How to Avoid the Tyranny of the Lesson Plan: Planning Less to Teach Better

woman holding marker

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

My journey to becoming a certified high school English teacher occurred during the early 1980s. My methods course work was solidly grounded in an era obsessed with behavioral objectives and highly detailed lesson plans.

This approach to preparing to teach centered content acquisition and the authority of the teacher. In many respects, I was trained to teach as if students didn’t even exist in the process.

I immediately entered an M.Ed. program since I graduated in December and would not find a full-time teaching position until the coming fall. Those courses further entrenched mastery learning, although I also had my first glimpse into a much broader array of educational philosophies that included reading John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and others I would eventually recognize as my own critical perspective.

Many years later, after those nearly overwhelming first years of teaching when all that philosophy and theory has to be put into some sort of practice, I was well on my way to being a student-centered and critical teacher when I had a student teacher. She was a very short black woman who taught from a script—every single lesson she taught.

I immediately thought of my initial training to teach as well as this student teacher as I was reading Christine Tulley’s How to Avoid Overprepping for Your Classes.

First, after my 18 years teaching high school, I have been working in teacher education for 17 years while also helping with providing university professors attaining and improving their writing pedagogy. In both cases, I have witnessed what Tulley confronts:

I recently consulted with a Ph.D. student who was logging long nights and weekends in her office. I knew she was trying to revise her dissertation into a book and complete a book proposal, but I soon learned that she was also using the late nights to get ready for class and “keep up” with course planning. With classes and committee work scheduled during the day, she never had time to write.

When I do classroom observations, for example, my teacher candidates feel compelled to perform, believing that “teaching” is about the lesson plan and teacher behavior (again, as if students are not present).

But it is Tulley’s next point that really sparked my memory of my student teacher from many years ago:

I often see this pattern of overpreparing among the early-career faculty members whom I mentor. Many have unwittingly fallen into what Armando Bengochea terms “the teaching trap.” Bengochea notes that such overprepping is a real problem for faculty members who suffer from impostor syndrome or use course preparation as a procrastination strategy because it sounds legitimate. They often engage in extensive lecture preparation, working to fill all available class time as a protection mechanism. The result is they have to do a time-consuming deep dive into content each week to develop lengthy lecture slides or handouts. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of faculty of color, non-native speakers, women and other marginalized populations prepare too much for the classes they teach.

Even though I now work at a selective university with students often benefitting from a great deal of privilege, my teacher candidates are often young women, several of whom struggle against being small in stature or “looking young.”

Tulley has prodded me to understand better why I have struggled for years to help my teacher candidates understand, and practice, a key distinction I make about teaching: Teaching is not about meticulous and detailed lesson plans but about being prepared every day you enter a classroom.

In some significant ways, I am here once again addressing that teachers need both pedagogy and expertise. The urge to hyper-plan—my student teacher who scripted every lesson—is often a self-defense mechanism, but it is one that is counter to our goals as educators.

I want here to examine briefly how to avoid the tyranny of lesson plans while also building on and pushing against Tulley’s alternative to “overprepping”:

Pattern teaching is a solution I regularly offer to faculty members who seek parameters on preparing for courses efficiently and effectively. The premise is simple and not revolutionary: develop a regular pattern or structure to the class. Often instructors create such a pattern (the first 15 minutes are used to review homework, group work is always done on Wednesdays and so on) for their students’ benefit. But pattern teaching can also influence how content is delivered, making it a useful strategy for streamline course preparation.

One nuance I would offer to Tulley’s ideas is that teachers should distinguish between planning (what we should decrease) and being prepared (an ongoing state of gaining both more effective pedagogy and greater expertise).

While I am not opposed to “pattern teaching,” I have adopted a different language cultivated in my years teaching for the Spartanburg Writing Project. We used the metaphor of writing teachers building and expanding their “teaching toolbox.”

That toolbox would be available so that daily teaching did not need to be scripted or meticulously planned. Teaching in a frame structure (for example, the writing or reading workshop guided by elements similar to Tulley’s patterns) allowed the teacher to pick and choose among the tools to apply as needed in the flow, spontaneously, of teaching.

Finally, here let me offer a few different ways of thinking about being prepared to teach daily instead of planning:

  • Create a syllabus/daily schedule and each lesson plan as tentative frames, not “that which you must execute.” The key here is that when any teacher spends an inordinate amount of time planning schedules and lesson plans, they feel compelled to follow through on that plan regardless of how it works, or doesn’t, in practice. Syllabi, daily schedules, and daily lesson plans should provide some organization and structure, but they are not exhaustive or fixed.
  • Rethink what counts as preparing to teach. Preparing to teach includes a teacher’s time spent being a student themselves, reading, researching, thinking, discussing with other teachers, etc. While Tulley recognizes many young professors lament so much time planning as a distraction from doing scholarship, I would argue all teachers at every level are preparing to teach by being scholarly; the two must not be in conflict, in other words.
  • Consider first and foremost what students will be doing in daily lesson plans. As I have noted above, too often teaching and planning to teach remain focused on teacher behaviors. The key, I think, to avoiding the tyranny of the lesson plan is to recognize that the essence of learning is student behavior, students being actively engaged in behaviors the teacher fosters and negotiates, but does not orchestrate.
  • Seek ways to build self-confidence by always being a student of how to teach and the content of courses being taught. Teaching is a state of constant learning and growing. That process occurs outside the classroom, but also in the classroom every day. Our teaching goal is to become adept at improv, not playing a role.
  • Resist the allure of being a martyr. Teaching has an unhealthy culture that includes who can make the best case about their martyrdom—lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or posting on Facebook about hours and hours spent planning and grading. There is clearly something compelling about this, but I believe it is ultimately not personally or professionally healthy.

I certainly understand why beginning teachers at all levels are drawn to over-planning, even scripting daily lessons. But I also recognize that this urge has more to do with matters not related to teaching and learning.

The lesson plan outlined down to the exact minute and governed by the teacher may leave no space for problems or look effective and efficient to anyone watching the play work out. What is sacrificed, I am certain, is student engagement and that teacher’s emotional reserves. This is not sustainable.

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty.

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The King’s English, Social Media, and the Digital Era

Jeff Somers poses about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Collective cultural memory suggests Fahrenheit 451 is about censoring books…. But dig deeper into Bradbury’s own discussions about his novel (and carefully reread the text) and you’ll see the author was really obsessed with the encroachment of technology, especially television, on the tradition of the written word. Bradbury positions the burning of books as a symptom of what’s happened to society, not the cause—he’s much more interested in the erosion of critical thought and imagination caused by society’s consumption of media.

This argument frames the dystopian novel as a powerful and prescient commentary on the nature and status of language in our current era of social media (Twitter, etc.) and digital text (from Kindle to the Internet).

Bradbury explained that his novel is about “”being turned into morons by TV.”

Even as some wring their hands about the death of print, we mostly in 2019 take that print for granted, rarely, I think, considering the importance of the printing press to the development of humanity, and even thought itself.

The importance of fixed language, or the possibility of fixed language, began with the printing press, and then Bradbury imagined a logical conclusion well past his lifetime—one in which other forms of technology dwarfed communication as print did.

At the end of the novel, readers discover that people have memorized books, becoming organic, living Kindles, of sorts, to preserve the fixed nature of language. Before print, narratives flourished in oral forms, the tellings and retellings perpetuating and changing those narratives along the way.

I suspect the sky is not falling in terms of print text now because I recall while teaching high school English that the same sort of doom’s day warnings sprang up in the era of MTV and music videos. Videos, some warned, would not just kill the radio star, but were going to kill print.

English teachers were urged to pivot away from so much focus on print text, writing, and toward video communication; watching was the new literacy. Unlike Bradbury, these fear merchants failed to anticipate messaging over computers, the growth of email, and the advent of text messaging on smart phones and social media—all of which reshaped and propelled the importance of keyboarding and text (even as much of that is virtual).

The world shifted rather quickly away from music videos (MTV morphed into reality TV), toward cell phones with miniature keyboards (think BlackBerry), and then touchscreen cell phones with integrated keyboards (even the iPad has bowed to the market popularity of having a keyboard).

Print—fixed language—is an enduring aspect of human communication, and humanity itself, it seems. But the printing press and making language somewhat permanent resulted in another often ignored development—the rise of prescriptive rules for language (grammar, mechanics, spelling, and even style).

The rise of what many call simply “grammar books” because of their use in formal schooling reveals more about power than language itself. Proper use of language in English once carried the term “the King’s English.” It is there we should pause for a moment.

Linguistics professor John McWhorter has leveled a critique of Donald Trump, not so much for his presidential politics as for his language, notably on Twitter.

“The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences,” McWhorter begins before cataloguing a pretty hefty list of Trump’s unusual uses of language on social media—odd capitalization, garbled spelling (apparently not copyedited by anyone), and typos.

From that evidence, McWhorter proclaims: “Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.”

While some may find—as I do—McWhorter’s critique linguistically prudish, the stale prescriptivist rant, he makes two important, although complex, points: “Trump’s writing suggests not just inadequate manners or polish—not all of us need be dainty—but inadequate thought” and “One must not automatically equate sloppy spelling with sloppy thinking.”

I fear many people will not read McWhorter’s analysis as carefully as he intended, so I want to emphasize his use of “suggests” and “not automatically.”

Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings played thoughtfully with capitalization and lower case letters. William Shakespeare manufactured quite a few words.

While there certainly is a case to be made for standardizing language to aid communication, the automatic and abrupt association of so-called nonstandard language in print form with “inadequate thought” is very dangerous.

If we return to the rise of “the King’s English,” we must be reminded that prescribing rules was far more often about power than the linguistic integrity of any language. Early grammar texts for English imposed (without any real linguistic justification) mathematical concepts onto language (no double negatives!) and wrestled English into Latin constructs (do not split infinitives!) because English was viewed as inferior as a language.

But even more important in that process is that “the King’s English” was mostly an effort to fix, make permanent, the ruling class’s language, one honed through formal education and in the privileged context of access to print text (which was incredibly expensive). Literacy was a wedge among the so-called classes, notably a mechanism used to leverage power in the balance of those already in power.

There is more to the politics of “the King’s English” also; the direct connection between the so-called use of proper English and moral character. The earliest cases for correct use of language was an argument that proper language reflected a person of high moral character as well as the inverse. Of course, this was gross propaganda to portray the ruling class as deserving their privilege and the poor as deserving their poverty.

So I am left with a predicament in terms of McWhorter’s analysis of Trump’s use of language, especially as Trump represents the state of language in an era of social media and digital text.

I am not buying McWhorter’s prescriptivist bent even as I recognize we must critique and then reject “Trump’s serial misuse of public language” as an issue of dishonesty and “inadequate thought.”

If Trump himself or someone on his staff suddenly found the impetus to copyedit Trump’s public rants on Twitter and elsewhere, that would in no way abdicate Trump’s lies and abuse of status and power.

To nitpick about Trump’s so-called correctness in matters of mechanics, grammar, and style is too much like those concerned with Trump’s ill-fitting suits and his god-awful hair and orange skin-glow.

Trump ascended to the highest office in a free country, mainly as a careless business man and reality TV star—more bravado than anything else.

There’s too much of substance we must be confronting instead of the surface where he has flourished.

Playing grammar Nazi with Trump’s Tweets is a simplistic distraction from the very real threat of Nazis in 2019 America.

Nero fiddled, Trump (more reality TV star than business man) Tweets (badly). But, you know, the fires.

Charter Schools Fail SC: A Reader

Nationally, momentum has been building toward political and public recognition that the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s has fallen well short of promises. This failure was identified throughout the accountability era by educators and scholars, of course, but political leaders and the public chose to ignore those with experience and expertise in their own field.

The problem with the reform movement included a refusal to acknowledge the primary problems in our public schools—overwhelming poverty and inequity of opportunity along social class and racial lines—and ideological commitments to the accountability paradigm (standards and high-stakes testing as well as focusing on so-called teacher quality) despite that solution in no way matching those ignored problems.

A subset of that movement has been the rise of charter schools, which served to bridge a political divide between school choice advocates on the right and public school advocates on the left. Charter schools are touted as public schools, but they also are driven by many elements (the worse kinds) of market forces.

Even with charter school popularity, they constitute a very small percentage of schooling in the U.S. (data from Education Week):

  • Traditional public schools: 91,422 (2015-16, Source)
  • Public charter schools: 6,855 (2015-16, Source)
  • Private schools: 34,576 (2015-16, Source)

And thus: “According to data from three years earlier2.8 million public school students, or 5.7 percent, are in charter schools.”

Here is what we know about charter schools, then, messages repeated by educators and scholars for many years. Charter schools do not outperform public schools because they are charter schools (just as private schools do no outperform public schools).

When charter schools claim to outperform public schools, the reasons often lie in serving different populations (notably concerning ELL and special needs students), having the ability to select or counsel out students, and other policies and practices that public schools often cannot or do not implement (longer school days and years, for example).

Charter schools, like all school choice, contribute heavily to segregation—one of the serious problems lingering in public schools today.

Recent reporting at the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) may suggest the tide is also turning against charter school advocacy trumping evidence:

This media recognition matches messages I have been sending for many years, including damning analysis that charter schools in SC mostly perform the same or worse than comparable public schools:

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

Here, then, is a reader to further reinforce how charter schools fail SC, particularly in terms of re-segregating a system long-plagued by race and class inequity:


See Also

Challenging the market logic of school choice: A spatial analysis of charter school expansion in Chicago, Stephanie Farmer, Chris D. Poulos, and Ashley Baber

ABSTRACT

Corporate education reformers take for granted that market competition in the public schools system will improve education conditions. We conducted a spatial analysis of Chicago Public Schools, examining the spatial features of charter school expansion in relation to under-18 population decline, school utilization, and school closure locations. Our findings indicate that 69% of new charter schools were opened in areas with significantly declining under-18 population and approximately 80% of charter schools were opened within walking distance of closed school locations. Our findings show, contrary to corporate education reform logic, that a competitive charter school market created spatial and financial inefficiencies resulting in school closures and systemwide budgetary cuts primarily impacting distressed neighborhoods. We explain the overproduction of charter schools through the lens of the firm-like behavior of charter school operators driven by a self-interested growth mandate that can undermine the stability of the public schools system as a whole.

Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

& how the last
time I saw you

“Maps,” Yesenia Montilla

wareshoals

My nephew Steven found this yearbook picture of my mother, Rose (circled), from Ware Shoals High (South Carolina).

Mid-afternoon on 7 January 2019, my oldest nephew Steven (on my side of the family, we call him Tommy) texted that he needed to meet with my middle nephew, Kendall, and me. He had checks and forms for each of us to sign.

This was the final probate meeting for my mother’s and father’s estate—although having grown up working-class, I find that term more than misleading.

None of us anticipated what eventually transpired that afternoon: The probate court transferred all of my father’s matters (he died several months before my mother) to my mother, and then her probate was settled with their will dispersed as they planned.

Pressed for time, I met Steven (Tommy) in the parking lot of Best Buy just 10 minutes or so from my house. We hugged, and he handed me a check and the form I had to sign as well as find someone to witness the transaction.

Steven had medical power-of-attorney and was the executor of the will so he wasn’t allowed to sign the form, which in legalese confirmed that I was receiving my share of the will, all of my mom’s accounts and such having been fairly and fully disclosed.

My nephew offered to let me see anything if I was concerned, although he had meticulously shared every possible detail and artifact throughout the long, arduous process over the year-plus since my mother died of stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after she suffered a debilitating stroke.

I waved him off and said simply, “I trust you.”

And I do. He is a good and careful person, especially when it comes to my parents, his grandparents, and like my other two nephews, he loved my parents genuinely, more like parents than grandparents.

Since my parents raised those three grandchildren, my nephews split equally with me the remnants of my parents’ lives. There are some messy and uncomfortable details underneath that, but in the end, my parents made the consequences of their deaths about as simple and direct as possible. And anyone who could quibble chose not to do so.

On a Monday afternoon in January—the birth month of my father and me as well as the month my parents were married—those remnants were quartered after about 13 months of the state (in this case, South Carolina) prolonging the end of their lives by keeping their estate open to the public for anyone wishing to make a claim against it.

So I deposited the check and I signed the form, asking a staff person in my department to sign as a witness to the obvious fact that I am well aware of what now constitutes my parents’ lives.

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Over the Xmas holiday break, I sat with a few friends at a favorite taproom watching Hoarders. I am not a fan of reality TV, and this show in particular makes me very uncomfortable.

I am beyond skeptical about capitalism and consumerism; I also have an unhealthy (but functioning) dose of OCD, enough to understand hoarding (I am a collector, the socially acceptable form of hoarding), to empathize with being victim of ones own compulsions.

Several episodes ran as we talked, watched, and drank beer throughout the afternoon. Yes, I found myself mesmerized, equal parts fascinated and horrified at these lives swallowed in mountains of acquired stuff that both defined and paralyzed these people.

Episode after episode documented the inevitable: What hoarders had deemed essential—that which they could not part with—was ultimately tossed by volunteers wearing gloves, protective suits, and face masks into large waste dumpsters.

This past summer, it took some coaxing, but my nephews and I eventually rented a waste dumpster, dragging and tossing a huge portion of my parents’ lives into it sitting ominously in their driveway. Their precious house had to be emptied so that we could sell it.

My parents’ lives reduced to trash for the landfill and then 4 checks as detailed by their will—the final material, financial, and legal remnants of two lives lived until they died followed by the state mandating another year before their deaths could be officially over.

Death takes a lifetime, and then a year.

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The final check I received was a bit more than I had expected. I now contemplate what to do with the money, in some ways wondering what last ways I could make gestures that would please my parents if they could witness the scattering of their lives like my mom’s ashes we spread at Myrtle Beach.

Those dollars and her ashes, in fact, haunt me as I weigh them against two people’s lives and their living bodies. The balance is disturbingly out of kilter.

My mom just an oddly dense box of ashes. My parents’ entire lives just 4 checks spread among checking accounts as so much electronic data.

It all feels very heavy. It all numbs me with the unbearable lightness of being.

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Several years ago, when I came to my university, first-year students were assigned a common book to read over the summer before entering college. Once the selection was Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson.

While several colleagues gushed over the memoir, I found myself mostly irritated, at the gushing itself but also the book. My problem was grounded in not finding anything remarkable about Tyson’s experiences because it was a South I knew first-hand and lives I found familiar.

But it was also a collection of experiences I was still trying to move beyond—if not understand and reconcile with my current self in some way.

I have little patience with poor and working-class white-folk narratives. I am particularly critical of the Othering of rednecks from the South—like exotic zoo animals or museum displays.

It is not as though, I want to yell, that I used to be that redneck. I am that redneck.

I just have a doctorate. I am allowed to live my life in the mostly rarified air of academia. Unlike my father who could barely raise his arms because of his arthritic shoulders.

In fact, you could see my father’s life of manual labor in his giant gnarled hands and fingers, in the stooped, shuffling man sitting in a wheel chair the day he died beside my mother, him simply needing to go to the bathroom.

Writing about the most recent poor-white-folk memoir, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg argues:

The book’s cascading errors begin with its failure to appreciate how exceptional Appalachian white history and culture actually are, and how dangerous it is to equate Vance’s hillbillies with today’s white working class. Yet that is the equation Vance makes at the very beginning of his memoir.

I think I have loathed Vance’s thinly masked conservative screed far more than Tyson’s romanticizing because I am a few years older and I have weathered the actual demise of the embodiments of my struggling—my parents who I have loved deeply while also having to recognize them for all their very troubling flaws.

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Things pass, like all humans.

Some times we feel things deeply, too much, and we let ourselves cry, or laugh, or even shout.

But the human machine cannot maintain that level of response to this world. It’s just too much to care all the time.

Some of my friends, after watching Hoarders, wanted to rush home and purge. At least one did. But all of us, given a few days, simply went back to consuming, the sort of socially acceptable collecting that makes us fully human in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Mom and Dad—because my nephews and I decided to reduce their home, our home, to money—left behind that which allows me to consume, buy more stuff. The allure is goddam powerful.

Turn a small portion of my parents’ house into a new bicycle or an iPhone upgrade.

I am lost in this and the realization we are merely human, doing the best we can even though that often falls quite short:

Death takes a lifetime, and then a year.

When Ideology Trumps Evidence, Expertise

How do humans know the world? That answer is very complex, of course, but each of us begins understanding the world through our senses.

At the most basic level, we can explain “knowing the world” as an on-going interaction between our genetics and the experiences we gather from that world through our senses. As we mature, particularly as our brain develops, and thus our ability to use cognition (thinking), we are more able to think through our sensory perceptions (slow down and even change our responses) than merely react.

This dynamic is incredibly important as we try to understand the distinction between correlation and cause. Humans, however, are hostages to ancient evolutionary impulses that often contributed to our survival; in other words, in the earliest years of human existence, making abrupt causal assumptions (which may have often been mere correlation) were preferable to making more deliberate decisions because of the primary need simply to survive.

Contemporary humans not currently in dire environments or under the stress of poverty, oppression, or disease (for example) have the privilege of cognitive deliberation: Many of us in relatively stable and safe lives can (and should) be more careful about drawing causal or correlational conclusions, and thus, we should be far more deliberate about “knowing the world” based on more than our personal experiences and grounded in robust evidence while also resisting the allure of knowing the world through mere ideology.

In many of my courses, I ask students to consider all that by one simple thought experiment grounded in our sense of smell, “closely linked with memory.” I ask students to recall a first visit to a friend’s home and having the realization that other people’s houses smell different.

girl holding white flower covered with flower

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Many, if not most, students begin to nod and even smile, recalling the experience. I then ask them to interrogate how they reacted to the house smelling different, and we conclude that our urge is to think of the different smell as bad or wrong.

Here, I think, is a powerful example of how human experience, cognition, and ideology conspire to derail human potential.

Recently on Twitter, I joined a discussion about charter schools, specifically contentious debates about the charter chain KIPP:

Stepping back from the topic of charter schools itself and looking broadly at the nature of the advocacy for charter schools is a microcosm of the problem I noted above. Charter schools (6855) are a very small fraction of public schools (91, 422) in the U.S., and only 5.7% of students attend charter schools (see data here).

At one level, then, the public and political debate and discourse about charter schools are both disproportionate and distorted by advocacy driven by ideology and not evidence and expertise.

That dynamic is driven by a belief that charter and private schools are outperforming public schools, which have suffered under a very long history of being characterized as failing. Yet, research has shown time and again that type of schooling has no real causal relationship with so-called school quality; in short, charter, private, and public schools all have about the same outcomes when conditions of that schooling are constant.

When charter schools boast of superior outcomes, the truth lies in many factors—such as underserving significant populations of students or the ability to choose or “counsel out” students—that make a comparison with public schools misleading at best and false at worst.

The charter school phenomenon represents the problem with ideology driving public policy at the expense of evidence and expertise.

Now, as I noted, charter schools and students attending charter schools are relatively small populations, and thus in the grand scheme of funding and public policy, my discussion here may seem as disproportionate as the debate itself.

My concern is that the charter school dynamic is just one aspect of a much more insidious problem with the U.S. persisting as a belief culture, particularly in terms of the political and public faith in equity, equal opportunity, and our having reached some sort of post-racial (and post-racist) society.

If we dig deeper in the charter school debate and the persistent antagonism toward public schools, we see a powerful racial element. U.S. public schools now serve a majority-minority population of students (white students constitute 48.9%), and what we can say about charter, private, and public schools is that all types of schooling have witnessed an increase in segregation.

Beliefs about school quality must not be disentangled from beliefs about race.

Let’s place the charter school debate in how the public perceives racial equity. Blacks and whites grossly mischaracterize both historical racial inequity and current racial inequity.

As an interview with Michael Kraus details:

For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

If we allow public policy to be driven by belief, we find no political motivation for that policy addressing the realities of racial inequity:

Michael Kraus argues that these misperceptions fit conveniently with the idea of the American dream—that every individual, regardless of background, can succeed with talent and hard work. “Those beliefs can lead us astray, can lead us to not see the world for what it is. There’s a lot of work that still needs doing if our economic reality is going to match up with our narratives of opportunity.”

The irony is that believing the American Dream already exists prevents the U.S. from attaining the American Dream of racial equity.

As an educator for almost four decades now, I must share a final thought on evidence. Despite my best efforts—for example when we try to examine evolution and how the U.S. compares with international acceptance of evolution—students remain themselves resistant to setting aside their beliefs and then embracing a more accurate understanding of the world based on evidence and expertise.

From corporal punishment, to school safety, and to grade retention, when I engage students or the public, most people remain committed to their beliefs and refuse to engage with evidence while often discounting expertise.

So the really sobering reality about how we know the world is that too many of us are failing the evolutionary curve toward knowing the world based on evidence and expertise instead of imposing our ideologies onto that world.

The consequences of this are dire, especially to the most vulnerable among us.


See Related

Unlearning the Lessons of Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

English educator Lou LaBrant taught in a wide variety of contexts for 65 years while also producing a significant body of scholarship from the 1920s into the late 1980s. Her career was nearly as prodigious as her attitude.

Writing in 1931, for example, LaBrant announces: “The cause for my wrath is not new or single” (p. 245). Her “wrath” was pointedly aimed at the rise of the project method in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Projects, LaBrant noticed, began to dwarf, and even replace, time students spent on authentic literacy—students reading and writing by choice, the practices LaBrant advocated for over decades as “scientific.”

As I write this 9 decades later, project based learning (PBL) is, once again, all the rage. And from my perspective, similar to LaBrant’s, I watch as teachers and students are put in impossible teaching/learning situations all in the service of “doing PBL.”

While PBL flourishes in my home state of South Carolina, I also have witnessed throughout the past four decades a mind-numbing parade of new standards, new high-stakes tests, and new regulations and processes for certifying and evaluating teachers.

Formal teacher education and K-12 education suffer from the same problem LaBrant wrestled with her entire career—the misapplication of scientific principles in the pursuit of codifying “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

The current teacher evaluation rubric (with over 400 indicators) SC teacher educators and evaluators must navigate is disturbing proof that we have chosen The Hulk (the monster misguided science produces) over Bruce Banner (the measured scientist) in our unbridled lust to control how teachers teach and how students learn.

The Incredible Hulk showed the transformation of scientist Bruce Banner into the green monster.
The Incredible Hulk 1 (vol. 1) offers a powerful contrast between the scientist and the potential monster science can produce.

LaBrant resonates with me because I have existed in the field of education for almost 40 years now in a constant state of “wrath” because of one of the most disturbing dichotomies that define the field—the disconnect between pedagogy and expertise.

This disconnect, or false tension, is best reflected in the on-going discussions about teaching writing. To teach writing well, many of us argue, teachers must have some authentic experience and expertise in writing themselves; without that expertise, all the pedagogy one can attain is ultimately inadequate.

Expertise grounds teaching, I think, in authentic goals, also essential for any pedagogy or program to be effective.

For example, best practices in writing instruction, a well-planned and implemented workshop model, is for naught if teachers are mandating students produce five-paragraph essays that are driven by a prompt and rubric mandated by the teacher.

Now here is the problem: A seasoned and active professional writer would fair little better if tossed into a teaching situation with no experience or expertise in evidence-based pedagogy.

This false dichotomy is well represented by the contrast between K-12 teaching and higher education. K-12 is dominated by the belief that anyone can teach anything if equipped with pedagogy, programs, and accountability (see The Hulk rubric now governing teaching in SC I have confronted in the link above); higher education embraces a laissez-faire norm that anyone can teach when equipped with expertise.

My second career as a teacher educator has proven to me what I long suspected as a high school English teacher for 18 years: There are profound limits to our urge for discovering and prescribing “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

I have railed against this often, but I call this our technocratic urge, a perverse and dangerous form of “scientific” (again, The Hulk, not Bruce Banner).

During the early decades of LaBrant’s career, there was a relatively balanced tension among educational philosophies and theories that included at least two factions using the term “scientific” in dramatically different ways.

John Dewey’s progressivism, which LaBrant practiced, argued for an amorphous, classroom-based approach to what today we would call action research (each teacher is a researcher-in-practice with every different class of students). The goal here recognized that students and learning are fluid and relative.

To teach, Dewey tried to advocate, is to experiment, perpetually. What works for one student today may not work for another on that same day, in that same lesson. And what works in a lesson or unit this year may inform a future lesson or unit, but it certainly can never be reduced to a template for future teaching.

Dewey’s scientific lost, however, to the efficiency educators who sought a different type of “scientific”—one that identified a fixed prescription for what “good” teaching must look like and what “student achievement” must conform to.

Today as a teacher educator in SC, I am supposed to learn The Hulk rubric and then I am supposedly equipped to visit any teachers classroom, regardless of grade level or content, and be able to make a credible assessment if the teacher is effective or not.

This cult of pedagogy, I think, has only one compelling quality, efficiency. This is the same problem with education’s pursuit of “the” program, such as PBL. Design a program, detail the parameters of what make the program “work,” and then anyone can observe to simply verify if the program is being met.

Having taught now about an equal time—almost two decades each—as a K-12 teacher and a college professor, I am far more disturbed by the cult of pedagogy in K-12 than the laissez-faire, and even dismissive, attitude about pedagogy in higher ed.

A colleague in economics once confessed to me that he held conservative ideologies in economics and liberal social beliefs. As a result, he had decided to function mostly as a Democrat because, he believed, it was easier to teach Democrats better economics than to make Republican “give a damn” about human suffering.

I find this fits the false dichotomy I have examined here. I worry that we have two problems in teaching and learning—fostering expertise in “generalist” teachers (K-12) and fostering a greater understanding of and respect for pedagogy in experts (higher education). I suspect the latter is easier.

LaBrant ended her unpacking of the project method with a key element of how “scientific” can work in education. Science at its best requires that we define problems, generate evidence, and then conform the solutions to the problems.

The project method, LaBrant noted, was missing an obvious solution as educators lamented students either not reading or lacking reading ability:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

Our rubrics and programs are the wrong goals, the wrong solutions, even as we occasionally recognize the problems of needing “good” teachers in order to increase student achievement.

Neither pedagogy nor expertise is itself the solution, but a complex understand of how both of these work together helps us seek the best possible pursuit of science and avoid the monster we currently embrace.

Daredevil in Trumplandia: “The Kingpin’s weakness is vanity”

The humanities have a long history of being discredited in the U.S. as impractical majors in college. The good ol’ U.S. of A. tends to calculate investment and return at a very simplistic level to determine when the cost of a college major can be linked directly to earnings in a career.

Business majors are destined to make bank, goes the investment/return narrative, but what you going to do with an English major?

Current times are particularly hard for the humanities, especially literature as a track of English as a major.

Here is the real-world irony in the era of Trumplandia: With Donald Trump at the center of 17 investigations, some have questioned why Trump would have pursued the presidency, which clearly opened the door to exposing his criminality.

The explanation lies, you guessed it, in literature.

While many of us found Greek and Shakespearean tragedy serious drudgery in our formal schooling, these dramas told a tale all too familiar: How the mighty are destined to fall because of their unbridled hubris, excessive pride.

Trump born into excessive and ill-got wealth has skirted along his entire life—cut to the scene where young bone-spurred Trump skips past active duty in war—without consequences for his greed, arrogance, and (to tick another work of literature) his pathological mendacity. (See also, like a good parallel subplot in Shakespeare, the Brett Kavanaugh saga.)

Keeping in mind that universal themes in literature are deeply problematic, we have abundant evidence that motifs such as the dangers of excessive pride are at least enduring, and for good reason.

Recently, I have been reconnecting with one of my favorite comic book superheroes, Daredevil.

Season 3 of the Netflix series, despite all the flaws in this adaptation and the original comic book created in 1964 by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby, represents what makes Daredevil compelling—the complex investigation of justice in the context of both human and spiritual justice. S3 draws on Frank Miller’s “Born Again” (1986) while maintaining the Netflix toned down approach to superhero narratives.

Matt Murdock as righteous lawyer and simultaneously the morally ambiguous vigilante Daredevil (the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen)*, at its best, is a much more powerful and compelling examination of justice than, for example, Batman.

While the religious debates in S3 are key elements of why I am drawn to Daredevil, picking up the Conclusion to The Death of Daredevil (612) serves well my point above about the value of literature and the enduring motif about the folly of excessive pride.

Charles Soule (writer) and Phil Noto (artist) dramatize the Murdock/Daredevil duality well as Murdock seeks Daredevil as a witness to remove Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin as mayor of New York.

Four pages provide a thinly veiled indictment of not only Fisk/The Kingpin, but also Donald Trump.

When Murdock confronts the district attorney, we witness how political might trumps ethics and even the law:

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Murdock’s idealism is highlighted in his plea: “But Wilson Fisk is a criminal. He does not deserve that office.” And this exchange also addresses how those connected to an administration are themselves complicit; as Murdock asks the question often repeated in the real world of Trumplandia:

Can you really keep working for an administration you know is illegal and corrupt at its core when you know there’s a way to take it down?

Yes, it’s a risk. But even if you lose it all, you’ll go out as who you are, not the compromised shadow of yourself the Kingpin’s hoping you’ll be.

It is, however, Fisk on the witness stand and then alone in his office that speak directly to Trump:

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Murdock/Daredevil narrates the scene and notes:

I can hear Fisk’s heartbeat. Slow, steady. He’s not afraid. He’s like me that way.

He’s not afraid of anything, and you can’t make him afraid. That’s not the way you beat him. That’s not his weakness.

The Kingpin’s weakness…is vanity.

Fisk as an allegory of Trump is yet another tale of excessive pride, hubris.

Not afraid and certain he is above accountability, Fisk storms from the stand: “Enough. This is a farce, and I will not stand for it any longer.” Might we hear “fake news” in the background?

The dynamic page with Fisk being introspective precedes his being removed from office. It appears the fantasy world of comic books still clings to some sliver of justice even as the real world seems unable or unwilling to take such stands against criminals in office.

However, this is only appearances as there is a twist; justice, you see, is no more simple in Daredevil than in our real world of Trumplandia. The battle between good and evil is never-ending, and more things than justice seem blind—and paralyzed.

The Death of Daredevil ends: “I cannot see the light. So I will be the light. I am Daredevil. And I am not afraid.” And let us not forget, walking unafraid is a trait shared by our so-called heroes and so-called villains.


* Season 2 effectively challenges Murdock/Daredevil’s righteousness with The Punisher, and others, noting little difference among Daredevil, The Punisher, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2019). From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Is justice blind? In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Building character and theme (pp. 81-98). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Thomas, P.L. (2012). Daredevil: The man without fearElektra lives again; science fiction.  [entries]. In Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.