Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.

 

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Two Threads on Reading

I may tease these ideas more fully in blogs but for now, see two threads of mine below from Twitter.

What are teachers taught about reading in teacher education? “It just doesn’t matter.” [Click the Twitter bird in the upper right of the image for the thread.]

When advocacy for one student oversteps into what every student needs: The reading edition. [Click the Twitter bird in the upper right of the image for the thread.]

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading” (Updated)

While too often inordinately dangerous* for the most vulnerable, social media can be a powerful window into how we think about and judge education. Recently, the reading wars have been once again invigorated; this time driven often by parents and advocates for students with special needs and accompanied by a very familiar refrain, the “science of reading.”

One problem with public debate about education is that political and public voices often lack experience and expertise in education as well as any sort of historical context.

First, those who have studied the history of education, and specifically the ever-recurring reading wars, know that there has never been a decade in the last 100+ years absent political and public distress about a reading crisis.

However, one doesn’t need a very long memory to recognize that if we currently are (finally?) having a reading crisis, it comes in the wake of almost two decades (nested in a larger four decades of accountability birthed under Ronald Reagan) dedicated to scientifically-based education policy, specifically reading policy driven by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

The NRP was touted as (finally?) a clearing house of high-quality evidence on teaching children to read (although it proved itself to be partisan hokum).

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

For example, I noticed a very odd dynamic on social media: a post on a community Facebook page for advocates of education that was linked to a dyslexia Facebook page promoting this from Mississippi:

MS gains propaganda

The message included dramatic arguments: Mississippi has somehow found the science of reading and is excelling in ways South Carolina refuses to do.

Knowing standardized test scores, and NAEP specifically, well, I was immediately skeptical of these claims.

Here is the short version: In 2017 NAEP data, MS is slightly ahead of SC in 4th-grade reading (both states remain near the bottom and below the national average), but SC is slightly ahead of MS in 8th-grade reading (again, both near the bottom and below the national average):

4th reading 2017

8th reading 2017

While Mississippi is promoting gains (accurately), the data remain clear that high-poverty states tend to score low on standardized testing while more affluent states tend to score higher.

What is extremely important to note is that some traditionally low scoring states have found methods (test-prep, reading programs focused on raising test scores, and grade retention) that increase test scores short term (making for political propaganda), but those gains have proven to be a mirage, disappearing in the span between 3rd/4th- grade tests to 8th-grade tests and then high school (see, for example, research on Florida).

So we sit here with some real problems and questions: Is there a reading crisis in the U.S. and my home state of SC? And if so, is that crisis somehow the result of refusing to implement the science of reading?

Well, first, I need to note that the “science of reading” is code for intensive phonics and is intended as an antidote to the current evil in reading, balanced literacy.

Now, consider this: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar event happened when people started shouting about the reading crisis in California spawned by whole language (now, people claim balanced literacy and whole language are the same thing, and thus, equally evil).

Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, unmasked that round of the reading wars, noting that although CA claimed whole language as the official reading approach of the state, teachers were almost never practicing whole language.

Further, the reading score plummet of those years did correlate with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).

This isn’t particularly simple or compelling but let’s detail why this recent round of the reading wars is way off base:

  • Standardized tests of reading are only proxies of reading, typically they reduce reading to a series of discrete skills that test designers claim add up to reading. This is at least inadequate, if not misleading. No standardized test measures eagerness and joy for reading, as well; nearly none address critical literacy.
  • Making raising reading test scores your primary or exclusive goal is actually cheating all students. Period. And this is what many states are doing, including MS.
  • Achieving test score gains when you are low scoring is much easier that making gains when you are high achieving.
  • Adopting, implementing, and staying focused on any reading program—these are also very common practices, and completely flawed approaches to literacy. Access to books in the home and choice reading remain the strongest predictors of increased reading and reading achievement.
  • Ultimately, if we insist on using reading test scores to judge the quality of teaching reading in any state or the country, we must acknowledge that how students are being taught is both almost impossible to identify and completely impossible to characterize as one clear practice (teachers are very likely to shut their doors and do as they please, regardless of policies).
  • And most important is the fact that standardized test scores of reading are a reflection of a large number of factors, with teaching practices only one (probably small) causal factor.

To that last point, consider this matrix of 2017 NAEP reading scores (4th/8th) along with the poverty in each state, the African American population percentage, and the Hispanic/Latinx population percentage. These data portray a much more complex picture of the reading problem, and resist the distraction that how students are being taught reading is cheating students, who could be saved by the “science of reading” (which, by the way, is balanced literacy—o, irony):

[Click links above each chart for expanded charts with grade retention legislation identified.]

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 1

NAEP reading 2017 1

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 2

NAEP reading 2017 2

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 3

NAEP reading 2017 3

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 4

NAEP reading 2017 4

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 5

NAEP reading 2017 5

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 6

NAEP reading 2017 6

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 7

NAEP reading 2017 7

The “science of reading” mantra is a Big Lie, but it is also a huge and costly distraction from some real problems.

Relatively affluent states still tend to score above average or average on reading tests; relatively poor states tend to score below average on reading tests.

Some states that historically scored low, under the weight of poverty and the consequences of conservative political ideology that refuses to address that poverty, have begun to implement harmful policies to raise test scores (see the magenta highlighting) in the short-term for political points.

It is 2019. There is no reading crisis in the way the “science of reading” advocates are claiming.

It is 2019. Balanced literacy is the science of reading, but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.

It is 2019. Political and public efforts to do anything—often the wrong thing—so no one addresses poverty remain the American Way.

It is 2019. It is still mostly about poverty when people insist it is about reading and reading policy.


* This opening has been revised because I made a careless error by making an analogy using the “Wild West,” seeking an engaging opening but making a culturally insensitive comparison instead. I regret this use of phrasing, but also appreciate being kindly informed of my carelessness in private. I try to listen to such concerns, and kindness, and am learning every day to be a better person, and writer.


Third-Grade Reading Legislation

3rd grade retention legislation

Evidence v. Advocacy in Teaching Reading: “We Should Not Mistake Zeal for Warrant”

There is a certain karmic irony to the rise of public intellectuals who start to drive outside their lane—actually who take over all the lanes—only to prove that, in fact, they do not know everything.

Current bloviator-know-nothings include Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker, the latter who has squandered intellectual capital he had built in psycholinguistics.

Both are experts in the field of psychology, a discipline apt to include far too many scholars with delusions of grandeur (only surpassed in arrogance by scholars in economics and about on par with scholars in political science for knowing everything).

Those of us who are scholars, practitioners, or both in the field of education have suffered a long history of being marginalized as both not really an academic discipline (education as “teacher training”) and merely classroom teachers.

As someone with experience and expertise as a practitioner (high school English teacher for 18 years) and researcher in education, I often find I hold no sway in issues related to education in my public work or with my scholarly impact. Imagine if I held forth in book form on psychology, economic, or politics? Think the New York Times would scramble to hang on my every word as they did for a psychologist claiming to be an expert in teaching reading?

(These are rhetorical questions.)

There exists another layer to education that often remains unexamined: K-12 public education is almost exclusively run along partisan political lines through bureaucracy and legislation that is not created by practitioners or educational researchers.

Practitioners who teach literacy/reading and literacy/reading scholars are currently under assault again by a new round of the reading wars. As has been common in these periodic skirmishes, there really is no war because the so-called factions do not have anywhere near equal power.

As a self-proclaimed reading expert, Daniel Willingham, psychology professor, represents what is essentially wrong with the entire framing of debates about teaching reading as a war.

Stated perfectly by Andrew Davis in his careful debunking of intensive/synthetic phonics advocacy, “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.”

During the current media blitz once again hand-wringing that children are not being taught to read because teachers are not prepared properly in teacher education and students are not receiving intensive phonics instruction, Willingham held forth on his blog to answer: Just how polarized are we about reading instruction?

His post doesn’t answer the question very well, but in another moment of karmic irony, Willingham reveals why “we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

Affecting a tone of being fair and balanced, Willingham offers 6 positions on reading:

  1. The vast majority of children first learn to read by decoding sound. The extent to which children can learn to read in the absence of systematic phonics instruction varies (probably as a bell curve), depending on their phonemic awareness and other oral language skills when they enter school; the former helps a child to figure out decoding on her own, and the latter to compensate for difficulty in decoding.
  2. Some children—an extremely small percentage, but greater than zero—teach themselves to decode with very minimal input from adults. Many more need just a little support.
  3. The speed with which most children learn to decode will be slower if they receive haphazard instruction in phonics than it would be with systematic instruction. A substantial percentage will make very little progress without systematic phonics instruction.
  4. Phonics instruction is not a literacy program. The lifeblood of a literacy program is real language, as experienced in read-alouds, children’s literature, and opportunities to speak, listen, and to write. Children also need to see teachers and parents take joy in literacy.
  5. Although systematic phonics instruction seems like it might bore children, researchers examining the effect of phonics instruction on reading motivation report no effect.
  6. That said, there’s certainly the potential for reading instruction to tilt too far in the direction of phonics instruction, a concern Jean Chall warned about in her 1967 report. Classrooms should devote much more time to the activities listed in #4 above than to phonics instruction.

He then claims the reading wars problem is that factions take either the side of the even or the odd numbered claims—although he argues “I think all of the six statements above are true.”

The problem is a sneaky one because most of Willingham’s audience, like Willingham, has no literacy expertise or practical experience teaching children to read. For a lay audience, it is unfair to expect anyone to notice that Willingham has misrepresented the so-called factions in the reading war.

One of the leading literacy experts in the U.S. is Stephen Krashen; in his relentless analysis of research on teaching reading, he notes that the pro-phonics research often is deeply flawed because it presents either garbled or false definitions of whole language (or balanced literacy) in order to make claims of intensive phonics being more effective.

Willingham’s claims about reading instruction and the failures of teaching, teachers, and teacher education can only stand on completely misrepresenting the field of literacy and the so-called debate itself.

Let me frame a different approach to understanding the problem pro-phonics advocates fumble.

Here is the real dynamic concerning the teaching of reading in U.S. K-12 education: Teaching reading practices are guided primarily by legislation (with no assurance that legislation is grounded in anything more than zeal at the expense of warrant) and then driven by the combination of textbook companies appealing to that legislation and accountability structures (most significantly the mandate to raise reading test scores without investigating if those scores are credible proxies for reading growth or—god forbid—reading eagerness).

That is almost the entire real-world power structure governing how students are taught to read.

Well outside this dynamic stand teacher education and literacy/reading researchers, practitioners, and advocates—all of whom have almost no power, yet are the scapegoats when psychology-professors-turned-reading-experts hold forth in book form or in the NYT.

I should note, as well, that an even smaller and less powerful group often not acknowledged is literacy experts with a historical perspective, a group that I strongly identify with.

The teaching of reading and the public debate about reading have always been characterized by overblown histrionics and a nearly complete failure to implement what we know about learning to read in K-12 public schools because of partisan political bureaucracy, textbook companies, the massive and growing testing industry, and the misguided influence of non-educators posing as reading and literacy experts.

I realize there is nothing sexy about this—there is no war, or crisis—and this message once again will fall on deaf ears because I do not currently hold a position in a psychology department or an elected position where I could pander to an uninformed electorate.


Recommended

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

What is wrong with NPR’s “why millions of children can’t read” (NPR Morning Report, Jan 2 and Feb 6, 2019), Stephen Krashen

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

Misreading Cause and Effect in Literacy Instruction: Vocabulary Edition

A former student of mine in teacher education, who was an English major and is in her third year of teaching, excitedly shared with me that her high school English students have spontaneously begun maintaining a vocabulary list.

What is interesting about this vocabulary list? Students are cataloguing the words they are learning simply by hearing this teacher use the language of a highly literate and well-educated person.

Marakoff word wall

Word wall created and maintained by students at Travelers Rest High School (South Carolina).

I take no credit for this, but this real-world, spontaneous, and rich environment for literacy growth does reflect (although in a more effective way) what I share with my teacher candidates about my 18 years teaching high school English.

Eventually, I ended the practice in my English department of issuing grammar textbooks and vocabulary workbooks to all students. Teachers were given sets of both and allowed to use as they pleased. In my classes, neither were used in any way.

As the example above from my former student’s class shows, I would model for my students how to discuss literature (texts), films, and popular music, often restating their comments in more sophisticated and complex ways.

Gradually, and spontaneously, my students began to mimic the language and terminology in their discussions and writing.

Coincidentally, my former student’s excitement over her students’ vocabulary activities preceded by a couple days a post on NCTE Connects asking about effective vocabulary instruction. I immediately responded:

Like grammar instruction, vocabulary instruction is deeply misguided when it is in isolation and vocabulary-for-vocabulary’s sake. People are confused and tend to invert erroneously what people with high literacy and large vocabularies mean. Vocabulary is a consequence of rich and extended literacy experiences; cramming vocabulary INTO students is not how you make someone highly literate. In short, if you care about vocabulary, reduce dramatically time and energy spent on vocabulary instruction and focus on rich literacy experiences, notably reading by choice and vibrant discussion. One early-career teacher I know has witnessed her students initiating a vocabulary list of words she teaches them simply through her own expression (her talking to the classes and students); they hear new words almost daily, ask her about them, and are engaged in authentic vocabulary attainment. Also fyi: Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

This comment is brief so I want to elaborate on some of the key points.

First, the traditional urge to teach literacy skills—grammar, mechanics, usage, and vocabulary, for example—in isolation and sequentially to build toward some ideal whole is deeply engrained but also deeply flawed.

I find this to be the result of uncritical assumptions about the power and effectiveness of analysis. Education has embraced a truism that likely isn’t true: working from part to whole is easier and better for all learning.

How many of us have uttered or been told, kindly, “Let me break this down for you”?

Let me pause here and ask you to do a thought experiment (or maybe just focus on a very specific memory).

Have you ever purchased something you had to assemble? Furniture, a swing set, the hellscape that is anything from Little Tikes?

These items come with detailed instructions, guiding you from part to whole to construct whatever you have purchased. Have you ever been compelled to dutifully follow those directions, laying out the parts as directed and then meticulously beginning your project?

And do you recall that moment when you were mostly lost because you couldn’t really decipher the directions? What did you do? Maybe you grabbed the box and began comparing your Frankenstein’s monster scattered on the floor with the whole thing depicted in the picture on the box?

This urge, some brain research suggests, may be rooted in that only about 1 in 4 people are predisposed to part-to-whole thinking—while 3 in 4 of us work naturally whole-to-part*.

Here is a powerful example of how norms and assumptions can create ineffective practices. Literacy instruction may not be more efficient or effective for most of our students in traditional approaches grounded in skills instruction because literacy is wholistic.

Next, this flawed set of assumptions is also driven by flipping—and misreading—cause and effect in literacy growth.

Yes, highly literate people and sophisticated uses of language are often characterized, for example, by large and complex vocabularies. However, this characteristic is an outcome, an effect.

The mistake too many make in literacy instruction is viewing targeted vocabulary expansion as a cause for rich literacy; thus, extensive vocabulary lists, workbooks, and tests (including nearly fanatical instruction in prefixes, root words, and suffixes) that waste time and energy better spent in the real cause of literacy growth—rich literacy experiences such as reading often and deeply by choice and having complex discussions grounded in those rich experiences with a wide variety of texts.

Here is a relatively simple and more accurate truism, then: A large and nimble vocabulary is an effect of rich literacy experiences—not the cause of literacy development.

So here is a final thought experiment: Imagine taking those vocabulary workbooks out of your students’ hands (and backpacks) and then lead them to the school library, introducing them to the greatest vocabulary books available lining the shelves all around them.


* My argument about the relationship between part and whole, after almost four decades of teaching and spending much of that studying intently the research on literacy acquisition and growth, is that part and whole are symbiotic, working together in ways that defy a linear/sequential model. So I am not really rejecting part-to-whole for whole-to-part, but arguing for whole-part-whole-part … something not easy to express in words or a diagram.

“[A]ll this fiddle”: On Genre Wars in a Time of Craft Beer

Poetry MM

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

Several years ago I was initiated into the craft beer world—having been a serious drinker of beer since high school but being a somewhat resolute low-brow consumer in many ways eschewing the snobbery I witnessed among wine connoisseurs.

Along with my cycling friends Rob and Brian, I made a couple trips to Colorado for bicycling and beer; while on those trips, I was gradually indoctrinated into a more refined understanding of craft beer, mostly guided by Brian.

Today, I frequent local and regional breweries almost exclusively for my beer drinking—along with my one remain low-brow habit of grande Dos Equis ambers a couple times a week at Mexican restaurants.

I remain far too naturally unsophisticated to ever grasp wine nuances, although I have friends who can easily convince me to enjoy wine with them, but my beer palate is moderately well educated, and I do enjoy a wide range of craft beers that I am certain baffles the mostly Bud Light crowd of my hometown and state.

Having come to beer snobbery late in life, I find the distinctions about “good” or “bad” beer quite similar to the genre wars that I have been living since I was a teen since my introduction to so-called literary fiction was significantly primed by my initial love for science fiction (mere “genre” fiction) and comic books (not any sort of literature at all!).

In Literary fiction or genre? When Megan Abbott and Naomi Novik are writing, who cares, Michale Robbins opens by confronting: “If there’s a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction,’ it’s certainly not that the former isn’t literary and the latter isn’t generic. It’s mostly that the generic conventions of the latter are those that critics and professors are trained to value most.”

A former student, who was a top-notch English major and now teaches English, recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and drew the same conclusion—if we remain in a formalist paradigm of what counts as “literary,” then Tartt’s novel may well be pronounced so much popular fiddle.

Yet, as my former student noted, the novel could just as easily be praised if we change our metrics, set aside our snobbery.

John Warner’s Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ really required reading? Disrupt Texts challenges teachers to reconsider the classics also ventures into the debate about such snobberies grounded in the canon:

Much of the discussion among educators focuses on how using these texts can be enhanced by injecting marginalized perspectives. This is the “disrupt” part of Disrupt Texts. Rather than taking a single perspective as representative for all, the discussion challenges the notion of a single, fixed history. This is the root of critical thinking and a pre-requisite to lasting learning.

Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.

Warner’s last point can be extended, I think, to giving students not the right or only lens for evaluating texts (using the often unnamed New Criticism approach to dissecting text often written with New Criticism’s emphasis on craft and meaning in mind) but many and varied opportunities to examine texts in order to draw their own ways to navigate texts (a variety of lens, some more formal such as feminist or Marxist) and their own guidelines for what makes texts compelling, satisfying, and even “good.”

My former student and I continued to discuss her experience with The Goldfinch, the challenges, I noted, of making a really long novel satisfying. Tartt’s work, she said, was enjoyable to read, but she felt it failed in some important ways—ways I categorize as achieving or not that “satisfying.”

This discussion prompted me to think about Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a very long and complex work.

When I first read 1Q84, I was initially drawn to the rotating main characters, but when a third focal character is introduced, I began to feel uncomfortable, a sense that the novels’ cohesion was being compromised.

Also I was uneasy with Murakami’s novel being labeled “science fiction”; I could not see anything about the work as I read it that would make me classify it as that genre (maybe something like fantasy or magical realism?).

I find all of Murakami compelling so I read quite eagerly even as I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the long work would not remain cohesive (I am sure my English training in New Criticism and literary snobbery were in play here as well). However, the work came together, fell into place—although how that happens is at least fantastical (one would argue a convention of genre not literary fiction).

All of this is to say that as an experienced and autonomous reader I have developed capacities for interrogating texts, mostly to determine if I enjoyed the work and the writer.

Some of my formal background as a student and English education major/English teacher actually inhibits my joy as a reader—a reality all too common for students.

The genre wars, then, often create barriers to reading and reading for pleasure.

In Moore’s “Poetry,” her second stanza evokes “high-sounding interpretation,” “unintelligible,” and “we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

Writers, like Moore and others, it seems, do themselves play into the genre wars and all that snobbery, especially about what constitutes the “good” writers as distinct from the hacks. But in the end, writers are mostly about having readers, readers eager to read, readers satisfied by a compelling and cohesive text—wishing for a next story, or book, or essay, or poem.

I cannot shake from my own mind as a reader the importance of texts being satisfying, cohesive. But I also think about my joy as a reader.

Two of the most wonderful texts I have ever read are Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We”  and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—beautiful, compelling works of fiction that depend heavily on so-called genre conventions but rise well above the bar of satisfying (even if we cannot resist the allure of evaluation, whether they are “literature”).

As a reader I am seeking writing that demonstrates purpose, a fidelity, I think, to the sort of writing the writer intends, the sort of text I am choosing to read.

Everything else is just fiddle, like calling Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.