2019 NCTE Annual Convention, Baltimore, MD, November 21-24, 2019

Access all presentation materials at this LINK.

first spring (Baltimore is burning)


(A.02) Teaching Beyond Fear: Inquiry Around Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.
Location: Ballroom II

Beginning with a keynote from YA author Tom Leveen, this roundtable utilizes experiences and expertise from English educators, young adult literature authors, classroom teachers, and mental health professionals in order to consider how secondary English Language Arts can address school gun violence. More specifically, presenters will discuss using young adult literature and writing strategies to guide students as they explore difficult issues, such as violence in schools. 

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: History of Violence: Guns, U.S. Education, and American Exceptionalism

See Also

Let’s Not Fail School Safety as We Have School Reform

School Safety and Security: Research and Evidence


(B.06) Misreading the Science of Reading

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Location: 306

In pursuit of helping all children to become readers, this session by the Elementary Steering Committee will address the misleading narratives that assert that all children acquire reading in the same way, featuring several reading scholars who will discuss the multiple ways the “Science of Reading” is misread and misleading.

Co-presenter: Paul Thomas

See Also

Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

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

Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading”


(D.03) Ethical Dimensions of Teaching Digital Literacy

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 2:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

How do we teach students to be responsible, ethical citizens in a digital world? From reading and writing online to social interactions, teachers have responsibilities in teaching the ethical dimensions of digital literacy. This session will provide practical applications across grade levels.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: The Ethical Dilemma of Satire in an Era of Fake News and the Brave New World of Social

Image

See Also

The Ethics of Digital Literacy: Developing Knowledge and Skills Across Grade Levels


(E.09) Expanding the Canon: New Voices, New Inquiry, New Ideas

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.
Location: 307

At NCTE 2018, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie confessed that she still reads “dead white men” even as she advocated for expanding the canon. In other words, expanding the canon does not mean erasing authors, but rather incorporating new perspectives, asking new questions, sharing new ideas. This roundtable session explores what it means to expand the canon by making contemporary connections. Participants will select among 13 tables, each offering units grounded in canonical text(s) and exploring critical and contemporary ways to investigate those texts. After brief opening comments, participants will have the opportunity to circulate among 3 of the 13 roundtables.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: Haruki Murakami and The Great Gatsby

See Also

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon


(F.02) Critical Media Literacy in English Education

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

The roundtable session on critical media literacy in English education focuses on the ways in which English educators advocate with others for critical media literacy. Linking to the conference theme, several roundtable presenters inquire into our conception and practices of critical media literacies, including the ways of consuming, producing and distributing critical media literacies in an age of post-truth politics.

Opening Comments: Paul Thomas: What Is Teaching English?

See Also

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking

Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation


(G.02) L. Ramon Veal Research Seminar

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 12:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

The L. Ramon Veal Research Seminar is an ELATE-sponsored session that supports graduate students and teacher researchers engaged in educational research through directed discussion with senior scholars in ELA teacher education.

Respondent: Paul Thomas


(H.01) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 2:00 p.m. – 3:15 p.m.
Location: Ballroom II

This roundtable session invites attendees to explore contemporary literacies and diverse teaching practices by using sports content and an examination of sports culture to create learning environments that empower students to think critically about issues impacting the world around them.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: Race, Athleticism, and Intelligence in Media Narratives of Athletes

See Also

Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind

The Politics of Wealth and Power

The NFL and the Politics of Lies

Kaeptain America?: On Respectability Politics


(M.43) Nurturing an Inquisitive Spirit and Fostering Our Public Selves Through Social Media

Date: Saturday, November 23, 2019
Time: 2:45 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Location: 346

Teaching necessitates attending to the learning and growth of other people, but how, as teachers, can we nurture our own creative and intellectual development? In this interactive session, attendees will dialogue with educators who, through bogging, podcasting, and tweeting, are using social media to foster their public selves.

Co-presenter: Sean Connors
Co-presenter: Paul Thomas
Co-presenter: John Warner

See Also


What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

The November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review (National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece: What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium.

The opening editorial comment frames the need for the question:

Editorial blurb 1942.png

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time: Emmett A. Betts, E.W. Dolch, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray (first IRA president), Ernest Horn, Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE and focus of my dissertation, an educational biography), Holland Roberts, Dora V. Smith (former NCTE president), Nila Banton Smith, and Paul Witty (key figure in the career and life of LaBrant).

Unlike most cries of educational “crisis,” this national focus on reading was nested in World War II—a genuine crisis. But, according to the assembled experts on literacy, this 1942 version of the Reading Wars was a harbinger of how these debates are mostly misinformed, misguided, and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

Betts, in the opening piece, notes an important fact drawn from a report by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “One of the students had only four months of schooling, another was foreign born, some came from sections of the country where educational opportunities were meager, and so on. In short, the First Lady’s report emphasized the lack of educational opportunity [emphasis added] rather than the questionable quality of instruction” (p. 225).

Before detailing the problems and the possible solutions—including recognizing shortages and shifts in teacher availability—Betts makes a powerful claim: “In a democracy, the people get the kind of schools they want….In a democracy, the quantity and quality of educational opportunity is a product of what people want, and what they want is to no small degree conditioned by the educational leadership they have elected to follow” (pp. 225-226).

While I recommend reading the symposium responses in full, I focus below on two key answers from Gray and LaBrant.

Gray offers a solid framing of the debate spurred by claims of illiteracy among those called to serve, including this:

Gray second attitude.png

Along with refuting these standard false charges, Gray builds to a powerful closing argument:

A common error on the part of those who modify their reading programs is to adopt one or more reforms, such as the provision of much free reading, and neglect other aspects of reading that are in need of specific attention…

If the discussion thus far has achieved its purpose, it should be clear that current deficiencies in reading are not the product of “pseudo-scientific fumbling” or the use of progressive reforms, as some would have us believe. They are due in large measure either to the continued use of traditional patterns of teaching or to failure to provide a well-balanced [emphasis in original] program of reading activities that harmonize with progressive trends. (pp. 236-237)

LaBrant, in her typical style, takes a much more direct approach:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits that blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

In her conclusion, LaBrant is passionate and unyielding:

lack of drill

Within five years, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “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).

The question about reading raised in the 1940s suffered from the same failures to recognize the problem in order to shape effective and credible answers that we are confronting in 2019.

The fumbling today of the Reading Wars is yet another snapshot of a tired truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

 

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.


(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics


(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.


(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “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).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

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. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let 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)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Ken Lindblom’s “Is Interesting to Read” and the Rubric Dilemma Redux

At the 2003 National Council of Teachers of English annual conference in San Francisco, I met Ken Lindblom, then a column editor for English Journal and later an outstanding editor for the same.

Ken is among an important nucleus of NCTE colleagues and friends who have enriched my professional life in ways I can never repay; I have served as a column editor for EJ under two different tenures of editors and as the Council Historian just after the centennial along with being awarded the 2013 George Orwell Award—just to name some of the personal accomplishments that I cherish as examples of the collegiality and kindness found in the NCTE community of teachers and scholars.

So Ken’s The Rubric Criterion That Changed Everything has put me in a predicament since I value Ken as one of my go-to thinkers on teaching writing but I also have a long and firm stance against grades, tests, and rubrics (see my chapter on de-grading writing instruction).

The central point addressed by Ken captures exactly why his post inspires me and gives me pause:

Once I was reading a stack of papers, and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish these papers were more interesting!” Then it hit me: Students will work on what’s listed on a rubric. In my next paper assignment, I added this to the rubric: “Is Interesting to Read.”

Rubrics—as Maja Wilson and Alfie Kohn deconstruct—often become the chore to fulfill when students write, and while they can provide structure and clarity in grading for both students and teachers, rubrics can often be nightmares for those same teachers when student writing flounders but fulfills the rubric or soars in ways that the rubric never addresses.

Instead of rubrics, then, I offer students guiding questions, and do agree that students need structure (see these concepts and questions [1] grounded in developing genre awareness).

Regardless of using rubrics or guiding question, I want to stress that raising student awareness of being interesting is both powerful and essential. That awareness, however, must be fostered by examining with students the many ways in which writers accomplish being interesting.

First, we must highlight that embedded in “Is Interesting to Read” is a focus on audience. In my first-year writing seminars, I stress that I want students to stop writing for me, and to develop essays with clear and real audiences in mind. This is part of my on-going goal of encouraging students to stop thinking as students and to start thinking as writers.

Some of the concrete strategies that we focus on that contribute to being interesting as a writer include the following:

  • Creating openings, instead of writing mechanistic introductions, that are compelling first and then focus the reader on the central purpose of the essay. We do several reading like a writer activities (here and here) throughout the semester, but focus on openings in the first few weeks.
  • Expanding tone beyond the faux academic pose of objectivity, and acknowledging the power of humor. Notably in our reading of Kingsolver, for example, students notice that essays are often humorous (especially in the opening), and thus, more interesting.
  • Emphasizing the power of narrative (and description) as a mode that creates interest. Drawing on Style, we think about nonfiction essays in terms of fiction—character, plot, and setting. Inherent in narrative, as well, is the importance of details (see Flannery O’Connor).
  • Allowing drafting to be an act of discovery, brainstorming. Another key aspect of resisting the traditional introduction/thesis approach is helping students recognize that the act of drafting often leads writers to their purpose; in other words, drafting as discovery opens the door to finding the interesting instead of trying to fulfill the obligation of a predetermined thesis.
  • Reimagining the essay form not as an introduction/thesis, body, and conclusion but as a cohesive form better served by framing—developing a few opening and closing paragraphs that share a story, detail, or compelling element that both engages and compels the reader (thus, interesting).

I remain less optimistic than Ken that rubrics can serve our goal to foster students as writers who are aware of their audience and committed to being interesting. I do believe, however, seeking ways to encourage specific strategies for being interesting as a writer is achievable, but it is also essential, as Ken argues, not simply something extra.


[1] Prompt Analysis for Genre Awareness*

To the students: As you prepare to write, revise, and edit, consider these questions, particularly if you are given a writing task in your academic classroom:

[Note: If you cannot answer these questions from the task you have been given, how do you find out the answers?]

  1. GENRE NAME: What is this text called (its genre name)? What do you already think you know about what a text from this genre looks and ‘sounds’ like? For example, how should the text be organized? What kind of language do you need to use?
  1. PURPOSE: What are you supposed to DO as a writer when completing this task? Are you asked to make an argument? To inform? To describe or list?
  1. CONTEXT: If you are writing this task in, or for, a classroom, what do you know about the context? What does the discipline require for a text? Under what conditions will you be writing? For example, are you writing a timed, in-class response?
  1. WRITER’S ROLE: Who are you supposed to BE in this prompt? A knowledgeable student? Someone else?
  1. AUDIENCE: Is your audience specified? If it is your instructor, what are his or her expectations and interests? What goals for students does the instructor have?
  1. CONTENT: What are you supposed to write about? Where do you find this content? In your textbook? In lectures? Are you supposed to relate what you have heard or read in some way?
  1. SOURCES: What, and how many, sources are you supposed to draw from to write your text? Have the sources been provided in the class? Are you supposed to look elsewhere? Are the sources primary or secondary?
  1. OTHER SPECIFICATIONS: What else do you know about the requirements for this text? How long should it be? What referencing style (MLA, APA) should you use? What font type?
  1. ASSESSMENT: How will your paper be graded? What does the instructor believe is central to a good response? How do you know? If you don’t know, how can you find out?
  1. MAKING THE TEXT YOUR OWN: What about the paper you write can be negotiated with the instructor? Can you negotiate the topic? The types of sources used? The text structure? If you can negotiate your assignment, it might be much more interesting to you.

* Created and published in Johns, A. M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going questLanguage Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.

On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

God Bless You, Jacqueline Woodson

Moving to higher education from high school teaching has afforded me the annual joy of a national conference each November. This year’s conference is in St. Louis, MO, and I spent my Saturday morning listening to writer Jacqueline Woodson.

When an early-career teacher and I were making plans for the conference, she noted Woodson would be talking, and I pointed out that Woodson was about my age—surprising my former student.

Woodson herself made a passing comment about looking much younger than her age, being born in 1963 just two years younger than I.

In most ways that we identify people, Woodson and I are unalike—race and gender the most obvious.

Woodson’s talk was engaging, beautiful as expected of a writer, but also equal parts kind and confrontational. She weaved a talk with stories of who she is as well as reading from her works.

Literature and writing, I share with Woodson, but we also have some geography in common—Woodson having lived for a while in Greenville, SC, where I now teach and only a thirty-minute drive from my home town.

While I am deeply and permanently Southern, Woodson stressed that she is a New Yorker, joking about how fast she talks now.

However, Woodson and I shared formative years, highlighted by her cultural references in her works that she noted young readers should be researching to understand the context of her references.

As Woodson read from Black Girl Dreaming, I was transported back to my youth. Woodson offers in “music”:

funk 1

funk

A skinny and deeply insecure white kid, I was enamored with The Ohio Players, and I can recall vividly being mesmerized by the word “funk” because it sounded so close to profanity and clearly was a powerful word that carries elements of sex and cool that were way beyond my realm of awareness, my lived experiences as a nerdy white boy.

During this period of my life, Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music, White Boy” was a Top 40 hit, and I listened to raucous and theatrical groups such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament-Funkadelic, fronted by flamboyant personalities like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.

As I listened to Woodson quilting her talk with her published writing, I felt myself letting down my usual guard against all that defines me for other people; I felt community with her as well as the people laughing and nodding in the audience.

Unlike most of life these days in the U.S., that room felt safe and filled with peace—even as we were nested in St. Louis, a city now infamous for Ferguson and Michael Brown, the pervasive danger in the U.S. for those merely trying to live while being black.

Who are we? and What defines us? always sit just below the surface of my conscious self, a self ensconced in my whiteness, privilege, and being a man.

The first morning at the conference, as I was leaving a small coffee and breakfast shop, a woman asked where all the people outside were going. As I answered her, she interrupted me with “You are Southern”—an intense declaration that made me half expect her to back away as if redneck is contagious.

I thought about this encounter when Woodson took questions from students, one of which asked her if she were afraid of moving back to the South.

She replied that she wouldn’t move back South but “it ain’t cause I’m scared”—although, she added, she would be concerned for the safety of her family.

Like me, Woodson is projecting her fear around those she loves; unlike me, Woodson, simply due to all the ways she is unlike me, is aware that she does have much to fear, all that I am shielded from by my privileges.

Woodson’s talk catapulted me back to my teen years and the transformational power of “funk”—the word and the music—in my tentative white boy life.

As an aging (old?) white man, I am now more acutely aware of the alternative meaning of “funk”—to be in a funk, to be weighed down by the world, our fears, our fears in the name of the ones we love.

Joy and that funk reside together in my heart and bones as I think of my granddaughter—wild-haired, just a girl-child, innocent and fragile, bi-racial—and the delicate threads of my life linking me to all that is beautiful in this life despite all that is horrible.

“You have a right to be here fabulously,” Woodson told us at the beginning of her talk.

Yes we do, and I want so badly to hope that this is true.

God bless you, Jacqueline Woodson.