The Education Reform Follies: The Columbus Syndrome

Several years ago, I had a polite argument with a top-level editor at a major newspaper, an editor who routinely was supportive of including my commentaries on the Op-Ed page.

My submission was a strong critique of the accountability era in education, and it specifically detailed that South Carolina was an early and important adopter of the standards/testing-based policies and practices that now mostly define public education across the U.S.

The argument centered on my outline, noting that SC had accountability legislation in the late 1970s and then standards as well as the BSAP and Exit Exam process being implemented in the early 1980s (when I began teaching as a high school English teacher in 1984).

The editor argued that accountability began way later, in the late 1990s—although I was offering the actual experiences of a classroom teacher who was charged with and held accountable for SC standards and testing from the very first day I entered the classroom in August of 1984.

This is illustrative, I think, of the newest round of education journalism that seems to suggest that the accountability era I have taught under and criticized since the early 1980s is now being declared a failure. Just for a taste of this edujournalism of the day:

One aspect of this so-called shift in political, media, and public attitudes toward education reform based on accountability (standards and high-stakes testing) worth noting is that it exposes a powerful but often ignored truism about any work aimed at equity: good intentions (whether sincere or not) are never enough.

Many, if not most, education journalists have good intentions; much of the public also has good intentions. Pundits and politicians, I think, are often using the veneer of good intentions for political and ideological ends.

None the less, this cannot be stressed enough—good intentions are not enough.

Yet, acknowledging this is not enough either. Let’s consider why good intentions are inadequate.

Edujournalists, politicians, and pundits who hold forth on education are mostly not educators; they have no experience (except as students) or expertise in education.

They suffer, I think, from the Columbus Syndrome—the delusion that because you witness something, you alone have made it come into being and you have through the simple act of witnessing alone the right to evaluate and control that which you have witnessed.

The editor I argued with in the opening believed education reform had only existed in her time of witnessing it as a journalist, and she resisted listening to me, despite my experiences and expertise in the reality of education reform.

This is the essential flaw with education reform since, as I and many others have been documenting for decades, education reform is almost entirely driven by those not in education.

Columbus as the embodiment of colonialism—the erasing of people by an aggressive force—is a harsh version of the missionary zeal, I admit, characterizing education reform and education analysis in the media, among politicians, and throughout the public.

Missionary zeal is just as destructive as colonialism, but missionaries believe in their essential goodness, their essential rightness, and that they are ordained to do to and not with because those to be saved are lesser.

But the Columbus Syndrome and missionary zeal are paternalistic and doomed to fail because they depend on ideology instead of experience and expertise.

Accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing was never the solution in education because that paradigm does not match the essential problems that burden universal public education, problems almost entirely linked to inequity.

And who has been offering credible witnessing to those problems of inequity for well more than a century in the U.S.? Who has been offering alternatives to education reform for at least the past twenty-plus years?

Educators and scholars of education—the exact voices demonized, the exact voices ignored.

Thad Moore’s Post and Courier article linked above acknowledges that accountability reform simply has not worked in South Carolina, but Moore also suggests that throughout the accountability era, alternative reform has been ignored.

Several journalists at and many articles in the Post and Courier continue to beat a steady drum about educational failures and needs, focusing on Charleston, SC—a powerful and disturbing monument to grossly inequitable public education and political negligence.

Charleston is an uncomfortable mosaic of social injustice—the poor and the affluent—and how that is reflected in and too often perpetuated by public institutions such as public schools.

Yet, here in SC and across the U.S., I remain deeply skeptical that we are entering an era when educators and education scholars will, at last, be heard.

My skepticism lies in understanding that our solutions are too complex to be heard, too antithetical to ideologies that remain sacred to the media, the public, and political leadership.

Virtually all failures in the U.S. can be traced to inequity—class privilege and disadvantage, racism, sexism, etc. Public schools and our students are victims of the greater political refusal to address social inequity, and in-school only reform has been a decades-long effort to distract the public from needed social reform.

None the less, there are very clear messages that have been ignored, and reform that would, over time, drag our education system and even our society toward greater equity.

I have made the case, with evidence, dozens and dozens of time. Yet, education reform has resisted and even chosen reform that directly contradicts efforts to create greater equity for children.

Here, however, is a list of where to start, emphasizing the essential understanding that social reform must precede or at least be concurrent to in-school reform while both must seek equity, not accountability:

  • Food security for all children and their families.
  • Universal healthcare with a priority on children.
  • Stable work opportunities that offer robust wages and are divorced from insurance and other so-called “benefits.”
  • Ending the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing.
  • Developing a small-scale assessment system that captures trends but avoids student, teacher, and school labeling and punitive structures.
  • Ending tracking of students.
  • Ending grade retention.
  • Insuring equitable teacher assignments (experience and certification levels) for all students.
  • Decreasing the bureaucracy of teacher certification (standards and accreditation) and increase the academic integrity of education degrees to be comparable with other disciplines.
  • Supporting teacher and school professional autonomy and implement mechanisms for transparency, not accountability.
  • Addressing the inequity of schooling based on race and social class related to funding, class size, technology, facilities, and discipline.
  • Resisting ranking students, teachers, schools, or states.
  • Reimagining testing/assessment and grades.
  • Adopting a culture of patience, and rejecting the on-going culture of crisis.

Columbus did not discover the Americas. Even more disturbing is that this mythology allows us to ignore that Columbus did usher in a very long history of horror for native people.

On a smaller scale, education reform has echoed that process, teaching an unintended lesson that ideology and missionary zeal are dangerous even when intentions are good.


See Also

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

“Minimally Adequate” in SC: Funding and Understanding Public Education

Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

 

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Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

Each time there is a flurry of comments about grades on social media, I am compelled to advocate for de-grading and de-testing the classroom. Also, each time I make my case, many people offer lukewarm support wrapped in a great deal of skepticism about those practices in real-world classrooms.

My career as an educator has had two nearly equal spans of about two decades each—first as a high school English teacher in a rural public school, and second as a current professor in a selective university where I teach in the education department but also have two first-year writing seminars each fall.

I both learned and practiced over my first decade of teaching the need to de-grade and de-test my classes, notably to support effective writing instruction. So I must stress here that my endorsing de-grading, or at least delaying grading, is grounded in my work as a teacher in a very traditional high school setting where I still had to issue interim reports and quarterly, mid-term, and final grades.

And my entire career, of course, has been working with students who expect grades, students who are often disoriented by and even disturbed by my atypical approaches to grades and assessment.

Virtually all of us who teach, regardless of level or type of school, will have to issue grades at some point. Even as an avid proponent of no grades and no tests, I must assign course grades, and I must fulfill obligations for assessments, such as midterm and final exams.

In our real-world classrooms, then, I am practicing and calling for delaying grades, while also increasing significantly feedback on authentic assessments that require and allow students to revisit their work as a journey to greater understanding and deeper learning.

And, yes, my practices and arguments are primarily grounded in my commitment to literacy instruction, mostly writing, and my educational philosophy, critical pedagogy, as well as my skepticism about knowledge acquisition (I embrace content as a means, not an ends, of teaching).

While I am no fan of compromise, I do have a deeply pragmatic streak; therefore, I try to be very clear that I am not advocating some idealistic set of practices from a rarified teaching situation that isn’t applicable to other educators.

Here I want to outline what real-world practices I have for many years implemented and currently implement that merge well, I think, with my belief in de-grading and de-testing with entrenched and often non-negotiable expectations of teaching.

Establish minimum requirements of participation and artifact production as mandatory for course/class credit. My syllabus and daily schedules clearly state that students must complete assignments and submit all artifacts both throughout the course/class and then as a final portfolio. Those minimum requirements I establish are non-negotiable and students are not allowed to pick and choose which to fulfill. In other words, I do not average grades and I do record an F for any student who fails to complete and submit all of the minimum requirements. (See minimum requirements detailed in my first-year writing syllabus.)

Delay grading of assignments and eliminate high-stakes of grades and rubrics. Once participation is required (for example, students must draft, submit essays, meet for conferences, and submit rewrites) for course/class credit (a final grade), teachers are given more space to offer feedback without grading—thus delaying a grade until students have had opportunities to take risks while practicing new learning. One example from teaching Advanced Placement Literature helps illustrate how even numerical feedback can work in this context. I shared with students A.P. Literature rubrics for previous test writing prompts, and then I did assign practice essay responses the appropriate 9-point scale grade; however, students knew these were recorded but did not factor into their course grade (other than needing to be completed). The 9-scale number was feedback for their understanding of where their work stood and how we could improve for the actual test in the spring. Overwhelmingly, my students participated fully in the practice sessions (they had an authentic goal of doing well on the A.P. test), and noted that other teachers translating these A.P. scale scores to class grades inhibited their work and attitudes about the assignments. I learned in these classes that my rejecting grades and rubrics could be translated into more authentic uses of grades and rubrics as feedback and tools for learning by simply eliminating the stakes with those grades and rubrics.

Invite students into conversations about grades. The best concession I have made to de-grading my classes is to acknowledge that for students grades are a powerful reality. Now I invite students to initiate conferences with me about their current grade in my classes at any point and as often as they need throughout a course. While I give no grades on assignments, even as they revise, I will discuss with students what grade an assignment would deserve, and why, and what their grade status is in a course at any point along the way. The caveat, always, is that we do this in conversation (not by email or in writing) and that we recognize these estimations could change significantly as the course and their revisions progress.

Negotiate grade scales with required grade submissions in your school. My de-grading and de-testing practices have always been complicated by interim reports, midterm and final exam requirements, final grades, and the expectation that grading policies, scales, and calculations be posted on my syllabi. Most of my strategies in these contexts remain grounded in my minimum requirements approach. For interim reports and midterm grades, I submit only S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) based on each student’s current status in relationship to minimum requirements at that point in the course; S is for students who have fully complied and I is for those missing work. I remind students and others that the I will become an F at the end of the course/class if students fail to fulfill the assignments. Midterm and final exams—both required at my university—have become different types of assessment: group and whole-class discussions, presentations, and portfolio assessment. And instead of posting how I calculate and average grades, and what grade scale I use, I include my minimum requirements statement on my syllabus.

I offer the above as no template or even demand, but one example of how I have tried to blend my educational philosophy with real-world expectations and non-negotiables.

I live under no delusion I can transform our formal education system into my ideal where we have no grades and no tests. But I do practice what I believe are more effective versions on these norms by delaying grades and lowering the stakes when students receive both rich and even numerical/grade feedback on assignments while they are exploring new or complex learning.

In short, this is my argument against those who brush away my de-grading and de-testing arguments as not realistic; they are.

But I also must push against those who believe my practices somehow encourage students not to be engaged in their assignments. I have witnessed for almost four decades now that the opposite is, in fact, true.

One reason I began this journey to minimum requirements instead of grading is that I watched students routinely take zeros (not do assignments at all) and still receive course credit. They were playing and manipulating the grade/averaging game of school.

Easily over my career, most of my students have participated fully and punctually with my assignments; overwhelmingly, they have shared that they feel more relaxed and engaged with their assignments without the immediate threat of grades.

While the novelty of my teaching and assessment practices cause some distress for students, traditional grades and the finality of summative assessments are far more harmful to student engagement and learning.

There is no perfect world—neither the world of traditional grading nor the ideal world without grades and tests.

But we can create a better world for our students, one in which they produce work and learn in a supportive environment where our primary role is mentoring through feedback instead of being the dreaded agent of evaluation.

My argument, then, is not for perfect or ideal, but better, better for our teaching, better for our students’ learning.

Viewing Pleasantville in Trumplandia

Twenty years ago, we could marvel at Pleasantville for its technology, the allegorical take on racism and censorship, and the acting brilliance of lesser-known (then) Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, and William H. Macy.

Viewing the film in 2018 includes a somber recognition of a young Paul Walker and Jane Kaczmarek before Malcolm in the Middle. But it may be the character of Whitey (David Tom) and watching the overt racism, near-sexual assault of Betty Parky (Allen), and rioting scenes that take on more than a critical reconsideration of mid-twentieth century America and force us to re-see in this film in contemporary Trumplandia:

Whitey, not so subtly, utters “colored girlfriend”— about Margaret (Marley Shelton)—with sneering disgust and leads a group of young men taunting Betty, until Bud (Maguire) steps in and asserts his full humanity (something that appears to be at the root of what characters turn from black-and-white to color) by knocking Whitey, bloodied, to the ground:

Image result for pleasantville whitey

In the wake of Trump being elected president, viewing this film—and rewatching Breaking Bad, for example—exposes how whiteness works often to center itself regardless of the context.

Walter White, in Breaking Bad, is a white man who is doing well—a teaching career with a stable family and home—but feels wronged by fate (others more successful in the career he leaves behind) and nature (diagnosed with cancer). This entire series centers White (whiteness) and his not-so-subtle libertarian ideologies in the same way the mainstream media now center so-called white rural Americans (the narrative goes) paralyzed by economic fear.

While Break Bad is far more problematic in its depiction of fragile masculinity and racism, Pleasantville in the context of Trumplandia comes off now just a bit lazy.

The allegory of race remains itself powerful, but fragile masculinity is allowed to play as a joke, the white men who resist change in the TV sit-com are buffoons—a stark contrast to the genuine pain demonstrated in the more compelling existential angst in the outlier white man, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), and powerfully in Betty:

The near sexual assault of Betty and the riot scene must be reconsidered as very damning messages about white and male fragility—dramatic harbingers of the #MeToo movement and the right-wing violence in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017.

Yes, Pleasantville works as something of an allegorical take on social change and the scar of racism in the U.S. But it also unwittingly embodies some of the consequences the U.S. now suffers from failing ever to confront directly that calls for tradition tend to be grounded in maintaining the worst sorts of bigotry—racism and sexism.

And while I think Whitey remains an increasingly significant character as we rewatch Pleasantville now, I also want to focus on the Mayor, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh)—a couple speeches specifically.

As a political leader, Big Bob’s rhetoric demonstrates the use of language as a veneer, as Big Bob argues: “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.”

The “pleasant/unpleasant” dichotomy is quite sordid underneath the term. “Pleasant” is women knowing their place, and a community with no “coloreds.”

And as I noted above, many of the scenes depicting white male fragility are played for laughs, hyperbolic concerns about dinner not being on the table or clothes ruined while ironing:

Yet, Big Bob’s discourse even against the cartoonish solidarity of these men watching their world’s change is illuminating:

My friends, this isn’t about George’s dinner. It’s not about Roy’s shirt. It’s a question of values. It’s a question of whether we want to hold on to those values that made this place great. So, a time has come to make a decision. Are we in this thing alone or are we in it together?

While some criticized Alice Walker for an uncharacteristically happy ending in her The Color Purple, we should not be surprised Pleasantville as a fantasy and comedy allows all these heavy issues to resolve with a bit of light-heart “aw-shucks” in a final park bench scene where Betty moves from George to Bill (note that the film remains mired in the importance of women in conjunction with some man):

The narrative, in hindsight, of Pleasantville is incomplete, but we are disturbingly equipped now to decode it. Part of that decoding must be that the narrative the mainstream media is feeding us isn’t incomplete; it is dishonest and lazy.

The white male fragility that created Trump and now is actively emboldened by Trump is not the buffoonery of the film. It is deadly serious and it must not be ignored, or simply explained away.


See Also

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

Jeff Daniels and Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville (1998)

In Brief: Drafting Absent Correctness and Universal Literature

Student Drafting without the Tyranny of Correctness

After I blogged about navigating the trivial in writing instruction, I shared the post with two first-year writing seminars. I then asked them a few questions about several of the claims I had made.

Several of the students quickly confirmed that most of their writing experiences before entering college and my class were driven by concerns about being correct and then efforts to correct their work when given an opportunity to revise.

From that, I asked if their experiences with drafting in my class had been different. Interestingly, in both classes, several students shared that they felt much more free to draft because I do not grade, I give them detailed feedback on their drafts and in conferences, and they know they will be able to address correctness later in the drafting process once they develop a draft worth editing.

The discussion did confirm that many of the students have begun to shift from focusing on the trivial and working more directly on the substantive—engaging and focused openings, specific openings and closings that help frame the essay, and maintaining the focus (thesis) throughout the essay.

I stressed to these students that I was aware we could accomplish only so much in one semester, but I felt over the next few years many would make great strides and attribute some of that to what we have established in these seminars.

On balance I feel confident many of my approaches to teaching writing have fostered healthy attitudes about language and writing in my students.

Rethinking Universal Literature: Unpacking Whiteness and Allegory

In her opening talk at NCTE’s 2018 national convention in Houston, Texas, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared a disturbing story about a white male cab driver quickly saying he would not be interested in her writing. The subtext of his response was that he assumed her work to be for women and blacks, only.

Adichie added that she never discounted white male writers in that way; in fact, she said she loved some dead white men writers.

Combined with a Saturday morning roundtable, Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms, experiences at the conference have begun to help me push against what literature we call “universal,” and how whiteness and maleness tend to hide beneath a cloak of allegory in ways that mask the racial and gendered elements in those works.

In my young adult literature class, we are exploring the film Pleasantville as text and how different media and expanding what counts as text can create diverse literature units.

Pleasantville demonstrates in film many of the characteristics we ask students to examine in print texts; it also expects close reading of technique by the viewer.

But one powerful aspect of the film is its investigation of race by using black-and-white against color and then exploring racism with a white cast (the segregation is between those in black-and-white and those in color):

Using this film can help students interrogate what we use to determine universality in literature, and then to consider if allegory allows whiteness and maleness to be normalized, and thus unacknowledged in ways that blackness and femaleness are not allowed to be unacknowledged or universal.


See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “Why They Can’t Write”

For my 35 years as an educator, I have taught writing and fought a seemingly fruitless battle against know-nothings who either pontificate about or make policy for education.

If I weren’t already an eager fan of John Warner’s blogging at Inside Higher Ed, I feel sure I would have immediately blown a gasket over his newest book’s title: Why They Can’t Write. Although almost immediately the subtitle would have definitely given me hope: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

I can assure you right off that this is not the sort of drivel the title echoes—Why Johnny Still Can’t Read — And What To Do About It—and instead is a very powerful call for teaching writing well from Warner who is both an accomplished writer and a seasoned writing teacher.

In fact, my strongest recommendation for this book is based on Warner’s expertise across writing and teaching combined with his commitment to remaining himself a student of both. Warner embodies my argument that teaching writing and writing are journeys, not destinations.

The opening, “Our Writing ‘Crisis,'” makes a really important and contrarian argument that, I think, guides the entire book. To the title’s assertion/question, Warner explains: “‘They’re doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do; that’s the problem.'”

As a first-year writing teacher at the college level, Warner has witnessed much of the same dynamics I have experienced over about the same time period; if students struggle with writing in ways that are expected at the college level, much of that disconnect can be seen in those students having been taught what is essentially bad practice—focusing on correctness and correcting, conforming to prompts and templates, having over-simplified concepts of evidence and citation, performing very limited writing capabilities that parallel very weak thinking (linked to the five-paragraph essay that Warner rejects).

An excellent evidence-based companion to Warner’s book, in fact, is Applebee and Langer’s research on the teaching of writing at the middle and high school levels. They detail that while most teachers in all disciplines know more than ever about how to teach writing well (in ways Warner outlines in his book), students write less often and shorter pieces in English as well as their other courses.

The culprit? High-stakes accountability in the form of standards and, most of all, testing.

All teachers who have some responsibilities teaching writing should read this book, but those engaged with first-year writing may be most compelled by Warner’s messages.

Another strong aspect of this work is that Warner’s writing is always engaging while remaining very practical—something practitioners tend to demand.

I think his Part II really shines by highlighting problems: atmosphere (“‘School sucks'”), surveillance, assessment and standardization, education fads, technology hype, folklore, and precarity. Many of these are recurring concerns I have experienced teaching high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as college-level writing since 2002.

Stylistically, Warner has chosen to be conversational, so this volume is not heavily cited with current research on composition. While some may bristle at this choice, I am very comfortable noting that Warner’s critiques and recommendations match well with that research base (again, consider Applebee and Langer, but also Peter Smagorinsky and a long list of K-12 researchers and practitioners advocating writing workshop).

What teachers find in Warner is a confession that writing and teaching writing are damned challenging. But he also offers foundational concepts and practices if our goal is to foster developing writers who think and compose by choice and with purpose.

This is not about test-prep. This is not about inauthentic compliance masquerading as writing.

Being a writer and teaching writing are mostly about problems. Warner recognizes the problems (and if you teach writing, so will you), and the challenges, but also provides some important reassurances that we can teach writing better, probably well, and then, our students? Well, they can write if offered the opportunity.

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction

Most teachers charged with writing instruction at all levels from K-12 through graduate education have far too little time and almost impossible learning conditions in order to teach writing well, much less completely.

After decades of teaching writing, I have far more questions, and goals, than I have answers.

But I do have two guiding principles that I believe help my writing instruction to be more effective, if still lacking: (1) no writing-intensive course is an inoculation (writing and students are not diseased things to be cured), and (2) to invoke Thoreau, it is not any writing teacher’s duty to do everything, but to do something well.

With those in mind, this Twitter exchange provides an excellent entry point to how we should navigate the trivial in our very challenging work teaching writing:

Drezner’s original Tweet and Warner’s reply provide an important tension that all writing teachers face, the tension between the trivial (elements such as format, grammar, mechanics, and usage) and the substantive (expression, credibility of claims and evidence, audience awareness, purposefulness, etc.).

Broadly, this debate sits within the prescriptivist versus descriptivist approaches to language. For teachers of writing, I think we must acknowledge that prescriptivism remains the norm in both formal education and social norms. In other words, many people are prone to see (or hear) “errors” and then to draw some evaluative conclusions from those “errors” regardless of the credibility or effectiveness of the whole text or expression.

Drezner is typical of those who cannot look past the trivial (confusing “it’s” and “its”) in order to recognize the ultimate whole of the text.

Like Warner, I rest in the camp that rejects prescriptivism and seek ways to focus my instruction, and student drafting, on the substance of their writing as well as their journey to being writers and scholars.

But this is no new tension, as Lou LaBrant (1946) expresses, many decades before Warner’s retort: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing.”

With limited time and reduced teaching and learning conditions, teachers of writing must focus on priorities—fostering purposeful, thoughtful, and risk-taking young writers who have an awareness of prescriptivism and the consequences of so-called “errors” in their writing.

As a first-year writing teacher, I can attest that most of my students enter my writing-intensive classes mostly viewing their work as students to be about correctness and then when prompted to revise or rewrite, to be about correcting.

Their priorities learned in formal schooling about writing are the inverse of LaBrant’s mantra above; students believe correctness trumps content because they have often submitted “irresponsible, unimportant writing,” driven by the teacher’s prompts, and received high grades simply for having conventional surface features.

One example of how I try to navigate the trivial in writing instruction is the current debates about “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I offer students a mini-lesson on how language changes, a short overview of the history of the English language with some examples (grain/corn, the demonizing of “ain’t” and the tortured construction “Aren’t I?” that grew out of that), and then I introduce them to the “they” debate.

We examine pronoun/antecedent agreement and concerns about sexist language (the use of “he” as gender neutral, for example) before I detail for them that they are living in a time of language flux; many formal publications and organizations now have standardized “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun (see especially NCTE).

However, I also address with them that many people remain trapped in the fading prescriptive view of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I caution students that they may (likely will) encounter professors and others who will, as Drezner’s Tweet in the opening shows, make conscious or unconscious decisions about their credibility as writers based on the developing convention of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I often follow this with a discussion of my own experiences as a student in the 1970s and 1980s that included drills and workbook exercises on “shall” and “will”—noting that poor “shall” is now deceased. This leads me to the certain impending demise of “whom” coming, I think, in my students’ lifetime.

As their writing teacher, I am committed to fostering purposefulness in my students, and to help them rise above the paralysis of correctness. I want them to have healthy attitudes about language and writing, much as linguists and writers do.

Yet, this effort to raise their awareness about the specter of the language police while prioritizing their content, organization, style, and such as purposeful writers is no easy task.

It is nearly impossible to break them from habits formed over years—viewing their job as being correct or correcting their drafts—and my own practice, I fear still seems to them to prioritize the trivial.

One of my strategies embedded in my requirement that students draft and conference with me during each essay is that I use highlighting in Word to draw their eyes to the trivial (issues of grammar, mechanics, usage, and format) and reserve comments and the conferences for what I consider to be substance.

I will still highlight, for example, a singular gender neutral use of “they,” and may add a comment asking if they have used this with purpose and with awareness, but I have no policy about their grades based on that use (I do not grade writing at all in fact).

Since many of the elements I highlight are what most teachers would call “errors,” students tend to ask me why I highlight, leading to a mini-lesson. Occasionally, the highlighting works, and students self-edit, if needed.

My work as a teacher of writing, then, is defined in many ways by the tension in the Tweet exchange above. I feel mostly compelled to foster my students as purposeful writers and scholars with healthy attitudes about language and writing.

But I also feel an ethical obligation to make my students aware that language use is political, that language use (often the trivial) has real consequences for them as students and in their lives beyond formal schooling.

I do invite them to join me is changing the norm of prescriptivism, to challenge the language police, but I also am deeply aware that is a tall task to ask of any of us.

LaBrant (1952) lamented that “thousands of teachers seem to resent or refuse to recognize change.” This, I think, is a grand failure when we are teaching writing and ultimately thinking.

Language is in constant flux, and our students are both agents and victims of that change.

Navigating the trivial in writing instruction is ultimately about honoring the human dignity of our students because language is an essential part of that humanity.