After a very inspiring roundtable at #NCTE2016, many of us are energized to propose a related by more hands-on roundtable for #NCTE2017.
Below is a draft proposal for NCTE 2017. Please email me ASAP (email@example.com) if you are interested in offering a roundtable that is a workshop related to educators developing their public voices in a wide variety of media and purposes. The current roundtables below reflect the focus of the session, but different media and perspectives are strongly encouraged to join.
2017 NCTE Annual Convention
Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission
St. Louis, MO
November 16-19, 2017
Co-Chairs: Chris Goering, University of Arkansas, and P. L. Thomas, Furman University
From Advocacy to Agency: Workshopping Our Public Voices
This roundtable session will offer participants concrete and hands-on opportunities to investigate the “how to” of writing and speaking in a public voice that reflects our professional agency. Tables will address writing Op-Eds and letters to the editor, starting and maintaining a professional blog, participating in social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) as a professional educator, and creating and producing podcasts/radio programming. Additionally, participants will be given guidelines for blending scholarly and public work as well as how to integrate our professional advocacy-as-agency with our demanding work as classroom practitioners.
Exploring the Op-Ed: Two Public Essayists Share Their Process for Writing in the Op-Ed Genre
Christina Berchini and Peter Smagorinsky
This table will discuss their process for identifying topics, locating a suitable publication outlet, and understanding and writing within the op-ed/blog genre. Participants will also be alerted to the risks and rewards of writing in the public forum.
Adventures in Edublogging: Finding and Developing a Public Voice
P.L. Thomas and Angela Dye
Blogging remains a misunderstood form of communication along with many types of social media. This table will discuss and workshop how to create a professional blog and social media presence while helping participants with the “how” and “why” of creating that professional voice for the public.
Guinness Stew in the Ozarks: The How and Why of Professional Writing Retreats for Teachers
Christian Z. Goering and Nikki Holland
This roundtable offers a rationale and practical advice for gathering teachers in a retreat setting to write for professional audiences. One way that teachers can develop agency in the larger conversations swirling around the punch bowl of education is by writing for professional audiences—broadly defined. The act of doing so is complicated, something that takes time, nourishment, and courage. But aren’t retreats expensive and elitist? The low cost, low maintenance model shared in this roundtable can be adapted and adopted by a wide range of teacher groups or even offered as professional development by a school district.
Blogging Advocacy in the New Latinx South
Blogging Advocacy in the New Latino South – In this roundtable session, presenters will discuss beginning and maintaining a TESOL Blog in the context of the New South. Discussion will center on initial steps to beginning a blog, responses to challenges, focus and direction, and sustaining momentum in an increasingly xenophobic regional and national environment. We argue that blogging is a virtual platform for our professional advocacy for Latino Transnationals K-12.
Writing Radio Commentaries for Local Stations
Local NPR affiliates can be an effective way of reaching the public about education issues in our communities. Based on my experience recording monthly radio commentaries, this roundtable will present ways to start writing for the radio, coming up with topics, and presenting commentary ideas to local stations.
What Will Attract and Persuade Blog Readers?
Patricia A. Dunn
Academics are used to writing for a particular audience with discipline specific expectations about academic evidence, research, and citation—the very elements that potential blog readers may avoid. How can we attract readers to our public writing, get them to rethink an issue in our blog, and get them to share it? We’ll look at some topics, titles, and formats of several blogs that have been shared widely. We’ll talk about selecting links for providing evidence, keeping the blog lively (and short), and using effective analogies.
Who wants to be the Village Explainer? Opening Conversations, Not Closing Them
Patricia Waters, Daneell Moore, and R. Buchanan
In rural areas the English teacher is often in the invidious position of being The Village Explainer: how can the professional communicate with non-professional audiences by meeting people where they are? How do we not lose sight of urgency but also not alienate where we need allies most?
Crafting Arguments for Change: Expanding Spheres of Influence
Trevor Thomas Stewart and George L. Boggs
This table will discuss the cultural resources employed by teachers who are speaking out in order to consider how teachers can position themselves as experts whose voices ought to count in education reform discussions. By discussing the rhetorical tools being employed by teachers who are currently speaking out online, our table will provide participants with an opportunity to develop practical strategies for engaging in civic action online while managing the risks associated with public dissent.
Telling the Positive Stories of Public Education
To counter the ongoing propaganda attacking public schools, it’s essential not only to advocate for better education policies, but also to let the public know about the work of high quality teachers in their schools, and the meaningful learning their students experience. At this table, we’ll look at examples of published op-ed pieces by teachers, deduce some of their characteristics, get started on some writing ourselves, and brainstorm how to get through to news editors to get our stories published.
Know Thy Enemy
In his epic, The Art of War, Sun Tzu explains: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This table will serve has a training session for understanding and tracking the charter school industry and their corporate education reform allies through the use of opposition research techniques and tools. Particular training will be provided on how to utilize federal and state campaign finance reports, IRS 990 forms reports submitted by non-profit corporations and for-profit filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Participants will come away with a better understanding about how to learn more about the individuals and organizations seeking to undermine students, parents, teachers and public education.
Finding Our Public Voices: Building a Community of Writers around Writing for the Public
Ann D. David and Megan Janak
This roundtable will discuss how classroom teachers, preservice teachers, and a university professor developed their individual, public voices and began publishing for the public. We will share both our process for forming and sustaining our writing community, and our individual experiences with writing for the public across a range of channels.
Blogging from the Inside Out: Mining Personal Stories for Larger Truths
Russ Walsh and Peter Anderson
As educators our days and nights are filled with stories of personal success and personal struggle as well as student success and student struggle. Stories, informative, humorous and tragic, are part of the life-blood of the veteran teacher. As bloggers, we can mine these stories to draw the reader into our world and then reach for the larger truths that these stories illuminate. In this round-table, we will share examples of how this has been done by education bloggers, analyze how it is done, and share techniques for developing engaging blogs based on personal, school-based experience.
Ed Philosophy Book Clubs: Creating Safe Spaces for Dialogue and Debate
Teachers are increasingly bound to curricular mandates or policies that directly conflict with what research argues is best for our students, teachers, and school communities. This roundtable will look at the development and progression of an ed philosophy book club at a high school in Chicago, Illinois. The book club was designed with two goals in mind: to create a safe space for discussing campus polices and to arm teachers with high quality,timely, peer-reviewed research.
Podcast On Your Plan – Using Podcasting as Professional Development
Josh Flores and Lara Searcy
This roundtable will demonstrate how educators can use the podcast format to expand their voice, agency, and professional growth. Attendees will participate in a live podcast during the session in order to explore the hands-on application of “how to” podcast and become familiar with a currently active program, “Podcast On Your Plan.” “Podcast On Your Plan” episodes actively advocate for teachers’ voices by promoting teachers as a resource for professional learning communities and educator’s professional growth. Each podcast episode focuses on deconstructing the expertise of a classroom teacher and their pedagogy. Listeners are encouraged to discuss the practices and strategies presented in each episode with colleagues and reflect on their own pedagogical approaches to literacy.
“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.
The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of the English Journal and guest editors, Sean P. Connors and P.L. Thomas.
We are delighted to invite you to preview our November 2016 issue of EJ, which—in keeping with the presidential election—is particularly provocative and compelling. In this blog post, we feature the issue editorial, composed by guest editors Sean P. Connors and P. L. Thomas, as well as the introduction to a special section on teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.We hope that the issues highlighted in this month’s EJ will open conversation among English teachers everywhere. —Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski
NOTE: In part, this special issue was prompted by the NCTE 2014 National Convention and this blog post resulting from that: Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance
FEATURED SESSION: Saturday, November 19, 2016 – 8:00 – 9:15 am (A 302)
F.01 Confronting Educator Advocacy with Preservice and Early Career Teachers
- “But what does this have to do with me?”: Supporting preservice teachers trying to advocate for culturally responsive curriculum
Dr. Ann D. David
Description: Preservice teachers face challenges advocating for culturally responsive curriculum in field placements and during student teaching and teachers educators face challenges in preparing them to be advocates. Elyse and Kaci will share their experiences advocating for culturally responsive curriculum as student teachers. Ann will share how she designs her course, Culturally Responsive Teaching, to support preservice teachers in navigating the challenges of being advocates.
- Challenging Controversy: Affiliate Support Addressing Censorship Issues
Has anyone questioned why you teach the texts you’ve chosen? This discussion offers resources and support for teachers selecting controversial materials in order to successfully prepare for and address censorship challenges, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and All American Boys.
- Teacher Advocacy: A Southern Dilemma
Sean P. Connors
A round table discussion with teacher educators and early career teachers on advocating both for students and for the teaching profession. The discussion will center on the unique challenges of advocacy in conservative Southern schools, including the politics of remaining apolitical and the lack of support for professionalism in teaching.
- Culturally Complex Classrooms: Teacher Advocacy for English Language Learners (ELL)
As the number of English Language Learners (ELL) continue to increase in many states across the country, mainstream teachers overwhelmingly report they are not equipped to respond to unique learning needs in culturally complex classrooms. This presentation will focus on advocacy practices with cultural and linguistic diversity at both the classroom level and the larger educational context. Session leaders will lead discussion about instructional strategies to affect learning outcomes for ELL and advocacy approaches to frame professional conversations among colleagues.
- Grassroots activism and the right the city: Preservice & early career teachers and social change
We will lead a discussion about teachers’ efforts to enact social change by contributing to education reform debates online. We explore the alternative forms of civic action and teacher leadership as we consider teachers’ use of online tools for protest.
- Speech Title: Risk and Reward in Writing for the Public
What are the risks and rewards in writing for the public? This roundtable engages English teachers in a discussion of the risks involved when educators seek the rewards available from becoming public advocates of education. Risks include job vulnerability, personal attacks, and other forms of hostile blowback.
- Building Preservice Teachers’ Racial Literacy to Foster Activism for Justice
Jill Ewing Flynn
Descriptions: Preservice teachers must reflect on how their own racial identity has shaped their education and understand how race shapes schooling outcomes/experiences. After developing this “racial literacy,” they can then form an action plan for how to address racial injustice in their classroom, schools, and/or communities. Come learn about how three professors foster this advocacy so you can adapt it to your own context!
- What Does Advocacy Look Like in the Rural and Small Town School
Drs. Rebekah Buchanan
How does advocacy work in developing collaborative partnerships among students, parents and families, teachers, schools and communities? Three English Education professors, who rely upon rural and small town school districts for teacher training and whose students come from these same constituencies, have to create networks and build relationships founded on trust and mutual respect. This roundtable examines research-based practices and strategies in promoting advocacy founded on trust and mutual respect among all stakeholders in rural settings.
- Navigating the labyrinth of first year teaching without a map
Description: In our study of first year teachers, one teacher said, “My job is 10% real teaching; 90% of the rest of my time is spent unrelated to teaching.” We studied the effects of “additional duties as assigned” on teacher autonomy, teacher dispositions, and student interactions. We will have a short video and a one-page handout highlighting our findings.
- Writing for the Public: Positive Stories, Critique, or Both
Roundtable topic description: Critique of education policies is important, but particularly in the present era of distrust of government and public programs, people also need to learn what makes schools worth supporting, why their tax dollars should be devoted to public education. So what can early career teachers say? And while we run blogs and education web discussions, how can teacher expertise and knowledge of conditions in schools get shared more widely so that teachers are not just preaching to their own choirs?
- Advocating for Disability Access: More Inclusive Approaches to Reading, Writing, and Assessing
Patricia A. Dunn
We’ll discuss ways to address hurdles pre-service and early career teachers face in questioning built-in ableist assumptions about disability. How might we address stereotypical portrayals of disability in canonical texts? How might we expand views of writing that go beyond pens or keyboards, or views of reading that go beyond eyes-on-text? Can we assess students’ knowledge in more than one way?
- Up-cycling Teacher Performance Assessments: Preparing Candidates to Advocate for their Practice through Rhetorical Argumentation
Christine M. Dawson
Anny Fritzen Case
Teaching performance assessments (e.g., edTPA), require candidates to document and analyze teaching practices and literally write their way into teaching. This roundtable explores using argumentation as a strategy and a stance, through which teachers practice identifying audience values, making claims, assembling evidence, and crafting arguments to advocate for their practice and students.
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)
At the core of John Dewey’s pragmatism and progressivism is Dewey’s contrarian view of “scientific”—the warranted assertion . 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 claims, evidence, 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)
 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
Briefly on the National Council of Teachers of English‘s Connected Community, members could post on forums anonymously, spurring a few discussions and debates about anonymity and professionalism (as well as attribution of ideas and accountability during a thread about plagiarism).
When I first moved to higher education, my current university had an online platform that included a discussion feature, one that also allowed students (or anyone in the university community) to post anonymously with screen names.
One particular group of students connected with a powerful and controversial (also highly politicized and well funded from outside sources) student organization often posted anonymously and tended toward personal attacks of university professors—xenophobic and homophobic slurs included.
Several professors also participated in these online debates, but with their names openly displayed.
This situation was a subset of a larger campus tension between very conservative students and a much more moderate faculty. Ultimately, that forum was closed and never resurrected; however, a key element of the situation was the debate over whether or not anonymous posting was appropriate—notably in the context of an institution of higher learning.
Then and during the recent NCTE Connected Community discussion, I have always maintained that a key element of professionalism is the relationship between a professional’s name and her/his stances, claims.
In my professional scholarship and my public work, my name and even access to my email are prominent always.
As a writer and career educator, I see my scholarship and public work as extensions of teaching—and believe all teachers must be authoritative, earning the trust of those they serve as teachers. The who and what of teaching and making claims, for me, is inextricable.
However, there is a long and powerful history of pen names/pseudonyms in traditional writing as well as the more recent world of blogging.
Anonymous voices have risen out of oppression in the name of overcoming that oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.
So if we return to the anonymous posting on NCTE’s Connected Community and place that in the context of students posting anonymously at my university, we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.
Students feared grade and course retaliations for posting under their names in the same way K-12 teachers in the U.S. fear speaking publicly because educators’ job security has deteriorated significantly in recent decades.
Educators at all levels are also under a powerful norm to avoid being political, to resist activism—much of which is about the cultural silencing of women.
Nonetheless, anonymous public and forum commentary often emboldens people to be reckless and unprofessional—personal attacks, trolling, etc.
As I noted above, all of my professional and public writing and commentary are under my very public name; therefore, that forces me to hold myself to an incredibly high standard—primarily to make only warranted claims.
Especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I seek ways to model the same sort of standard for making claims in public contexts that I make in scholarship. Even my Op-Ed and commentary work in journalism is meticulously cited (through hyperlinks)—although some online publications still resist including them.
Further, as a teacher 24/7, I believe I am a model for my students who need to embrace a way of being in a democracy that includes their voices and their ethical acts of rewriting the world.
My students are unlikely to be writers or scholars, but they certainly should be living by and making warranted stances. And possibly more than ever, they must be able to read and re-read the world in order to know when others are being credible or petty and vile.
Let us not trivialize the urge to raise anonymous voices, but also, let us not ignore that the most vicious among us are empowered by anonymity: the terror and power of the KKK were intensified by the white hoods and gowns.
A free and just society in which there is no need for anonymity is a wonderful ideal, but I am certain we have yet to reach that situation.
Those of us who have levels of privilege that allow us to model the ideal must continue to do so. Using those privileges to silence others with legitimate concerns about their own imbalances of power is inexcusable.
In any and all connected communities, then, it becomes more about the nature of the conversations than professional or personal accountability.
Anonymous or not, public or professional, we teachers must always resist being petty, and those who need the veil of anonymity would serve their own causes well to have high standards for that context in the same way linking professionalism and our names should.