Teaching Students to Dislike Poetry: “What is the most boring subject/possible?”

As an avid reader, teacher, and writer/poet, I read poetry nearly every day, especially now that I am prompted wonderfully through social media such as Twitter.

So Matthew Zapruder‘s recent Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think spurred both my Teacher-Self and my Poet-Self with his lede:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word “purple” or “flower” or “grass” really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.

Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder

Teaching and writing poetry for over three decades now, I have always swum against the “I dislike poetry” tide with equal parts evangelical zeal and soul-crushing disappointment. Poetry, I learned many years ago as a first-year college student, is beautiful; it is the orchestra of words best representing the human compulsion toward language and communicating with each other.

Recently, as I read Randall Mann’s “A Better Life,” I began to cry by the lines “Fear lives in the chest/like results.” That emotional response upon a first reading wasn’t intellectually engaged with understanding fully the poem, or how traditional approaches to teaching poetry demands that readers seek out deeper meanings.

And also read recently, Margaret Ross’s “Socks” prods the reader in the opening lines toward the mundane:

The socks came in a pack of five.
What is the most boring subject
possible?

As I did with Mann’s poem, soon my heart was deeply drawn to Ross’s simple verse:

All that time
I could have touched you and didn’t
or did absentminded, getting in
or out of bed or trying to reach
something behind you.

These two poems are beautiful in the way poetry moves me, and they are both wonderful examples of how the craft of poetry can, and often does, elicit our hearts and our minds through what seems to be very simple language and topics—”a better life” in less purposeful hands is trite, and, I mean, socks?

For those of us concerned about the place of poetry in formal education and then how that fits into the place of poetry in life beyond school, we must consider what the hell we are doing that leads so many people to “I don’t like poetry.”

People all were once children who danced and sang to poetry in their children’s books and cartoons. How many children have you ever known not to revel in rhyme and word play as well as the discovery of utterances and words (o glorious taboo words!)?

And once having gone sufficiently to school, many if not most of these once-children are apt to say “I don’t like poetry.”

Not to be an ass, or simply to quibble, but I think they are actually saying that they have become exhausted with the exact problem confronted by Zapruder; that poetry has more often than not for students been the source of how one adult in the room has the key to a puzzle that is used to make the children feel stupid.

Scanning meter and rhyme scheme, conducting the literary term hunt, explaining some deeper meaning beyond the words on the page—these tasks become laborious and tell students that the tasks themselves matter more than experiencing the poem, that the poem is just some vehicle for these educational adventures in torture.

Here, then, are some suggestions for classroom moves that may better preserve the sanctity of poetry and may better insure that more (but not all) students will retain their childhood joy for words, rhyme, and the feeling of poetry:

  • Expand the responses to poetry from intellectual to emotional, allowing students to begin with (and even linger on) how poetry makes them feel.
  • Emphasize the essential concrete and narrative elements of poetry (instead of making poetry seem as if it is always about Big Meaning, and thus, mostly abstractions). What is this poem saying and who is telling us? These are powerful and important ways to engage with poetry that avoids the pressure of “What do socks represent in this poem?”
  • Focus on how poetry as a form has distinct qualities that impact the reading experience—notably that poets craft in line and stanza form (or in the case of prose poetry with the awareness that they are abandoning even that basic aspect of what makes poetry poetry; none the less, poetry always carries an awareness of lines/stanzas for poets and readers).
  • Encourage students to share their personal reactions and then ask them to distinguish those personal responses from the textual evidence in the poem.
  • Draw them to the text by asking students to identify their favorite word(s) and line(s), and then allow them to highlight the word(s) and line(s) that puzzle or confuse them. This avoids the “guess what the teacher wants” trap of students risking being wrong or right.
  • Read aloud poems, often and repeatedly. Poetry is inextricable from sound as well as how the words are shaped on the page. Most poetry is brief enough to be read aloud and multiple times, making poetry ideal for encouraging these practices in students as purposeful readers.
  • Allow frequent space for the reading of a poem to be enough—no demand for comment or analysis.
  • Share with students your genuine responses to the poems you love—and why you love them in ways that are not about being their teacher, but a human who loves poetry.

No poet writes to be the source of multiple-choice questions on an Advanced Placement Literature exam, or the focus of a 45-minute lesson on scansion and rhyme scheme.

And we can rest assured no poet writes in order to be the reason anyone dislikes poetry.

Late in Ross’s poem, the speaker confesses:

I’ve been
looking for a long time
at the stretch of table where you had
your hand. I am afraid
to touch it.

She has me mind, body, and soul, and as I finished this poem the first time, I wanted to share it with others, which I did.

None of us discussed what it means, or even her wonderfully accessible language that certainly speaks to us beyond the “boring subject” of socks.

Mostly we quoted and often agreed on our favorite lines, and then felt something satisfying about having this poem in common. Nothing about the repetition of blue or what socks really mean.

But I have been thinking because of both poems and Zapruder’s piece about “a better life” for students, for teachers, and for the promise poetry affords us if we simply let it be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that begins to address the how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Reading

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

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

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Don’t Buy Bluster from Teacher Quality VAM-pires

The responses are predictable online and through social media any time I address teacher quality and policy focusing on teacher evaluation such as my recent commentary on Charleston adopting value-added methods (VAM).

How dare I, some respond, suggest that teacher quality does not matter!

The pattern is exhausting because most responding in indignation first misrepresent what I have claimed and then make the most extreme arguments themselves in order to derail the conversation along their own agenda, usually linked to the charter school movement grounded in teacher bashing and making unobtainable promises.

So let me state here that the central elements of what we know about teacher quality and efforts such as VAM-based teacher evaluation is that teacher quality is not an independent variable (any teacher may be effective for one student and ineffective for another, for example) and, since student high-stakes testing is not designed to measure teacher quality and is more strongly linked to out-of-school factors, VAM is both a horrible technique for identifying teacher quality and, ironically, a guaranteed process for devaluing the importance of teachers.

Teacher quality is unparalleled in importance in terms of student learning, but it is also nearly impossible to measure, quantify—especially through student scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

Teacher quality VAM-pires, then, often have agendas [1] that are masked by their bluster about teacher quality.

Trying to measure and quantify teacher quality is a mistake; linking any evaluation of teacher quality to student test scores lacks validity and reliability—and VAM discourages teachers from teaching the most challenging populations of students (high-poverty, special needs, English language learners).

Focusing on simplistic and inappropriate measures reduces teacher impact to 10-15% of what high-stakes standardized testing measures; in other words, VAM itself devalues teacher quality.

My informed argument, based on 18 years as a public school classroom teacher and 15 years as a teacher educator and scholar, then, is that we must recognize teacher quality is impacted by teacher preparation, teaching/learning conditions, student characteristics, and dozens of other factors inside and outside of schools—many of which are beyond the control of teachers or students.

As well, we must address the teacher quality issues that political and administrative leaders can control: class size, school funding, and most important of all, teacher assignment.

Just as decades of research have revealed that teacher quality accounts for no more than 10-15% of student test scores, decades of research show that affluent and white students are assigned the most experienced and certified teachers while poor and black/brown students are assigned new/inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

The charter school crowd’s bluster about teacher quality is pure hokum because charter schools increase that inequity of teacher assignment by depending on new and uncertified teachers such as candidates from Teach For America.

No one is saying teacher quality does not matter—I clearly am not saying that—but dishonesty about teacher quality does lay at the feet of the edu-reformers and the VAM-pires who wave their collective arms any time we call them on their failed policies and their political agendas.


[1] See the evangelical urge of Broad-trained acolytes, the resume building and cut-and-run patterns of edu-reformers, and the post-truth practices of turn-around and charter advocacy.

Teacher Quality: A Reader in 2017

Let me start with a full disclosure: Lawrence Baines is a colleague and friend with whom I have collaborated on several book projects and presentations. So I want to offer some friendly concerns about his thoughtful When ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Aren’t in Education Week.

Baines open with: “Recent research confirms that America’s most vulnerable children are being taught by the least-qualified teachers.”

This is incredibly important, but let’s clarify a few points. Vulnerable students include black and brown students, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students. And Baines is highlighting a truly ugly fact about unwritten policies in education: these vulnerable populations of students are assigned disproportionately new and early-career teachers as well as un-/under-certified teachers.

Dozens of studies for many years have confirmed that administrations commonly “reward” veteran teachers by assigning them “good” students and advanced courses such as AP and IB.

Add to that dynamic that the rise of charter schools linked strongly with TFA has increased the likelihood that vulnerable students will be assured a continual stream of uncertified and new teachers.

Confronting the increased bureaucratization of teacher preparation and alternative certification programs, Baines makes his central case: “The continual dumbing-down of the preparation of teachers is not without consequences.”

I would argue that the “dumbing-down” is about the false attack on “bad” teachers as the primary or even single cause of low student achievement among, specifically, vulnerable students.

And the ugly consequence of that assault has been increasing accountability over teacher certification and teacher evaluation (such as using value-added methods) and thus demonizing teachers without improving teaching or learning.

Another repeated fact of education is that measurable student learning (usually test scores) is most strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of students’ home; see this about Arkansas, which is typical across the U.S.

So here is the teacher quality dilemma: If we demand that teacher quality is the primary mechanism for improving student achievement, and if that is a false claim (which it is), we are doomed to both destroying the profession and discouraging anyone from entering that profession.

And Baines concludes: “All of the highest-performing countries in the world require teachers to obtain advanced degrees, demonstrate pedagogical and subject-matter expertise, accumulate significant teaching experience, and show an aptitude for working with children before stepping into the classroom as full-time teachers.”

Herein we are confronted with what it means to prepare well people to teach. And how do we disentangle teacher preparation and teacher evaluation from corrosive and ill-informed bureaucracy (certification and accreditation) while also providing the context within which we can create robust and challenging teacher education as well as ongoing professional development for teachers?

My short answer is that standards, certification, and accreditation are all the problems, not the solutions. Teacher education needs to be re-envisioned as the other disciplines, which are often self-regulating and robust because of professionalism and fidelity to the discipline among members of that discipline.

Since I have written on these issues often, I offer here a reader to help confront the issues raised by Baines:

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

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.

Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton