Dear People with Privilege: On Freeing the Pelican

The first men to deny sexism are sexists themselves; the first white people to deny racism are racists themselves.

One of the profound tensions of the U.S. is that the country founded on the ideals of individual liberty—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—was in fact built by sexists and racists. This is no easy or comfortable contradiction.

We have settled into an ends justifying the means narcotic as a people to avoid that contradiction.

The great praise the U.S. does deserve (although not unique to the U.S.) is the concept of pursuit; a great many people have pursued and continue to pursue the elusive equity of our founding principles.

To identify, admit to, and then confront racism or sexism, we must reach to the people with the most power in the country—white men, who believe they have earned that power, their success.

Racism and sexism are not mere abstractions because some people must be complicit in the perpetuation of both.

Even among the victims of racism and sexism, we find people complicit, but the main people responsible for our failures in the pursuit of equity are the ones with the most power, power gained from privilege.

Most of us, then, when confronted with the ugliest truths of racism and sexism immediately tell our stories of struggle: “I cannot have privilege,” we proclaim, “because I have struggled!”

So consider the invisibility of privilege to those with privilege.

You buy a pair of Nike shoes, and if someone asks you if you are for child labor or slave wages for women forced to work in cramped factories as their homes, you are very likely to strongly reject being for those abstractions—while wearing the shoes made in horrifying conditions for women and children workers earning slave wages.

The problem of privilege is that most of us with privilege are complicit through negligence, not through conscious decisions to oppress.

Consequences, however, make those distinctions irrelevant.

As Roxane Gay navigates wonderfully in Peculiar Benefits, many people have contexts within which they have privilege, unearned advantages—even people for whom much of their life is spent as the victim of other people’s privileges.

And white heterosexual men can struggle mightily in life, even as we celebrate the apparent success of a black homosexual woman.

Outliers are some of the most powerful blinders for confronting privilege.

But I believe I can offer here a simple test.

First, to admit to having privilege is not opening yourself to scorn; the fact of having privilege is not justification for condemning anyone.

From there, then, we must move to the key question: What do you do with your privilege(s)? Perpetuate your own needs and desires? Or use your privilege(s) in the service of others who are oppressed, who are victims of other people’s privileges?

Some tests include whether or not you acknowledge your own and systemic privilege (racism and sexism, for example), and then if or not you develop an ability to feel compassion for anyone who is struggling, recognizing that human failure may often be the consequence of systemic forces and not individual flaws.

This last point is important. Racism, for example, persists because as a culture, people in the U.S. have made the default stance about human struggle and failure to be flawed individuals: People who succeed, we assume, worked hard, and people who struggle and fail, we assume, are lazy.

Each of us must come to acknowledge our privilege(s) and proceed with the understanding that systemic inequity is the root cause of individual struggle and failure.

To use your privilege in the service of others [1] even when that act creates risk for you and especially when that act works to dismantle the privilege that allows you to serve others.

A picture (or in this case, a video [2]) is worth a 1000 words, so let me end by suggesting, this is what it looks like to acknowledge your privilege, to identify those who suffer inequity, and then to act in the service of that other:


[1] To serve others, as well, must avoid paternalism. It is not substituting arrogance for your privilege in order to save those who are lesser than you; it is seeking out anyone without your privileges and then asking, How may I help you?

[2] Too often, when confronted with systemic inequity (racism, sexism, etc., represented by the fishing line on the pelican’s beak), people either refuse to acknowledge the fishing line, blame the pelican for being in the situation that caused the line tangle, or argue, “I didn’t put the fishing line around the beak.” Yet, we are complicit if we fish (even carefully), eat fish, or if we do nothing while aware of the dangers of fishing for pelicans and other animals—even if we believe we are compassionate to or hold no prejudice against pelicans.

See Also

Montclair SocioBlog: The Winds of Privilege

How to Expose Racists: Simply Mention Racism

I was pleasantly surprised when Education Week published Why Are We Criminalizing Black Students? by Tyrone C. Howard.

Regretfully, this blog is gorged with posts about EdWeek routinely failing the education discussion, but Howard’s commentary confronts well a hard topic in education.

And then came the comments—tone deaf at best, defensive and racist themselves as worst (first three opening rebuttals):

mcruiz

I’m amazed. I truly didn’t know we teachers had that much power, and the propensity to use it for evil deeds. Wow! Imagine that, we have the power to criminalize Black students. Wow, again!

LynnG

This is a ridiculous article and the author’s bias is so heavy handed that he’s made his argument a joke. Talk about confirmation bias.

Paul D. White

One more racist rant from a Black college professor who doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth, and one more worthless posting by Ed Week for what? A desire to show how “tolerant” they are to biased, ignorant positions regarding race and performance in the schools?

The great failure of the U.S. which has brought us to Trumplandia is, as I have pointed out often, James Baldwin’s “this rigid refusal to look at ourselves” that must be aimed with laser focus on white America.

In schools, black and brown children are disproportionately targeted and punished for the same behaviors as white children, and then in society, black and brown people suffer more inequitable treatment by police and the judicial system.

As Thomas Rudd explains about school discipline:

Contrary to the prevailing assumption that African American boys are just getting “what they deserve” when they are disciplined, research shows that these boys do not “act out” in the classroom any more than their White peers.

For example, in a study conducted by the Indiana Education Policy Center, researchers conclude that:

“Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline (Skiba, 2000).”

And the ACLU reports: “Staggering Racial Bias: Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details that policing and the judicial system routinely practices inequitable targeting, convicting, and sentencing along racial lines for the same behaviors—blacks disproportionately suffering for acts no different than whites.

This begins in our schools because the white power structure cannot or will not see the bias in order to eradicate it.

The seeds of the wider post-truth U.S. have been sown by the white “rigid refusal” to admit and then confront the racism that continues to fester in the country.

This is old fake news, but as the posts on the EdWeek commentary reveal, racists respond to facts about racism by calling the messenger a racist. That’s the nastiest fake news there is, especially when it is coming in a publication about the education of our children—the first victims of racism, the most powerless victims of racism.


See Also

Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline: Implicit Bias is Heavily Implicated, Thomas Rudd

The War on Marijuana in Black and White (ACLU, 2013)

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

“We Teach English” Revisited

At times quaint and oddly misguided but unflinchingly confrontational and assertive—the signature tone of her work—Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English (1951) was a rare book-length text over her 65 years as an educator.

While this text for teachers of ELA/English never garnered the status of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (LaBrant and Rosenblatt were colleagues at NYU), both works represent a long history of trying to coral the field of ELA/English teaching.

A recent conversation and debate on NCTE’s Connected Community about teaching whole-class, assigned novels has reminded me of the enduring tensions of what it means to teach ELA/English—tensions that span K-12 grade levels as well as being grounded in responsibilities to student needs and interests, the field or discipline of English, and literacy broadly.

Historically and then magnified during the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, ELA/English has shared with math demands and expectations that are not as pronounced in other disciplines; despite the limitations and problems with the terms, I characterize those demands as addressing disciplinary knowledge (or content) and literacy skills.

Our disciplinary knowledge obligations rest with the compulsion to cover established content, such as identifying the parts of speech, analyzing the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, or explaining the key ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as American Transcendentalism.

Literacy skills comprise reading, writing, speaking, and listening—how we as humans navigate the world through literacy. Some see these skills as a different way to think about content, skills such as comprehension, predicting, narration, and persuasion.

At best, these obligations can and possibly should work in tandem. When we teach a poem, Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” for example, we are introducing students to key content about American literature and the Harlem Renaissance while also teaching them about the elements poetry, reading skills (such as analysis), and reading like a writer so they can transfer those rhetorical and literary strategies into their own writing.

Let me pause here to stress that at all levels from K-12, this is a damn high bar for any teacher. It takes a great deal of time and expertise to learn to manage all that effectively.

At worst, these obligations become professional and disciplinary battles—ones waged among practitioners often at the expense of students we should be serving.

We must teach phonics, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to read?

We must teach grammar, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to write?

Everyone must read The Great Gatsby, but what if that requirement creates nonreaders?

When we form ideological camps about disciplinary knowledge or literacy, we often fail both our field of ELA/English and students.

We teach English means something extremely complex and difficult, something that in fact may be too much to expect of any teacher.

But this is what we do, this is who we are.

If we return to the debate and discussion about teaching whole-class novels, we are revisiting an enduring debate that captures exactly what teaching English means.

To resolve that debate, I believe, we must remain focused on our students, and not on whether or not we address either area of demands in our field.

It is not a simple way to resolve the questions, but it is rather simple: When we attend to either disciplinary knowledge (and we should) or literacy skills (and we must), what are the consequences of those lessons in the evidence of learning by our students?

If we require our students to read Charles Dickens, and many do not read because they dislike the work, and many begin or continue the journey to being a nonreader, then we have failed dramatically any obligations as teachers of ELA/English.

If a whole-class unit on Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games becomes a vibrant adventure in the novel and literacy, and most if not all read the novel, if several become hooked on literature, then we have accomplished everything that can be expected of teaching ELA/English.

In terms of both student reading and writing, there are decades of evidence that show how student choice in what they read and write is most effective in both fostering disciplinary knowledge (because they actually read and write) and literacy skills as well as literacy engagement (because they become eager to read and write).

But we as teachers of ELA/English are confronted with the essential problem beneath the call for student choice: students must have acquired some disciplinary and skills knowledge and proficiencies in order to make those choices.

If we can keep a critical eye on the outcomes of the instructional decisions we make—if we can resist dogged commitments to ideologies—then we can make informed choices about what best serves our students in terms of both what disciplinary knowledge they acquire and whether or not they develop as proficient and eager readers and writers.

Staying big picture is important—always asking what we are trying to accomplish with students and then paying close attention to what our students show us we are teaching.

In 2004, Donald Graves looked over his career seeking ways to teach students writing; he offered some enduring ideas about “what remains the same”:

The following fundamentals have remained unchanged in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  1. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  1. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  1. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  1. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way, the children witness their teacher’s thinking
  2. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation. (Language Arts, Vol. 82 No. 2, November 2004)

In the same way as the debate over whole-class novel instruction, if we view Graves’s fundamentals as strict rules and teach to these rules—instead of to how we are fostering students as writers—we become lost, and we likely fail.

So, yes, students choosing what they read, especially something as daunting as a novel, is a fundamental, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the possibility of whole-class novels.

To answer any instructional questions, then, as a teacher of ELA/English is in our students, not our obligations to disciplinary knowledge or literacy skills—and especially not in covering the mandated standards or preparing students for high-stakes tests.

The questions are worthy of discussion and debate among teachers of ELA/English, but ultimately we must each answer them with each unique group of students we teach.

When faced with the debates and questions about teaching ELA/English, LaBrant could be harsh and demanding—often seeming to teeter on the edge of, if not crossing over into, prescription. However, what LaBrant was demanding about in terms of “we teach English” is not that we follow her rules, or any rules, but that we remain committed to our students and their journeys in both literature and literacy.

During war, in 1942, LaBrant became frustrated with national concerns about literacy:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem.

Sound familiar?

LaBrant argued against what became a recurring political and public hand wringing about a reading crisis:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more.

Here and for over six decades, LaBrant was a champion of the we who teach English but in the name of those students we teach, especially the most vulnerable students.

To that end, when we teach English, we teach students.

And there is where our commitments must lie.

Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

As a first-year English teacher, I joined the department of the high school where I had graduated only five years earlier, becoming a colleague with teachers who had taught me. That introduction to the field allowed me behind the curtain, and one of those secrets was being handed a sheet that detailed every grammar and mechanics error students were likely to make in their writing and the amount of points to be deducted from their grade (writing was assigned the traditional content/grammar grade then).

One fragment, by the way, was an immediate deduction that resulted in an F in grammar.

This was department policy, and my efforts to navigate that system were akin to Sisyphus, his rock, and that damned mountain.

Since then, well over thirty years ago, I have become a non-grader, but I also have investigated and adopted concepts about grading (since we all at some point must grade) that I believe are incredibly important in the context of seeing grading (and feedback) as a part of instruction—and not something we do to students and their work after we teach.

A  teacher recently asked on NCTE’s Connected Community about subtracting points for grammar in student writing, and this is an ideal entry point to rethink how grading (especially of writing) sends instructional messages to our students.

My first caution is about a serious flaw with traditional grading that is grounded in viewing assessment situations in a deficit model whereby we have students start with an unearned 100 points from which we subtract credit by identifying errors. This fosters an atmosphere of risk aversion—which is not a healthy environment for developing literacy.

Specifically when teaching writing, we must abandon the “error hunt” (see Weaver, et al., and Lois Matz Rosen).

Therefore, we can send a much healthier message about student performances of learning if we acknowledge that students begin all assessment situations with zero and then give them credit for what they accomplish, what the artifact of learning demonstrates—and not where they fail.

I learned this concept of grading through my Advanced Placement training that encourages viewing writing holistically and then reading for what students do, not conducting the “error hunt.”

Conceptually, then, we must change our language and then couch our grading in a drafting process that gives students the space to take risks while receiving ample feedback as they revise and edit their writing.

Our language about writing must stop referring to “mistakes” and “errors,” while also not asking students to “correct” their work.

Instead, we should delay addressing if our students are being conventional (grammar, mechanics, and usage) until late in the drafting process when we can agree a piece of writing is worth editing (see LaBrant). The question is not if and how much to deduct for surface features not being conventional, but when to consider those issues relevant to the drafting of the piece of writing.

Our feedback during the drafting process is our instruction, and then, most of us at some point must abandon each assignment, requiring that we assign a grade, an act that also is teaching students lessons—ones that should match our philosophy of teaching/learning as well as what we want them to embrace about writing and literacy.

Here, I recommend that we take a holistic approach (I love the upper-half, lower-half concepts of the AP 9-point scale rubric*), but I also believe we should help students learn that all aspects of writing contribute to that holistic response.

The two categories we should be using to grade writing, I think, are revision (if and how students demonstrate content, organization, diction, style) and editing (grammar, mechanics, and usage). When I have graded, I weighted those categories to reflect my main lessons about what makes writing effective by using a 20-point scale articulated as 10 points for content and organization, 5 points for diction and style, and 5 points for grammar, mechanics, and usage.

In all assessment, we should be seeking ways in which grading is both philosophically matched with our instruction and a seamless aspect of our instruction.

If you are teaching students writing quality is holistic and that surface features are less significant to meaning than content, organization, and diction/style, then calculating a grade based on deducting points for errors contradicts (and probably supersedes) your lessons.

Therefore, reducing the grading of writing by students to a set of points to be deducted fails as assessment and instruction.

While most teachers have no real option to de-grade the classroom, we can step back from deficit views of student work and grading in order to embrace grading and instructional practices that create positive learning environments (where risk is encouraged) and celebrate what our students accomplish in their journey as readers, writers, and thinkers.


* The process for scoring a written response to an AP Literature prompt includes thinking in terms of a range of scores 9-8, 7-6, 5, 4-3, 2-1. Above 5 is upper half, and below, lower half. As you read, you are constantly monitoring holistically if you believe the essay is upper or lower by focusing on in what ways the student is fulfilling the expectations of the prompt and remaining accurate in the analysis of the literature being discussed. Typically, that process allows the reader to return to the rubric to refine the grade after completing the essay. If you know the response is upper half but only marginally so, then returning to the 7 and 6 rubric descriptors help refine the final score.

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

On the NCTE Connected Community a student teacher asked about teaching students to integrate quotes and evidence into their writing.

Although a direct and specific question, there is a great deal to unpack here.

First, my 18-year career as a high school English teacher as well as my current 15 years as an English educator and first-year writing professor has revealed to me that most teachers of high school ELA have much better preparation for teaching literature than for teaching writing.

Next, my first-year writing students show me the consequences of how writing is taught at the high school level, primarily as the responsibility of ELA teachers.

In order, then, to answer this question from a student teacher, we need to explore writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

Problem 1 embedded in this question is that direct instruction of writing remains primarily the responsibility of English/ELA teachers, who also have disciplinary responsibilities as teachers. This means ELA teachers must address literacy skills (reading and writing as well as speaking and listening) while also covering literature content.

And thus, problem 2 with the question is that it reveals how problem 1 creates muddled teaching and learning for students in high school ELA classes, a failure to distinguish between writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

As a first-year writing professor, I have to unteach the muddled learning that my students bring to college from high school—misconceptions student have about citation (from learning MLA instead of broad and discipline-based concepts about finding and using sources) as well as about writing essays (grounded in disproportionately having written literary analysis and being bound to templates such as the five-paragraph essay).

What, then, should high school ELA teachers do in the context of the student teacher’s question?

Start by being more explicit with students about both the broad qualities of effective writing paired with the narrow conventions of effective writing bound by form and disciplinary expectations.

At the high school and college levels, most writing instruction and assignments are grounded in non-fiction essays, and disciplinary essay writing involves making claims along with providing evidence to support those claims.

Writing assignments, then, at the high school level are far more effective for fostering students as writers and preparing them for college when those assignments are discipline-based, and not merely prompts fitted into templates.

Teaching writing in high school must include a wide range of writing opportunities (not just literary analysis) that help students learn broad concepts of effective writing (such as those in Style). But high school ELA teachers also must continue to teach their discipline—how scholars both read and write about literature.

This means that before we can teach students how to integrate quotes into their writing, we must address in what contexts quotes are appropriate types of evidence.

A writing lesson and assignment addressing disciplinary writing begins by examining the conventions of the disciplines.

When do writers use direct quotes? For students, essays that require quotes to support claims may be common in English and history, for example, when the topic of the essay includes textual analysis of both what the text expresses and how the ideas are constructed in the primary text.

A literary analysis of color imagery in a poem requires a writer to quote from the poem to show both the use of color imagery and how that technique creates some meaning for the reader.

However, in the social sciences, essays often are not about primary texts but about ideas, research findings, and students, like scholars, are tasked with showing that the claims of the essay are supported by a substantial number of sources. Quoting from a single source is not a powerful approach, but synthesizing ideas from several credible sources is.

In both situations, claims are supported by evidence, but the type of essay and the discipline within which the essay is constructed both drive how students would choose evidence and then incorporate that evidence into their original essay.

This sort of discipline-based approach to how we assign and teach writing should inform lessons on citation also; MLA or APA use is a question of discipline, not something assigned (arbitrarily) by a teacher.

Once students are aware of the conventions of essays forms and disciplines, we can then address the narrow concerns of the student teacher—the grammatical and stylistic concerns associated with integrating quotes and other forms of evidence into essays.

In the writing text I wrote and used with my high school students, I highlighted some key concerns about integrating quotes*:

  • When quoting or paraphrasing/synthesizing from sources, writers have an ethical obligation to  represent accurately and fairly the original texts; avoid cherry picking and manipulating quotes/ideas to fit an agenda or claim.
  • Quotes must be integrated while maintaining traditional grammatical and syntactical structures; therefore, using ellipsis, brackets, or other mechanics to shape the quote to match grammatically a sentence is necessary and appropriate if those structures do not change the meaning of the original text.
  • Cut-and-paste quoting—and overuse of block quotes—should be avoided since these are typical of underdeveloped or immature writing.
  • Weaving smaller portions of quoted material into original sentences is typically more effective and reflects a more mature writing style.
  • Using source author/primary text author names with quoted material can be a feature of some disciplinary writing. Care must be taken with those attributions, however. The author of fiction, drama, or poetry may be inappropriate as a tag if a character/speaker is being quoted (Polonius, not Shakespeare, pontificates on brevity and wit); if quoting from a non-fiction essay, then the writer as a tag is appropriate. In the social sciences, the names of the researchers and the titles of the research are typically not addressed in the flow of the essay since the findings of the research are more important than who wrote it.

And with this last point, we come back to how we can better address writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

My college students typically have a one-size-fits-all approach to writing (thinking as students but not as writers or scholars) grounded in MLA and literary analysis; therefore, when they write, for example, in an education course using APA, they struggle with announcing every source in the flow of the essay (not typical in the social sciences) and tend to plod through each source one at a time without a sense of synthesizing the key findings in a body of research.

These symptoms reflect a lack of understanding about writing in the disciplines.

Finally, let me end here with a few additional thoughts.

Preservice and inservice teachers of ELA/English deserve much better preparation and support as teachers of writing, and laying all or most of the responsibility for teaching writing at the feet of ELA/English teachers is a tremendous disservice to them and students.

We all must work to address those problems, but in the mean time, teaching writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines can be handled with much more care and nuance so that students are served well as developing writers and thinkers while also being better prepared for the expectations of college.


* See also Using Source Material Effectively (Temple University)

 

A Good Man Is (Still) Hard to Find

The jewel of an ending in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is nearly as complex as the story itself: “‘Shut up, Bobby Lee,’ The Misfit said. ‘It’s no real pleasure in life.'”

O’Connor, although trapped in the sexist language of “man” meaning “human,” forces readers to consider just who is “good”: Red Sammy Butts must be since he is a veteran, but can The Misfit, murderous and philosophical, be good as well?

The essential question of human goodness interrogated and confronted in O’Connor’s dark and brilliant gem of a short story has been the moral dilemma of my life—a dilemma I have not unknotted in more than 56 years of trying.

The seminal person of that dilemma was my high school’s football coach and athletic director, with whom I would also work when I became a teacher and coach not many years after graduating from that school. He was and continues to be revered as a “good” man although I witnessed as a student and then a teacher that virtually everything afforded the label of “good” with him was veneer.

Like many coaches, he hid behind a suit and tie as well as platitudes about character and hard work; he also hid behind being a “family man” and a church-going Christian.

These are all powerful armor in the South for a certain segment of so-called professional white men.

Although I am skeptical, I hope we may have lost our innocence since the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky abuse of such sacred trusts has been exposed.

But this isn’t just about the racism and hypocrisy that is rampant in big time scholastic and professional sports.

This is about the widespread evil that is white and affluent men in suits with nice hair cuts who hold positions of power all across the U.S.—notably, but not exclusively, in our government.

This is about many of them being Republicans who constantly hold up the God and family shields.

Conservative media pundits and the Ronald-Reagan Republicans have always bothered me in the same way that I have never been comfortable with the hypocrisy surrounding that high school coach.

With the rise of Trump, this discomfort has been intensified beyond expectations.

So as I have been mulling how friends and colleagues have been reaching out to our state’s Republican leaders, several people shared on social media Experts in the Field by Bonnie Nadzam—detailing the predatory patterns of older male writers and the women they’ve abused.

Nazdam’s expose has prompted many other women writers to speak out as well.

“A former teacher and I were discussing these things last week—how the hierarchies of power in the creative writing world resemble the hierarchies of power in Washington,” Nazdam admits.

And so I am nearly paralyzed with what to do with all this as we sit in the U.S. where Donald Trump was elected president, received a majority of votes from white women, despite his horrific and very public record of being the sort of sexual predator that disqualifies him from any position of power or any consideration for being a “good” man.

I am most disturbed, however, by something tangential to Trump, about whom there are calls not to normalize him: We continue to allow so-called mainstream Republicans—smiling, well coiffed, donning expensive suits and ties—to be afforded the mantle of “good,” to be treated with civility and deference, despite their bigoted comments and the inequitable policies they endorse and implement.

Having raised a daughter, an only child, and now regularly providing daycare for a granddaughter, my navigating the world as a man, a white man with considerable privilege, weighs considerably on my conscience.

I carry to this day the guilt I felt as a very young person when I learned about the male gaze—ultimately having to confront my being complicit in that culture and seeking ways to disentangle myself from both that gaze and the larger contexts of rape culture and objectifying women.

These formative years developed along with and after I was strongly immersed in superhero comic books and science fiction—both of which reflected and perpetuated the worst of these phenomena.

As a friend, companion, parent, grandparent, teacher, coach—I have always struggled with whether or not I have fulfilled my own obligations for being “good.” And that concern is often grounded in the sanctity and dignity of the females in my personal and professional lives.

I fear I have failed too often, recognizing good intentions are not enough.

Although I have not solved my essential moral dilemma about what it means to be “good,” I do know a really powerful way to investigate that question: How does someone treat those over whom he/she has power or prestige? How does someone use her/his power in the context of how it affects her/him and then other people?

Obamacare, while terribly inadequate, sought ways to expand healthcare while the proposed Trumpcare has been unmasked for potentially reducing who is covered and transferring tax breaks to the wealthy (and under either, of course, politicians making the rules and their families have the best of healthcare).

And thus, this is a test that Trump and his Republican minions fail—repeatedly.

“We each have a function and role in this culture, whether we acknowledge and are aware of and embrace it or not,” Nazdam argues, concluding: “Whatever your role or roles, at least be aware of your platform and responsibility….[I]n the current environment, it seems radical resistance may be as simple as noticing the truth.”

Therefore, I cannot and will not participate in or tolerate any more the charade that is treating Republican political leaders as if they are “good men” while saying and doing the awful and dehumanizing things they say and do every day.

A good man is (still) hard to find, and we certainly are wasting our time even trying in the Republican Party.