Poetry in an Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Maybe there is karma, or some confluence of the universe, but earlier today I began contemplating if and how to begin work on an anthology of poetry from poets past and present that speaks to and from #BlackLivesMatter.

And then in my Twitter feed:

Jen Benka, Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, speaks to the incredibly powerful fact that poetry matters in an era of #BlackLivesMatter—anchored by the printing of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” in the NYT.

Hughes has been much on my mind recently—his “Let America Be America Again,” “Theme for English B,” and “Harlem,” notably [1].

As a poet and a teacher, I have been struggling with race and racism as well: first spring (Baltimore is burning) and Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

Benka pointed to these poetic responses: what the dead know by heart, Dante Collins; A Small Needful Fact, Ross Gay; and the bullet was a girl, Danez Smith.

Maybe I am too hopeful as a poet, and reader of poetry, but I am compelled to think we may well need an anthology of poetry past and present to help begin the healing.

Anyone? Anyone?

Until (if) this idea gains momentum, please send me a list of poems (and if accessible online) to add below.

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

“Allowables,” Nikki Giovanni

The Talk,” Jabari Asim

“Middle Passage,” Robert Hayden

from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “Cornel West makes the point…,” Claudia Rankine


[1] See also Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again” and Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

Political Will: A Meditation

In my introductory foundations course in education, we have been watching Corridor of Shame and discussing the historical negligence of some schools, some students, and some communities in South Carolina for generations; in this case, “some” means “black” and “poor.”

The maudlin and melodramatic documentary is grounded in a court case that has taken the state two decades to settle—and then to proceed to do exactly nothing.

As we waded into a class discussion of this political negligence, I stressed a refrain I am moving toward more and more often: political will.

The godawful Truth of the matter is that public schools in high-poverty black communities—notably those along the I-95 corridor—are underfunded, marginalized, and essentially left to chance exactly because this is what we want in the state.

Nowhere in the U.S. at the state or federal level is there a lack of money, resources, or expertise to do anything we wish to do. What we choose to do and what we choose to ignore are exactly what we want.

In 2014, I wrote this poem:

It is a poem about political will, about the tyranny of the privileged and the consequences of that tyranny for marginalized groups; I highlight women and children, but this is also about black and brown people, people in poverty, religious minorities, foreign nationals, transgender people, gay people—anyone not of the centered community that is white, male, straight, and a certain kind of superficial Christian.

A former student of mine, Lucas Patterson, posted a Nikki Giovanni poem on Facebook, “Allowables,” and I felt my heart sink:

allowables

In fact, I felt sick physically and in my soul because of this:

Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, identified as the officer who shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Friday night, has offered her side of the story in the fatal encounter.

In dashcam and helicopter video released by police, Crutcher appears to have his hands up moments before he is shot by Shelby. Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, maintains that Crutcher refused to follow more than two dozen commands and that he reached into the open window of the car before Shelby perceived a threat and shot him….

Shelby believed that when Crutcher attempted to reach into the car, he was retrieving a weapon, Wood said. In her interview with homicide detectives, she said, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” according to Wood.

Just as people who call themselves Christian and patriots will without a thought crush a spider under the soles of their shoes, those people will and have created this world and allow it to be exactly as they want it to be.

A world where black men’s names become hash tags as inconsequential as court cases being settled.

A world of unwarranted privilege at the expense of the Other.

The world was exactly as they expected, exactly as they knew it to be.

And mostly not as it could have been, or should have been.

Education’s Diversity Dilemma: What Can Be Done

My 18 years as a public high school teacher and current 15 years as a university professor have one dilemma in common: diversity.

At the K-12 level, many schools struggle to recruit and maintain a diverse faculty; while universities often face a lack of diversity in both faculty and students.

The teaching staff at the rural South Carolina school where I taught was nearly all white, working-class, and essentially all Christian. Once we hired an outstanding woman to teach science; she happened to be a native of India and Hindu.

The culture in the school was so toxic to her diversity, that she left—or better phrased, she was run off by the implicit and direct messages of the people and the culture of the school.

My university has recently confronted the low percentage of women faculty as well as concerns about faulty and student diversity.

At our opening faculty retreat focusing on diversity and inclusion, a female faculty member expressed concern over the time and energy needed to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to gender identity and/or gender expression.

Concurrently, several faculty expressed surprise that complimenting black faculty or students for being “articulate” is racist and offensive.

More pervasive, however, was the demand that we not proceed with diversity initiatives without defining diversity, and that always included concerns about reducing diversity to race. Both of these strategies bound to the norms of academia, in effect, marginalize the power of privilege (many whites have been and are hired because they are white) and the realities of race in the diversity dilemma.

Parallel to these strategies were responses to a gender study at our university, a study that was refuted by several white male faculty because it didn’t (in their view) meet the standards of high-quality research—too much anecdote, and thus, a code for too many voices from those affected, from those normally without a voice.

All of these situations point to the toxic nature of centered communities that derive from both individual and systemic forces—even when many or most of the people consider themselves not bigoted, racist, classist, homophobic, or sexist.

Individuals often embody and express bigotry despite their own intentions not to be bigoted or intolerant due to a lack of critical consciousness, and thus, as lack of critical sensitivity.

Over the decades from when I graduated high school and through my career teaching at the school, the community saw a significant decrease in blacks, resulting in a relatively white community. The faculty of the schools stayed almost entirely white—even as schools sought more teachers of color.

My current university has worked diligently—as have many universities—to increase student and faculty diversity, with little to show for all the effort.

This is the diversity dilemma that remains—and may be nearly impossible to correct. Therefore, many diversity and inclusion initiatives become bogged down in and/or eventually abandon diversity efforts because of inadequate outcomes related to goals.

The failure to increase diversity of faculty, for example, may be a lack of political will—as Maybeth Gasman argues:

While giving a talk about Minority Serving Institutions at a recent higher education forum, I was asked a question pertaining to the lack of faculty of color at many majority institutions, especially more elite institutions.

My response was frank: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” Those in the audience were surprised by my candor and gave me a round of applause for the honesty.

But one missing component of diversity and inclusion initiatives is certain: working toward culturally relevant communities that acknowledge the sensitivity and privilege afforded centered people, that work to spread that sensitivity to all members of the community, and that decrease and erase the privilege afforded centered people.

“Culturally relevant,” as envisioned by Gloria Ladson-Billings [1], in educational communities must foster awareness and sensitivity to culture and race as well as to gender, sexuality, social class, and religion—among faculty, staff, and students.

In schools and colleges, the question is not if we have the time and energy to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to transgender people, but how we can assure that all members of the community are educated on the power of gendered language to center and oppress people.

For example, schools and universities can adopt “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun as a simple policy move, but also infuse the gender politics of language throughout the curriculum and in faculty development.

The paradox of course is multi-layered: education has a diversity dilemma that quite possibly cannot be addressed well directly, but may be ameliorated by education itself, education that is purposefully culturally relevant and systemic.

Diversifying a toxic community is unlikely to be as effective as creating an inclusive community that invites diversity.

Diversity initiatives that fail to realize that the latter can and must be done are making a regrettable mistake that may jeopardize the best of intentions of all involved.


[1] See her definition:

I have defined culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition (1992c) not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment.

Teaching Writing in ELA/English: “not everything to do, but something”

A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong.

“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau

It is a misguided and unfair reality, but middle and high school ELA/English teachers are in many ways asked to do everything—and they cannot, of course.

Traditionally, ELA/English teachers have been charged as the primary, if not exclusive, teachers of all things literacy as well as their field of English; in other words, charged with teaching students how to read, write, speak, and listen along with covering whatever body of literature a particular grade level is assigned (and about which students may be tested in high-stakes ways).

My dissertation focus and most-times muse, Lou LaBrant was as acerbic as she was brilliant (and she was brilliant). Once when fielding questions, she chastised a teacher that if she did not know how to teach ELA/English, she should quick, learn how, and then return to the field.

Not a shining moment for LaBrant, and an attitude we must not tolerate. It is not ours to eat our own kind, and it is far past time that we allow ELA/English to be under the weight of doing everything.

This has been weighing on my mind as an 18-year high school English teacher and current English educator for 15 years and counting because of several conversations around my blog posts challenging the teaching of research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

Maybe I was drawn to LaBrant because we share a tendency to seem strident when we are passionate—or maybe studying and writing about LaBrant so deeply infused my passion with a strident streak. Honestly, it is likely the former.

So I am guilty too often of allowing my genuine passion to come off as demanding, judgmental, and unyielding.

Shame on me.

“The Kindness of Strangers”

But I am also fortunate to be in the presence of the kindness of strangers—those who ask, prod, challenge, and join the quest.

In particular, comments by a beginning teacher and a teacher at a school that seeks to prepare students for college really hit home for me in terms of asking what ELA/English teachers are to teach in terms of writing if they abandon, as I believe they should, the traditional and scripted research paper assignment and the 5-paragraph essay.

First, I must stress that for all teachers, and particularly beginning teachers, the transition from traditional practice to warranted or best practice must be through baby steps: choosing one or a few changes to practices that are manageable, incorporating them, and then pacing over a long period of time (months, years) further changes as manageable.

I cannot stress enough, whether it is about so-called best practice, responding to student writing, or preparing students for college, we must be neither martyrs, nor missionaries.

To be a teacher of ELA/English is honorable in itself.

To move from the 5-paragraph essay/template approach to writing instruction to a workshop/authentic form approach, then, begins by identifying the components of writing workshop (time, ownership, response) in order to implement some of those components within the current traditional structure. And then gradually adding components until the traditional structure is replaced with writing workshop.

If you are not ready to release the 5-paragraph essay form, can you drop the prompt and allow student choice in topics? And can you remove some direct instruction for students to draft and collaborate on their essays during class as well as your own conferencing with students as they brainstorm and compose?

Along with baby steps, change is facilitated by purposeful abandonment of traditional practices that are discredited by evidence (both the research base and a teacher’s own practice). No teacher should try to cram in new practice along with old practice.

Incremental change and abandonment allow teachers to take the needed time to prepare themselves for teaching writing more authentically, without templates—finding, reading, and gathering mentor texts of the types of essays they believe their students should be writing, for example, along with honing their craft at guiding students through reading like a writer activities in order to build the writer’s toolbox for students.

That said, the field of ELA/English as the place where writing is primarily taught is in dire need of recalibration—as I have addressed related to research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

The Literary Analysis Essay: “is this even necessary anymore”

Let’s go back for a moment to my opening lament about asking ELA/English teachers to do everything—and consider the opening quote from Thoreau.

ELA/English teachers must stop carrying the weight of doing everything, but they must do something, with a critical eye toward avoiding doing something wrong.

The powerful dilemma, I think, is posed in a question from Elizabeth Hall on the NCTE Connected Community: “How do I teach students to write a literary analysis essay or is this even necessary anymore?”

Teaching literary analysis essays (and the use of MLA in the traditional research project) has its roots, I am sure, in several different reasons: tradition, seeking to address English as a discipline, and preparing students for college directly and indirectly (the Advanced Placement tests).

“Because we have always done it” is a shallow reason to keep a teaching practice so I’ll set that aside.

Next, do we as English teachers have an obligation to the discipline of English? Just as we feel compelled to teach British lit or American lit, we feel compelled to teach students about literary analysis. And we are quite justified in that—although with two caveats: first, virtually none of our students will become English majors, and second, to teach literary analysis writing should still be couched in authentic writing.

Therefore, canned literary analysis is not warranted, just as remaining trapped in New Criticism (and its more recent cousin “close reading”) and perpetuating the literary technique hunt is not warranted.

Even when teaching students who needed to do well on AP tests, I started by investigating authentic mentor texts modeling literary analysis—notably Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home,” which redefined how many viewed Emily Dickinson.

Unpacking Rich’s masterful interrogation of Dickinson, we found she begins with and depends heavily on personal narrative mode, and her analysis highlights that textual analysis requires substantial quoting of the examined texts that anchors the writer’s analysis and synthesis.

But Rich has no clunky introduction with the traditional assertive (read: overstated) thesis, and she does not spend time cataloguing Dickinson’s use of literary devices.

And here is a key point of departure: Rich comes at Dickinson through many analytical lenses, but she does not forefront New Criticism (as most ELA/English teachers do and as AP Literature and Composition exams do).

Further, our high school students, by the way, cannot write with the mastery of Rich, but they can build their toolbox of genre awareness about how professional writers do literary analysis—including being exposed to a much wider set of analytical lenses than teachers have traditionally explored (see Cody Miller’s post, for example).

One answer to Hall’s question is “yes,” because literary analysis essays can be very valuable for students as critical thinkers (to read and re-read the world, to write and re-write the world), as liberal arts grounding (students knowing the wide array of disciplinary ways of knowing), as one type of authentic writing, and as a foundation for the few students who will in fact major in English.

Another answer, however, addresses Hall’s “is this even necessary anymore.”

The truth is that first-year writing (back in the day, “freshman comp”) and so-called “college writing” have never been well served directly by ELA/English teachers assigning primarily or exclusively literary analysis essays.

Again, literary analysis essays are a part of the English discipline and very few high school teacher’s students will be English majors.

So this harder answer is about addressing the “everything” dilemma.

Each ELA/English teacher, then, must not feel compelled to prepare students for college entirely or to address the discipline of English completely. Each ELA/English teacher must be committed to doing something, guarding against doing something wrong (such as making students hate to read and write, demanding student conformity over student agency, or presenting inauthentic templates that inhibit students as readers and writers).

That something may include a literary analysis essay, but ELA/English teachers should feel far more obligated to investing time into helping students gain genre awareness and developing themselves as autonomous thinkers and writers through the reading and writing processes—reading and writing workshop grounded in mentor texts and requiring students to produce authentic texts themselves along a wide range of writing types, some of which they will be required to do in college (disciplinary writing).

Middle school teams and high school departments could very easily organize so that teachers who feel more comfortable with some types of writing than others can choose to distribute what writing experiences students have over the course of several years.

ELA/English teachers must resist isolated individual responsibility for the “everything,” something that can be approached (but never accomplished) over six or seven coordinated years as teams and departments.

None of this is easy, and I regret to offer, none of this can be scripted for any teacher.

But, while I resist suggesting changes are urgent, I do believe they are damned important.

So I return to LaBrant in a slightly less strident mood:

Teachers who follow the rule of emphasizing meaning and true communication find children eager to accept conventional form, and to choose words carefully. But the choice is then in terms of the purposes of the writer or speaker, and not in terms of artificial or superficial standards [emphasis added]….Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum. (p. 97)

Recommended: Ending Zero Tolerance The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, Derek W. Black

Ending Zero Tolerance The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline, Derek W. Black

From publisher’s web site:

In the era of zero tolerance, we are flooded with stories about schools issuing draconian punishments for relatively innocent behavior. One student was suspended for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. Another was expelled for cursing on social media from home. Suspension and expulsion rates have doubled over the past three decades as zero tolerance policies have become the normal response to a host of minor infractions that extend well beyond just drugs and weapons. Students from all demographic groups have suffered, but minority and special needs students have suffered the most. On average, middle and high schools suspend one out of four African American students at least once a year.

The effects of these policies are devastating.  Just one suspension in the ninth grade doubles the likelihood that a student will drop out. Fifty percent of students who drop out are subsequently unemployed. Eighty percent of prisoners are high school drop outs. The risks associated with suspension and expulsion are so high that, as a practical matter, they amount to educational death penalties, not behavioral correction tools. Most important, punitive discipline policies undermine the quality of education that innocent bystanders receive as well—the exact opposite of what schools intend.

Ending Zero Tolerance answers the calls of grassroots communities pressing for integration and increased education funding with a complete rethinking of school discipline. Derek Black, a former attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, weaves stories about individual students, lessons from social science, and the outcomes of courts cases to unearth a shockingly irrational system of punishment. While schools and legislatures have proven unable and unwilling to amend their failing policies, Ending Zero Tolerance argues for constitutional protections to check abuses in school discipline and lays out theories by which courts should re-engage to enforce students’ rights and support broader reforms.

REVIEWS

  • “Zero-tolerance policies fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionately deny educational opportunities to already disadvantaged student populations. In this volume, Derek Black not only describes the problem but proposes a solution—intervention by state and federal courts.  In an era when many are losing faith in courts to protect students, Black makes a persuasive case that courts can and should play a productive role in safeguarding the basic rights of students.  This book is a cogent, comprehensive, and creative resource for all those who seek to dismantle one of the most pervasive contributors to educational inequality in this country.”

    —James E. Ryan, Charles William Eliot Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

  • “Black’s book is necessary reading for educators and those who work with youth, whether during classroom hours or in an after-school setting.”

    Youth Today

  • “With the intent to address the toxic environment that zero tolerance perpetuates, Black outlines a convincing argument that the courts must step in to speed reform and ensure that all students are cared for equally.”

    Library Journal

  • “In Ending Zero Tolerance, Professor Derek Black sheds light on how both law and policy are inviting schools to harshly punish students in ways that greatly harm the disciplined student, his or her peers, academic outcomes and our national commitment to equal educational opportunity. He also proposes insightful and attainable legal reforms that could end this crisis.Ending Zero Tolerance is a must-read for all who are committed to fair discipline policies.”

    —Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, Professor, University of Richmond School of Law

  • “Derek Black has written a magnificent book that shows how the current approach to disciplining children in schools undermines education, discriminates against children of color, and violates the most basic notions of due process.  He makes a compelling case that courts must be involved in reforming school discipline.  This book is must reading for all involved in education and all who care about the American educational system.”

    —Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean, University of California, Irvine School of Law

  • “Now is the time to revisit much of the legal thinking about the constitutional rights of public school students, because so many of them were originally pronounced during the Civil Rights Era… There is no question that Ending Zero Tolerance will be of great interest to a diverse audience of people interested in public education.”

    —Kevin Brown, Richard S. Melvin Professor of Law Indiana University Maurer School of Law-Bloomington

  • “Black convincingly explains how the nation’s inflexible, exclusionary and counterproductive approach to school discipline has swung far out of balance. This extraordinarily important book carefully outlines the legal and policy thinking that should serve as a cornerstone for the lawyers, policymakers and judges who must re-balance this destructive system.”

    —Kevin Welner, co-editor, Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance

The State: ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

[original submission posted below before edits]

Education reform in South Carolina suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: New standards and new tests, but the outcomes remain disappointing.

Now, recently released ACT scores serve as the newest reason to panic. As reported in The State: “The latest scores from the ACT college entrance exam suggest that many of this year’s high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level course work.”

SC’s data are troubling: 14% of test-takers not ready for college and the race gap even more alarming (2% of black students met standard on the four sections of the ACT).

SC also appears to compare poorly to the other 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT—notably Tennessee has a similar poverty rate as SC but a higher average ACT score.

However, I urge caution about interpreting ACT scores from one year of data since SC has recently adopted Common Core standards and tests, dropped Common Core, adopted yet new standards, and then chosen the ACT for annual testing.

Thus, my concerns about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores include the following:

  • Scores are depressed due to standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • One year of data when a new test is adopted is inadequate for drawing hard conclusions.

ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, test scores in the U.S. (notably our residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with labels such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, I am not trivializing SC’s ACT scores—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I must stress we did not need more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity cheats those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the inability of education reformers to do something different beyond accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses problems directly and all of which increases those problems.

Hand wringing over results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation. Therefore, admitting that weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. Instead we need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must confront a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike raising test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

Instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impact negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need to erase food, health, and work insecurity, and we need to addresses equity of opportunity (access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and tests.

No one needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students. Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity those test scores represent?

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

At the core of John Dewey’s pragmatism and progressivism is Dewey’s contrarian view of “scientific”—the warranted assertion [1]. For Dewey, and in the context of teaching and learning, a warranted practice would be based on a substantial, diverse, and appropriate body of evidence, including how theory looks in the unpredictable real world.

Although the term “best practice” is much sullied, the rightful use of that term certainly approaches Dewey’s vision for education—how we practice in daily teaching what we are able to know from a range of evidence from experimental/quasi-experimental quantitative research to classroom-based action research.

However, Dewey’s faith in scientific education as warranted practice suffered from his own skepticism about prescriptions, templates, and mandates; Dewey viewed education as a perpetual experiment and refused to dictate for any classroom what he discovered as warranted for his classroom.

As a result, in the early twentieth century and throughout the history of universal public education, progressivism has been rarely practiced but often vilified and misunderstood.

Even during the accountability era when prescriptions and mandates have become the norm, some have sought ways to promote “best practice” in the Dewey tradition of warranted practices—offering what teachers should increase and decrease in their practice.

But probably the best example of Dewey’s warranted practice emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and the call to teach writing authentically, to merge the practical experiences of writing with writing instruction.

#

Former NCTE president Lou LaBrant wrote:

By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

As a true progressive, LaBrant made this argument in 1936—about four decades before the rise of the NWP and workshop approaches to writing instruction.

Not to be hyperbolic, but no one listened to LaBrant, and despite a brief bit of momentum by the NWP, the accountability era effectively killed authentic writing instruction.

Thus, the 5-paragraph essay, writing templates, prompted writing, and scoring rubrics have mostly dominated writing instruction in the U.S. for about a century.

Throughout, however, a substantial body of evidence from researchers, scholars, and practitioners has concluded that the 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing remains efficient but corrosive to writing goals in the following two ways:

  1. The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing produces bad writing and (even worse) bad (and lazy) thinking—the entire world of expression and thought reduced to making grand claims supported by three points.
  2. And despite advocates’ claims that the 5-paragraph essay is an entry point or foundation for authentic writing, the evidence shows most students never make the transition.

Ironically, Dewey’s resistance to templates and prescriptions resulted in his being mostly ignored but also was a harbinger for the enduring allure and negative consequences of templates and prescriptions.

Many English teachers are not writers themselves, and have had little or no experiences as students in writing workshops or authentic writing experiences.

The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing, then, is efficient and lends itself well to assigning writing, responding to writing, and grading writing—all of which have supplanted both authentic writing goals and Dewey’s call for warranted practice.

During the accountability era, teachers are under enormous and ridiculous pressure to have students score well on very bad tests, and are increasingly placed in classroom environments that do not allow authentic practice. Often, when teachers embrace efficiency over authentic, warranted practice, we should not blame the teachers as much as the larger contexts within which they work with little to no professional autonomy.

As a public school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s in South Carolina where we embraced accountability, standards, and tests early and with missionary zeal, I taught in and struggled under these reduced circumstances.

But I also contend that we can commit to warranted practice, we must commit to warranted practice—and the consequences will be positive for students and likely even within the reductive world of standardized test scores.

Instead of templates and prompts, I invite students to investigate and interrogate a wide variety of texts, to read like writers.

With each text, we try to determine the type of writing, developing genre awareness and building a toolbox of names for types of writing. Next, we identify the conventions that define that type of writing before asking how the writer both conforms to and also writes against those conventions.

We stress that writing is about purposeful decisions—not rules, or templates.

We also begin to highlight what modes (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) the writer incorporates, where and why.

We also identify the focus of the piece (I do not use “thesis”) and explore how the writer’s craft accomplishes that.

Instead of introduction, body, and conclusion, we analyze openings and closings as well as claimsevidence, elaboration (explanation, synthesis/connection, transition).

And again, we are building the students’ writer’s toolbox—but I do not do the writer’s work for the student in the reductive ways the 5-paragraph essay does.

Ultimately, the 5-paragraph essay fails as warranted practice because templates eradicate all the decisions writer make, and students are simply practicing how to be compliant—not to be writers.

The practitioner’s voice calling for authentic writing instruction reaches back a century, and we remain in a contentious battle between traditional and efficient practice versus authentic and warranted practice.

Today, those of us calling for the long overdue end to the 5-paragraph essay and arguing instead for warranted practice are echoing LaBrant from 1947, lamenting:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. …[L]et us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

 


[1] See from Dewey ‘s Epistemology: An Argument for Warranted Assertions, Knowing, and Meaningful Classroom Practice, Deron R. Boyles:

In place of such a traditional account, Dewey crafts a new version of epistemology—one that has as a key element the notion of warranted assertibility.22

Warranted assertions replace justification in the traditional syllogism while at the same time imploding the syllogism itself. Where justification served a correspondence theory of truth in the traditional account of knowledge, warranted assertions merge truth and inquiry together in such a way that correspondence to an external world is no longer the point. The point, instead, is the interdependency of truths and the processes of inquiry: the temporal satisfaction of solved problems in a world that is not set apart from the knower’s use(s) of the world or place(s) in that world. In this way, idealists and realists are misguided when they describe epistemology as way of determining knowledge.23 “Knowledge” is not the focal point of epistemology for Dewey: “knowing” is. “Knowledge” represents the end of inquiry but, according to Dewey, it is also often supposed to have a meaning of its own—disconnected from inquiry. The result is that inquiry is subordinated to the fixed end called “knowledge.”24 By “knowing” Dewey means inquiry in a world that is not static. He means inquiry into things “lived” by people. He means experimenting with solving problems such that the action entailed in the solving of problems is inquiry itself and warranted in the assertions made about the solved problem when it is solved (where “solved” is understood as temporal and a portal to further inquiry). Accordingly, in the “living” of life, problems will be faced and solved—often in serendipitous ways—such that achieving “justified true belief” (as traditional epistemology expects) is not useful. As Dewey put it:

[Warranted assertion] is preferred to the terms belief and knowledge [because] it is free from the ambiguity of these latter terms, and it involves reference to inquiry as that which warrants assertion. When knowledge is taken as a general abstract term related to inquiry in the abstract, it means “warranted assertibility.” The use of a term that designates potentiality rather than an actuality involves recognition that all special conclusions of special inquiries are parts of enterprise that is continually renewed, or is a going concern.25