Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack:Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

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)