Barbara Kingsolver: “everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up”

“So many of us have stood up for the marginalized,” explains writer Barbara Kingsolver in the wake of Trumplandia, “but never expected to be here ourselves,” adding:

It happened to us overnight, not for anything we did wrong but for what we know is right. Our first task is to stop shaming ourselves and claim our agenda. It may feel rude, unprofessional and risky to break the habit of respecting our government; we never wanted to be enemies of the state. But when that animosity mounts against us, everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences. That’s the choice we get.

She then calls for those of us with a social justice conscience to wear our hearts on our sleeves, including teachers:

If we’re teachers we explicitly help children of all kinds feel safe in our classrooms under a bullying season that’s already opened in my town and probably yours. Language used by a president may enter this conversation. We say wrong is wrong.

I have been using the writing of Kingsolver in both my high school English classes and a variety of college courses since the 1990s, and my first book-length examination of teaching a writer focused on Kingsolver.

The most enduring writing from Kingsolver for me as a teacher has been her essay writing. And while Kingsolver’s politics drives her fiction—such as Flight Behavior—and her poetry, there is a artistry to her essays that allows her politics to meander instead of immediately provoking.

For example, her collection Small Wonder grew out of 9/11, and the essays speak powerfully with a progressive voice that is unlike the American character and that challenges the flag-waving patriotism/nationalism the terrorism spurred across the U.S.

And while Kingsolver actually lives her convictions, her newest confrontation of what Trump means for the U.S. reads as an intensified Kingsolver-as-activist.

“We refuse to disappear,” she announces.

The American character has long misread and misrepresented the label “political,” and the rise of Trump may have, as Kingsolver argues, brought about inadvertently the change promised by Obama: “everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences.”

But only one—speaking up in the name of the good and the equitable—has the potential for the sort of consequences a free people should be seeking.

Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

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Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with our students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.

The “R” Word as Taboo in Twenty-First Century U.S.A.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a not-too-distant dystopia in which Atwood explores the rise of a theocracy as a sanctuary for the declining white race; the work is a tour-de-force confrontation of sexism and misogyny as well as dramatization of the relationship between power and language, including the power inherent in what humans name* and what humans taboo.

The central handmaid of the tale, June/Offred, narrates her own journey through hell that includes being assigned to a Commander who monthly is charged with attempting to impregnate his handmaid in what this new nation of Gilead calls the Ceremony, infusing the act with religious and official overtones.

However, June/Offred characterizes the Ceremony with a disturbing and clinical precision:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

Many aspects of this passage are worth emphasizing, but let’s focus on the importance and value in June/Offred naming accurately this awful thing happening—and not ignore the weight of taboo language (such as the word “fucking”).

“I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” opens Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” “believing the soul could be scattered/ if they were careless.”

Here too are the intersections of naming, gender, and power: why must women abandon their names in the legal/religious act of marriage while men retain theirs?

Kingsolver’s speaker, like Atwood’s narrator, both uses and values language as power—guarding a name and naming.

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The election of Donald Trump as the president of the U.S. comes in the wake of Trump making inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Nonpartisan and measured assessments of Trump’s words rightly label them as racist, xenophobic, and sexist/misogynistic.

The rise of Trump as a political leader has exposed the lingering taboo in the U.S. for naming racism, even when there is direct evidence of racist language and behavior and especially when that racism is coded (getting tough on crime, building a wall, evoking the specter of terrorism).

Serious public debate has parsed making the distinction between Trump being a racist and Trump courting and/or attracting racists, such as being endorsed by the KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, and the white nationalist movement.

A perverse shift has occurred, in fact, from the mislabeling of Barack Obama’s being elected president as proof that the U.S. is a post-racial society to Trump’s rise asking the U.S. to reconsider what counts as racism.

Trump personifies the triple-Teflon of being white, male, and affluent, most notably in the power of those attributes to deflect the label “racist.” As Trump himself asserted defiantly:

I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.

Trump’s own strategy frames his words and behavior as “truth,” therefore not “racist.”

The election of Trump grounded significantly on white voter support, including a majority of white women, adds another layer of tension in that if Trump has voiced racism and/or practiced racism, how complicit are voters as racists themselves?

In short, are the approximately 25% of eligible voters who supported Trump racists? And if so, who can name that racism?

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A valued colleague who is a rhetorician posted on social media his argument that white liberal elites, especially, should stop naming people as racists—pointing to the overwhelming evidence that the approach is ineffective.

Faced with evidence of racism, whites tend to emphasize their own personal struggles, and many whites now believe racism toward whites trumps racism toward blacks.

Systemic racism (distinct from individual racists) tends to be much harder for many in the U.S. to name or confront. For example, the political and media perpetuation of black-on-black crime is enduring despite the fact that all crime is mostly intra-racial—the white-on-white crime rate is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate.

To approach this in Trump-logic: black-on-black crime rates are true; therefore, referring to them cannot be racist.

But even the racism that can be named in the U.S. is reduced to the most extreme and even cartoonish version that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “oafish racist”:

Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad.

What Trump represents, however, is more insidious:

The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

The racism of Trump and emboldened by Trump sullies the “elegant,” but it certainly meets Coates’s recognition of “plausible deniability.”

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Finally, let’s return to June/Offred, being fucked, but not raped because “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

In a free society, black and brown people find themselves in a parallel circumstance to June/Offred, the victims of racism even though “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

And as my colleague noted, victims of racism certainly find value in naming racism and racists.

The problem my colleague raises, however, is among white allies to those victims of racism; if it is ineffective for white allies to name racism, to name racists, what is our obligation as allies against racism and inequity?

To suggest that racism and racists do not exist until acknowledged by whites is a nasty dose of paternalistic racism. To tip-toe around racists for fear of offending them and entrenching racism further also seems like a slap in the face of black and brown people living the very real consequences of racism and the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

As a very privileged ally to everyone marginalized by racism (as well as sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, and all sorts of bigotry), I believe I must listen to black and brown voices, but I also must use my privilege to amplify (not confirm) those voices—to stand beside and behind, but never to speak for.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when even the oafish racist was not called to account; therefore, I am convinced that a key step to erasing elegant racism, systemic racism, is to have the courage to call racists “racists” regardless of the evidence that those rightly labeled “racists” will not change.

I am taking this stand because I am not sure our goal is to change individual racists, but to change the greater capacity of the larger population who have yet to confront their culpability in elegant/systemic racism, and thus to create a critical mass in the name of equity that will eradicate racism over time.

In the most profound and bitter sort of appropriateness, the U.S. has elected the very worst and most perfect leader of, as Trump would say, the truth about the U.S.—which is that we are a racist, sexist/misogynist, and xenophobic people, drunk on consumerism and negligent in our humanity for each other.

With that before us and named, let us hope we can confess our sins, do our penance, and create a more perfect union.


* Dare we call fascism “fascism”? No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism, James McDougall

Guided Activity: More Reading Like a Writer

After walking through a reading like a writer (scholar) class session using an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, I want here to offer briefly a guided activity for students to complete in groups in order to practice reading like a writer as one step in their own growth as writers.

Here I ask students to read “Water Is Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, and then, to discuss and answer the following questions:

  • What appears to be Kingsolver’s target/primary audience? What is the evidence from the essay to support that?
  • How does Kingsolver create an effective opening? What techniques (literary, rhetorical), strategies does she employ? Give specific examples.
  • What are Kingsolver’s major claims? How does she elaborate on those claims? What evidence does she use to support her claims? Give specific examples.
  • Identify one or two of the best sentences in this essay. What makes them effective?
  • Does Kingsolver break the “rules” of grammar or that you were taught in school? Examples? What is her purpose in these situations?
  • What is the guiding tone of this essay? How does Kingsolver create that tone? Give specific examples. Does she ever break that tone? Example(s)?
  • What does Kingsolver want her audience to know or do? Give specific examples.
  • How does Kingsolver frame this essay in her closing paragraph(s)? Give specific examples.

These questions are common in the writing conferences I hold with students about their own original essays so this activity helps further reinforce the need for writers to be aware of and purposeful about these elements of essay writing.

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

Just a few weeks into the fall semester of college, a first year student of mine revealed her exasperation about the inordinate amount of time and energy she had spent in high school “learning MLA” because her teachers claimed “everyone in college uses MLA.”

This moment in class captures perfectly the great divide that exists between the mostly rote and significantly flawed approaches to teaching writing in K-12 settings governed by high-stakes accountability and the disciplinary writing that students must demonstrate in college and then (possibly) as writers or scholars themselves.

In my writing intensive first year seminars, we seek to unpack what students have been taught about writing before college, and then begin a journey in which we read authentic texts (both popular and disciplinary essays) like writers and scholars. I have adopted over my 30+ years as a writer and writing teacher a philosophy that begins with the broad (literary essays by writers) and then couches the narrow (disciplinary essays by scholars) within that.

Below, I walk through Barbara Kingsolver’s “Making Peace,” from High Tide in Tucson, as an example of how reading like a writer (scholar)—asking what a writer is doing, how (style, literary/rhetorical technique, grammar, and mechanics) the writer is accomplishing it, and why it works or doesn’t—repeated often and throughout a semester, and even an entire college career, can instill genre awareness so that students can cast off their roles as students to become writers and scholars.

From Literary Essays to Disciplinary Writing

“When I left downtown Tucson to make my home in the desert,” Kingsolver confesses in her opening sentence, “I went, like Thoreau, ‘to live deliberately'” (p. 23).

When my students and I explore this essay by Kingsolver, we have already done an activity on openings—in which we look at just the first paragraphs of several of her essays in order to begin to challenge the introduction/thesis paradigm and move toward a wide range of strategies for engaging and focusing the reader.

Again the purpose here is to pull back to the broad conventions of essays (literary essays for a mostly lay audience) in order to nest disciplinary writing in those conventions (acknowledging that many disciplines do conform to a functional [but not aesthetic] template: introduction with overt thesis, body, and conclusion).

In that first sentence—and then throughout the essay with references to Preston Adams, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Kafka—Kingsolver reveals both her awareness of and her speaking to a targeted audience, well educated and literate readers [1]. As well, the entire opening paragraph is highly detailed (images) and humorous, and thus, engaging and interesting.

For literary essays, then, we note that instead of offering an overt thesis, reader engagement is primary. In fact, while Kingsolver has a very clear focus (thesis), it isn’t revealed until several pages in: “Ownership is an entirely human construct” (p. 26).

Kingsolver’s confrontation of ownership becomes much more direct and even scholarly toward the end when she notes: “Life is easier since I abdicated the throne. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things”—which is reinforced by quoting Engels (p. 33).

Throughout, our reading this essay like writers (scholars), we begin to note the conventional differences between a literary essay and disciplinary writing, highlighting Kingsolver’s own direct and subtle nods to the disciplines (literature, economics, anthropology, religion, botany, and biology). And so we begin to frame this essay against disciplinary conventions:

  • While Kingsolver highlights narrative and literary constructions, disciplinary writing tends toward exposition.
  • Kingsolver’s citations are sparse—names, quotes—but disciplinary writing has a much more stringent threshold for identifying references and quotations.
  • Organization and structure are more aesthetic, including Kingsolver’s use of graphic breaks to show transitions (the publisher uses a wave image), but disciplinary writing tends toward subheads and more overt structural devices as well as more direct statements of claims.
  • In both Kingsolver’s essay and disciplinary writing, however, diction, style, grammar, and mechanics must match the purpose of the essay as well as the targeted audience; in other words, these matters are about appropriateness and purpose, not correctness. There are no universally right words, there are no rules of grammar.

Just as I focus on openings, I also highlight endings. Kingsolver’s “Making Peace” builds to a two-sentence final paragraph: “So what, they all declare with glittering eyes. This is their party, and I wasn’t exactly invited” (p. 34).

Here, I emphasize that just as Kingsolver eschews the mechanical introduction/thesis, she also avoids the conclusion as restatement of the introduction. Instead, literary essays often frame the body paragraphs; in this essay, Kingsolver returns to the party/not invited motif from the end of the first paragraph.

Framing is an aesthetic approach that many disciplines ignore, especially if the disciplinary writing is primarily functional, such as transmitting new or synthesized information.

For students as emerging writers and scholars, the lessons of reading like a writer (scholar) are about appropriateness in the context of conventions and purposefulness within the writer’s/scholar’s awareness of her/his audience.

From Reading like a Writer (Scholar) to Drafting to Conferencing

My goals and process for first year seminar students in a writing intensive course include exploring What is an essay? and then What is a disciplinary essay? In those explorations, I am seeking ways in which students can become autonomous, ways in which students can rise above being students in order to embrace their autonomy as writers and/or scholars.

Reading like a writer (scholar) is foundational to that so that students begin to ask what writers are doing, how writers are achieving their purposes, and in what genres and conventions writers (scholars) are working.

The walk-through above is within a process that asks students to craft and submit a personal narrative followed by an on-line essay (using hyperlinks for citation) and then a disciplinary essay using a discipline-specific citation style sheet. Students also submit a fourth essay, but that is determined by their needs after completing the first three.

Vital to that process and anchored by reading like a writer are professor/student conferences after the initial submission of each essay.

Reading like a writer practices help inform what students need to consider, but also provide concrete references during the conferences.

For example, I begin conferences by asking who the primary/intended audience is as well as what the purpose of the essay is: to inform that audience or to call that audience to some action or behavior.

From there, we begin to investigate the essay draft against what we have discussed with authentic essays and reading like a writer (scholar): we consider the effectiveness of the opening, the scope and amount of claims, the authority of the student in the context of those claims and the topic(s), the use (or lack) of evidence, and the framing of the essay.

These investigations of the first draft become revision strategies for the student, with a premium placed on the agency of the student as a writer (scholar).

Just as reading like a writer replaces the narrow high school focus on literary analysis (the literary technique hunt and parroting back to the teacher what she/he said about the text), we replace the mechanical essay template of high school with a developing genre awareness of students as becoming-writers (scholars) who write with an awareness of audience and conventions (both popular and disciplinary) that demonstrates purposefulness, and not mere rote compliance.

My exasperated student shaking her head about the misguided focus on MLA prompted many other students to express the same sort of frustration. But more troubling is that very bright students with outstanding potential are often nearly frozen with uncertainty when faced with authentic expectations of essay writing.

The essay, however, is a vibrant and beautiful thing, rendered like students into a lifeless state by formal schooling.

Reading like a writer (scholar) helps breath life back into reading as well as writing, opening the door for students to become the writers (scholars) they can be.

[1] In Kingsolver’s “Creation Stories,” for example, she begins with “June is the cruelest month in Tucson,” as allusion aimed at a literate audience indeed.

Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague and also couch the entire discussion in a caution raised by Johnson, Smagorinsky, Thompson, and Fry: “Just as we hope that teachers do not oversimplify issues of form, we hope that critics do not oversimplify intentions of the legions of teachers who take this approach” (p. 171).

Writers and People Who Write

My colleague Mike Svec and I are working on a chapter in a volume, and we are examining our work as teacher educators who have working-class backgrounds.

Mike is an academic who occasionally writes. I am a writer who happens to be an academic.

And therein lies a problem for our work as co-writers. Mike spends a great deal of time mulling, reading, planning, and fretting (my word) before committing anything to the virtual page.

I write as part of my brainstorming, and fill up the virtual page so I will have something to wrestle with, revise, reshape and even abandon.

Filling up virtual paper is Mike’s late stage. Filling up virtual paper is my first stage.

This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

  1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
  2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:

[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:

Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”

REVIEW: Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

A young woman in the Appalachian hills of the rural South finds herself pregnant far too young and marries her high school sweetheart, only to lose the child. Years later, living on the farm owned by her in-laws and now the mother of two children, she walks up a mountain on that land to a rendezvous with adultery.

The hike is taxing—she struggles without her glasses (left behind out of vanity) and with her incessant craving for a cigarette—but before she meets her would-be young lover, she encounters what appears to be the entire valley below her in flames. Except there is no fire, only a billow of orange spread out beneath her.

Is this a vision from God? Or a human-made disruption of nature? Of both?

Following The Lacuna (2009), a novelization of the relationship between artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Barbara Kingsolver explores the life of Dellarobia Turnbow in Flight Behavior (2012), as Kingsolver explains:

I had been wanting to write about climate change for some years. One morning I imagined millions of butterflies settling in the treetops – a drastically altered natural phenomenon that people would not understand as dangerous, one that looks really beautiful but is in fact dreadful. I don’t know how that vision came into my head as that is not how this business usually works. Most every book I bring into the world is like birthing a baby, it’s a lot of effort! So when it did, I thought: oh, this is a perfect starting point.

Kingsolver’s critical and popular reputations rest, still, on her tour-de-force The Poisonwood Bible (although Kingsolver praises The Lacuna as her most enduring), but she has published to date an impressive collection of novels, wonderful collections of essays, a collection of short stories, and a powerful bi-lingual collection of poems, Another America. Throughout Kingsolver’s writing, her most compelling gift is her attention to the craft of writing as it intersects with her politics. Barbara Kingsolver has a political agenda, but her messages remain beautifully housed in her gifts as a novelist, essayist, and poet.

As a Kingsolver fan, Flight Behavior transported me back to Prodigal Summer, my favorite Kingsolver novel, and Animal Dreams. In this newest narrative, the characters are diverse and compelling; Kingsolver is never condescending or unkind when she creates characters with competing world views and backgrounds—even when the characters stand outside Kingsolver’s own commitments.

Flight Behavior creates several complimentary tensions that rise out of what would seem to most readers a premise that is anything except compelling—the appearance of butterflies on a Tennessee farm. What drives the novel, however is Dellarobia and her own external and internal tensions as a young mother and wife:

But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself….

The ones that lived through winter lasted longer, a few months, by going into something like hibernation. “Diapause,” he called it, a pause in the normal schedule of growing up, mating, and reproducing. Somewhere in midlife, the cold or darkness of winter put them all on hold, shutting down their sex drive until further notice.

Like life in an uninsulated house, she thought. Maybe like marriage in general. (pp. 59-145)

As an occasional Kingsolver scholar, I have examined and recommended her work for the classroom. And here is where I’d like to focus, emphasizing, of course, that I highly recommend Flight Behavior to anyone who has enjoyed Kingsolver before as well as readers of fiction who are drawn to rich narratives, engaging characters, and beautiful craft with language. Kingsolver delivers.

As well, Flight Behavior offers readers, teachers, and students a sort of double duty as a work of a novelist as a public intellectual and a narrative that forces readers and students to consider the role of scholars and academics as they interact with the public about large social issues.

As Kingsolver has explained, this novel is at its core about climate change, but Kingsolver also notes:

Motherhood is so sentimentalised and romanticised in our culture. It’s practically against the law to say there are moments in the day when you hate your children. Everyone actually has those moments. So to create this mother, who loves her children, of course, but is just so fed up of living in a house with people who roll plastic trucks on the floor, was a writing challenge.

In other words, although Kingsolver has a clear agenda, a political point to make about climate change, she also respects her artform, readers, and the characters she has created enough to avoid allowing this novel to slip into mere preaching or to be tarnished by simplistic representations.

Flight Behavior personifies the often reductionistic and misleading climate change debate that occurs in the U.S. over talk radio and among talking heads on TV.

Ironically, in Kingsolver’s imagined world she captures the all-too-real world of climate change as it intersects with the lives and jobs of typical people, people bound to the land, people bound to their faith, people bound to pasts they regret but cannot change or escape.

Flight Behavior soars when Kingsolver invites the reader to witness the intersections of scholars with people without much formal learning, of different races and cultures, of believers and non-believers, of privilege and poverty (importantly, I believe, the working poor).

As a Southerner and educator, I was nervous about how Kingsolver would portray Southerners, and I was very concerned in one scene when Dellarobia details her experience in high school with math and science, as well as her characterization of how schools continue to fail students.

In that context of my own sensitivities, I can anticipate how scientists and climate change deniers may read the novel. And this is where I have my highest recommendation: Kingsolver treads on thin ice often in this novel and masterfully makes her way to the other side of the pond without falling through.

I don’t expect any artist to be perfect, especially when artists venture into producing art with ernest political messages. In fact, I still cringe when I share with students Kingsolver’s essay rejecting TV—a topic about which I disagree strongly with her.

Flight Behavior may stumble (although I am hard-pressed to say so), but it definitely maintains it legs from the wonderful opening scene to the series of surprises and inevitable outcomes that tie together a beautifully weaved story that will not disappoint a wide range of readers who may choose this work for different reasons and with different world views.

Ultimately, there is no dichotomy between Kingsolver the scientist (she has degrees in biology) and Kingsolver the novelist—just as there is no dichotomy between science and faith in the novel.

In the end, then, the novel itself is both embodiment and testament to the message Kingsolver makes clear: We are all one.