The duality motif in Spider-Man is about much more than hiding Peter behind a mask. Peter the nerd, before the spider bite, was lonely and alienated; and then, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) discovers over and over that he remains lonely and alienated because of not his super powers, but his great responsibility.

Silver Age Spider-Man, from the origin in 1962 until the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, confronts the mythology of the individual heart in battle with that individual’s social responsibility.

Despite all the villains the Marvel bullpen could muster, Peter Parker’s greatest battle has always been with himself.

And the one moment that matters above all others is captured in a way that sequential art demands:

Gwen Stacy’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (June/July 1973)

The Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy storyline—for all the camp and flaws—remains in mythological terms a disturbing and fatalistic story of the sacrifice of the individual heart against our obligations, about the limitations of the human need to connect and then protect.

As a parent/grandparent and teacher, I lay on the couch and re-watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2 through layers of me and then tears because I have lived and live a very real battle with myself that is our essential humanity: how do we follow our hearts and offer those we love and world the selflessness it deserves?

Beneath the mask of superhero lies a secular myth of duality that is each one of us, a calling not for superheroes but every human. All of which we can find in classic mythology about gods and humans.

In Peter Parker’s universe, Gwen Stacy had to die, and then die again in the re-imagined universe of film.

Gwen Stacy’s neck breaking is the frailty of human limitation, ironically, at the end of a web—Gwen’s own mortality as that intersects with Peter’s humanity, even as Spider-Man.

In existential terms, our passions are our suffering—the essential duality of being human.

As we watch Peter Parker fight himself, it is ours to recognize that to avoid our passions is to avoid living, to avoid the very humanity that should be our joy.

Max Dillon/Electro fumbles badly the gift of being saved by Spider-Man; I continue to try to find ways to serve it well (parenting, grand-parenting, teaching), although I do so in the only way a human can—I race forward, I trip, I pause on the ground, and then I stand again, committed to doing better this next time.

Each time, the spider webs are metaphorical.

For Further Reading

Challenging genres: Comic books and graphic novels

See this sample, including a brief history of comics in Chapter 1.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this year, Helen Klein reported:

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

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

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

And thus, I have a very serious question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance

“It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”
James Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back”

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I had a standing commitment shared with my students: I taught with my door open.

This may not sound that radical, but I want to offer two points of context: (i) I taught with a colleague who always kept the door locked (and advocated that all other teachers do that also to create a barrier for drop-in visits by administrators), and (ii) I taught in ways not supported by my school as well as allowing student behavior explicitly punishable by school rules (eating and drinking in class, for example).

This context of my years as an English teacher came back to me during my session at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English. At the end of the session, including Sean Connors (University of Arkansas) and Nita Schmidt (University of Iowa), the audience discussion turned to a tradition in teaching that likely is doing us great harm: teaching with our doors shut as an act of resistance (since we use the shut doors to implement practices counter to mandates).

Let me offer two moments from the history of teaching English before making a call for teaching with our doors open as acts of resistance.

Around 1931-1932, English educator (and 1954 NCTE president) Lou LaBrant taught while working on her doctorate at Northwestern University. In her unpublished memoir housed with her papers at the Museum of Education (University of South Carolina), LaBrant recalled a powerful—and disturbing—situation she encountered with her roommate, a Spanish teacher at her school.

Since the school had a prescriptive curriculum (including required books, etc.) and a standard assessment system based on that curriculum, LaBrant and her roommate fabricated an entire year’s lesson plans to conform to the mandates, but then implemented what LaBrant called progressive practices throughout the year (LaBrant did not require the books provided, allowing choice in reading and writing instead, for example).

In one respect, LaBrant and her roommate represent the all-too-common “shut your door and teach the way you believe.” But the disturbing aspect is that LaBrant’s students scored exceptionally high at the end of the year on the mandated assessment, prompting the administration to highlight how well LaBrant implement the requirements—and thus attributing the students’ success to the prescribed curriculum LaBrant did not implement.

Now let’s jump forward about 40 years to what Stephen Krashen calls Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92.

Krashen and Regie Routman have both detailed how problematic “shut your door and teach” can be when we consider literacy policy.

While many blamed whole language as a policy commitment in California for the literacy test score drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Krashen explains:

Did teachers change their ways in California? Nobody really knows. There have been no empirical studies comparing methodology in language arts teaching before and after the 1987 committee met. (p. 749)

Routman is more direct:

So while the California framework…recommended the teaching of skills in context (as opposed to isolation), in actuality, the teacher training to empower all teachers to do this successfully was insufficient. In addition, the framework was widely misinterpreted. (p. 19)

At best, then, we can say about whole language implementation in California: (i) we have no firm data on if it was practiced, (ii) few teachers were adequately trained to implement whole language, and (iii) evidence suggests whole language was misunderstood often. Ultimately, California failed whole language, but whole language did not fail California—in part, because so many teachers shut their doors and teach.

This highlights a central tension around teacher agency and professionalism within a culture that demands teachers to be not political, not activists: Implementing mandates is not the work of professionals, notably when teachers and the research base for a field are excluded from how the policies are created within a partisan political arena (that teachers are deterred from entering as professionals).

My solution, then, is that teachers must begin to embrace and embody their professional selves by teaching with the doors open, especially when our practices reject flawed policy and mandates. Additionally, we must make transparent more credible artifacts of students learning, and not simply rely on the high-stakes testing data also used to de-professionalize teachers.

Teaching with our doors open creates agency where the system has denied it; teaching with our doors open offers direct alternatives to the practices we reject, to practices not supported by the evidence of our field; and teaching with our doors open models for our students how professionals behave.

While there is understandable refuge in teaching with our doors closed—historical and current forces that have worked to deny teachers their voices, their professionalism—it will only be through teaching with our doors open that we can both serve our students well and create a lever to reclaim our profession.

See Also

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Among media, political, and public claims driving calls for education reform, two beliefs are dominant: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.

As I have increased my contribution to public debates about education reform, I have witnessed that media, political, and public comments are often knee-jerk and simplistic either/or responses to complex research.

For example, when I note that 40 years of research reject grade retention, responses tend to discount that research with “So you want us just to pass them on?”—suggesting that social promotion is the only alternative to grade retention (which, of course, it isn’t). Similarly, when I share that 60 years of research on corporal punishment also refute spanking—that, in fact, there is no debate on its use—responses immediately include, “So we are just supposed to let children do whatever they want?”

But I have also discovered that in my education courses, students challenge many research-based conclusions, although the students are more thoughtful—particularly when I share the evidence on the impact of education and teachers [1].

Consider the follow body of evidence below; and then, in the context of this evidence, I want to unpack what education and teacher impact actually entails.

Is teacher quality actually the single greatest factor in student achievement? Di Carlo details what research shows:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Also consider Donald Hirsch’s research on the UK for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: “Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality [emphasis added]. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

We see here two important points: (i) out-of-school factors dwarf measurable influences of teacher quality, and (ii) teacher quality is a subset of school quality. Thus, school and teacher quality is not even close to the most important measurable factor in student achievement.

Now, what is the evidence on social mobility in the U.S., notably in terms of how educational attainment influences the relationship between social class or race and that mobility?

Social mobility appears fairly sticky in the bottom and top quintiles:

mobility

From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “As far as income mobility goes, you are 10x more likely to wind up in the richest fifth as an adult if you were born there than if you were born in the poorest fifth.”

Fig 11

From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “As far as wealth mobility goes, you are more than 5x more likely to wind up in the wealthiest fifth as an adult if you were born there than if you were born in the least wealthiest fifth.”

Next, Bruenig (2013, June 13) concludes:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility [emphasis added].

And thus, social mobility appears more strongly connected to the social class of a person’s family than to education (a function of combined school and teacher quality):

educationandmobility

From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “[Y]ou are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated.”

The consequences of the dynamic between social class and education are, as Matt O’Brien explains, as follows:

meritocracy

Data from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill. O’Brien concludes: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”

Now, consider the relationship between educational attainment and race. First, in Closing the Race Gap, O’Sullivan, Mugglestone, and Allison (2014) detail that blacks with some college earn about the same as whites with no high school diploma:

Table 2 copy

O’Sullivan, Mugglestone, and Allison (2014)

From this report as well, Susan Adams explains: “African-American college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”

Significant income disparities exist along racial lines despite educational attainment, as Bruenig (2014, October 24) shows:

fig_2

Bruenig (2014, October 24): “First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum. On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.”

The impact of education (school and teacher quality), then, when placed in the context of both social class and race refutes the opening claims: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.

When I offer these measurable facts to either the public or my students, often I hear: “So you are saying that education and teachers do not matter?”

Here is the hard part.

First, making claims that measurable education and teacher impact exists is problematic. Thus, I absolutely support that both education and teachers matter, but I also caution that this impact is not singular, direct, or easily quantified.

Part of that problem is that the impact of any person’s education or the influence of any teacher or teachers tends to occur over long periods of time, and we are hard pressed to tease out and measure specific teachers or practices since that impact is cumulative, interrelated, and multi-faceted (consider that a student can learn a valuable lesson from a flawed lesson or a weak teacher).

Our first conclusion, then, is that making claims about education being the single or sole factor in success or that the teacher is the single most important factor in achievement is misleading, overly simplistic.

But, there are fair and accurate claims we can make about the importance of education, leading to our second conclusion.

Our second conclusion is that within social class and race, educational attainment has significant influence, but that education alone appears less effective in overcoming large social inequities such as classism and racism.

From this, I think we have several important lessons:

  • Media, public, and political hyperbole about education and teacher impact does a disservice to public education, teachers, students, and the public. Overstating the impact of education and teachers assures that we will continue to fail our students and the promise of universal public education.
  • In our endless quest for education reform, we would be better served if we moved away from mostly measurable data points for making claims about and policies in education. Education is messy and complicated; quantified data are in fact simplistic and misleading.
  • Until we confront the corrosive influence of class and race in the U.S. and until we admit that education alone is not enough to overcome classism and racism, we are perpetuating social inequity.

Let’s be clear: Education and teachers matter. But, regretfully, they simply do not matter in the ways most people claim or believe, and certainly not in ways that are easy to identify.

The good news, however, is that there is much we can do to change this, if we have the resolve to confront the evidence, accept the ugly truths, and then to do something different.

See Related: If social mobility is the problem, grammar schools are not the solution, Gaby Hinsliff

 

[1] This post is in debt to my current, fall 2014 EDU 111 course at Furman University, a group of students fully committed to engaging with the topics, challenging claims, and seeking to understand the complexity of education. They are proof that teaching is an act of learning, if the teacher is there to listen as well as talk.

Our Practice, Our Selves

In my undergraduate introductory education course, I read aloud the first or second class Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven.”

The central character is Rachel, and the setting is her school day on her eleventh birthday. School that day strips all the shine from what should be a day of celebration and joy for this child because her math teacher, Mrs. Price, demands that Rachel not only claim but also wear a red sweater the teacher is certain belongs to Rachel (although, as the readers, the teacher, and students discover, it doesn’t). A key moment in the story highlights the power dynamic between Mrs. Price and Rachel: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

Even for college students (and especially for my sophomores when I taught high school in rural South Carolina), I am hard to take those first days, and even weeks. My teacher persona and my class ask a great deal of students, who often feel overwhelmed, disoriented, and even angry.

So this semester I have just had “the talk” with that introductory class (and I also teach two first years seminars that are writing intensive); it includes acknowledging that I recognize how disorienting my class and I are for them as well as reminding them of “Eleven” and Rachel.

I very consciously want my students to be intellectually and ideologically rattled, but I also am committed to a much more important and foundational imperative: Students must always feel and be physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe in their learning spaces that I orchestrate.

Rachel in Cisneros’s story cannot learn on that day when she feels tiny, powerless, dehumanized. And the agent of those feelings are Mrs. Price, her callous attitude toward her students (children), and ultimately her practice.

Our Practice, Our Selves

Those of us who teach are now likely beginning new academic years, whether at the K-12 or higher education levels. As a result, I have read many posts and conversations on social media about our practices.

For my first year students, for example, I shared John Warner’s really fine piece, New Cell Phone/Computer Policy Draft Version. The transition from high school (significantly rule-based) to college is often difficult for students for reasons beyond the greater academic expectations. I have found that the transition to making decisions and being self-sufficient is far more disorienting for our students than even the challenges of college academics.

I have also come across online debates about handling late work from students and even a Tweet about a professor banning students from emailing except for emergencies.

After 31 years of teaching, then, I have been thinking again about how our practice teaches our students who we are and sends lessons that may not be in either our or our students’ best interests. I want here to outline a few of these in order to highlight what has always driven me as a teacher, coach, and parent: Seeking ways in which to avoid practicing what I believe is the greatest failure among adults, hypocrisy—holding children to standards that we ourselves never meet:

  • Let me start with Warner’s topic: cell phones and computers in class. Over my three decades as an educator, I have never attended a meeting with teachers or professors in which all of those attending paid full attention. In recent years, computers and cell phones are always out, and a significant number of teachers and professors are either multi-tasking or simply not paying attention. Thus, instead of imposing rules because I can, I discuss with students how and why their cell phones and laptops can be either productive or distracting in class—and how that is their decision, one that impacts everyone else in the room. I had similar talks with my high school students about needing to leave class to use the bathroom (automatic demerits where I taught, by the way). While teachers and schools are prone to embrace hard-line black-and-white rules, justifying them by invoking the real world, that approach to “rules” is in fact nothing like the real world.
  • The professor banning email from students struck me hard because I not only encourage students to email me, but also give them my cell number and mention texting. In fact, I want communication from my students—and I expect that a significant amount of it will be frustrating (asking me information they should know) and even so-called “disrespectful” (emails with “BTW” and other such text-ese). But I encourage these communications because I seek as many opportunities to teach students as I can, and I also am committed to doing so with patience and affording them the dignity they deserve. I often say in class that they should feel free to say what they want in class, in part so I can warn them never to utter such again, especially in a college classroom.
  • Both of the above, I think, are informed by my greatest pet peeve about (possibly) the most repeated commandment we make to teachers: Don’t be friends with your students. This always baffles and infuriates me because I cannot fathom what there is about friendship that isn’t appropriate for the teacher/student relationship. Kindness? Compassion? Attentiveness? I suspect that this dictum confuses a rightful restriction to the level of intimacy between teacher and student, but I also notice many teachers work so hard to maintain some artificial pose of professional distance between them and their students that all the humanity is drained out of teaching and learning. My students are my friends by default, and I love them. Again, I cannot comprehend how any of that should be avoided.
  • And just to address one practice linked more directly to instruction: How do we treat late work? [1] First, I have already examined high and reasonable expectations for student work—in which I made an important point related to the first bullet above: While editing several scholarly volumes, I have yet to have all work submitted complete and on time by college professors and scholars. In fact, in each situation, a number of the pieces were late (not just one or two) and many had significant citation problems (including not using the requested style sheet) as well as most needing heavy copyediting and feedback. So once again, while meeting deadlines and high-quality work are obviously important to instill in students, both are not as pervasive in the adult world as many teachers model in their classes: “I don’t accept late work,” “Late work starts at a B (or C),” and such. I no longer grade work, but if I did, I would never put a grade on an artifact of learning that didn’t represent the quality of the artifact (and not outside aspects unrelated to that quality). I did include considerations of habitually late work in quarter grades when teaching high school, but the key there was “habitually late,” and the need to address that habit.

Basic human kindness and dignity—these are the lessons I want my students to learn. And I don’t see those lessons in rules, and certainly not embedded in adult hypocrisy. I feel compelled as a teacher to work against both extremes confronted by Paulo Freire:

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

How often under the considerable weight of being a teacher do we bend to the callousness of Mrs. Price (“the authoritarian teacher”) and her ultimate failure—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—at the expense of a child’s or young adult’s respect or dignity?

How often do we fall victim to what LaBrant confronted: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276)?

Let us be vigilant in recognizing that our practice is our Selves. Let us seek always to avoid any of our students feeling as Rachel does on her eleventh birthday, a victim of “adult weariness”:

Today I’m eleven. There’s a cake Mama’s making for tonight and when Papa comes home from work we’ll eat it. There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.

[1] See Late Work: A Constructive Response, Rick Wormeli

“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.

Will Free-Pass Mainstream Media Clean Up Their Chetty Mess?

The New York Times couldn’t hold back: Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain.

And for two years now, the so-called Chetty study that claims teacher quality directly causes higher lifetime earnings for their students has been re-released by Chetty and colleagues as well as rehashed by the free-pass mainstream media with a fervor that seems at least over-the-top.

When the Chetty numbers (has anyone noticed that the lifetime earning numbers appear to change?) are put into perspective, all the air should deflate from that misleading balloon: $50,000 gained over a lifetime (40 years) is only about 1.5-2 tanks of gas a month. But inflating that balloon to $1.4 million for a class of 28! Now you have something … (Hint: An overinflated balloon, possibly filled with poop.)

Initial scholarly responses to the Chetty balloon were cautious and critical (see notably Bruce Baker and Matthew Di Carlo here), but the free-pass mainstream press kept on keeping on.

Thus, since I have made a case for our needing a critical free press (in other words, “free press” and not “free pass” found among press-release journalists), we are at a key moment with the release of a thorough review of the Chetty study, a review that discredits the claims, Review of Measuring the Impacts of Teachers by Moshe Adler:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. [emphasis added] Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

So my question now is: Will the free-pass mainstream media clean up their Chetty mess?

I suspect we will not have a NYT scorching headline, we will not even have a NYT article, we probably will not see interviews on NPR with Adler, and I am skeptical about Education Week‘s coverage (beyond some bloggers).

The fair and balanced mainstream media, alas, (those journalists who cannot judge the credibility of the research they cover) will not fall all over themselves to cover and then repeat for two years to come the popping of the Chetty balloon because that would mean admitting their own incompetence, which is the sweet allure of fairness that leaves us all misinformed.