You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

Call for Chapter Proposals: Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Co-editors P.L. Thomas and Christian Z. Goering

Critical Media Literacies and Youth series, Sense Publishers

Series Editor, William Reynolds

Rationale

In the fall of 2016, just after the U.S. elected Donald Trump president, a black female first-year student submitted an essay on the prospects for Trump’s presidency. The course is a first-year writing seminar focusing on James Baldwin in the context of #BlackLivesMatter; therefore, throughout the course, students have been asked to critically investigate race, racism, gender, sexism, and all types of bias related to the U.S.—through the writing of Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Teju Cole, and Arundhati Roy, among others.

The student’s discussion of Trump’s policies, however, were hyperlinked to Trump’s campaign website. Discussing the draft with the student revealed that the current post-truth America is a significant issue among youth who seem unable to distinguish between facts and so-called fake news.

To blame youth for this lack of critical media literacy seems misguided since the mainstream media itself plays a significant role in misinforming the public. For example, as a subset of the wider media, edujournalism represents a default lack of critical perspective among journalists.

Claims by mainstream media are impressive:

Education Week is the best independent, unbiased source for news and information on pre-K-12 education. With an average of 42 stories posted each weekday on edweek.org, there is always a news, multimedia, or opinion piece to keep you up-to-date on post-election changes in policy, and to help you become a better practitioner and subject matter expert.

The reality is much different. When journalists at Education Week were challenged about their lack of critical coverage of NCTQ, Juana Summers Tweeted, “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the study is credible.”

In other words, mainstream media are dedicated to press-release journalism and maintaining a “both sides” stance that avoids making informed decisions about any claims from their sources—including the campaign of Trump.

This volume, then, seeks contributions that address, but are not limited to, the following in the context of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S. about critical media literacy:

  • Unpacking the lack of critical perspectives in mainstream media.
  • Examining “post-truth” America.
  • Confronting issues of race, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia as related to the media.
  • Exploring the promises of the New Media as a haven for truth.

Contributions should seek ways to couch chapters in practical aspects of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S., but can reach beyond the traditional classroom into youth culture as that intersects with critical media literacy.

Send a tentative title, author information, and 100-word abstract of the proposed chapter as a Word file (use your name to label the file, please). Make sure your abstract clearly shows how the proposed chapter addresses the focus of the volume—critical media literacy, fake news, and post-truth U.S. as related to youth.

Contact: paul.thomas[at]furman.edu

Timeline, etc., TBD


Critical Media Literacies and Youth series, Sense Publishers

Series Editor, William Reynolds

cmls-3

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

The presidential election cycle provides one powerful and disturbing lesson in the U.S.: formal education has failed to accomplish the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people.

Often, we view formal education as a key to economic success, emphasizing the strong correlation between higher educational attainment and greater income. But we also remain committed to our mythologies and cultural narratives about education being the “great equalizer.”

However, as this discussion will examine further, these beliefs are not supported by evidence. Yes, greater educational attainment correlates well with income, but schooling does not create equity; for example, see the inequity remaining by race:

fig_2

And the inequity remaining by race and gender:

access to good jobs race gender

While the relationship between formal education and any person’s career and earning potential remains incredibly important in a capitalistic society, the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people remains the relationship between formal education and freedom as well as social equity.

Integral to the role of formal education as it contributes to individual freedom and societal equity is critical literacy: “challeng[ing] the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development.” For Paul Freire, a founding thinker in critical pedagogy, critical literacy is the ability to read and re-read the world along with the ability to write and re-write the world (see Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

In more accessible language, critical literacy is the ability of any person to act on her/his world instead of being a slave to that world.

Critical literacy is living instead of simply surviving.

Here I want to offer one caveat: As I note often, formal schooling is not the only way to being educated. Many people (writers notably) have achieved a high level of awareness and education in spite of formal schooling.

Yet, universal public education—as created by our very flawed founding fathers—was rightfully placed as essential if people were to achieve freedom and if a country were to ever become equitable (in our inception, we were far from that; today, equity remains a goal of the U.S., not something we have achieved).

But being well educated is not simply about the acquisition of knowledge (what Freire rejected as the “banking” concept of education). Being well educated is about being able to acquire knowledge in order to investigate and interrogate that knowledge: What is the source of that knowledge? Whose interest does that knowledge serve?

Despite being economically and militarily powerful, the U.S. remains stagnated, when compared to other democracies, in a belief culture—stubbornly clinging to unwarranted beliefs despite an abundance of evidence easily accessible to anyone.

My public writing is dominated by interacting with well-educated people (often edujournalists) who are committed to provably false claims, and daily I interact with family, friends, and students who also cling to falsehoods and function while holding contradictory beliefs.

These experiences are vivid to me because they reflect my own journey, having been raised in the South and indoctrinated with beliefs that I now reject strongly—racism, classism, sexism, homophobia.

Much of my life over the past thirty years has been stepping back from beliefs that I discover are false, flawed. That process is hurtful, disappointing, even embarrassing.

Even though I am 55 and well educated, it still happens.

When teaching writing, I am so aware of the power of misconceptions and false beliefs, that I teach students to focus on misconceptions when doing public writing—a dependable pattern of “you likely think X is true, but consider this.”

And throughout all my teaching, grounded in critical pedagogy, I foster critical literacy as a foundational commitment to individual freedom and equity.

Let me end with a couple examples.

Critical literacy is an awareness of and investigation of codes. For example, why are blacks often called “thugs,” but whites demonstrating similar behaviors are not? Because “thug” is a code for “nigger” that remains socially acceptable only because of a lack of critical literacy.

And research shows that when whites are confronted with the fact of racism, they immediately emphasize their own hardships. This also is a lack of critical literacy.

Critical literacy allows an understanding of percentages: more whites are shot by police because whites outnumber blacks about 5 to 1, but blacks are more likely to be shot by police in terms of percentages—a fact of racial inequity.

Finally, as well, that whites suffer hardships isn’t the issue—because whites do. Racism is about power, and the fact that white hardship is not because of being white while black hardship often is because of being black.

Belief is dangerous because it oversimplifies the world to the point of being harmful.

Critical literacy is about being able to step back from those simple beliefs in order to negotiate and even change the real and complex world.

This is the more important why of education, more important than what job or salary anyone will have or achieve.

Education is about taking control of life so that it doesn’t happen to you, so that it doesn’t steamroll over you.

Without critical literacy, a people become pawns to demagogues and buffoons.

We are a people without critical literacy and that may result in our being the pawns we deserve to be.

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.

In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).

Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.

Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.

Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.

Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.

All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.

During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”

Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.

As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.

But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.

And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.

So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.

From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.

The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”

In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.

So what does all this mean?

Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.

Two of the best examples of this skills plague are the obsession with prescriptive/isolated grammar instruction and the Queen Mother of literacy scams, the “word gap.”

The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]

Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.

Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.

Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.

Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.

First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.

As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.

But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.

Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.

And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.

We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.

Let me end with my graduate course.

For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.

I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.

I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.

I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”

I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.

I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.


See Also

Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

It’s finally time to stop correcting people’s grammar, linguist says

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Oliver Kamm

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

All teachers are incredibly important, but high school English teachers will always have a special place in my heart.

I am in my fourth decade as an educator, spending almost two decades as a public high school English teacher (many years coaching and teaching/advising journalism/newspaper as well) and now in my second decade as a teacher educator (primarily working with future secondary ELA teachers) and a first year writing instructor.

Significant in my teaching journey are being in my area National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project) and then serving as a lead co-instructor in that same project for a couple years.

Concurrent with my career as an educator, I have been a serious and published writer for about thirty years. And of course I have been madly in love with books of all kinds since before memory.

I write this specifically to my colleagues who are high school English teachers, but all teachers really, out of my greatest respect for teacher professionalism, importance, and autonomy—as well as my deepest commitment, the sacredness of every single student who enters any teacher’s classroom.

While at times this may read as scolding, preaching, or prescribing, I am seeking here to invite every teacher to do what I have done my entire career—stepping back from practice as often as possible, checking practice against my most authentic and critical goals, and then changing that practice if those do not match.

I am fortunate that my students often contact me, email or Facebook are common, and generally they are too kind. Typically, they reach out to thank me for preparing them as writers, and few things could make me prouder to be a teacher.

But these moments are tempered at times because they are speaking from decades ago—during years when I now know my practice was off, sincere but flawed.

So I come to teachers with this invitation from many years thinking hard about teaching literacy, focusing on writing, and being a serious writer myself. These thoughts are informed by years teaching English, years teaching young people to be teachers, and years teaching other teachers as well as observing practicing teachers in the field.

I have been fortunate recently to teach four young women who have secured their first teaching jobs as English teachers. Working with them has impacted me profoundly because they are wonderful additions to our field, but also they have encountered a field and practicing teachers who have routinely discouraged them and me about who teaches and how we teach English.

Michelle Kenney’s The Politics of the Paragraph coming in the wake of two separate debates about the use of “they” as a singular gender-free pronoun (see my The Politics of Teaching Grammar) along with my current literacy graduate course has all spurred me to the thoughts below—this rising concern about how English teachers impact our students as free people and as literate people.

My lessons also are strongly shaded by the history of the field of education broadly and English teaching narrowly as I have come to understand both through the lens of Lou LaBrant. Teaching and teachers have been profoundly and negatively impacted by eternal forces for a century at least, and those corrosive forces have been intensified during the recent thirty-plus years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Now, then, I offer this invitation to consider lessons I have learned about teaching English:

  • Begin with and remain true to authentic literacy, and then comply with standards and testing mandates within that greater commitment. Our planning and practice must start with our students’ literacy being sacred—seeking ways to foster eager readers and writers who still must often demonstrate literacy proficiency in the worst possible settings. This is not a call to be negligent, but to be dedicated to the power of literacy first and bureaucracy second.
  • Forefront your expertise and professionalism 24/7. Teachers have never received the professional respect we deserve, and during the accountability era, our professionalism has been even further eroded by shifting all the authority for how and what we teach to standards and high-stakes test. Our expertise and professionalism are our only weapons for demanding the authority for teaching be with us—not bureaucratic mandates, or commercial programs. Every moment of our lives we are teachers, and every moment we are representing our profession.
  • Teach students—not programs, standards, test-prep, or your discipline. Especially at the high school level, and particularly during the accountability era, we are apt to lose sight of our central purpose in teaching English—our students.
  • Resist teaching so that students acquire fixed content and instead foster students as ongoing learners. Recently one of my teacher candidates attended a course in which fellow English teachers were adamant they needed students to learn to cite using MLA by memory. My former student resisted this, suggesting that students should understand citation broadly and then be equipped to follow the ever-changing and different citation guides they will encounter as college students and beyond. This exemplifies a central flaw in teaching English that views learning as acquiring fixed content. Read Lou LaBrant’s New Bottles for New Wine (1952), in which she implores: “Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation?” (p. 342).
  • Become and remain a student of language. What is your background in the history of the English language? How much linguistics have you studied? For me, a key shift in teaching English was embracing a descriptive grammarian stance informed by linguistics and the history of the language. This allows me to view student language use as part of that history, and helps me focus on teaching students to play with language and then to edit and revise their writing, instead of focusing on “correcting.” This is central to having a low-stakes classroom that sees language as investigation.
  • Reject deficit views of language and students. The prescriptive grammarian comes from a history that linked language use with people’s character—a false link. While ideas such as the “word gap” is compelling, it is both false (based on one flawed study) and counter to what we know about literacy and power. Language changes, and claims about “correctness” are always more about power than either language development or literacy. Please read James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and Ralph Ellison’s What These Children Are Like.
  • Foster genre awareness in students while interrogating authentic texts (and rejecting artificial writing templates). As Kenney details, writing templates may prepare students for artificial demonstrations of literacy (high-stakes tests), but they ultimately fail authentic writing and literacy goals. Published writing nearly never follows the 5-paragraph essay template, and the whole thesis idea is equally rare in published writing. Students as writers need to be eager readers who are encouraged to mine that reading constantly for greater genre awareness about how any writer makes a piece what the writer is seeking to accomplish. What is an Op-Ed? A memoir? Investigative journalism? A feature story on an Olympic athlete? The essay form, even in academia, is a question, not a template. Please read Ann John’s Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest and Neil Gaiman’s “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” (it is clean, I promise, and from his collection, The View from the Cheap Seats).
  • Be a dedicated reader and writer yourself. While I argue above for being a professional educator 24/7, I caution here about allowing our teacher Selves to erase our literate Selves. My voracious reading life and my co-career as a writer are invaluable and inseparable from my being an effective teacher. Our reading and writing lives keep us grounded in our authentic goals eroded by accountability.
  • Choice, joy, and kindness. Writing in 1949, LaBrant warned: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276). How often have we allowed prescription and standards-based, test-prep instruction to instill in our students a distaste for reading and writing? If we demand all students read Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter, and then most of them come to hate reading, if we hammer the five-paragraph essay into students who wish never to write again, what have we accomplished?

And to offer an umbrella under which my invitation to my lessons rest, I believe we must heed John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

More Questions for The Post and Courier: “Necessary Data” or Press-Release Journalism?

Back-to-back editorials at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)—Bolster efforts at rural schools (18 June 2016) and Make literacy No. 1 priority (19 June 2016)—offer important messages about the importance of addressing South Carolina’s historical negligence of high-poverty schools, especially those serving black and brown students, and the folly of cutting funding for literacy initiatives in Charleston.

However, reading these two editorials leaves one well aware that good intentions are not enough and wondering if the P&C editors even read their own editorials.

In the 18 June 2016 editorial, the editors argue: “Acting rashly without necessary data would be misguided. But taking baby steps while one class after another misses out on an adequate education is a continued waste of valuable time.”

And the very next day, we read:

Still, parents should expect their children’s reading skills to improve noticeably.

And it’s fair for parents of the youngest students to expect significant improvement in their children’s reading by the end of the school year — if the new approach works. Of course, parents also can make a difference by reading to their youngsters every day at home.

If Dr. Postlewait’s plan doesn’t succeed, the school board must find a way to pay for programs that do.

Those programs exist. At Meeting Street Academy private school, and now at Meeting Street @ Brentwood, entering students score well below average on literacy tests and quickly catch up to and surpass the average. All Charleston County students deserve the same opportunity.

This praise of “programs [that] exist” is the exact “acting rashly” the P&C rightfully warns about the day before.

So what about “necessary data”?

We have two problems.

First, we do not have a careful analysis of data by those not invested in these schools about the two praised school programs. The fact is that we do not know if successful reading programs exist at these schools.

Second, we do know that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers'” (Harris, 2006). In other words, we now have decades of data refuting the political, public, and media fascination with “miracle schools.”

As I have repeatedly warned: “miracle schools” are almost always unmasked as mirages, but even if a rare few are outliers, they cannot serve as models for all schools because they are not replicable or scalable.

Therefore, the P&C editors are right to warn about acting rashly and without the necessary data as we reform public schools and bolster literacy among our students.

But the P&C is wrong to continue press-release journalism that contradicts that mandate.

Teaching Poetry with Fidelity: “Does it matter?”

My take on Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” has always focused on the callousness of her math teacher and the subsequent marginalizing of Rachel, who represents for me all students and especially vulnerable students.

Due to both historical and recent (the accountability movement) pressures, teachers fail when they see their work as teaching content instead of teaching students.

Students as well as their love of literature and language and poetry are often sacrificed at the alter of the literary technique hunt so that they can answer questions correctly on a standardized test.

Thus we teach Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” to identify the metaphors and similes; we assign Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” for a daring look at rhyme scheme.

What a bloody waste.

For those who teach, and teach poetry, and love poetry—and probably lose a piece of their soul each time they teach poetry—I recommend the brief poem “Forty-Seven Minutes” by Nick Flynn.

The beauty of the poem is that it sets up a classroom situation in which a student pushes back against the literary technique hunt with “Does it matter?

The persona of the poem is forced to conclude:

I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.

We must ask, then, when teaching poetry, what it is we are about.

Do we owe anything to our students, to our students’ love of language, literature, poetry? Do we owe anything to our fidelity to poetry itself?

If yes—and I think it is yes—it does not matter if we name the techniques; but otherwise, if poetry is simply one of many sacrifices to the standards and testing gods, then let us reduce all the beauty that is poetry to covering the curriculum, meeting the obligations of accountability.

And all else be damned.