“We Teach English” Revisited

At times quaint and oddly misguided but unflinchingly confrontational and assertive—the signature tone of her work—Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English (1951) was a rare book-length text over her 65 years as an educator.

While this text for teachers of ELA/English never garnered the status of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (LaBrant and Rosenblatt were colleagues at NYU), both works represent a long history of trying to coral the field of ELA/English teaching.

A recent conversation and debate on NCTE’s Connected Community about teaching whole-class, assigned novels has reminded me of the enduring tensions of what it means to teach ELA/English—tensions that span K-12 grade levels as well as being grounded in responsibilities to student needs and interests, the field or discipline of English, and literacy broadly.

Historically and then magnified during the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, ELA/English has shared with math demands and expectations that are not as pronounced in other disciplines; despite the limitations and problems with the terms, I characterize those demands as addressing disciplinary knowledge (or content) and literacy skills.

Our disciplinary knowledge obligations rest with the compulsion to cover established content, such as identifying the parts of speech, analyzing the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, or explaining the key ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as American Transcendentalism.

Literacy skills comprise reading, writing, speaking, and listening—how we as humans navigate the world through literacy. Some see these skills as a different way to think about content, skills such as comprehension, predicting, narration, and persuasion.

At best, these obligations can and possibly should work in tandem. When we teach a poem, Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” for example, we are introducing students to key content about American literature and the Harlem Renaissance while also teaching them about the elements poetry, reading skills (such as analysis), and reading like a writer so they can transfer those rhetorical and literary strategies into their own writing.

Let me pause here to stress that at all levels from K-12, this is a damn high bar for any teacher. It takes a great deal of time and expertise to learn to manage all that effectively.

At worst, these obligations become professional and disciplinary battles—ones waged among practitioners often at the expense of students we should be serving.

We must teach phonics, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to read?

We must teach grammar, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to write?

Everyone must read The Great Gatsby, but what if that requirement creates nonreaders?

When we form ideological camps about disciplinary knowledge or literacy, we often fail both our field of ELA/English and students.

We teach English means something extremely complex and difficult, something that in fact may be too much to expect of any teacher.

But this is what we do, this is who we are.

If we return to the debate and discussion about teaching whole-class novels, we are revisiting an enduring debate that captures exactly what teaching English means.

To resolve that debate, I believe, we must remain focused on our students, and not on whether or not we address either area of demands in our field.

It is not a simple way to resolve the questions, but it is rather simple: When we attend to either disciplinary knowledge (and we should) or literacy skills (and we must), what are the consequences of those lessons in the evidence of learning by our students?

If we require our students to read Charles Dickens, and many do not read because they dislike the work, and many begin or continue the journey to being a nonreader, then we have failed dramatically any obligations as teachers of ELA/English.

If a whole-class unit on Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games becomes a vibrant adventure in the novel and literacy, and most if not all read the novel, if several become hooked on literature, then we have accomplished everything that can be expected of teaching ELA/English.

In terms of both student reading and writing, there are decades of evidence that show how student choice in what they read and write is most effective in both fostering disciplinary knowledge (because they actually read and write) and literacy skills as well as literacy engagement (because they become eager to read and write).

But we as teachers of ELA/English are confronted with the essential problem beneath the call for student choice: students must have acquired some disciplinary and skills knowledge and proficiencies in order to make those choices.

If we can keep a critical eye on the outcomes of the instructional decisions we make—if we can resist dogged commitments to ideologies—then we can make informed choices about what best serves our students in terms of both what disciplinary knowledge they acquire and whether or not they develop as proficient and eager readers and writers.

Staying big picture is important—always asking what we are trying to accomplish with students and then paying close attention to what our students show us we are teaching.

In 2004, Donald Graves looked over his career seeking ways to teach students writing; he offered some enduring ideas about “what remains the same”:

The following fundamentals have remained unchanged in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  1. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  1. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  1. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  1. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way, the children witness their teacher’s thinking
  2. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation. (Language Arts, Vol. 82 No. 2, November 2004)

In the same way as the debate over whole-class novel instruction, if we view Graves’s fundamentals as strict rules and teach to these rules—instead of to how we are fostering students as writers—we become lost, and we likely fail.

So, yes, students choosing what they read, especially something as daunting as a novel, is a fundamental, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the possibility of whole-class novels.

To answer any instructional questions, then, as a teacher of ELA/English is in our students, not our obligations to disciplinary knowledge or literacy skills—and especially not in covering the mandated standards or preparing students for high-stakes tests.

The questions are worthy of discussion and debate among teachers of ELA/English, but ultimately we must each answer them with each unique group of students we teach.

When faced with the debates and questions about teaching ELA/English, LaBrant could be harsh and demanding—often seeming to teeter on the edge of, if not crossing over into, prescription. However, what LaBrant was demanding about in terms of “we teach English” is not that we follow her rules, or any rules, but that we remain committed to our students and their journeys in both literature and literacy.

During war, in 1942, LaBrant became frustrated with national concerns about literacy:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem.

Sound familiar?

LaBrant argued against what became a recurring political and public hand wringing about a reading crisis:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more.

Here and for over six decades, LaBrant was a champion of the we who teach English but in the name of those students we teach, especially the most vulnerable students.

To that end, when we teach English, we teach students.

And there is where our commitments must lie.

The Facts about Reading Just Don’t Matter: On the Absence of Ethical Leadership

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds is even more sobering in Trumplandia, but “reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational” being confirmed—again—is incredibly frustrating for educators.

The facts of many years of research show that people cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence; contrary evidence, in fact, tends to cause people to dig in even deeper to their misguided beliefs.

Democracy is a tenuous thing, then, when the willfully misinformed vote for those who learn to speak to and perpetuate that misinformation.

Trump has cashed in on false claims that work because of the public’s beliefs and the power of fear:

Opinion surveys regularly find that Americans believe crime is up, even when the data show it is down. In 21 Gallup surveys conducted since 1989, a majority of Americans said there was more crime in the U.S. compared with the year before, despite the generally downward trend in both violent and property crime rates during much of that period. In a Pew Research Center survey in late 2016, 57% of registered voters said crime had gotten worse since 2008, even though BJS and FBI data show that violent and property crime rates declined by double-digit percentages during that span.

Public policy in the U.S. too often is driven by popular beliefs not grounded in evidence. And an ugly irony to this dynamic includes public education policy—mostly a jumble of pet programs by people without any expertise in education who offer platitudes that resonate with a public ill-informed about what works in teaching and learning.

The misinformed echo chamber about education among political leaders, media, and the public has maintained for over thirty years now an accountability era of education policy committed to practices that have not worked, and often have caused more harm than good.

One of the many casualties of this belief culture is literacy, notably reading.

Education policy continues to march through a never-ending series of new reading programs, new reading standards, and new high-stakes reading tests (that have children perform in ways on the tests, brief passages with multiple choice questions, that are unlike real-world reading).

In 2017, then, it is stunning that a news article on reading research (from a publisher!) confirms—again—the facts we have known about reading for more than a century, but refuse acknowledge and practice.

The problem is what we know about reading and fostering literacy in children and young adults just isn’t that sexy (or profitable for politicians and publisher/testing companies): access to books in the home and libraries (community and school) and choice in what is read are strongly correlated with reading ability and eagerness.

Not phonics programs, reading programs, standards, or high-stakes testing.

Access to books and choice. Period.

From federal immigration and policing policy to how we teach our children to read, we are experiencing a fatal absence of ethical leadership.

Ethical leaders would inform the public about the decrease in violent crime, and ethical leadership would admit that our reading problems have relatively simple solutions.

Continuing to lead the uninformed by perpetuating misinformation is both a doomed practice but also a tremendous waste of our resources.

In education, the tens of millions wasted on reading programs, retooling and retraining for ever-new standards, and the bloat testing industry can and should be redirected to proven investments in books for children and robust libraries.

If we committed to buying every school-aged child 20 books a year to own (10 the choice of the child and 10 the choice of the teachers/schools), we would see an increase in reading ability and eagerness. Of course, direct instruction and fostering literacy are still needed, but these are greatly enhanced by the mere increase in book access and student choice in that reading.

And as well, we must make the same sort of ethical choices about social and education policy—addressing equity over accountability.

The facts about reading are not that sexy, but access to books and choice in what children read are what must be addressed in fostering childhood and young adult literacy.

These commitments require a move away from the inexpert ruling class and toward a culture that acknowledges, appreciates, and applies the evidence—evidence that should ground a call for ethical leadership and responsive policy.

More on Tethered Choice in the High-Stakes Classroom

A recent post, Navigating Choice Reading with High-Stakes Accountability in Mind, has resonated on several levels, although primarily among Advanced Placement teachers. I want here to continue to examine how ELA teachers in all types of courses can effectively implement choice despite high-stakes testing demands as well as other constraints of bureaucracy and programs.

My context for below is that tethered choice seeks to offer students as much choice in what they read (and write) as possible while also directly acknowledging and working within test or program constraints over which teachers and students have no real control.

A key part of this process is providing students opportunities to interrogate those constraints so that their choice is informed choice—as well as tethered.

In AP Literature, then, students should spend some time studying College Board materials and past exams to establish the types of works and which writers form the boundaries of their choices.

The central argument of this process is that over a century of research and classroom evidence shows that students are more eager and better readers when they choose their texts; therefore, tethered choice reading will likely increase student achievement in high-stakes settings such as tests.

Next, I will offer some thoughts on several questions prompted by the initial blog post.

The first question was posted on the original blog:

What would that AP Literature College Board approved syllabus look like were one seeking to pursue something like tethered choice?

Since I taught AP Literature before the College Board instituted the audit and approved syllabi, I have reached out to others, and here offer only what I can suggest as credible arguments that I do believe there is no conflict between the audit/ syllabus approval and implementing tethered choice.

Through the NCTE Connected Community, John Zoccola noted that the College Board requirements for reading selections fit well with tethered choice:

The course includes an intensive study of representative works such as those by authors cited in the AP English Course Description. (Note: The College Board does not mandate any particular authors or reading list.) The choice of works for the AP course is made by the school in relation to the school’s overall English curriculum sequence, so that by the time the student completes AP English Literature and Composition she or he will have studied during high school literature from both British and American writers, as well as works written in several genres from the sixteenth century to contemporary times. The works selected for the course should require careful, deliberative reading that yields multiple meanings.

Janet Neyer, also on the Connected Community, shared:

I see in your post that you linked to the Three Teachers Talk blog which is the site to which I would have directed your blog reader. The TTT bloggers have written and presented numerous times about the power of choice reading in AP English. The syllabus requirement from the College Board does not stipulate how literature is to be covered. In fact, one of the sample syllabi contains a choice unit. (AP Course Audit – AP English Literature And Composition). As long as a syllabus demonstrates that the course standards will be met, it should pass the audit.  In my own AP Literature classes,  I have moved toward significantly more choice, though not 100%. (I still find students in AP enjoy the ability to study a work together with a teacher asking the right questions to help them see what they miss on their own.) I think this year, my ratio is 60/40 whole class works to choice works. 

The AP Lit community is very active on Twitter under the hashtag #aplitchat – meeting every Sunday evening for a chat. A question posed to that group I am sure would yield answers from teachers who have submitted syllabi with choice as a cornerstone of their classes. (Mine was submitted long ago and I haven’t updated it.) And the companion website AP LIT HELP might be of interest as well. I believe there have been several posts from AP teachers about choice in our classes.

I feel confident that tethered and informed choice by students is not only effective but also completely manageable within the constraints of the AP audit.

To some of Janet’s comments above, let me note that tethered choice can and should be expanded beyond individual tethered choice by also placing students in small expert groups within which that group can choose a shared work for their group.

As well, tether choice can be a whole-class activity in which the class members choose a shared work for that entire class.

Both small group and whole class shared novels create a community for studying a work that can and should be augmented by students gathering resources to support their understanding of the work, such as published critical analysis. I often provided students and groups a seminal or key work of scholarship on any work they chose to study.

At all three levels—individual, small group, whole-class—increasing the autonomy and purposefulness of the students through some degree of choice is the strategy that should yield greater engagement and thus higher achievement by students.

Some other questions through Twitter pushed for more details about practice.

About classroom instruction:

Tethered choice and workshop (reading and writing) in high-stakes courses should include mini-lessons by the teacher that address the essential elements of instruction (that which constitutes the high-stakes, usually on tests).

For example, while students are all reading different (individually or within small groups) works, teachers can open classes with read-alouds and mini-lessons on text analysis (for AP Literature) that parallel the context of the AP tests.

Teachers should structure these mini-lessons around the requirements of the course and select prose passages or poems that introduce students to or reinforce about the types of texts and writers that teachers know students need to understand better.

One powerful instructional strategy I used began with a mini-lesson and modeling around a variety of analytical lenses for examining texts. First, we addressed the importance of New Criticism in formal schooling and most testing; however, I also introduced students to feminism, Marxism, New Historicism, Reader Response, and others.

As a whole-class activity, we would apply several different analytical lenses to a children’s book, usually Click, Clack, Moo, before asking students to choose elements of their selected work to apply 3-4 different analytical moves in order to share with a small group or the whole class.

Direct and guided instruction that is more teacher-centered remains in tethered choice and workshop classrooms, mostly to help students foster the expertise they need to be autonomous, to be empowered with their choices.

I have examined some of activities related to reading like a writer here and here that would help build the sorts of skills students need in tethered choice classrooms.

For whole class or small group discussions, I found tethered choice was a powerful way to help shift the entire focus of authority for the discussion away from the teacher and toward the students.

These discussions must focus on analysis and concepts, typically driven by questions such as “How does your work portray gender (or race)? What passages reinforce that, and how does writer’s craft in that passage accomplish those portrayals?”

The big picture moves I instilled in students analyzing texts such as poems, novels, short stories, and drama were to ask: What is the writer doing? How is the writer accomplishing that (writer’s craft, literary technique)? And why does that matter to the reader?

About grading, I must offer the caveat that I have been a non-grader for most of my teaching career, including when I taught AP Literature. Yet, I believe grading and giving instructional feedback are parallel, and thus, see tethered choice enhancing our assessment/feedback strategies.

The key, I believe, is that tethered choice encourages that teachers respond to larger literacy and text analysis goals, and not narrow fact acquisition of particular texts.

In other words, we should not be grading or offering feedback on what students know about a particular text but what students are able to do with any texts, particularly so-called high-quality texts (ones in which writer’s craft is more apparent).

Finally, about summer reading:

Requiring summer reading has a long and ugly history similar to assigning whole-class major texts; however, if we step back to confront why we ask students to read over summer, we come back to exactly why choice reading is effective—increasing eagerness to read produces more reading, which results in better reading skills when teachers provide coaching and mentoring.

I believe, then, that summer reading has the best chance of being effective if it is enhanced by tethered and informed, purposeful choice by students.

Instead of assigning a work for all students as an assignment for AP, gather students at the end of the academic year in order to provide them with opportunities to examine what goals they have for summer reading (AP prep, etc.) but also how to review and explore works and authors they will more likely enjoy.

Here, using amazon (the preview option online) or Goodreads is an effective strategy for helping students learn how to review and consider a work before committing fully to it.

As choice reading is added to academic year and summer reading, as well, students can be invited to suggest and review major texts for upcoming students; this dynamic creates greater and greater autonomy and authority for students as a community of readers and learners.

In fact, class or school-wide Goodreads accounts or blog sites can be used to create an ongoing repository of works students recommend to other students for both academic and pleasure reading.

These recommendations can also be effective artifacts of student learning and more authentic ways to assess reading.

Ultimately, tethered choice is one example of how teachers can make research-based practice fit into restrictive high-stakes structures—if we trust our professional judgment and the potential of our students as autonomous and eager young people when given the chance.

Navigating Choice Reading with High-Stakes Accountability in Mind

As long as we have had formal education in the U.S., we have had a fair amount of public crisis discourse about how students can’t read, and we persist in committing to classroom practices that often contradict our stated goals of creating eager and proficient readers among our students.

One of my arguments about how we fail reading in our schools is that virtually all K-3 students are eager to read, but very few high school students maintain that same joy; what those students have in common are 10+ years in school, where reading goes to die.

English educator and researcher Lou LaBrant began in the 1920s and 1930s producing what we would call today action research showing the essential power of choice in reading to foster both eager and proficient readers.

In the subsequent years, research on reading has confirmed over and over that access to books in the home and choice in reading are the most powerful ways to achieve the kind of literacy we often lament is missing in our young people.

During the most recent accountability era, when high-stakes testing has become king, students are increasingly schooled in scoring well on test-reading, and as a result, they are taught to hate reading. We may well have today a much greater problem in the U.S. with people who hate to read, who don’t read, than who can’t read.

And that fact is the fault of formal schooling.

The source of this dilemma is high-stakes accountability grounded in testing. As a high school English teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in South Carolina, an early adopter of standards and testing, and I also taught in the Advanced Placement program.

After attending my local Writing Project and finishing my dissertation on LaBrant to complete and EdD, I became resolved to seek ways to honor choice reading and my obligations to prepare students for testing. I documented that adventure with my AP students in English JournalWhen Choice Failed—Or Did It?

When I saw a recent post, AP English and Choice Reading, I was prompted to revisit some of the key elements of how all teachers can remain committed to powerful and research-based literacy practices such as choice while also meeting our obligations during high-stakes accountability.

My short version is what I always say about good writing instruction: If we practice rich and authentic reading practices, students will be even better equipped when faced with narrow and reductive test-reading than if they had only test-prep reading instruction.

The fundamental shift that must occur in order for any teacher to make choice reading work in real world demands of the classroom is to let go of seeing any text as the goal of instruction and to recognize our literacy goals are broader than any details about that text.

In other words, we must not seek to make our students experts on The Scarlet Letter, nothing more than fostering trivia knowledge, but seek to use any novel in the pursuit of all literacy moves (including critical literacy) and to foster genre, medium, and form awareness.

If we believe people should read novels, we must seek ways to invite students to read any novel in order to grow more proficient in that practice, to grow more eager and joyous as well.

As I detailed in EJ in 2003, instead of doing assigned whole-class novels and plays in AP Literature, I allowed students to explore the provided list of writers from the College Board/AP as well as the identified works over the years on the AP Literature test.

From that narrowed and purposeful range of works, we developed broad categories within which students chose works to facilitate whole-class discussions even as students were reading different works.

For example, we had units grounded in black writers and female writers, but we also included Shakespeare and modern U.S. drama categories in order to prepare well for the AP test.

I call this tethered choice because students become active and informed participants in both choosing what they read and keeping that choice tethered to instructional goals and accountability demands.

Choice reading is powerful and accountability is a reality for both students and teachers; however, these two facts do not have to become a regrettable choice for teachers.

If we teachers can embrace the eagerness and joy all children bring to school and then become facilitators for helping those students remain avid readers who recognize the formal obligations of schooling, our reading classrooms can honor both choice reading and achieve the sorts of measurable outcomes demanded by accountability.

A Reader for Trumplandia

My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World, Andrew Postman

‘It will be called Americanism’: the US writers who imagined a fascist future, Sarah Churchwell

George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America, Adam Gopnik

1984, George Orwell

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The Orwell essay that’s even more pertinent than “1984” right now, Maxwell Strachan

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell

Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics, Alexandra Alter

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis

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Newt Gingrich: Margaret Thatcher is the real model for the Trump presidency

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

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1987’s “Document” feels especially applicable to America in 2017, Annie Zaleski

On Jan. 20, Paste ran a clever article titled “An Inaugural Day Message via the Words of R.E.M.” The piece creates a narrative about politics and life by jumbling together and rearranging phrases culled from the Athens, Georgia, band’s song lyrics. Workload-wise, the 2400-word piece is impressive; mixing and matching sentiments from a 30-plus-year career certainly isn’t easy….

The last record R.E.M. released via I.R.S. Records — and the first LP the band recorded with producer Scott Litt — “Document” addresses the corrupting nature of money; political witch hunts concerning free speech; circumstances that are both bewildering and unprecedented; and economic and employment oppression. Appropriately, the record’s music is glinting and electrified, and nods to post-punk, folk, funk and fiery rock ‘n’ roll….

In 2003, Stipe admitted that “Disturbance at the Heron House” is his “take” on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”…

“That song is so fucking political, and it’s so appropriate to what’s going on right now,” he told Filter. “Like, the kind of arrogance that some of the policy makers and world leaders are carrying with them right now is, I think, reflective of the very worst of the United States. It’s that teenage arrogance, as a young country, the know-it-all-kind of thing. That makes me crazy.”

R.E.M. – Disturbance At The Heron House (see also here)

Animal Farm, George Orwell

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Additional Recommended Texts

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler

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Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins

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Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

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Readers, Writers, Teachers, and Students: “the pointlessness of so much of it”

I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.

I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have words.

“Four Bookshops,” The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman

After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years and counting as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting a couple weeks ago in our second workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.

Both the formal teaching of reading and writing—notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels—is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher [1].

While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in the former, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often comes off as a heated debate instead of a productive conversation.

I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared to teach a very narrow version of literary criticism—mostly addressing fiction and poetry, and mostly through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)

During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, no real-world writers do this).

I will not explore this fully here, but we cannot ignore as well how the commodification of education has eroded the authenticity of reading and writing. Textbooks and teaching materials feed the accountability dynamic narrowly but also speak to viewing reading and writing as students and teachers, not as readers and writers.

A Case for Readers and Writers in Formal Schooling

I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, and this adventure in a writer’s-writer offering essay after essay about his love affair with books, writers, libraries, and genre is both a pure joy for me as reader and writer as well as yet another journey into trying to understand better the teaching of reading and writing.

Gaiman is an incredibly successful writer who cannot resist constantly reminding his readers how his life as a writer grew from his love affair with books and writers, how bookstores and libraries were his sanctuaries.

His is also a testament to the power of a wide variety of genres and media in the life of avid readers and writers.

“The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” and “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” are powerful essays about the importance of teaching literacy as readers and writers (and thus at least tempering teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers) but also about how literacy is a journey, not something to be acquired or mastered.

To focus on the second essay noted above, Gaiman shares a story of his telling a joke to a fellow eight-year-old, a joke including the word “fuck”; the controversy that followed, including the friend’s parents removing that child from the private school, taught Gaiman “two very important lessons”:

The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.

And the second is that words have power.

This essay on children’s literature is also about children, as Gaiman explains:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.

And then, Gaiman confronts formal schooling—reinforcing something I have found to be a pattern among some of the most well regarded writers (I have written and edited a number of books on writers, focusing often on Kurt Vonnegut):

For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….

My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was—C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers. [1]

And here is where I believe the tension I noted earlier comes into play.

Again, I am not arguing here that teaching literacy as a reader/writer is necessarily better than teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher, but I am extremely concerned that the latter dominates formal schooling to an extreme that is harmful to both literacy and basic human dignity and agency.

Gaiman’s essays, however, shout to those of us who teach literacy that formal schooling and teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers stood between Gaiman and works such as his wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that Gaiman has become a gifted and treasured writer in spite of his formal education (like Louise DeSalvo, Gaiman honors the coincidental lessons of libraries and bookstores).

I am fairly certain now that lumping all sorts of literacy instruction into a course called “English” is a really bad idea—teaching literary analysis is often at odds with fostering a love of reading, but being a teacher of reading and/or literature is simply not the same thing as teaching writing.

So much of my antagonism about how we teach literacy isn’t at us teachers so much as at the system itself—how formal schooling too often is rightly analogized as prison, how many of us have excelled in many ways in spite of our education.

As a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores; as a writer who views nearly every moment of this life through writer’s eyes; as someone who, like Gaiman, remains moment by moment aware of the “powerlessness” and “helplessness” of being a child or teen, of being a student—I make the case often that the teaching of literacy—reading and writing—needs less school- and test-only versions of reading and writing, but much more authentic reading and writing.

At the end of his contemplation on what makes a book for children (or adults), Gaiman returns to a point he makes early in the talk: “But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions”

And it is here that I think we have a better way for formal schooling—the pursuit of questions with the joy and wonder of a child.

And I’ll thus end with a question: What value is there in rules, tests, templates, and requirements if in the end our classrooms have resulted in children seeking ways to escape “the pointlessness of so much of it”?


[1] Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is reduced to tests, templates, and narrow views of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.

[2] On Science Fiction, C.S. Lewis:

They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.

In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).

Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.

Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.

Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.

Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.

All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.

During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”

Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.

As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.

But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.

And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.

So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.

From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.

The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”

In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.

So what does all this mean?

Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.

Two of the best examples of this skills plague are the obsession with prescriptive/isolated grammar instruction and the Queen Mother of literacy scams, the “word gap.”

The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]

Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.

Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.

Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.

Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.

First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.

As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.

But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.

Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.

And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.

We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.

Let me end with my graduate course.

For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.

I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.

I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.

I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”

I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.

I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.


See Also

Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

It’s finally time to stop correcting people’s grammar, linguist says

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Oliver Kamm