On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

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.

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016)

“All we gotta do is be brave
And be kind”

“Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” The National

…the world is gone daft with this nonsense.

John Proctor, The Crucible, Arthur Miller

In a keynote address at the 1960 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant asserted:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which [she/]he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Published as The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English in the September 1961 English Journal, this characteristic call to action from LaBrant resonates in 2016 as English teachers prepare to gather in Atlanta, Georgia for #NCTE16 with the increasingly important theme of Faces of Advocacy.

Fifty-five years ago, LaBrant advocated for teaching:

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A [hu]man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner….But the teacher is something quite different from the [hu]man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results. (p. 380)

Most practicing teachers today work within and against political and bureaucratic forces that “[reduce teaching] to a mechanical procedure.”

And even more disturbing is LaBrant’s warning:

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which [she/]he deals and the very materials with which [she/]he works, that teacher is a robot [her/]himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless [she/]he knows [she/]he will have freedom to use [her/]his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

At mid-twentieth century, LaBrant spoke against the all-too-familiar “bad” teacher myth used in contemporary calls for accountability:

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when [she/]he has to face [her/]his own decisions, and when [she/]he supports that decision. (p. 383)

The de-professionalizing of all teachers, then, is not something new, but a historical fact of being a teacher. However, LaBrant confronted the culpability among educators themselves:

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master [her/]his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But [her/]his right to choose comes only when [she/]he has read and considered methods other than [her/]his own. [She/]He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” lamented LaBrant. “By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire”:

There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about [her/]his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which [she/]he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (pp. 390-391)

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux

“Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it,” writes Teju Cole in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S. “It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”

LaBrant wrote about the field of teaching English throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the power—both for evil and for good—of language forefront of her concerns:

Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. (“The Individual and His Writing,” 1950, p. 265)

So we teachers of English/ELA—and all educators—sit in 2016 confronted with a “[m]isuse of language” that has given rise to a presidency built on racism, sexism, and xenophobia; therefore, as during LaBrant’s career, we teachers of English/ELA must embrace the most pressing responsibilities.

But driving Trump’s and his supporters’ bigotry has been a powerful corruption of language: blatant lies, denials of those lies, and the ugliest of coded language. In short, bullying has rewarded a political leader with the highest office in a free society.

Parody of Trump’s misuse of language cannot be taken lightly, but that misuse has real consequences on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, including children in the classrooms of teachers across the U.S.

Immediately, then, teachers must admit “that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces” (Kincheloe, 2005).

In other words, although teachers are historically and currently de-professionalized by being told not to be political, as LaBrant argued, educators cannot reinforce that mantra by calling for politics-free zones in our classrooms and in our professional spaces.

Calling for no politics is a political act of silencing that brazenly takes a masked political stand in favor of the status quo.

Teaching and learning are unavoidably “politically contested spaces,” but they are unavoidably ethically contested spaces as well.

Language is a human behavior that allows us to wrestle with and find our moral grounding; and thus, those teaching literacy have a profoundly ethical mission to work toward the Right, Good, and Decent—in the act of teaching but also as a personal model.

As philosopher Aaron Simmons argues:

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

The naive stance of neutrality can no longer be who teachers are because, as I noted above, to be neutral is to support the status quo, and in the U.S., the status quo is a cancer that left untreated promises to kill us all.

As Lucas Jacob argues directly:

Calling a politician out for Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny is not a matter of exerting undue influence by favoring one political party over another; nor is it a matter of disrespecting the presidency. Naming Mr. Trump’s hate speech as such is, rather, a moral imperative for supporting the missions of K-12 schools, in which Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist words and actions are punishable offenses that can (and must) be treated as being beyond the pale.

“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979 on Black English. “It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

Just as LaBrant linked language and power, Baldwin extended that dynamic to include race—and called for using that power in the name of community instead of divisiveness.

The word “critical,” now, has taken on exponential layers of meaning.

We are in critical times, and thus, as Kincheloe explains about the political and ethical responsibilities of being critical educator who seeks for students critical literacy:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

In its simple form, to call a lie, a lie; to name racism, racism; to reject hate as hate—these are the undeniable responsibilities of teachers, especially teachers of English/ELA.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of a lie is to lie.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of racism is racism, in the face of sexism is sexism, in the face of xenophobia is xenophobia.

To divorce the act of teaching from the world within which it resides is to abdicate the greatest potential of teaching and learning: to change the human experience from dark to light.

If we shun our responsibilities as teachers in 2016, we are turning our backs to the ugliest realities faced by Baldwin nearly forty years ago:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Writing two decades before her NCTE keynote examined above, LaBrant made a foundational request: “For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that [she/]he teach in [her/]his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life” (p. 206).

And about “this honest use of language,” there are only two options—although remaining neutral is not one of them.

Free

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]

In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.

It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).

Nothing of the government is free—not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.

All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.

Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.

But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free”—free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.

But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.

Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product—but nothing is free, including freedom.

*

Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”

LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name—these human acts define, shape, and create the world.

But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).

This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic”—and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.

*

Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.

Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?

Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.

Feel free to take such care.

Teaching Writing in ELA/English: “not everything to do, but something”

A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong.

“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau

It is a misguided and unfair reality, but middle and high school ELA/English teachers are in many ways asked to do everything—and they cannot, of course.

Traditionally, ELA/English teachers have been charged as the primary, if not exclusive, teachers of all things literacy as well as their field of English; in other words, charged with teaching students how to read, write, speak, and listen along with covering whatever body of literature a particular grade level is assigned (and about which students may be tested in high-stakes ways).

My dissertation focus and most-times muse, Lou LaBrant was as acerbic as she was brilliant (and she was brilliant). Once when fielding questions, she chastised a teacher that if she did not know how to teach ELA/English, she should quick, learn how, and then return to the field.

Not a shining moment for LaBrant, and an attitude we must not tolerate. It is not ours to eat our own kind, and it is far past time that we allow ELA/English to be under the weight of doing everything.

This has been weighing on my mind as an 18-year high school English teacher and current English educator for 15 years and counting because of several conversations around my blog posts challenging the teaching of research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

Maybe I was drawn to LaBrant because we share a tendency to seem strident when we are passionate—or maybe studying and writing about LaBrant so deeply infused my passion with a strident streak. Honestly, it is likely the former.

So I am guilty too often of allowing my genuine passion to come off as demanding, judgmental, and unyielding.

Shame on me.

“The Kindness of Strangers”

But I am also fortunate to be in the presence of the kindness of strangers—those who ask, prod, challenge, and join the quest.

In particular, comments by a beginning teacher and a teacher at a school that seeks to prepare students for college really hit home for me in terms of asking what ELA/English teachers are to teach in terms of writing if they abandon, as I believe they should, the traditional and scripted research paper assignment and the 5-paragraph essay.

First, I must stress that for all teachers, and particularly beginning teachers, the transition from traditional practice to warranted or best practice must be through baby steps: choosing one or a few changes to practices that are manageable, incorporating them, and then pacing over a long period of time (months, years) further changes as manageable.

I cannot stress enough, whether it is about so-called best practice, responding to student writing, or preparing students for college, we must be neither martyrs, nor missionaries.

To be a teacher of ELA/English is honorable in itself.

To move from the 5-paragraph essay/template approach to writing instruction to a workshop/authentic form approach, then, begins by identifying the components of writing workshop (time, ownership, response) in order to implement some of those components within the current traditional structure. And then gradually adding components until the traditional structure is replaced with writing workshop.

If you are not ready to release the 5-paragraph essay form, can you drop the prompt and allow student choice in topics? And can you remove some direct instruction for students to draft and collaborate on their essays during class as well as your own conferencing with students as they brainstorm and compose?

Along with baby steps, change is facilitated by purposeful abandonment of traditional practices that are discredited by evidence (both the research base and a teacher’s own practice). No teacher should try to cram in new practice along with old practice.

Incremental change and abandonment allow teachers to take the needed time to prepare themselves for teaching writing more authentically, without templates—finding, reading, and gathering mentor texts of the types of essays they believe their students should be writing, for example, along with honing their craft at guiding students through reading like a writer activities in order to build the writer’s toolbox for students.

That said, the field of ELA/English as the place where writing is primarily taught is in dire need of recalibration—as I have addressed related to research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

The Literary Analysis Essay: “is this even necessary anymore”

Let’s go back for a moment to my opening lament about asking ELA/English teachers to do everything—and consider the opening quote from Thoreau.

ELA/English teachers must stop carrying the weight of doing everything, but they must do something, with a critical eye toward avoiding doing something wrong.

The powerful dilemma, I think, is posed in a question from Elizabeth Hall on the NCTE Connected Community: “How do I teach students to write a literary analysis essay or is this even necessary anymore?”

Teaching literary analysis essays (and the use of MLA in the traditional research project) has its roots, I am sure, in several different reasons: tradition, seeking to address English as a discipline, and preparing students for college directly and indirectly (the Advanced Placement tests).

“Because we have always done it” is a shallow reason to keep a teaching practice so I’ll set that aside.

Next, do we as English teachers have an obligation to the discipline of English? Just as we feel compelled to teach British lit or American lit, we feel compelled to teach students about literary analysis. And we are quite justified in that—although with two caveats: first, virtually none of our students will become English majors, and second, to teach literary analysis writing should still be couched in authentic writing.

Therefore, canned literary analysis is not warranted, just as remaining trapped in New Criticism (and its more recent cousin “close reading”) and perpetuating the literary technique hunt is not warranted.

Even when teaching students who needed to do well on AP tests, I started by investigating authentic mentor texts modeling literary analysis—notably Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home,” which redefined how many viewed Emily Dickinson.

Unpacking Rich’s masterful interrogation of Dickinson, we found she begins with and depends heavily on personal narrative mode, and her analysis highlights that textual analysis requires substantial quoting of the examined texts that anchors the writer’s analysis and synthesis.

But Rich has no clunky introduction with the traditional assertive (read: overstated) thesis, and she does not spend time cataloguing Dickinson’s use of literary devices.

And here is a key point of departure: Rich comes at Dickinson through many analytical lenses, but she does not forefront New Criticism (as most ELA/English teachers do and as AP Literature and Composition exams do).

Further, our high school students, by the way, cannot write with the mastery of Rich, but they can build their toolbox of genre awareness about how professional writers do literary analysis—including being exposed to a much wider set of analytical lenses than teachers have traditionally explored (see Cody Miller’s post, for example).

One answer to Hall’s question is “yes,” because literary analysis essays can be very valuable for students as critical thinkers (to read and re-read the world, to write and re-write the world), as liberal arts grounding (students knowing the wide array of disciplinary ways of knowing), as one type of authentic writing, and as a foundation for the few students who will in fact major in English.

Another answer, however, addresses Hall’s “is this even necessary anymore.”

The truth is that first-year writing (back in the day, “freshman comp”) and so-called “college writing” have never been well served directly by ELA/English teachers assigning primarily or exclusively literary analysis essays.

Again, literary analysis essays are a part of the English discipline and very few high school teacher’s students will be English majors.

So this harder answer is about addressing the “everything” dilemma.

Each ELA/English teacher, then, must not feel compelled to prepare students for college entirely or to address the discipline of English completely. Each ELA/English teacher must be committed to doing something, guarding against doing something wrong (such as making students hate to read and write, demanding student conformity over student agency, or presenting inauthentic templates that inhibit students as readers and writers).

That something may include a literary analysis essay, but ELA/English teachers should feel far more obligated to investing time into helping students gain genre awareness and developing themselves as autonomous thinkers and writers through the reading and writing processes—reading and writing workshop grounded in mentor texts and requiring students to produce authentic texts themselves along a wide range of writing types, some of which they will be required to do in college (disciplinary writing).

Middle school teams and high school departments could very easily organize so that teachers who feel more comfortable with some types of writing than others can choose to distribute what writing experiences students have over the course of several years.

ELA/English teachers must resist isolated individual responsibility for the “everything,” something that can be approached (but never accomplished) over six or seven coordinated years as teams and departments.

None of this is easy, and I regret to offer, none of this can be scripted for any teacher.

But, while I resist suggesting changes are urgent, I do believe they are damned important.

So I return to LaBrant in a slightly less strident mood:

Teachers who follow the rule of emphasizing meaning and true communication find children eager to accept conventional form, and to choose words carefully. But the choice is then in terms of the purposes of the writer or speaker, and not in terms of artificial or superficial standards [emphasis added]….Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum. (p. 97)

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

At the core of John Dewey’s pragmatism and progressivism is Dewey’s contrarian view of “scientific”—the warranted assertion [1]. For Dewey, and in the context of teaching and learning, a warranted practice would be based on a substantial, diverse, and appropriate body of evidence, including how theory looks in the unpredictable real world.

Although the term “best practice” is much sullied, the rightful use of that term certainly approaches Dewey’s vision for education—how we practice in daily teaching what we are able to know from a range of evidence from experimental/quasi-experimental quantitative research to classroom-based action research.

However, Dewey’s faith in scientific education as warranted practice suffered from his own skepticism about prescriptions, templates, and mandates; Dewey viewed education as a perpetual experiment and refused to dictate for any classroom what he discovered as warranted for his classroom.

As a result, in the early twentieth century and throughout the history of universal public education, progressivism has been rarely practiced but often vilified and misunderstood.

Even during the accountability era when prescriptions and mandates have become the norm, some have sought ways to promote “best practice” in the Dewey tradition of warranted practices—offering what teachers should increase and decrease in their practice.

But probably the best example of Dewey’s warranted practice emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and the call to teach writing authentically, to merge the practical experiences of writing with writing instruction.

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Former NCTE president Lou LaBrant wrote:

By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

As a true progressive, LaBrant made this argument in 1936—about four decades before the rise of the NWP and workshop approaches to writing instruction.

Not to be hyperbolic, but no one listened to LaBrant, and despite a brief bit of momentum by the NWP, the accountability era effectively killed authentic writing instruction.

Thus, the 5-paragraph essay, writing templates, prompted writing, and scoring rubrics have mostly dominated writing instruction in the U.S. for about a century.

Throughout, however, a substantial body of evidence from researchers, scholars, and practitioners has concluded that the 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing remains efficient but corrosive to writing goals in the following two ways:

  1. The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing produces bad writing and (even worse) bad (and lazy) thinking—the entire world of expression and thought reduced to making grand claims supported by three points.
  2. And despite advocates’ claims that the 5-paragraph essay is an entry point or foundation for authentic writing, the evidence shows most students never make the transition.

Ironically, Dewey’s resistance to templates and prescriptions resulted in his being mostly ignored but also was a harbinger for the enduring allure and negative consequences of templates and prescriptions.

Many English teachers are not writers themselves, and have had little or no experiences as students in writing workshops or authentic writing experiences.

The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing, then, is efficient and lends itself well to assigning writing, responding to writing, and grading writing—all of which have supplanted both authentic writing goals and Dewey’s call for warranted practice.

During the accountability era, teachers are under enormous and ridiculous pressure to have students score well on very bad tests, and are increasingly placed in classroom environments that do not allow authentic practice. Often, when teachers embrace efficiency over authentic, warranted practice, we should not blame the teachers as much as the larger contexts within which they work with little to no professional autonomy.

As a public school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s in South Carolina where we embraced accountability, standards, and tests early and with missionary zeal, I taught in and struggled under these reduced circumstances.

But I also contend that we can commit to warranted practice, we must commit to warranted practice—and the consequences will be positive for students and likely even within the reductive world of standardized test scores.

Instead of templates and prompts, I invite students to investigate and interrogate a wide variety of texts, to read like writers.

With each text, we try to determine the type of writing, developing genre awareness and building a toolbox of names for types of writing. Next, we identify the conventions that define that type of writing before asking how the writer both conforms to and also writes against those conventions.

We stress that writing is about purposeful decisions—not rules, or templates.

We also begin to highlight what modes (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) the writer incorporates, where and why.

We also identify the focus of the piece (I do not use “thesis”) and explore how the writer’s craft accomplishes that.

Instead of introduction, body, and conclusion, we analyze openings and closings as well as claimsevidence, elaboration (explanation, synthesis/connection, transition).

And again, we are building the students’ writer’s toolbox—but I do not do the writer’s work for the student in the reductive ways the 5-paragraph essay does.

Ultimately, the 5-paragraph essay fails as warranted practice because templates eradicate all the decisions writer make, and students are simply practicing how to be compliant—not to be writers.

The practitioner’s voice calling for authentic writing instruction reaches back a century, and we remain in a contentious battle between traditional and efficient practice versus authentic and warranted practice.

Today, those of us calling for the long overdue end to the 5-paragraph essay and arguing instead for warranted practice are echoing LaBrant from 1947, lamenting:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. …[L]et us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

 


[1] See from Dewey ‘s Epistemology: An Argument for Warranted Assertions, Knowing, and Meaningful Classroom Practice, Deron R. Boyles:

In place of such a traditional account, Dewey crafts a new version of epistemology—one that has as a key element the notion of warranted assertibility.22

Warranted assertions replace justification in the traditional syllogism while at the same time imploding the syllogism itself. Where justification served a correspondence theory of truth in the traditional account of knowledge, warranted assertions merge truth and inquiry together in such a way that correspondence to an external world is no longer the point. The point, instead, is the interdependency of truths and the processes of inquiry: the temporal satisfaction of solved problems in a world that is not set apart from the knower’s use(s) of the world or place(s) in that world. In this way, idealists and realists are misguided when they describe epistemology as way of determining knowledge.23 “Knowledge” is not the focal point of epistemology for Dewey: “knowing” is. “Knowledge” represents the end of inquiry but, according to Dewey, it is also often supposed to have a meaning of its own—disconnected from inquiry. The result is that inquiry is subordinated to the fixed end called “knowledge.”24 By “knowing” Dewey means inquiry in a world that is not static. He means inquiry into things “lived” by people. He means experimenting with solving problems such that the action entailed in the solving of problems is inquiry itself and warranted in the assertions made about the solved problem when it is solved (where “solved” is understood as temporal and a portal to further inquiry). Accordingly, in the “living” of life, problems will be faced and solved—often in serendipitous ways—such that achieving “justified true belief” (as traditional epistemology expects) is not useful. As Dewey put it:

[Warranted assertion] is preferred to the terms belief and knowledge [because] it is free from the ambiguity of these latter terms, and it involves reference to inquiry as that which warrants assertion. When knowledge is taken as a general abstract term related to inquiry in the abstract, it means “warranted assertibility.” The use of a term that designates potentiality rather than an actuality involves recognition that all special conclusions of special inquiries are parts of enterprise that is continually renewed, or is a going concern.25