Category: NCTE

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

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

“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame on me.

“The Kindness of Strangers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Former NCTE president Lou LaBrant wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

Anonymity and Professionalism: Teacher Voice in a Time of High Anxiety

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.

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

All teachers are incredibly important, but high school English teachers will always have a special place in my heart.

I am in my fourth decade as an educator, spending almost two decades as a public high school English teacher (many years coaching and teaching/advising journalism/newspaper as well) and now in my second decade as a teacher educator (primarily working with future secondary ELA teachers) and a first year writing instructor.

Significant in my teaching journey are being in my area National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project) and then serving as a lead co-instructor in that same project for a couple years.

Concurrent with my career as an educator, I have been a serious and published writer for about thirty years. And of course I have been madly in love with books of all kinds since before memory.

I write this specifically to my colleagues who are high school English teachers, but all teachers really, out of my greatest respect for teacher professionalism, importance, and autonomy—as well as my deepest commitment, the sacredness of every single student who enters any teacher’s classroom.

While at times this may read as scolding, preaching, or prescribing, I am seeking here to invite every teacher to do what I have done my entire career—stepping back from practice as often as possible, checking practice against my most authentic and critical goals, and then changing that practice if those do not match.

I am fortunate that my students often contact me, email or Facebook are common, and generally they are too kind. Typically, they reach out to thank me for preparing them as writers, and few things could make me prouder to be a teacher.

But these moments are tempered at times because they are speaking from decades ago—during years when I now know my practice was off, sincere but flawed.

So I come to teachers with this invitation from many years thinking hard about teaching literacy, focusing on writing, and being a serious writer myself. These thoughts are informed by years teaching English, years teaching young people to be teachers, and years teaching other teachers as well as observing practicing teachers in the field.

I have been fortunate recently to teach four young women who have secured their first teaching jobs as English teachers. Working with them has impacted me profoundly because they are wonderful additions to our field, but also they have encountered a field and practicing teachers who have routinely discouraged them and me about who teaches and how we teach English.

Michelle Kenney’s The Politics of the Paragraph coming in the wake of two separate debates about the use of “they” as a singular gender-free pronoun (see my The Politics of Teaching Grammar) along with my current literacy graduate course has all spurred me to the thoughts below—this rising concern about how English teachers impact our students as free people and as literate people.

My lessons also are strongly shaded by the history of the field of education broadly and English teaching narrowly as I have come to understand both through the lens of Lou LaBrant. Teaching and teachers have been profoundly and negatively impacted by eternal forces for a century at least, and those corrosive forces have been intensified during the recent thirty-plus years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Now, then, I offer this invitation to consider lessons I have learned about teaching English:

  • Begin with and remain true to authentic literacy, and then comply with standards and testing mandates within that greater commitment. Our planning and practice must start with our students’ literacy being sacred—seeking ways to foster eager readers and writers who still must often demonstrate literacy proficiency in the worst possible settings. This is not a call to be negligent, but to be dedicated to the power of literacy first and bureaucracy second.
  • Forefront your expertise and professionalism 24/7. Teachers have never received the professional respect we deserve, and during the accountability era, our professionalism has been even further eroded by shifting all the authority for how and what we teach to standards and high-stakes test. Our expertise and professionalism are our only weapons for demanding the authority for teaching be with us—not bureaucratic mandates, or commercial programs. Every moment of our lives we are teachers, and every moment we are representing our profession.
  • Teach students—not programs, standards, test-prep, or your discipline. Especially at the high school level, and particularly during the accountability era, we are apt to lose sight of our central purpose in teaching English—our students.
  • Resist teaching so that students acquire fixed content and instead foster students as ongoing learners. Recently one of my teacher candidates attended a course in which fellow English teachers were adamant they needed students to learn to cite using MLA by memory. My former student resisted this, suggesting that students should understand citation broadly and then be equipped to follow the ever-changing and different citation guides they will encounter as college students and beyond. This exemplifies a central flaw in teaching English that views learning as acquiring fixed content. Read Lou LaBrant’s New Bottles for New Wine (1952), in which she implores: “Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation?” (p. 342).
  • Become and remain a student of language. What is your background in the history of the English language? How much linguistics have you studied? For me, a key shift in teaching English was embracing a descriptive grammarian stance informed by linguistics and the history of the language. This allows me to view student language use as part of that history, and helps me focus on teaching students to play with language and then to edit and revise their writing, instead of focusing on “correcting.” This is central to having a low-stakes classroom that sees language as investigation.
  • Reject deficit views of language and students. The prescriptive grammarian comes from a history that linked language use with people’s character—a false link. While ideas such as the “word gap” is compelling, it is both false (based on one flawed study) and counter to what we know about literacy and power. Language changes, and claims about “correctness” are always more about power than either language development or literacy. Please read James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and Ralph Ellison’s What These Children Are Like.
  • Foster genre awareness in students while interrogating authentic texts (and rejecting artificial writing templates). As Kenney details, writing templates may prepare students for artificial demonstrations of literacy (high-stakes tests), but they ultimately fail authentic writing and literacy goals. Published writing nearly never follows the 5-paragraph essay template, and the whole thesis idea is equally rare in published writing. Students as writers need to be eager readers who are encouraged to mine that reading constantly for greater genre awareness about how any writer makes a piece what the writer is seeking to accomplish. What is an Op-Ed? A memoir? Investigative journalism? A feature story on an Olympic athlete? The essay form, even in academia, is a question, not a template. Please read Ann John’s Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest and Neil Gaiman’s “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” (it is clean, I promise, and from his collection, The View from the Cheap Seats).
  • Be a dedicated reader and writer yourself. While I argue above for being a professional educator 24/7, I caution here about allowing our teacher Selves to erase our literate Selves. My voracious reading life and my co-career as a writer are invaluable and inseparable from my being an effective teacher. Our reading and writing lives keep us grounded in our authentic goals eroded by accountability.
  • Choice, joy, and kindness. Writing in 1949, LaBrant warned: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276). How often have we allowed prescription and standards-based, test-prep instruction to instill in our students a distaste for reading and writing? If we demand all students read Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter, and then most of them come to hate reading, if we hammer the five-paragraph essay into students who wish never to write again, what have we accomplished?

And to offer an umbrella under which my invitation to my lessons rest, I believe we must heed John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.


In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.


I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.


Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.


And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

Today in “Don’t Believe It”

More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.

Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.

Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.

First, NCTQ—a think tank entirely lacking in credibilityissued a report claiming that teacher education is lousy, basing their claims on a fumbled review of textbooks assigned and course syllabi.

Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.

See the full review here.

Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”

Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.

See this analysis of Read to Succeed, the research base on grade retention, and the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution on grade retention and high-stakes testing.

When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.

A Moment in #NCTE15 History-Annual Convention Minneapolis

This is my last annual NCTE convention as Council Historian, and I am pleased to offer this special Moment of History by Roxanne Henkin in honor of recent victories for marriage equity.

Please note my ongoing project related to my role as Council Historian, Lou LaBrant: An Annotated Bibliography.

A Moment in NCTE History-Annual Convention Minneapolis, 2015

Roxanne Henkin

Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting 2015 National Council Teachers of English

Annual Convention

At this moment in U.S. history, with the historic Supreme Court decision legalizing lesbian and gay marriage last June, we look back at the efforts of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender members of NCTE and the work that was accomplished beginning with the creation of the Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness.

Although the NCTE Lesbian and Gay Caucus began in 1974, it was transformed into an assembly in 1993 to give LGBT issues a greater visibility and voice in NCTE. The new organization, the NCTE Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness was created to “promote communication and cooperation on issues involving gay and lesbian students, teachers, and materials in academic communities and to investigate these issues, encourage research, and disseminate information…” (Karsten).

Three proposals about LGB issues were submitted, accepted and presented during the 1994 NCTE Annual Convention in Orlando, Florida. In April 1995, the NCTE SLATE newsletter was devoted to lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. Our chair, Mary Bixby was interviewed in this issue and explained that the decision to devote a SLATE Newsletter to ‘Issues of Sexual Orientation’ was a major landmark of support (Wolfe 2). Although NCTE had passed the 1992 resolution “not to hold national council meetings in municipalities that have accepted anti-gay legislation,” Bixby felt that real progress had been slow (Wolfe 2).

In 1995, William Spurlin and I became co-chairs of the NCTE Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness. In June 1996, we sent a letter to the NCTE Executive Committee. We wrote that we were, “Concerned about the visibility of our members and issues within NCTE.” NCTE Executive Director Miles Myers agreed to give the letter to each new convention chair and created the NCTE Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues in Academic Studies to serve as a resource to advise the Executive Committee and other groups and individuals in NCTE about LGBT issues and to make recommendations for specific actions. William Spurlin and I were appointed the first co-chairs of this new committee.

The Spring 2001 conference was slated for Birmingham, Alabama, which had sodomy laws, so the Advisory Committee asked that the convention be moved. Although the NCTE 1992 resolution decreed that NCTE would not meet in states that had anti-gay laws, the policy was not being followed in practice. NCTE still held the spring conference in Birmingham, but letters were sent to officials in Alabama, asking that the discriminatory laws in Alabama be changed. NCTE also authorized a special pin for NCTE members to wear during the conference to encourage talk about these discriminatory laws.

In 2007, NCTE passed a resolution strengthening teacher knowledge about LGBT issues. Two years later, in 2009, English Journal editor Ken Lindblom asked longtime Assembly members Paula Ressler and Becca Chase to guest edit what became an extraordinary issue of English Journal on LGBTQ issues.

At the November 2011 NCTE centennial Convention in Chicago the LBGTQ assembly celebrated 20 years of continuous work in NCTE. Now known as the NCTE Gay-Straight Educators’ Alliance, the T was added to welcome another underrepresented group, transgender teachers and students. We also welcomed our straight colleagues explicitly by including them in our name and acknowledging their critical role as allies.

This morning, at our 105th Annual Convention, we welcomed Alison Bechdel as a general session speaker. An out lesbian, Alison is a powerful and well-known writer and cartoonist. How thrilled we were to finally have one of our own as a general session speaker. Her session was well attended and well received. We need more of these in the future.

During this convention, we will have over 20 LGBT sessions presented throughout the program. On this transgender Day of Silence as we look back in history, NCTE has made great progress with LGBT issues over the past 24 years and we look forward to a future where all students and teachers, of all sexual orientations and gender identities support each other and are supported and able to thrive in both their academic and personal lives.

Works Cited

Karsten, Ernie. AGLAIA Brochure. Urbana: NCTE, 1994. Print.

Ressler, Paula, and Becca Chase, Guest eds. Theme: Sexual Identity and Gender Variance. English Journal 98.4 (2009). Print.

Spurlin, William, and Roxanne Henkin. Letter to NCTE Executive Committee. June 1996. TS.

Wolfe, D. “An Interview with Mary Bixby.” SLATE Newsletter 20 (1995): 1–4. Print.

See Also

A MOMENT IN NCTE HISTORY – NCTE ANNUAL CONVENTION BOSTON, 2013