A Meditation on Stringing Words Together: The National’s “Roman Holiday”

I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing

“I Am Easy to Find,” The National

For those of us who love words and fall deeply in love with authors and pop music performers, few things are as exciting as new works. I listened for the first time to The National’s I Am Easy to Find on the release day during a long drive.

The first song, “You Had Your Soul with You,” had already been released so my rush happened on the second song, “Quiet Light,” when I felt the urge to cry before the lyrics even began.

And by the seventh song, the titular “I Am Easy to Find,” I could hold back no longer, crying steadily as I drove. There is something uniquely powerful about the combination of beautiful music and beautiful words strung together in a way that make your heart ache.

As an English teacher for about two decades during the first half of my career, I was always searching for an effective way to teach poetry well. Students tended not to like poetry but also had very narrow and mistaken associations with poetry—poetry rhymes, for example, and being overly concerned with what poems mean.

It probably seems trite, but I did find that investigating poetry—asking, what makes poetry, poetry?—combined with starting with pop music song lyrics helped allay student antagonism toward what I consider a beautiful and powerful form of human expression.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I grounded my poetry unit in the music of R.E.M. Although I now mainly teach education and writing courses, I continue to think as an English teacher—especially in terms of applying reading like a writer to text such as song lyrics to inform how we read and write well.

Especially with the rise of close reading, driven by the mostly now defunct Common Core, many formal lessons focusing on analyzing text remains trapped in false notions that meaning is restricted to the parameters of the text, words strung together on the page.

“I’m your hospital, I’m your silver cross,” opens The National’s “Roman Holiday,” preparing the listener for how to unpack these metaphors, but also confronting the arguments of close reading that meaning is a mechanical process bound to text only.

In the opening verse as well, “Patti wasn’t lonely, Robert wasn’t lost” establishes the factual basis of the song, explained by the primary lyricist, Matt Berninger:

I am a huge fan of that book [Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids], but I was actually looking at Judy Linn’s book of Patti Smith photos. A lot of the imagery in it is of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe when they were really young, just hanging out in their apartment: dressing up, taking pictures of each other, looking cool. It’s such a beautiful portrait of pals, such a romance. And then there’s also a line I took from Patti Smith’s Instagram, a comment she sent to somebody who had just lost someone to suicide: “Please think the best of him.” I found it incredibly moving. I was just obsessed with her kindness and her wisdom in the face of so many sad things.

Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and co-lyricist on The National lyrics for several of the recent albums, adds how being a lyricist is similar to poetry in an interview:

You have a background in poetry and as a writer and editor. How is lyric writing similar or different than what you’ve done in the past?

I think I probably like the same thing about poems and song lyrics. When I read poems or listen to a song I love, I get very hung up on certain lines, especially lines I both don’t and do understand. I love that. But it’s not that impressive. It’s like being attracted to sequins. I don’t really understand story or plot well, but I love a way of finding that compressed or cock-eyed way of saying the thing, so that you can kind of re-hear the thing, or so that you can hear the feeling of thought on its way.

Any kind of language on the way to an idea, I tend to like. It’s mysterious enough to me that I stay interested. I also love songs where the singer is rambling on and almost doesn’t seem to hear what the song is doing. Or when a vocal melody slides around in order to make a point. I also sometimes feel like with song-making, there are all these bags of fireworks laying around, so many ways in a song with a singer and against the backdrop of all the musical ideas, so many ways to try to make an impression.

As a foundational text to investigate poetry—genre, mode, form—”Roman Holiday” is a powerful experience for students. Typically, using pop music, I ask students to listen to the song once without any lyrics; I then do a second listening with the lyric before the students.

Without context, “Roman Holiday” may be read a number of valid ways, focusing on unpacking the technique (metaphor, rhyme/half-rhyme, sound devices, imagery, motifs) in a traditional process (think New Criticism and close reading).

The half-rhymes are engaging (cross/lost, rains/shame, him/museum) and sounds help give the lyrics cohesion (please/police). But analyzing “Roman Holiday” decontextualized ultimately fails the song and the reading; better is to place the song in a text set including:

Technique and craft of the lyrics and the entire song are effective and powerful, but they are vehicles for the much larger discourse between a variety of texts and modes of expression, including photography, memoir, and social media.

If close reading guides coming to understand “Roman Holiday,” we are having an incomplete experience. This song depends on history, controversy, and two influential artists, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

How Smith, specifically, has resonated as an artist and thinker while Mapplethorpe died much younger builds along with Smith’s response to suicide (“Please, think the best of him”) to something both grounded in these two lives and the greater and more complex human condition.

While reading and interpreting text remains concepts misunderstood and misrepresented in the media and by the public, this sort of rich and complex unpacking of “Roman Holiday” speaks to how NCTE defines reading:

Reading is a complex and purposeful sociocultural, cognitive, and linguistic process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning with text. Each of these types of knowledge impacts the sense that readers construct through print. Readers easily comprehend text with familiar language but are less successful at comprehending text with unfamiliar language. Readers easily comprehend text on familiar topics but are less successful at comprehending texts on unfamiliar topics. At the same time, the interpretations readers construct with texts as well as the types of texts they read are influenced by their life experiences.

Without a knowledge of the topic of this song (Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship), a close reading misses a great deal. Yes, there is really compelling craft here, but there is also history and deep emotion.

Pop songs, like poetry, lend them selves to re-listening/rereading. Meaning grows, even blossoms with each experience because we are always a different person each time we re-listen/reread.

The meaning of any text is never fixed, never simply trapped in the stringing together of words.

For me, “There are police in the museum/She said please” stays with me after hearing the song; the use of “police/please” haunts me.

I am uncertain I can articulate why, but it certainly has meaning—and that meaning is more than intellect, enriched by emotion.


See Also

Florence Welch on Sobriety, Embracing Loneliness and Loving Patti Smith

Florence + The Machine – Patricia

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Banned in the U.S.A.: The Right’s Assault on Other Women

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to,” retells Offred in Part II, Chapter 6, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (p. 33).

Readers have just been introduced to public executions in Gilead: “Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall” (p. 31). On this day,

The men [hangin from…hooks] wear white coats …. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. … They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or — more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen — by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible. (pp. 32-33)

Atwood’s speculative theocracy is heavily grounded in a perverse worshipping of some women as possible vessels of childbirth since the birthrates of whites were in steep decline due to environmental toxins.

With a conservative shift in the Supreme Court in the United States under Trump, Georgia and Alabama have passed extreme anti-abortion laws, openly admitting they are designed to overturn Roe v. Wade—to make abortion once again illegal in the country.

Several aspects of these moves to deny women autonomy over their bodies are obscured by Orwellian language (“heartbeat legislation”) and rhetorical bows to protecting life. First, in countries where abortion is legal and safe, abortion rates are often lower than in countries banning abortion, but there are strong correlations also between legal abortion and overall health, safety, and autonomy of women.

In short, access to legal and safe abortion is a subset of overall healthcare for women.

Second, and this may be one of the more troubling realities of moves to ban abortion, these bans on abortion and the possible criminalizing of women and medical professionals (see the novel excerpts above) are never going to be realities for the wives, daughters, and mistresses of the wealthy white men passing the laws.

Throughout history in the U.S., as with all laws, wealthy women will always have access to abortions as well as overall healthcare for themselves and their children.

The current move to ban abortion in the U.S. is about other women—those women marginalized by their social class and race.

These laws may also criminalize miscarriages and birth control; they are designed to strike fear into the medical field and other women.

These first moves serve the same purpose as the Wall:

It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (p. 32)

Aunt Lydia’s reassurance—”It will become ordinary”—echoes a chilling tenet from Albert Camus’s The Stranger expressed by Meursault in prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of Atwood’s novel is about retelling the story of Offred’s life before and during Gilead—about how easily human dignity and human agency can be erased, slowly like a lobster in a boiling pot of water, or like a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises when Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly'” (p. 141).

In Trumplandia, as rightwing politicians pass anti-abortion laws, assaults on other women, we are now in the gradually.

Will this become ordinary—suddenly?

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

What do the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), A Nation at Risk (1983), and the seminal “word gap” study by Hart and Risley (1992/1995) have in common?

First, each of these has become a recurring citation in mainstream media when addressing reading (NRP), school accountability (A Nation at Risk), and literacy (“word gap”).

Next, and quite troubling to those of us in education and literacy, all of these have been debunked.

A wide array of scholars have called into question Hart and Risley’s methods, conclusions, and assumptions. Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton have unmasked A Nation at Risk as a false political crisis. And NRP panelist Joanne Yatvin as well as Stephen Krashen have significantly refuted the validity of the NRP report and process.

Recently, the reading wars have been rebooted across mainstream media; concurrent with that has been a rash of new reading legislation in several states.

In both cases, a common phrase is “the science of reading,” a thin veil for renewed emphasis on systematic phonics—in part driven by advocates for children with dyslexia.

News articles across Education Week, NPR, PBS, and other outlets have praised this so-called need for the science of reading while almost uniformly referring to the NRP as the primary research base for that “science.”

One journalist, Emily Hanford, who won an EWA award for her “science of reading” article, discounted my charged the NRP had been debunked with “One member expressing a minority view does not equal ‘debunked.'”

Here, I want to note that I have discovered many people react strongly to the term “debunk,” seemingly because they interpret its meaning simplistically; however, note the nuance of the term:

debunk

In the case of the NRP report, I contend it has been debunked because, specifically, a member of the committee who protested that the panel included no genuine teacher of reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following ways:

FALSE: The National Reading Panel was a diverse and balanced group of reading experts.

TRUE: Congress asked for a balanced panel, but that’s not what it got….

FALSE: The panel carried out a comprehensive analysis of the entire field of reading research.

TRUE: Only a small fraction of the field was considered, and only a few hundred studies were actually analyzed….

FALSE: The panel determined that there are five essentials of reading instruction.

TRUE: Although the NRP reported positive results for five of the six instructional strategies it investigated, it never claimed that these five were the essential components of reading….

FALSE: The panel endorsed only explicit, systematic instruction. [a]

TRUE: Only in the phonics subgroup report is “explicit, systematic” instruction called essential….

FALSE: The panel identified certain comprehensive commercial reading programs as being research-based, and concluded that teachers need one of these programs, or a comparable program, to teach children effectively.

TRUE: No comprehensive reading programs were investigated by the panel. The panel had nothing to say about whether teachers need a commercial program or can develop their own….

FALSE: The panel identified phonics as the most important component of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel made no such determination….

FALSE: The panel found that phonics should be taught to all students throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no evidence to justify teaching phonics to normally progressing readers past 1st grade….

FALSE: The panel’s findings repudiate whole language as an approach to teaching reading.

TRUE: The panel did not investigate whole language as a topic and did not draw any conclusions about it as an approach to teaching reading….

ALSE: The panel found research evidence indicating how teachers should be trained to teach reading. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no such evidence….

I stand fast that even though Yatvin technically is a minority opinion, she has the greatest expertise of the panel and her clarifications have proven accurate.

But there is more reason to reject the NRP report as sacrosanct guidance for how to teach reading; it was at the center of the politically corrupt Reading First scandal that exposed relationships between government officials and Open Court textbooks.

It is not mere speculation that there is a problematic relationship between phonics advocacy and for-profit organizations serving education.

The short version about the fact of the NRP being debunked is that it was a politically skewed panel from the beginning, and then its process was also deeply flawed, manipulating what research was considered in order to favor a systematic phonics message that wasn’t supported by the actual science of reading available then, and now.

To reference the NRP report as credible is to overstate its value, to misrepresent not only the report but the field of teaching reading.

Yet, journalists with no expertise in literacy and no background in the history of reading or teaching reading are falling prey to alluring language, “the science of reading,” and fulfilling the warnings offered by Yatvin nearly two decades ago.


[a] Note that in the current media coverage of “the science of reading,” this is exactly how references to the NRP are being misused.

Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

“School days were eagerly anticipated by Francie,” a central character in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p. 143). The novel often is a powerful fictional account of poverty among white working class people at the turn of the twentieth century.

But Francie Nolan is also a girl who loves books, libraries, and an idealized view of what formal schooling will be. Yet, “[b]efore school, there had to be vaccination,” the narrator explains. “That was the law”:

When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was  a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. … Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. (pp. 143-144)

Left alone by their working mother, Francie and her brother, Neeley, must go for their vaccinations, prodded only by a neighbor who rouses them from playing in the dirt and mud. Francie suffers through not only the shot itself, but also the doctor’s insensitive and classist criticism: “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm nurse'” (p. 146).

Despite the trauma of the vaccinations and the class-shaming by the doctor, “Francie expected great things from school” (p. 151). However, “Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days” (p. 153).

That “brutalizing” included:

The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcizing their own fearful backgrounds. (p. 153)

A decade past a century since this novel, and I must acknowledge there is a disturbing series of patterns that remain, including the anti-vaccination movement as well as a significant portion of parents who find public schools unresponsive to the needs of specific populations of students.

Since I am currently reading Smith’s novel, I was drawn to some comparisons when I encountered, once again, the media’s misguided fascination with the “science of reading”: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy from PBS News Hour.

I cannot help asking if mainstream media would ever run this story: What anti-vaccination parents are teaching doctors about disease.

And then, while the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading has been spreading for a few years now, Education Week once again piles onto the bandwagon driven by parents advocating for their children with dyslexia: Stephen Sawchuk’s Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War and College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading.

Sawchuk’s piece recycles both misinformation about dyslexia (1 in 10 children are diagnosed, according to Dyslexia International, but many sources suggest the exact percentage ranges from 5% to 17%) and resorts once again to citing the National Reading Panel as a credible report on reading (it has been thoroughly debunked). In fact, intensive, systematic phonics for all students has also been discredited.

Yet as Andrew Davis acknowledges: “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

As I examined and unpacked concerning school choice, we must resist idealizing parental choice, even in regard to those parents’ children. The anti-vaccination movement occurring now is grounded in both those parents wanting what is best (in their view) for their children’s health and a garbled misunderstanding of vaccinations driven by one deeply flawed study that makes those parents believe they have science on their side:

Lacking the scientific background, in an attempt to protect their children, parents contemplating the risk of vaccine are vulnerable to omission biases by which they are more likely to take the risk of inaction than the risk of action….

The anti-vaccine movement appears to be part of a larger trend of discontent and distrust in the established preeminence of scientific evidence over impressions and opinions. A corollary to the discontent is the democratization of health-related decision making, by which stakeholders have an increasingly stronger voice over experts, as well as the dethroning of the Expert. While democratization of health care decision making is cheered by liberals and conservatives alike, its benefits are still to be proven. Decisions in the area of disease prevention require knowledge of the medical field involved and an understanding of statistics, in the absence of which no amount of communication skills and efforts would do any good.

This, I think, is a powerful harbinger of how the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading is being perpetuated by rhetoric (“the science of reading”) and zeal among parents who seek to democratize the teaching of reading, and as a result, the expertise of literacy educators is erased and replaced by parent will and political caveat.

Here are some essential facts being ignored by the avalanche of zeal among mostly parents of children with dyslexia:

  • No student, regardless of special needs such as dyslexia, should be mis-served by our public education system. Parents of children advocating for best practices in the service of their children must be heard, and public schools must respond, attended to, however, by special needs educators and scholars, not the policy demands of the parents or political leaders. “My child must be served” is different than “This is how you will serve my child.”
  • Reading needs of the general population of students must not be held hostage to the needs of unique subsets of students—especially when the zeal of a few is allowed to overwhelm the expertise of educators and literacy scholars.
  • Historically, reading instruction has been a victim of false crisis rhetoric, and current calls for “the science of reading” is yet another round of phonic-only propaganda that cannot serve students well.
  • The research base on reading instruction (the actual science of reading) has never rejected phonics instruction (including whole language and balanced literacy), but each student needs varying degrees of direct phonics instruction, only enough so that the student begins reading and develops as a reader through holistic experiences such as reading by choice and being read to.
  • There has never been a time in the history of formal education in the U.S. that some have not claimed we have a reading crisis. Never. That crisis rhetoric has always been misguided and driven by those with some ulterior agenda or no expertise in literacy.
  • Most of the ways that formal schooling now fails students in terms of reading instruction can be connected to the accountability movement—focusing on ever-changing standards and high-stakes testing as well as imposing prescriptive reading programs onto teachers and students.

Parental zeal in the anti-vaccination movement has spurred measles outbreaks, proving that parental zeal must not be allowed to trump medical expertise.

Parental zeal for public schools properly serving students with dyslexia must not be allowed to drive reading policy for all children; this is just as unwarranted even as the consequences may not be so easily exposed.


 

Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Teacher Protests Are Student, Worker Advocacy

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was a public school English teacher, and for part of that time, I was also a coach.

I taught more than 100 students each year, meaning I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries every academic year along with thousands of other assignments and mountains of paperwork. I was responsible for preparing students for state testing, Advanced Placement testing, and the SAT.

While coaching, and during the soccer season, I would run to the gym between classes to wash and dry the soccer uniforms. Most days, I had to find time to go to the bathroom, and rarely had moments alone even during lunch.

I have never loved more deeply anything than teaching, and I so deeply loved all my students that is often overwhelming to think about no longer being a high school teacher. Facebook has provided me some connection with those students, but I miss intensely being that teacher and that coach.

When I left high school teaching for higher education, I was wearing a wrist brace because I could barely move my right hand from almost two decades of marking essays and trying my damnedest to teach young people to write well.

If you have never taught, you cannot appreciate the psychological and physical toll of being on throughout the day and in the service of dozens of young people, children and teens who depend on you. It isn’t the same as roofing or pouring concrete; it isn’t being an ER doctor or nurse. But teaching is tremendously stressful, exhausting, and often seemingly fruitless work.

And here are two facts I think you should read carefully and take seriously: Teachers are workers, and teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Following a pattern across the nation from West Virginia to Colorado and Los Angeles, including non-union states, South Carolina teachers are poised to march for their teaching conditions May 1, 2019, organized by SC for Ed.

South Carolina historically and currently represents some disturbing realities: SC is a politically and religiously conservative state (straight-block Democratic and then straight-block Republican when the parties shifted their conservative cores in the 1960s); SC is a high-poverty state with significant stratification and concentrations of poverty and affluence (resulting in the infamous Corridor of Shame identifying a stretch of high-poverty schools running diagonally along the coast); SC is a right-to-work state (the Orwellian misnomer for being non-union, thus anti-worker); SC is a high racial minority state when compared to the national percentages.

The state, in fact, is a poster child for the self-defeating South.

Once the teacher march gained momentum, with thousands of teachers poised to march and several districts closing, the governor and superintendent of education, both Republicans, have verbally slapped in the face the teaching profession and students once again, reinforcing the hard truth that Republicans in the state are anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-student, anti-worker, and anti-woman.

Nationally, teachers are significantly underpaid when compared to professions with comparable education. A recent analysis has found:

  • Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996 to 2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage penalty (controlling for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. The teacher weekly wage penalty was 5.3 percent in 1993, grew to 12.0 percent in 2004, and reached a record 21.4 percent in 2018.

The wage penalty for teachers in SC is -18%. And SC teacher pay is in the bottom 10 of the U.S.:

SC teacher salary rank.jpg

While salary and benefits are essential aspects of what makes any profession gain respect and thrive, teachers have called primarily for the type of teaching and learning conditions that allow them to be the best they can be for their students.

Teaching conditions include student/teacher ratios, the amount of bureaucratic obligations imposed on teachers, adequate time and space to plan and respond to student work, reasonable opportunities to eat and go to the restroom during the work day, administrative and parental support, and professional respect and autonomy.

We are approaching forty years of high-stakes accountability in education since SC committed to the accountability movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. And with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, the pressure and blame on teachers as failures has steadily increased, peaking under the Obama administration that doubled-down on teacher accountability and scapegoating teachers.

And, yes, the economic downturn during the bridge between George W. Bush and Obama profoundly impacted all public services and institutions. But as the report above explains, the decrease in funding, the lowering of respect for teachers, and the eroding of teaching conditions across the U.S. are not simply a reflection of a bad economy over a decade ago.

In SC and the U.S., we must finally admit that our schools are mostly reflections of our society and communities. Schools cannot alone change the gross inequities that impact our children and their families.

And we must also stop demanding that teachers be martyrs and missionaries. School teachers are mostly women, and these demands that teachers sacrifice themselves for their work while remaining passive and quiet are driven in significant part by sexism.

Teachers are great American workers. Most of us will spend our entire lives as workers.

Being a worker, especially in the service of others, is not only noble, but also worthy of the highest rewards and the greatest opportunities to excel.

Teachers are the only profession that serves all other professions.

That teachers in SC and all across the country have begun to stand up for their profession is a harbinger of our societal need to shift our allegiance away from the rich and the privileged and toward the working class, the working poor, and the poor.

If all the CEOs in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect any of us?

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect the entire nation?

The latter would be devastating so service workers are trapped not only in hourly wages, but also slave wages linked to tips. Most workers in the U.S. cannot afford to advocate for themselves while the wealthy enjoy salaries and the freedom to work as they please and advocate for themselves when needed.

Teachers are increasingly in non-union states where they have the same sort of obligations to work regardless of conditions.

Hourly wages and non-union laws are designed to control workers and benefit the wealthy.

The U.S. has long ago abandoned the worker; the working class, middle class, and working poor have been reduced to fodder for the wealthy.

Our political leader class comes from and serves the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

When political leadership fails us, we have a moral obligation to organize and to demand that we matter.

In SC, the governor and superintendent of education speak for the ruling class, the wealthy, and are effectively spitting in the faces of our teachers and our students. It is unconscionable and inexcusable.

Teachers marching in Columbia, SC are advocating for students and workers.

How are our students supposed to respect and learn from professionals who refuse to take a moral stand for those students?

How can we continue to pretend our public schools are in the service of our democracy if our political leaders deny teachers and students their rights and freedoms as citizens?

It is a cynical lie to accuse teachers of selfishness and “being political” when those making those claims are the ones being selfish and political.

To call for anyone else to not be political is an act of being political—the worst kind of political that silences democracy and freedom.

SC teachers by the thousands are joining a rich tradition of free people and reinvigorating a deteriorating foundational value in the U.S.—what many used to claim was part of American being great—honoring and valuing the American worker.

We cannot emphasize this enough, then: Teaching conditions are learning conditions, and the work of the teacher must be honored because that is also honoring the right of our children to learn.


See Also

In anti-union South Carolina, May 1 teacher protest could make history, Paul Bowers

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins