Confessions of an Outlier in the Aftershock of Ferguson

This is a reposting (slightly revised) from Daily Kos (16 December 2011), and offered in the context of the media and political demonizing of Michael Brown after he was shot, although unarmed, by a police officer. Political, public, and media framings seek ways in which to highlight individual effort (“girt”) as the key component of success, and thus keeping the gaze on individuals. These framings, of course, keep our attention away from large social forces and imply race, class, and gender superiority and inferiority that perpetuate white/male privilege. The whitewashing of Steve Jobs is one the most powerful and disturbing examples.

Confessions of an Outlier in the Aftershock of Ferguson

Megan McArdle has confronted Gene Marks’ “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” and drawn a much different conclusion:

Sum it all up and the answer is: if you grew up as a poor black kid, you’d be making decisions under the same constraints, which probably means you’d make the same decisions.  The fact that different decisions could produce different outcomes is important–but to state this is not to state an obvious solution.

The online discussion and debate spurred by Marks and bloggers such as Amanda Ripley (both of whom I have addressed here) have some important patterns that occur in many education and education reform commentaries presented by Diane Ravitch, Nancy Flanagan, and Deborah Meier—as well as a much longer list of teachers and scholars who make the case for addressing poverty and social inequity as a central element in education reform.

Like Marks and Ripley, many who comment at these online commentaries rally to support “top students,” choice, “no excuses” ideology, competition, and the call for all children simply to try harder. As Marks implores, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

It seems that the root of success of any kind, but specifically educational success, lies in individual effort—both by students (regardless of the lives they have been dealt) and teachers (regardless of the conditions in which they teach).

These patterns have caused me to wonder about these robust and powerful refrains about effort. So let me offer first a confession.

Confessions of an Outlier (Sometimes)

I graduated high school eighth in my class, and then proceeded through undergraduate and graduate school to achieve a doctorate, almost exclusively making As along the way and being regularly praised for my academic ability. But let me pause for a moment about those K-12 years.

To this day, I cannot recall really trying in school—not time spent studying or finding anything asked of me being that difficult. In fact, especially when I took standardized tests, I always felt I was doing something wrong; it felt like cheating to zip through tests and score in that rarefied air of the 99th% percentile.

But during those same years, I worked diligently and incessantly—I tried very hard—at basketball and golf. I wanted to be an exceptional athlete. I had a large poster board on my bedroom wall throughout high school with every day of the year outlined, detailing my daily workout regiment that always included jumping rope several hundred times each night with ankle weights on (ankle weights I wore throughout every day most of junior high into high school).

The result of this tireless effort (paralleled with my minimal-to-absent academic effort)? I sat on the bench nearly my entire junior high and high school basketball career.

To this day, many of the things I excel in take little effort; they challenge me almost none at all. And to this day, I participate by conscious decision in athletics because cycling does force me to work very hard just to be not quite as good as the other more talented cyclists with whom I enjoy riding.

Despite what the rugged individual myth claims in our culture, despite what the winners repeatedly claim about that narrative, I have come to recognize what Malcolm Gladwell explains well in Outliers: The identified winners in our culture have achieved that status primarily due to fortune in that their innate proclivities match the expectations of success in our culture; once these winners see that possibility, then their effort appears to further the sorting begun by their fortune.

Culturally, however, the winners are perpetuating a grand arrogance and lie about effort that both reinforces the belief that the winners deserve their status (they are better than you and me because they made that decision to try) and that any one of us could reach the same heights if only we’d get off our lazy asses and try.

Social Darwinism, Capitalism, and the Winner’s Creed

I recommend that everyone take the time to read the opening links I mention above and focus on the comments posted by readers. Social Darwinism, an idealized conception of competition, and a manic faith in rugged individual have all blinded many Americans to the nature of cooperation, democracy, and equity (especially as equity contrasts with equality).

Capitalism requires humans to think and live as consumers, to compete and artificially sort the winners from the loser so that we all remain like rodents on a running wheel—too busy to pause and confront the inherent flaws of competition or the manufactured lies of the ruling elite.

Measuring, labeling, and sorting are the mechanisms of oppression, tools for creating and maintaining hierarchy and centralized power. Competition pits human against human to the detriment of humanity.

The U.S. sits in 2014 a country that rejects Darwinian evolution but lives, breaths, and worships Social Darwinism—which contrasts many people’s claim of Christian and democratic ideals.

Promoting and requiring rugged individualism is not cherishing individual autonomy; rugged individualism is the antithesis of individual autonomy.

The great irony of the education reform debate that simmers inside the larger social debate in the U.S. is that we have idealized choice to the point of rendering the word meaningless. We have allowed the 1% to narrow our eyes on each person to the extent that we no longer recognize each human is, as the words reveal, not fully human unless a part of humanity.

Choice is not a province of each individual, but a dynamic of individuals within the mechanisms of society. To decontextualize choice or any human endeavor is to distort what it means to choose or be human.

So I’ll end and clarify my self-proclamation that I am an outlier.

Yes, much of my life has resulted in my being identified as an outlier, a success, a winner. I know that most of that has come from the accident of my birth—my wonderful home life as a child and my proclivities as a human that come from somewhere deep in my mind, soul, and bones that I had no part in creating. I know that when my proclivities match the social norms, I succeed (often regardless of my effort), but I also know that when social norms expect behaviors I do not find easy, no amount of effort will change that (I’ll never—and never could have—competed in the Tour de France).

As the late and complicated Kurt Vonnegut would explain, we as Americans could do with a huge dose of humility (especially from the outliers), a renewed commitment to kindness (especially to children and those who are not finding life equitable or easy), and a serious reconsideration of whether or not we wish to be a democracy (a people who embrace the ethics of community) or a consumer-based oligarchy.

Ironically, the choice is ours:

…I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Eugene V. Debs

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Having been a serious competitive and recreational cyclist (not “biker”) for all but a handful of years over three decades, I cringe and must bite my tongue every time people refer to their bicycle “seat” (it is a “saddle”). During those years committed to cycling, I have also become well acquainted with the history of the professional sport and a fairly accomplished bicycle mechanic.

I can take apart and assemble a high-end road bicycle, and I know the proper names for all the parts.

All of that knowledge and skill, however, have not made me a better cyclist. And since I have spent those same approximate years also pursuing careers as a writer and teacher (mainly of English, specifically writing), I remain baffled at both recurring arguments found in Juana Summer’s NPR piece and the public responses to it:

When you think about a sentence, you usually think about words — not lines. But sentence diagramming brings geometry into grammar.

If you weren’t taught to diagram a sentence, this might sound a little zany. But the practice has a long — and controversial — history in U.S. schools.

And while it was once commonplace, many people today don’t even know what it is….

But does it deserve a place in English class today? (The Common Core doesn’t mention it.)

I found this article through Facebook, where the original posting was praising sentence diagramming and many who commented followed suit. Oddly—although not surprising—when I weighed in with a century of research refuting the effectiveness of sentence diagramming for teaching writing, my comments were brushed off as a “viewpoint” and one person even boldly stated that no one could convince her that sentence diagramming wasn’t effective.

During a teaching career—mostly in English—that spanned over six decades and included a term as president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Lou LaBrant [1] confronted the grammar debate, including sentence diagramming, in 1952:

Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.”

Six years previous, LaBrant identified the research base examining isolated direct grammar instruction and teaching writing:

We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing.

In 1953, although there is a danger in her simple phrasing, LaBrant offered an eloquent argument about the job of teaching writing:

It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it.

And thus, we come to LaBrant’s most powerful metaphor for teaching writing:

Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house….The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right.

At mid-twentieth century, then, LaBrant expressed evidence-based positions on teaching writing (and the ineffectiveness of isolated direct grammar instruction and sentence diagramming) that have been replicated by numerous teachers and scholars for decades—notably the work of Connie Weaver and George Hillocks. Hillocks, for example, has shown that isolated direct grammar instruction has negative consequences on students as writers:

grammar negative

Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, George Hillocks


NCTE has catalogued the same debates, misunderstandings, and research base: Guideline on Some Questions and Answers about Grammar and Resolution on Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing. And despite a cumulative and clear recognition of the effective and ineffective approaches to teaching children to write (see Writing Next), we find articles such as the NPR piece above and the responses I witnessed on Facebook.

And while I don’t suffer the delusion that I can stem the grammar/sentence diagramming debates, I want to offer here some framing clarifications that I think may help both teachers and the public better understand the issues:

  • Isolated direct grammar instruction (including sentence diagramming) is ineffective in general for fostering students as writer. If our goal, however, is to teach grammar, then isolated grammar instruction would be justifiable.
  • And thus, isolated direct grammar instruction fails writing instruction because (i) it too often replaces time better spent reading and writing by students, (ii) it requires a great deal of instruction related to terminology and systems that (a) does not transfer to composition and (b) again consumes huge amounts of classroom time, and (iii) formal and isolated grammar instruction remains decontextualized for students since grammar (like geometry) requires abstract reasoning by children and teens who may have not yet reached the level of brain development necessary to navigate or understand the system at the explicit level.
  • However, the two key points here include the following: we are discussing writing instruction as the primary goal and we are confronting isolated direct grammar instruction. So let me be very clear: No one in literacy suggests not teaching grammar; the question is not if, but how and when. Thus, once students are required and allowed to have rich and extended experiences reading and writing by choice, direct instruction is very effective after those experiences and when anchored in those students’ own demonstrations of language acquisition, misunderstanding, or gaps.
  • Connected to the context and when of direct grammar instruction is the importance of balanced literacy, which calls for literacy teachers to incorporate any practice (including sentence diagramming, including grammar exercises) that helps individual students (which may rub against generalizations found in the research base):


  • And finally, many people have a distorted nostalgia about why they have learned so-called standard English. While people are quick to ascribe harsh and traditional grammar instruction as effective in their own learning, that doesn’t make it so. In fact, many people grew as readers and writers in spite of traditional practices—or what is often the case, they can’t recognize their existing facility for language (often brought from home), which made them good at direct grammar exercises and sentence diagramming, as the actual cause of that success.

So I return to LaBrant, and her plea that teaching young people to write is about goals and weighing what truly matters:

There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach. He may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say.

If we seek to teach young people to write, and thus to think, in complex and original ways, we remain confronted by the need to see that writing is learned by writing—just as I have honed my skills as a cyclist by riding a bicycle about 5000 to 10,000 miles annually for most of the last thirty years.

Naming correctly the parts of the bicycle, taking apart and putting together a bicycle—these have not made me a better cyclist. For students as writers, blueprints, still, are not houses, diagramming is not composing.

Simply stated, then: The effective writing classroom must never be absent the direct teaching of grammar (again, not if, but when and how), but the grammar-based classroom has often been and continues to be absent writing by students—and therein is the failure.


Teaching the Unteachable, Kurt Vonnegut

[1] See Chapter 7 in Missing Chapters, Lou LaBrant: An Annotated Bibliography, and Lou LaBrant: A Woman’s Life, a Teacher’s Life.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

Complicit: On Facing the Mirror Before Casting Stones

“Let me begin,” admits George J. Sefa Dei in “‘We Cannot Be Color-Blind': Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking,” “by making clear that I see myself as fully complicit in the discussion that I undertake in this chapter” (p. 25).

As we face large and powerful social forces such as poverty and racism—along with more narrow issues of education—I believe we all must address that first concern of who is complicit.

Let me begin with something that echoes in my mind almost continually, from Oscar Wilde: “But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.”

Consider taking that frame and using it many contexts: “But to recommend _____ to  _____ is both grotesque and insulting.”

Also consider who makes such recommendations. For the poor, the affluent and powerful—who do not live up to the same standards they impose—are the who.

Today—at this exact moment—we watch as a white authority structure recommends to a dominantly black community that which is “grotesque and insulting.” And then on a narrower scale, those with power and money recommend to educators that which is “grotesque and insulting.”

So whether we are confronting poverty and racism or education, we all must begin with who is complicit.

People in poverty and African Americans in the U.S. share one disturbing but distinct quality: disproportionately the impoverished and African Americans are excluded from the power structure.

Who, then, is complicit in the existence and tolerance of poverty and racism? It cannot be those without the power; therefore, it must be those with the power.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

White high school drop-outs and African Americans with some college have the same economic opportunities.

Whites and African Americans use recreational drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are targeted, charged, and incarcerated at much higher rates.

Those born wealthy and not attending college have greater economic power than those born in poverty and completing college.

To be white, to be wealthy—in the U.S. is to be complicit.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

While I think my field of education is of a magnitude smaller than issues of poverty and race, I must end there because the picture is hard to confront.

And because education is and always will be inextricable from the fight to end poverty and racism; as George J. Sefa Dei concludes, “Antiracism is about changing current processes of schooling and education delivery” (p. 39). We may say the same about poverty.

I have taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina and then been in teacher education for another 13 years. Teachers and teacher educators persistently complain about the bureaucracy of education; it is a relentless refrain among educators.

Recently, I received an email about how to anticipate what may be demanded of us when political regimes, once again, change; the email included: “No other profession has to deal with such crap.”

My response: “No other discipline would put up with that crap.”

Educators are complicit in the crap that is education reform. Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit.

All those scrambling to have a seat at the Common Core table, a table inextricable from the entire reform agenda—unions, administrators, teachers—all are complicit.

It is time to face the mirror, to examine who is complicit.

English Journal: Speaking Truth to Power: Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics P. L. Thomas

English Journal, Vol. 104, No. 1, September 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics, P. L. Thomas


As a pre–Civil Rights era novel dramatizing Ralph Ellison’s perspective on being African American in the United States at mid-20th century, Invisible Man opens with the unnamed narrator explaining:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me. . . . That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact . . . [Y]ou often doubt if you really exist. . . . It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful. (3–4)

Readers learn that the narrator’s response to his invisibility, ultimately, is hibernation, a withdrawal from a society, a world that refuses to see him.

A 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights offers a disturbing picture of how US public schools see African American (AA) males in the first decade of the 21st century: AA males are disproportionately targeted in disciplinary actions in schools, referred to law enforcement, and suspended from schools. The academic picture for AA males is just as disturbing since they have less access to advanced courses but are overrepresented in retention data. AA males also tend to sit in classrooms taught by inexperienced and under-/un-certified teachers who are under-compensated (“Revealing New Truths”).

When AA males are seen in school, then, many must recognize that they are mostly viewed as misbehaving, as potential, if not already, criminals. AA males have become both the embodiment and stereotype of the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the school-as-prison phenomenon associated with urban schools across the United States (Nolan). Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, then, AA males often make decisions paralleling the narrator’s hibernation—one of which is seeking the support and potential achievement found in athletics, both as an oasis of possibility and as a ticket to college or a profession (despite that ticket often being an illusion). …

Common Core, then, will be yet more failure if it becomes another aspect of the traditional commitments of schooling and if it is a distraction from the sorts of reform that should address race, class, and gender inequities in discipline, retention, academic access, and the emphasis on athletics to the detriment of the athletes. In our ELA classrooms, committing to close reading of text may once again shift our eyes in the wrong direction—the decontextualized text—if we fail to see the students in our care. It is well past time not only to see AA males, but also to listen to them.

Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

My formal expertise and experience are in the field of education, but I have developed as well what I consider equal expertise and experience in two other areas, although the paths have been primarily by self-education: writing and cycling.

I have been serious, purposeful, and committed to teaching, writing, and cycling all for about thirty years each; however, as a writer and cyclist, I have basically no formal preparation. Cycling provides a great deal of pleasure (and pain) for me personally and socially; as well, I recognize more and more every day that cycling offers really important lessons—many of which inform teaching and learning in formal settings.

Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

One of the most compelling aspects of recreational cycling is the it is incredibly complex and challenging, especially as a group sport. As a complex human activity in a group dynamic, then, I think becoming and being a cyclist offers powerful lessons for becoming and being a teacher.

First, cycling has a significant learning curve for beginners to integrate with group rides. To be a group cyclist, you need fitness, a wide assortment of cycling-specific skills, and a knowledge base about group cycling (coming to understand the culture of group cycling).

Fitness requires time and commitment—not unlike learning anything. But embedded in that is the motivation to commit that time. Since cycling can be extremely painful, it offers a perfect example of how learning comes best through the choice of the individual. I cycle about 10,000 miles a years—many of those rides are exhausting, nearly unbearable. There is little likelihood I would either participate or improve in cycling if this were not my choice.

Related to this need for time and commitment to fitness is the necessity for cycling-specific skills. Cycling, teaching, and writing, for me, are parallel human behaviors that are best cultivated by actually doing the behavior, but also by doing the behavior with purposeful attention to the discrete skills that make up the activity.

A fit cyclist (often runners transitioning to cycling) without bike handling skills or group riding knowledge is extremely dangerous to her/himself and other cyclists. In fact, group cycling is so complicated that it baffles me that anyone succeeds in integrating into group riding (in the same way that staying committed to writing or education is very challenging).

Cycling well requires cycling-specific cardiovascular fitness, bike handling skills (maintaining a straight and stable line), proper bicycle fit (bike positioning is crucial, but somewhat technical), and maneuvering awareness and knowledge. In brief, cycling in a fast-paced group (peloton) is extremely complicated—like writing, like teaching: hundreds of concurrent automatic behaviors blended with dozens of split-second decisions.

For cyclists, this means simultaneously exerting often maximum physical efforts that tax your breathing and stress lower body muscle groups, maintaining upper body relaxation so that bicycle control remains your primary concern, and maintaining awareness and control of yourself as well as the surrounding cyclists.

Since each of these elements of group cycling impacts and depends on all the others, how does a cyclist gain the level of expertise needed to participate well and safely?

I think this is the greatest lesson of cycling as it informs teaching. Cycling at a high level in group events is best learned by cycling often—and participating with and observing closely elite and experienced cyclists.

Beginning cyclists perform at first in unskilled ways that require them to consciously focus on gradual and purposeful improvement. It takes baby steps. But it also requires that the cyclist is committed to learning through observation and has the self-awareness to recognize the nuanced differences among her/his novice behaviors and the more polished behaviors of experienced cyclists.

In cycling, beginners are best served (as is the group) if they participate at first in minimal ways—not taking pulls for example, focusing on riding at a high pace while insuring she/he learns group dynamics (not making drastic changes in pace or direction, bike handling). An aggressive paceline (an organized double-line of cyclists in which riders rotate so that one cyclist at a time is pushing the pace [1]) is the ultimate test of cycling expertise; a cyclist needs high fitness, strong bike handling skills, and a honed sense of the entire group and how each cyclist impacts that group’s pace and safety.

Pulling through in a paceline tests a cyclist sense of pace and space—because rotating through from the front into the receding line is a delicate balance of speed and smooth bike handling. Adding to this complex blend of skills and fitness is that cyclists drink and eat while participating in their events! Yet another range of skills that must be learned while doing.

Here is an ideal representation in cycling of the beauty found in balancing the needs of the individual with the good of the community. To be an elite or skilled group cyclist, each cyclist needs the group; thus, each cyclist benefits from conforming to the group norms and contributes to the group good—not because of arbitrary or blind allegiance but because those norms address that balance between individual and group.

At their highest levels, teaching, writing, and cycling are individual endeavors grounded in communities; all represent John Dewey’s complex (and often misunderstood) calls for honoring the individual and the community simultaneously—not as competing interests but as synergetic interests.

Each cyclist in a group ride can perform better than cycling alone by contributing to and competing with the other cyclists, but if any individual cyclist disrupts the essential dynamics of that group (poor bike handling, careless attention to the safety of the group) that cyclist and the entire group suffer, performing less well.

Self-interests and group-interests, then, are inseparable in cycling. I would argue the same about teaching and writing.

Serious recreational cycling offers dynamic lessons for cyclists and educators about the power of engaging by choice and over time with complex human behaviors that require a balance between individual and group needs, about the value of committing to those behaviors as a novice eager to observe and learn from elite and experienced experts/mentors, and about the reality that few human pursuits are ever finished, but always in a state of becoming.

There is a zen elements here—the giving up of the self to find the self. And as with cycling, teaching, and writing, you will not understand it until you do it—by allowing the becoming.

[1] See for example below:


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