Idealizing, Misreading Impoverished and Minority Parental Choice

In his The Charter School Paradox, Walt Gardner asks: “If charter schools are guilty of all the sins described in the multi-part cover story, then why are there waiting lists across the country of mostly poor black and Hispanic parents who are desperate to get their children enrolled in these schools?” And then he concludes:

I continue to be a strong supporter of traditional public schools for reasons I’ve explained in this column and in other venues over the past two decades.  But I also support parental choice. I don’t see this as a contradiction in terms. Yes, parents often make mistakes in their decisions.  However, I maintain it is their right alone to decide what is best for their offspring. Charter schools are accused of increasing racial segregation, but that does not seem to bother poor black and Hispanic parents who want to enroll their children.  I wish The Nation had addressed this paradox in its cover story.  It’s too important to brush aside.

I recognized the role of parental choice in the larger school choice debate as well as how that element complicates both advocacy and rejecting a wide range of school choice initiatives, resulting in my writing an extended examination of the issue in Parental Choice?

Despite spending a great deal of time on school choice research and finding little to support advocacy for choice options such as tuition tax credits, public school choice, or charter schools, I too was baffled by the apparent appeal of charter schools, notably among impoverished and minority parents—particularly in the context of my own claim that “no excuses” ideologies are racist and my concurrent rejecting of paternalism. I was able to understand that tension, however, once I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she confronts the same tension over mass incarceration and intensive (as well as disproportionate) policing of high-poverty minority neighborhoods.

In Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, I reached the following conclusion:

Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels…

This last point—that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools—presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow. [emphasis added]

For example, [Sarah] Carr reports [in her Hope Against Hope] that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters—and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools—the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

The charter school movement, specifically the “no excuses” versions, represents a skewed choice environment; again one that does not include the qualities found in many selective and expensive private schools.

We must be careful, then, not to idealize parental choice and not to misread the choices in limited contexts of impoverished and minority parents who in fact are not being offered the sorts of choices that would likely erase their apparent support for charter schools.

Well-funded, safe, and high-quality public schools would negate the need for choice, and that should be what we are pursuing, as I have detailed before:

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

The Ignored “R” Word of Education Reform: “We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all”

Although the foundational approach to education reform has remained the same (as has the structure of and instruction in public schools) for about a century—one grounded in revising or updating in-school-only elements such as standards/curriculum, technology, and testing—the past thirty years have seen education reform increase accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing (despite that approach never working) while rushing to experiment with charter schools and value-added methods of evaluating teachers (despite neither working as well).

And thus the “R” word that has remained ignored in education reform is not “reform,” but “race”—or more directly “racism.”

Throughout our current three decades of education reform, poverty has been a significant part of the discourse and equation—often framed as “not an excuse” or misrepresented as the “achievement gap.” Poverty, then, has been allowed in the conversation, included in the policies, and identified as a significant barrier to learning, but only as something we must overcome through racketing up the same old approaches to education reform noted above.

Just as one example, every year SAT data are released, the strongest correlations with scores remain the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and the academic attainment of those students’ parents. Yet, these historic and current patterns remain for the education reformers evidence not of systemic social inequity and not evidence of failed education reform or systemic school inequity, but proof that teachers and students simply are not trying hard enough.

Education reform not only ignores inequity bred from racism, classism, and sexism, but also actively perpetuates and even increases that inequity (most significantly reflected in high-stakes standardized testing).

The political, media, and public narratives in the U.S. focus only on the individual, and in the relationship among effort, talent, and opportunity, those narratives address only effort.

We must ask: Who benefits from cultural narratives that claim success comes from effort and failure from sloth? Who benefits when those cultural narratives begin by claiming everyone has the same opportunity in the U.S., by erasing the evidence of the power of privilege and disadvantage, most often grounded in race?

Sloganism and the Racist Politics of Education Reform

The ugly answer to those questions is that white and affluent privilege benefits from these cultural narratives that are in fact false and racist.

But we aren’t allowed to utter “lie” or “racism” in polite company in the U.S.—and such decorum, of course, may have sprung from those privileged few who are the ones most likely to have their sensibility bruised by both the directness and accuracy of those claims.

In a land where “racism” is not allowed in the conversation, racism does not disappear, but remains corrosive, powerfully so; as poet Adrienne Rich notes, “what is missing, desaparecido, [is] rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.” If we cannot say it, if we cannot think it, we certainly will not act to eradicate it.

And to demand individuals simply try harder in a context where effort is not the problem, and not the solution, is a harsher and more damning racism than in those days not too far in the U.S. past where racial slurs were public, frequent, and normal. “Work hard. Be nice” is the twenty-first century masked racial slur:

Currently, the grotesque reality we have created includes shunning direct and public racist language in the same ways we deflect credible acknowledgements of racism.

Just as book censorship is an effective and masked act of racism and sexism (authors or color and female writers are disproportionately impacted, silenced), just as mass incarceration is an effective and masked act of racism (white males outnumber black males 6-1 in society while black males outnumber white males 6-1 in prison), “no excuses” education reform focused on in-school policy and driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing is an effective and masked act of racism.

The primary sloganism used for effort is “grit,” and the anecdotal proof remains the Great White Male (Steve Jobs, for example)—with the exceptional outlier of color tossed in for good measure (the election of Barack Obama proves U.S. is a post-racial society, goes the claim).

Calling out racism is ignored, is shunned because the “grit” narrative and the Great White Male fall apart in the light of such calls—like a vampire reduced to dust by the risen sun.

Confronting Jonathan Chait directly in Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind, Ta-Nehisi Coates also dismantles the “grit” narrative by stating what shall not be uttered in the U.S.:

Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America….

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one.

And then it is Coates’s conclusion that exposes the essential racism in education reform—demanding exceptional effort by those marginalized exclusively for their race:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

Possibly an even greater refuting of the “grit” narrative—the perverse demands of more effort from “the deliberately silenced,” “the preferably unheard” in the U.S.—is The Price of Black Ambition by Roxane Gay.

Gay has been brought to the place where she is confronting her ambition as a black Haitian because she is riding a wave of success for her novel, An Untamed States, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. “I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten,” Gay admits, adding a haunting event:

Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.

On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.

Like Coates, Gay recognizes her experience is not only hers:

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

Coates’s “superhuman” and Gay’s “outsized ambition” reverberate inside the walls built in the U.S. to keep such voices quiet because the truth is harsh, and ugly—as Gay explains:

I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.

While Gay as a black Haitian woman and I as a privileged white male have experienced much different lives, I can strongly identify with the allure she feels for the myth of the rugged individual:

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.

Further, in the way that we should be confronting education reform, Gay unpacks President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, exposing the essential failure of the policy (an essential failure identified by Martin Luther King Jr. as addressing social inequity indirectly, instead of directly):

The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are.

Gay warns us about the dangers of exceptionality: “We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.” And then, after wrestling with the tensions created by her advantages shaded by burdens of her race and gender, Gay concludes:

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied.

What I Have Learned from Sports

In my introductory education course and two first year seminars this fall, I have shared Gay’s wonderful and complicated essay. That education course has begun to confront the uncomfortable facts of privilege and race, and those first year students (since I teach at a selective university which results in a student population disproportionately white and affluent) echo Gay’s experiences with ambition and guilt. Gay’s kindergarten memory reflects something quite wrong about how all children are raised in the U.S. as well as revealing the scar of racism.

With those first-year students, we confronted the public and adult messages they have been sent about effort, talent, and opportunity. That discussion was sobering.

I shared with them my own journey—again one resting on significant privilege since I am white and male, but tinged slightly by my working-class background—to rejecting the “grit” propaganda—a journey traced through my efforts to be a successful athlete.

In high school, I worked doggedly to be a good basketball player; I made very little effort in school. I was usually the last player selected on the basketball team each year (primarily because the coaches knew my father) and then rode the bench, but I made mostly As and a few Bs in my classes.

At basketball practice, I often tried harder than anyone, something noted by the coaches even. But on game day, the better athletes (some who made almost no effort in practice) played. I had been raised in a “Word hard. Be nice” household, a vestige of 1950s idealism in the U.S. But the world of sport showed me the truth: Talent trumps effort when given the opportunity.

In other words, the “grit” honoring of effort first (and even exclusively) is a warped version of the real order of things: Opportunity, talent, and then effort.

The “grit” narrative, then, and the sloganism of “Work hard. Be nice”—regardless of good intentions—are the racial slurs of our time.

To end that racism, it first must be named, and then directly, we must attend to the opportunities denied so that talent and effort can matter. And the first opportunity every child, every person deserves is the basic human dignity that is destroyed when, as Gay stated, anyone feels that “[w]e must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.”

Road Cycling, the Little Things (Or, Are You a Fred?)

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!
Fight Club (1999)

For my local cycling community, I have written often about what I would call first level issues related to road cycling: holding your line, holding the wheel in front of you, proper fit and positioning on the bicycle, riding in a paceline, and recognizing when you should contribute in a paceline or stay out of the mix.

Here, however, I want to address second level issues related to road cycling, the social or aesthetic elements of the recreational sport. And those second level issues can more efficiently be covered by the simple question, Are you a Fred?

First, let me caution that parts of speech matter here, notably the article “a.” This is not about being named Fred, but being a Fred. In fact, my lessons in not being a Fred were handled classically and ironically by Fred Gobillot in the 1980s. Fred was the most not-a-Fred among our cycling group, and he would regularly drop me, only to ease back in order to pull me up to the group so he could drop me again (often berating me and questioning my humanhood; think the drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, but not as compassionate).

Next, it helps to recall those glorious days of middle or high school—or those rush weeks in college—when you either witnessed or were a part of the ugliest possible clique you can remember. Road cycling’s social dynamics are about 300% worse than that.

Road cycling is about bodily fluids—sweat, urine, and occasionally blood—intense physical pain, and relentless public shaming. In fact, the greatest moments of recreational road cycling are those in which you can maintain intense pain longer than others, ideally by causing that intense pain; and then the best of the best is when you pop or drop a close friend during all this pain so that you can mention that event as often as possible over the next 3 decades.

Now, again keeping in mind that first level issues of road cycling are in fact primary, let’s examine those second level issues. In other words, Are you a Fred?

  • Do you use the plastic cap and fixing bolt that come with inner tubes? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 1: The technical term for both that cap and fixing bolt is “garbage,” thus toss both in the trash or recycling bin. Pro Tip 2: If your stem rattles, take a 1-inch piece of black electrical tape, poke a small hole in the middle, and then carefully slip it over the stem, sticking it neatly to your rim.
  • Do you have the plastic spoke protector behind your cassette, the reflectors in your spokes—both of which come with bicycles purchased in shops? You’re a Fred. See Pro Tip 1 above as same applies—’tis all garbage.
  • Is your rear wheel skewer pointing backward? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 3: Close your rear skewer into the rear seat/chain stay angle; close your front skewer pointing backward and parallel to the ground.
  • Is your stem pointing upward? Are your hoods and handlebars turned slightly upward also? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 4: For stems, hoods, and handlebars, flat is where it’s at.
  • Do you call your tires “wheels,” as in “I need new wheels” when you mean tires? Do you call your saddle a “seat”? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 5: Know all the proper names of the parts of a bicycle.
  • Do you not shave your legs? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 6: Shave your legs or be better than average at first level issues of road cycling.
  • When you have a flat, do you: (i) exclaim that you have never changed a flat before, (ii) tell everyone you do not know how your CO2 cartridge head works, (iii) not have an extra tube, Co2, boot, etc., with you? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 7: Know how to change a flat and use your equipment; in other words, practice.

I know all of this may seem juvenile and trivial—because it all is juvenile and trivial, much like recreational road cycling. Keep in mind that most recreational road cycling involves grown men [1] with shaved legs wearing lycra while riding a mechanism most strongly associated with children, a bicycle.

Two final points: (i) there is no shame in being a Fred, and luckily, it isn’t terminal (thus, I share remedies above), but (ii) road cycling is a lot like Fight Club because I have broken the sacred rule: Don’t tell a Fred he/she is a Fred.

But I am willing to sacrifice myself, now that I am aging and see the likelihood of being thinned from the herd, I mean pack soon simply because whether you are a Fred or not, if you are younger and stronger, you’ll be able to pop and drop me soon enough.

[1] Women constitute a minority in all this ugliness, and of course, the leg shaving thing is inconsequential for them as it comes with all the other social norms that make being a woman a struggle that dwarfs all the silliness I am discussing above (seriously).


Melissa Storm asks:

Being one of the shaven-by-social-norm gender, I need a little clarification here. If I can change a tube on my properly de-cluttered bicycle, and know I’m certainly not needed in a pace line right now, but have my handle bars and stem as not-slammed as possible, am I a Fred? Or am I a hardass for getting on my bike during my third trimester? Are there ever exceptions? I’m just wondering since I don’t seem to remember any of TheRules addressing the issue. You seem like the one to ask. I don’t mind at all if you deem my sadly mismatched kit to be over the Fred line.

Excellent question, Melissa, which brings us to one zero tolerance area and the appropriate exception.

First, regardless of Fred or non-Fred status, there is zero tolerance for being unsafe.

That said, there is a hardass/badass exception (note from above: dropping everyone while having not shaved your legs). Thus, riding your bicycle while in your third trimester clearly affords you the hardass exception, and notably in a way no male rider can equal. Bravo.

Proposal: Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

Below is a draft proposal for an edited volume. I am seeking possible co-editor(s) as well as potential contributors. Please contact me at if you are interested in either co-editing or contributing. Once I have interest and a revised proposal, I will seek a publisher and then post a formal call for chapter proposals.

Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

P.L. Thomas, editor

Publisher: TBD

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison was soon embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, but he also created tensions among those identifying with left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movements—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations—and the more recent controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon MartinJordan Davis, and Michael Brown as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being mis-seen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being mis-seen as soon as they enter school or walk the streets. In his 1966 “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin confronted the African American experience for young men—a confrontation that echoes across the U.S. today:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

In these historical and contemporary contexts, this volume seeks to gather a wide range of voices addressing the following:

  • Racial inequity in formal education disproportionately impacting African American males—expulsion and suspension, teacher quality access, course access.
  • African American males and the allure of sports as a “way out.”
  • Mass incarceration and the African American male.
  • Additional?


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1966, July 11). A report from occupied territory. The Nation. Retrieved from

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: Library of America.

Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. (2013, January). A summary of new research. Closing the school discipline gap: Research to policy. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

Christensen, L. (2011/2012 Winter). The classroom-to-prison pipeline. Rethinking Schools, 26(2). Retrieved from

Criminalizing children at school. (2013, April 18). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Deleuze, G. (1992, Winter). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, pp. 3-7. Retrieved from

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Foucault, M. (1995). III. Discipline. 3. Panopticism. Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A Sheridan. Vintage, 2nd ed. Retrieved from

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center. Retrieved from

Jones, S., & Maurer, M. (2013, April 29). Ronald Reagan made the war on drugs a race to incarceration. Truthout. Retrieved from

Kaba, M., & Edwards, F. (2012, January). Policing Chicago public schools: A gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. Project NIA. Retrieved from

Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students face more discipline, data suggests. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved from

Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenber, E. (2012, September). Southern slippage: Growing school segregation in the most desegregated region of the country. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from

Thomas, P. L. (2014). Invisible young men: African American males, academics, and athletics English Journal, 104(1), 75-78.

Wagner, P. (2012, August 28). Incarceration if not an equal opportunity punishment. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

Teaching Essay Writing through Poetry

As a writer and teacher, I am pained to admit, but in the big picture I do agree with Kurt Vonnegut who opens “Teaching the Unteachable” with “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that….”

My caveat, however, is about what we mean by “writing well.” Vonnegut above and my agreement are confronting what I would call those who are by their nature and inclinations writers first—those who labor over poetry, fiction, essays, and the like for months and even years (and decades) without any real hope anyone will ever publish that work. These are writers who write because they have to, but not necessarily because they want or need to.

For over thirty years now, I have taught primarily high school and undergraduate students to write—but that effort is rarely about the sort of writer mentioned above; instead I am teaching writing that is essentially functional and disciplinary. And it is there that I diverge from Vonnegut because I know for a fact that we can teach people to write well in the disciplines, often extremely well even when they do not particularly like to write, even when they insist they are not very good writers.

One of the most effective approaches to teaching disciplinary-based essay writing is to focus on large concepts about effective writing and then grounding that in examining poetry in order to teach those concepts. Using poetry to reinforce essay writing helps highlight the universal qualities of powerful writing and continues to push students in their awareness of genre, form, and medium as they impact expression.

This fall, in fact, I have had several students directly challenge my focus on being specific—the importance of details, concrete language, and, as Flannery O’Connor has argued, triggering as many of the reader’s senses as possible.

Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” and the Essay

Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America begins “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” with “The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” and then continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

In class, we begin to read and examine this poem, but I use this discussion to highlight the craft of writing (especially as that relates to disciplinary essay writing), not to do the traditional poetry analysis most students expect.

Here are some of the elements of effective writing I highlight:

  • After we begin discussing the poem, I steer the students back to the title, which in this case is extremely important. Thus, I emphasize the importance of the title as well as discuss the art and craft of subheads in disciplinary essays. Many students have not focused on titles, and often submit essays without titles so this is typically a key lesson for first year students.
  • Next, we highlight the use of “gold” in the opening line and the final stanza. The points I stress are about word choice, connotation, and framing. I believe essay writing must begin at the word level for young writers; they need a greater sense of purpose in the words they choose, notably specificity, concreteness, appropriateness (key here is that words have specialized meanings in the disciplines), and clarity. And that connects with connotations of words; in the poem, “gold” carries a great deal of important information about the scene, issues related to wealth and privilege. My students are quick to admit that Kingsolver has chosen “gold” with intent, purpose. Further, “gold” serves as a framing motif since she incorporates the word in the opening line and the end. I stress to students that essays are often framed (and to avoid the mechanistic introduction and conclusion format they have learned in high school). Framing and motifs add powerful and concrete elements to writing that young writers often lack.
  • We also confront Kingsolver’s use of “one” and “it,” especially the latter since I have stressed the problems with the pronoun to my students. In this poem, “one” and “it” create meaning in their repetition but also in their mixed implications about both the domestic worker and the vase. The point of emphasis is that Kingsolver, again, chooses and repeats words with purpose to create meaning, and this contrasts with how students are apt to repeat and use empty or vague language from carelessness.
  • Finally, we discuss the effectiveness of writing with characters and plot as well as the impact of showing versus telling. People doing things are powerful, much more powerful than abstractions. Kingsolver in her poem trusts the reader to know the abstractions she is showing; however, young writers tend to make many grand announcements (often overstated) and fail to show or support those claims.

This fall I followed the discussion of Kingsolver’s poem with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” and the result was impressive. We were able to identify these craft lessons immediately in King’s essay; students were also significantly more willing to embrace the concepts once we worked through the poem and then into King’s writing.

While there is a cynical irony to Vonnegut’s claims about teaching the unteachable—written by a writer who often taught at writing conferences and legendary writing workshops—ones that do elicit laugher, I am convinced that we teachers of writing who serve primarily students who will have to write while in formal education and then may go on to write in the disciplines can be very successful, but only if we take the teaching of writing seriously, and seek ways in which students can grow as writers.

Focusing on the universals of effective writing and then allowing students to examine and practice those universal are essential. And to do that, I find that poetry is an excellent resource for teaching the writing of essays.

For Further Reading

Are we teaching students to be good writers? 

Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

More on Failing Writing, and Students

From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum”

On Twitter, John Warner offered a few reviews of his new book of short stories, Tough Day for the Army, followed by this Tweet:

Warner’s comment is grounded in his being a writer, but I suspect also in his being a reader and a teacher. I want to stress his #agoodthing and use this brief but insightful moment to push further against the mostly dispassionate academy where New Criticism has flourished and laid the foundation for its cousin “close reading.”

With a sort of karmic synergy, I read Warner’s Tweet above just as I was diving into a new Haruki Murakami short story, “Scheherazade,” and the companion interview with Murakami about the story.

“Scheherazade” is classic Murakami—odd, awkward, and then ultimately an unmasking of the human condition. As a writer myself (my creative, expressive writing exclusively now poetry), I was laid bare as a reader and writer toward the end of the story:

It was also possible that he would, at some point, be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women would disappear from his life. Never again would he be able to enter the warm moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response. Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other. That was something Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed, her gift was inexhaustible. The prospect of losing that made him saddest of all.

A recurring motif of my creative self is confronting exactly what Murakami states directly: “Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy.”

And it is this type of lucidity in stories, novels, poems, and films when I often cry because I am filled too full of feeling deeply what the author has both expressed and felt (I assume), what I know as well.

If we turn to the interview by Deborah Treisman, however, we can see Warner’s point above clearly since Murakami repeatedly deflects Treisman’s efforts to mine meaning from the story; for example, Murakami replies to two separate questions with:

Sorry, but I don’t know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation, either….Because what’s important isn’t what caused Habara’s situation but, rather, how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances….

I don’t know, but things certainly don’t look very good for Habara….

What matters to Treisman as a reader (and interviewer) appears insignificant to Murakami.

These exchanges highlight that text has both author intent and reader inference (think Rosenblatt’s reader, writer, text triangle)—but the exchanges also allow us to consider (or reconsider) that text meaning often depends on a power dynamic that involves who decides what matters and how.

Murakami’s “Scheherazade” focuses on an unnamed character (called “Scheherazade” by Habara, the other character in the story) who is a source of both sex and storytelling for Habara, who is mysteriously restricted to his house:

Habara didn’t know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented. He had no way of telling. Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives. Habara therefore enjoyed them as a child might, without questioning too much. What possible difference could it make to him, after all, if they were lies or truth, or a complicated patchwork of the two?

Whatever the case, Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart. No matter what sort of story it was, she made it special. Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking. Enthralled, Habara was able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment. Like a blackboard wiped with a damp cloth, he was erased of worries, of unpleasant memories. Who could ask for more? At this point in his life, that kind of forgetting was what Habara desired more than anything else.

As readers, we share with Habara a brief journey through Scheherazade’s episodic tales of her own adventures, leading to the end where Murakami appears to suggest that her storytelling is more intimate for Habara, and thus more important, than the sex she shares.

Just as Murakami’s interview reveals the range of what matters in text, that Habara “enjoyed [Scheherazade's stories] as a child might, without questioning too much” (and we might add, as Treisman does in the interview) speaks against the dispassionate ways in which formal schooling frames text and dehumanizes the reading experience for and with children and young adults (hence, New Criticism, close reading, and the enduring “evidence hunt” of reducing text to what can—or should—be mined from that text).

In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned:

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s. (p. 95)

LaBrant, then, builds to her key point: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (p. 97).

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum” is connected to, as LaBrant explains in “The Place of English in General Education” (1940), the essential element of being human: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Seven decades since LaBrant made these arguments, we must ask—especially in the context of Warner’s Tweet and Murakami’s story and interview—why do we persist in reducing text to the dispassionate responses demanded in the academy, whether that sits within the mechanistic processes of New Criticism or the decontextualized demands of close reading? Where in formal schooling is there room to “[enjoy] [text] as a child might, without questioning too much”?

In the answer-driven classrooms that have traditionally and currently mis-served both the text being analyzed and the students evaluated by how they analyze those texts, Murakami sends a much different message:

Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a “desert island.” Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story.

As author of this story, Murakami is interested in the questions raised, what is left unknown to him: “I don’t know. Scheherazade is a riddle to me, as well—what she is thinking, what she is looking for.”

Fiction and poetry seek the mysteries of the human condition, the unknown, the unanswerable. As LaBrant and Murakami tell us, language and teaching are about the intimacy of being human—not about the dispassionate calculation of meaning, the objective pose that is both misleading and efficient as well as manageable.

Unlike Habara, we are not in fact trapped in the house of such dispassion; we have chosen to remain there. Instead we should step outside, to enjoy text “as a child might, without questioning too much.”

On Parenting and Teaching: Confronting Regret and Rejecting Perfect

Regret is a significant part being human—especially for parents and teachers.

If I must confront my greatest regrets, most would be those too many times I have fallen short as a parent; close behind would be my failures as a teacher.

My parenting regrets are most weighty because I have one daughter, and thus, had only one chance each time along the way of both parenting and learning to parent. With students, we teachers suffer the delusion of starting over a little better each academic year with new students so the stumbles and falls sort of blend into all the years, as well as into all the many successes.

Kind words, loving words from a daughter or a student can mean the world, but I have noticed my daughter and many of my students are far too kind, far too forgiving, far too likely to have seen when I got things (mostly) right. And for that, I am eternally thankful.

But I have noticed during the recent debates and discussions of Adrian Peterson’s physically harming his child while practicing what Peterson has described as simply how he was disciplined as a child that many people extend that nostalgic view of their parents and teachers in ways that demand perfection in order to be good.

In other words, embracing “my parents did X, thus it must be OK” creates the necessity of being perfect in order to have been good. And this in turn fails, actually, the very best parents and the very best teachers who, in fact, often present us with negative examples—by having failed, we learn what not to do.

One of the most fortunate events of my life was being assigned Lynn Harrill’s tenth and eleventh grade English classes when I entered high school. It was those years, looking back, that turned me toward the man I have become and the careers that define me—teaching and writing.

Other than my blood kin, I cannot imagine anyone more important in the first decades of my life. But Lynn and I have often talked about the many ways he feels he failed us as an English teacher because he was in his first few years.

Of course, I had only seen the good—the kindness, the patience, the challenges, and most of all the free-wheeling and energetic class discussions that Lynn was a master at fostering among us.

In my tenth grade, however, I was an uber-nerd, reading science fiction and collecting comic books. And here Lynn and I many years later recognized that his negative attitude about those hobbies were well off base—passions of mine he should have fostered instead of telling me to move on from such childishness and to more serious stuff.

And despite Lynn being well ahead of his time as a teacher of English (one of the early few influenced by the National Writing Project), his class remained trapped inside several traditional practices that were torture for me—notably the vocabulary workbook and tests merry-go-round.

I loathed those homework assignments and my course grade was lowered significantly because of my poor vocabulary test grades.

About five years after high school, I found myself in Lynn’s seat, the English teacher replacing him as he moved to the district office.

And I taught high school English for 18 years, daily trying my best to do his name and work justice by being the best English teacher possible, including often implementing practices because I had learned from Lynn what to do but also what not to do.

And then several years later, when my daughter was born, I embarked on the hardest thing I have ever done, parenting. And I botched that often.

I had wonderful and playful parents growing up, but one of the worst experiences of that childhood included being spanked (often with a belt) and much of that punishment came from a “do as I say, not as I do” mindset that ruled our home.

Children were to be seen and not heard, and when food was put before you, you were to eat it, regardless.

The greatest honor I have maintained of my parents’ love and my mostly wonderful childhood was that my daughter was never spanked and she ate as she pleased.

Teachers and parents do not have to be perfect to be good, or even great.

The people who shape us and guide us do not have to be viewed through a distorting nostalgia in order to remain the ones we love and cherish.

In this my 31st year of teaching, my 25th year of parenting, and my first year of grand-parenting, I am moved and honored as I watch my daughter be the parent I was not as that rests comfortably with all the ways that she has committed to many of my better qualities as a father.

Yes, the human condition is often about regret, but we also are afforded possibly more than we deserve the cycles that are life.

Like the seasons circling back around onto themselves, we are presented the same opportunities again and again. It is not about being perfect, but about seeing where we did well in order to repeat and where we failed in order to do better next time.

My parents and many of my best teachers were far from being perfect, and I love them all—and I can honor that love only by my commitments to not be them when they failed me each time my new chance comes around again.

Like Emily in Our Town, we must recognize that regret comes from not looking hard enough—and looking hard enough includes seeing the wonderful and the misguided.

Instead of claiming or seeking perfect, then, we might better navigate around and through regret if we simply commit to looking hard enough and then to following a path to happiness.

Kurt Vonnegut’s in “Knowing What’s Nice” offers:

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”