What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Over the past decade, my home university has adopted and implemented a new curriculum that is, in part, built on shifting to a first year seminar (FYS) concept (instead of the traditional first year composition model commonly known as ENG 101 and 102).

In the most recent three years, I have chaired the First Year Seminar Faculty Oversight Committee and been named Faculty Director, First Year Seminars—all of which has led to my role on a newly formed Task Force to consider how to revise (possibly significantly) our commitment to two first years seminars with one being writing intensive (FYW).

While the university is addressing a number of curricular issues related to the FYS program, a central concern involves the teaching of writing in the FYW—specifically issues related to direct writing instruction (including direct instruction on scholarly citation) and the consistency of the writing-intensive element across all FYWs.

Several elements impact these issues and our possible resolutions: (i) the university does not have a formal writing center/institute, (ii) the university doesn’t have an explicit or formal writing program or stated goals/commitments, and (iii) the commitment to the FYS program included the assumption that all faculty across all disciplines are equipped to teach writing.

I have been teaching writing and researching what that means for over thirty years—the first 18 as a high school English teacher and then at the undergraduate and graduate levels over much of those years, including teaching future teachers of English to teach writing. A number of my scholarly articles, chapters, and books also address teaching writing.

And while I learned how to teach writing painstakingly over those wonderful and challenging two decades of teaching high school, I cannot overemphasize what I have learned about the challenges of supporting quality writing instruction in the last three years—highlighted, I think, by coming against the range of insufficient to misguided understanding of what we mean when we call for teaching writing.

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I can answer this question by how I address students who want to learn to write poetry, a wonderful and impossible task that is a subset of the wonderful and impossible task of teaching writing (to which you should read the glorious and hilarious Teaching the Unteachable by Kurt Vonnegut).

Step one, I explain, is read, read, read poetry—preferably immersing yourself into entire volumes by poets you enjoy and want to emulate.

Step two, I add, is to write, write, write poetry.

And then, step three is to share those drafts with a poet/teacher who can give you substantive feedback—wherein we find ourselves at “teaching writing.”

If those students follow my guidelines, and then send me poems for my feedback, what do I do?

Central to teaching writing, I must stress, is both the authority of the teacher as well as the attitude of that teacher about writing, which I have proposed for the Task Force as follows:

  • Faculty who recognize that all aspects of writing are a process and that undergraduate students continue to struggle with and need guided practice with formal written expression (including the conventions of the disciplines, citation, and grammar/mechanics).

To teach writing, then, you must not be caught in the trap of thinking anyone can be finished learning to write and the concurrent trap of thinking that direct writing instruction is some sort of remediation (since that implies a lockstep sequence of skills that must be acquired).

For example, one challenge we are facing at my university has been brought to my attention by a librarian who works with FYS/W faculty and receives student referrals from the Academic Discipline Committee. She noted that a number of students were being labeled academically dishonest because they lacked the background in proper citation and that faculty were not teaching citation, but simply labeling it incorrect.

This issue with citation, again, is a subset of not understanding that teaching writing is ongoing for all students (and any writers)—not something to master at a set point during formal education.

The teaching of writing includes, as I note above about teaching poetry, creating the conditions within which a student can learn to write and then managing the sort of feedback and opportunities to revise/draft that leads to growth as a writer.

Creating conditions includes reading and examining a wide variety of texts by genre, mode, and media—and that examination must be not only traditional literary analysis but reading like a writer. Reading like a writer entails close consideration of what a text says and how, while navigating the purposeful relationship between the genre and form the writer has chosen for expression and then how the writer has and has not conformed to the conventions of those genres/forms.

Students and the teacher read an Op-Ed from The New York Times in order to confront what Op-Eds and argument tend to do as texts and how in order to determine if the claims in the Op-Ed are sound and how successful the piece ultimately is.

These conditions also include that students always use reading like a writer as a foundation for drafting original writing.

Feedback, then, becomes the element of teaching writing that is both often only what people think of as teaching writing and then the most misunderstood phase.

The primary problematic view of responding to student writing is “correcting,” which overemphasizes and misunderstands the role of conventions in writing (grammar, mechanics, usage).

What many think of as “correcting,” I would argue is editing, and thus, its priority in the teaching of writing is after we have addressed much more important aspects of text, as Lou LaBrant argued:

As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say. (p. 123)

And it is at this implication by LaBrant—responsible and important writing—that I think we must focus on what it means to teach writing.

As teachers of writing, we must give substantive feedback that encourages awareness and purpose in our students as well as prompts them in concrete ways to revise. That feedback must address the following:

  • The relationship between the genre/form students have chosen for their writing and then how effective the piece is within (or against) those conventions.
  • Purposefulness of sentence, paragraph, and form/mode creation.
  • Appropriateness and effectiveness of diction (word choice), tone, and readability (in the context of the designated audience).
  • Weight and clarity of claims (notably in the context of disciplinary, genre, and mode conventions). [As a note: novice writers tend to be claim-machines, overwhelming the reader with too many and often overstated claims, and almost no evidence or elaboration.]
  • Credibility and weight of evidence (again, tempered by the conventions of the disciplines and thus the expectations for citation).
  • Effectiveness and weight of elaboration—achieving cohesion through rhetorical and content strategies (such as detailed examples or narrative) that support the reader’s need for clarity, subordination/coordination of ideas, transition, and one or more unifying themes/theses.

Teaching writing, then, is a monumental task, one that may rightly be called impossible (as Vonnegut somewhat tongue-in-cheek claims); however, we who are tasked with teaching writing should understand the first directive above—learning to write is a process that no one can ever finish—and find solace in Henry David Thoreau (excusing the sexism of his language):

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

No single writing-intensive class or individual teacher should be expected to accomplish any prescribed outcome for students as writers.

Instead, the teaching of writing must be guided by the basic concepts I outlined above for teaching a student to write poetry—creating the conditions within which writing can be explored, conditions that include reading like a writer, drafting original writing, and receiving substantive feedback from a mentor.

Teaching writing has a long history of being a challenge, one recognized by LaBrant in 1953:

It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it. (p. 417)

Any student taking a seat in our classes deserves the patience and time necessary for teaching writing, something extremely difficult to do but possible if we can embrace its complexity and offer students, as LaBrant argues, ample opportunities to practice being writers.


Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest, Ann M. Johns

Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Inducing Students to Write (1955), Lou LaBrant

Teaching High-School Students to Write (1946), Lou LaBrant

Writing Is More than Structure (1957), Lou LaBrant

The Individual and His Writing (1950), Lou LaBrant

De-professionalization for Profit: “Leery of teachers”

In Common Core’s unintended consequence?, Jonathan Sapers examines a report from the Center for Education Policy (CEP), self-described as “a national, independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools.”

CEP has discovered “that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.”

As has been the pattern throughout roughly thirty years of public school accountability—one characterized by a revolving door of state standards and high-stakes testing—new standards and tests mean profit opportunities for education-focused businesses.

Sapers reports:

However, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers, said publishers are pulling their weight. “We have more than 150 members in our PreK-12 Learning Group. And the ones I’ve seen over the past several years or more have tried very hard to align with Common Core standards in reading and math.”…

Some teachers and districts are viewing the dearth of materials as an opportunity, but experts and even some educators say putting the job of creating curriculum materials into the hands of teachers may not necessarily be a good thing [emphasis added].

And this is where the article takes a troubling turn, as highlighted here:

leery of teachers

“Leery of Teachers”

My career as an educator includes 18 years teaching English in a SC public high school throughout the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the most recent 13 years as a teacher educator in higher education.

Those experiences and in my work teaching future teachers, I note that a powerful and problematic difference between a K-12 teacher and a college professor is the locus of authority in terms of the content of any course.

Historically and currently, the authority over content for K-12 teachers has too often been textbooks, curriculum guides, standards, and high-stakes tests.

For college professors, the single most important element of teaching authority is that professors are the locus of authority of the content they teach; in fact, many if not most college professors have little or no formal training in pedagogy, how to teach.

The great irony of this distinction is that between K-12 teachers and professors, K-12 teachers have the greater expertise in teaching, but a far reduced status as a professional when compared to professors.

Along with the locus of authority over the content, the status of professional is strongly related to autonomy and respect—which brings me back to the “unintended consequence” above.

The attitude toward K-12 teachers not having time to create curriculum is valid, but the reason they do not have time includes the incessant changing of bureaucratic mandates that consume their time and that K-12 teachers do not have professional schedules (which professors do) in which to conduct research and create curriculum (which are often related at the university level).

However, the “leery” as well as the unsubstantiated claim that teachers do not have the “professional background” to create curriculum is a genuinely ugly example of the de-professionalization of teaching—a process aided by a historical marginalizing of teaching (significantly as an element of professional sexism), the bureaucratizing of teaching, and the union-busting momentum in recent years.

We should be exploring the real intended consequence of Common Core: billions are to be made off the standards and testing charade, and teachers creating their own curriculum and materials infringes on that profit.

Teaching at all levels includes curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but central to those elements are the unique set of students each teacher faces every day.

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment mean almost nothing without the context of students, and the only person qualified to make those decisions is the teacher.

If we must be leery, let’s be leery about think tanks, publishing companies, and mainstream media who all seem to have little respect for the professionalism of teaching.

See Also

Teaching: Too Hard for Teachers, Peter Greene

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Depending on your historical and literary preferences, spend a bit of time with Franz Kafka or Dilbert and you should understand the great failure of the standards movement in both how we teach and how we certify teachers—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy tends to be inadequate because bureaucrats themselves are often lacking professional or disciplinary credibility or experience, depending, however, on the status of their authority to impose mandates. For education, Arne Duncan serves well as the face of the bureaucrat, an appointee who has only the bully pulpit of his appointment to hold forth on policy.

However, as corrosive to education—and ultimately to evidence-based practice—is the technocrat.

Technocrats, unlike bureaucrats, are themselves credible, although narrowly so. For technocrats, “evidence” is only that which can be measured, and data serve to draw generalizations from randomized samples.

In short, technocrats have no interest in the real world, but in the powerful narcotic of the bell-shaped curve.

As a result, a technocrat’s view often fails human decency (think Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein) and certainly erases the very human reality of individual outliers.

The face of the technocrat—in fact, the technocrat’s technocrat—is Daniel Willingham, whose work is often invoked as if handed down by the hand on God, chiseled on tablets. [1] [Note: If you sense snark here, I am not suggesting Willingham’s work is flawed or unimportant (I would say important but narrow), but am being snarky about how others wield the technocratic hammer in his name.]

And it is here I want to return to a few points I have made recently:

  • Even the gold standard of experimental research fails the teacher in her day-to-day work because her classroom is not a random sampling of students, because her work is mostly with outliers.
  • And in the teaching moment, what counts as evidence becomes that teacher’s experience couched in that teacher’s content and teaching knowledge as all of that happens against the on-going evidence of the act of teaching.

Stewart Riddle, offering yet another effort in the reading war, is essentially speaking for evidence-based practice while raising a red flag against the tyranny of the technocrat, embodied by the systematic phonics crowd (those who wave the Willingham flag, for example).

On Twitter, in response to my piece on evidence-based policy and practice, Nick Kilstein raised a great point:

My ultimate response (prompting this blog):

My thoughts here, building on the bullet points above, are that having our practice informed by a wide range of evidence (including important evidence from technocrats, but also from other types of evidence, especially qualitative research [2] that can account for outliers, nuance, and the unexpected) is much different than having our practice mandated by evidence (think intensive, systematic phonics for all children regardless of needs or fluency because that is the program the school has adopted).

For day-to-day teaching, the tensions of the disciplines remain important: what we can measure against what measuring cannot address.

When Willingham proclaims that a certain type of research does not support the existence of learning styles, for example, teachers should use that to be very skeptical of the huge amount of oversimplified and misguided “teacher guides” and programs that espouse learning styles templates, practices, and models. [3]

But day-to-day teaching certainly reveals that each of our students is different, demanding from us some recognition of those differences in both what and how we teach them.

It is in the face of a single child that technocrats fail us—as Simon P. Walker notes:

Some educational researchers retreat to empiricist methods. Quantitative studies are commissioned on huge sample sizes. Claims are made, but how valid are those claims to the real-life of the classroom? For example, what if one study examines 5,000 students to see if they turn right rather than left after being shown more red left signs. Yes, we now with confidence know students turn left when shown red signs. But so what?  What can we extrapolate from that?  How much weight can that finding bear when predicting human behaviour in complex real world situations where students make hundreds of decisions to turn left and right moment by moment? The finding is valid but is it useful?

If that child needs direct phonics or grammar instruction, then I must offer them. If that child is beyond direct phonics and grammar instruction or if that direct instruction inhibits her/his learning to read and write, then I must know other strategies (again, this is essentially what whole language supports).

The tyranny of the bureaucrats is easy to refute, but the tyranny of the technocrat is much more complicated since that evidence is important, it does matter—but again, evidence of all sorts must inform the daily work of teaching, not mandate it.

Professional and scholarly teachers are obligated to resist the mandates by being fully informed; neither compliance nor ignorance serves us well as a profession.

[1] For more on worshipping technocrats, explore this, notably the cult of John Hattie and that those who cite his work never acknowledge the serious concerns raised about that work (see the bottom of the post).

[2] Full disclosure, I wrote a biography for my EdD dissertation (published here), and also have written a critical consideration of quantitative data.

[3] See, for example, how evidence (Hart and Risley) functions to limit and distort practice in the context of the “word gap.” The incessant drumbeat of the “Hart and Risley” refrain is the poster child of the tyranny of technocrats.

Leaning Think Tanks or (More) Flawed Education Journalism?

In the spirit of good journalism, let me start with full disclosure.

I am on the Editorial Board of NEPC (you’ll see why this matters in a few paragraphs), and that means I occasionally provide blind peer review of research reviews conducted by scholars for NEPC. That entails my receiving a couple very small stipends, but I have never been directly or indirectly asked to hold any position except to base my reviews on the weight of the available evidence.

Further, since this appears important, I am not now and have never been a member of any teacher or professor union. Recently, I spoke to a local union-based conference, but charged no fee (my travel from SC to TN was covered).

Finally, I have been confronting the repeatedly poor journalism covering education and education reform for several years, notably see my recent piece, Education Journalism Deserves an F: A Reader.

My key points about the failures of journalism covering education include (i) journalists assuming objective poses, that are in fact biased, (ii) the lack of expertise among journalists about the history and research base in education, and (iii) the larger tradition in journalism to dispassionately (again a pose, but not real) present “both sides” of every issue regardless of the credibility of those sides or regardless of whether or not the issue is really binary (let’s highlight also that virtually no issue is binary).

So I remain deeply disappointed when major outlets, here Education Week, and experienced journalists, specifically Stephen Sawchuk, contribute to the worst of education reform by remaining trapped in the worst aspects of covering education.

Sawchuk’s U.S. Teacher-Prep Rules Face Heavy Criticism in Public Comments includes a common framing of “both sides” in order to address the USDOE’s new proposal to reform teacher education.

That framing pits NEPC against the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—although a number of others with stakes in the debate are listed. What is notable here is how Sawchuk chooses to characterize each; for example:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies….

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education….

Only a handful of commenters were outright supportive of the rules. At press time, a coalition of groups were preparing to submit a comment backing the proposal. The coalition’s members included: Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee; Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that supports teacher-leadership efforts; the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group; and the alternative-certification programs Teach For America and TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.

In the U.S., labeling NEPC “left-leaning” and highlighting union affiliation is just as coded as calling Richard Sherman a thug. We all know that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is dismissive, prompting Audrey Amrein-Beardsley to ask, “Why such (biased) reporting, Sawchuk?”

Yet, Fordham supports “stronger accountability” and not a single group in the third listing has a “nudge” despite, for example, NCTQ entirely lacking credibility.

Also, NEPC has a hyperlink, but none of the others? And where is the link to the actual report from NEPC, and is there any credible evidence the report on the USDOE’s proposal is biased or flawed?

Since traditional faux-fair-and-balanced journalism continues to mislead, since we are unlikely to see a critical free press any time soon, let me, a mere blogger with 31 years of teaching experience (18 in a rural public SC high school, and the remainder in teacher education) and about twenty years of educational scholarship offer some critical clarifications.

First, here is the abstract for Kevin K. Kumashiro‘s review of Proposed 2015 Federal Teacher Preparation Regulations by the USDOE:

On December 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft of proposed new Teacher Preparation Regulations under Title II of the Higher Education Act with a call for public comments within 60 days. The proposal enumerates federally mandated but state-enforced regulations of all teacher preparation programs. Specifically, it requires states to assess and rate every teacher preparation program every year with four Performance Assessment Levels (exceptional, effective, at-risk, and low-performing), and states must provide technical assistance to “low-performing” programs. “Low-performing” institutions and programs that do not show improvement may lose state approval, state funding, and federal student financial aid. This review considers the evidentiary support for the proposed regulations and identifies seven concerns: (1) an underestimation of what could be a quite high and unnecessary cost and burden; (2) an unfounded attribution of educational inequities to individual teachers rather than to root systemic causes; (3) an improperly narrow definition of teacher classroom readiness; (4) a reliance on scientifically discredited processes of test-based accountability and value-added measures for data analysis; (5) inaccurate causal explanations that will put into place a disincentive for teachers to work in high-needs schools; (6) a restriction on the accessibility of federal student financial aid and thus a limiting of pathways into the teaching profession; and (7) an unwarranted, narrow, and harmful view of the very purposes of education.

If there is anything “left-leaning” or any evidence that union money has skewed this review, I strongly urge Sawchuk or anyone else to provide such evidence—instead of innuendo masked as balanced journalism.

And let’s unpack “left-leaning” by looking at NEPC’s mission:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.

A revision appears in order so I can help there also:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank committed to democratic and evidence-based policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is partly funded by teachers’ unions and generally opposes market-based education policies not supported by the current research base….

Since NEPC is balanced against Fordham, it seems important to note that NEPC has three times awarded Fordham its Bunkum Award (2010, 2008, 2006) for shoddy and biased reports; thus, another revision:

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a free-market think tank which generally backs stronger accountability mechanisms in education regardless of evidence to the contrary.

I added the hyperlink to the Fordham mission statement, which uses code also (“options for families,” “efficient,” “innovation,” “entrepreneurship”) to mask their unwavering support not for “stronger” accountability but for market-based policy.

What does all this teach us, then?

All people and organizations—including Education Week, NEPC, and Fordham—are biased. To pretend some are and some aren’t is naive at best and dishonest at worst.

NEPC, I believe, freely admits there is a bias to what reports are selected for review (just as EdWeek chooses what issues to cover and where to place and how to emphasize those pieces), but the reviews implement the most widely accepted practices for transparency and accuracy, blind peer-review. Further, the reviews are freely available online for anyone to examine carefully and critically.

The real story that mainstream media are refusing to cover is that the USDOE (and the so-called reformers such as TFA, NCTQ, DFER, TNTP, etc.) lacks the experience and expertise to form education policy, but the actual researchers and practitioners of the field of education remain marginalized.

Yes, the real story is that those rejecting the USDOE’s proposed teacher education regulations are credible and that the proposal itself (as Kumashiro details) lacks credibility (notably in its use of value-added methods, which has been rejected for use in high-stakes ways by researchers left-leaning, right-leaning, and moderate; see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

The greatest failure among the mainstream media is the inability of journalists to recognize and then address that their narrative about “reformers v. anti-reformers” is a straw man argument and that the real battle is between those seeking reform built on the research base (researchers and educators consistently marginalized and demonized) and the rich and powerful without credibility committed to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing as a mask for market ideologies—despite three decades of research showing that has not worked.

And since I opened with transparency, let me end with a solid clarification that I am on record as a teacher educator that teacher education desperately needs reforming, as does public education broadly, professional education organizations, and teacher unions. And thus, I recommend the following:

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem?

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

Teacher Education to USDOE: “Let Us Ruin Our Own Discipline!”

Maybe this is appropriate with Groundhog Day approaching—since many of us now associate that with the Bill Murray comedy classic. But I am also prone to seeing all this through the lens of science fiction (SF), possibly a zombie narrative like World War Z.

“This,” for the record, is the accountability plague that began in the early 1980s and continues to spread through every aspect of public education—starting with students and schools, followed by infecting teachers, and now poised to infect teacher education.

As I noted above, on one hand, the accountability game is predictable: some government bureaucracy (state or federal) launches into yet another round of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing and then educators respond by showing that they too can play the accountability game.

On the other hand, accountability seems to be a SF plague, spawned in the bowels of government like the root of the zombie apocalypse.

Pick your analogy, but the newest round isn’t really any different than all the rounds before.

The USDOE announces accountability for teacher education, in part using value-added methods drawn from student scores on high-stakes tests.

NEPC offers an evidence-based review, refuting accountability based on student test scores as a way to reform teacher education.

But in the wake of misguided bureaucracy and policy, possibly the most disturbing part of this pattern of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is that educators themselves invariably line up demanding that we be allowed to do that same thing ourselves (including our own continuous complaints about all the bureaucracy with which we gleefully fall in line).

In this case, Stephen Sawchuck reports for Education Week:

More than a dozen education school deans are banding together, aiming to design a coherent set of teacher-preparation experiences, validate them, and shore up support for them within their own colleges and the field at large.

Deans for Impact, based in Austin, Texas, launches this month with a $1 million grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The new group’s embrace of data-informed changes to teacher-preparation curricula—even, potentially, based on “value added” information—is likely to generate waves in the insular world of teacher preparation. It’s also a testament to teacher-educators’ search for an alternative to traditional associations and accreditation bodies.

And, the deans say, it’s a chance to move away from talking about which information on teacher preparation to collect to beginning the use of such data.

And Valerie Strauss adds at her The Answer Sheet blog an open letter to the USDOE from teacher educators, including:

We recommend that you develop a process for revising these regulations that substantively includes the educational community in advancing your goal of making teacher preparation programs more accountable for successful preparation of teachers. We suggest you convene classroom teachers and school administrators; academics with expertise in teacher education, teaching, learning and student achievement and assessment; and policymakers to develop accountability measures that more accurately assess program quality and the successful preparation of teachers.


“[Y]our goal of making teacher preparation programs more accountable,” and thus, teacher education once again falls all over itself to prove we can out-accountable the accountability mania that has not worked for thirty-plus years.

Let’s be clear, instead, that accountability (a lack of or the type of) has never been the problem; thus, accountability is not the solution.

Let’s be clear that while teacher quality and teacher preparation obviously matter, they mostly cannot and do not matter when the teaching and learning conditions in schools prevent effective teaching, when children’s live render them incapable of learning.

And finally, let’s be clear that in that context, we have a great deal to do before we can or should worry too much about teacher quality and teacher preparation.

Even when we can truly tease out teacher quality and better teacher education, accountability will not be the appropriate way to do either.

Teacher education is a field, a discipline just as any other field or discipline. The essential problem with teacher education is that it has never been allowed to be a field or discipline; teacher education is mired in bureaucracy.

The open letter noted above is only half right. Yes, teacher education needs autonomy, but that autonomy must not remain tethered to the same hole digging we have been doing for decades.

Teacher education autonomy must be about reimagining teacher education as the complex and dynamic field it is—not a puppet for political and bureaucratic manipulation—whether done to us or done to ourselves.

Compassionate Teaching: “a hug and a little bit of extra attention”

As I examined a week ago, while many people anticipate Santa Claus, family reunions, and peace on earth during the Christmas/New Year’s season, I await the inevitable worrying, anxiety, and stress. And there is nothing rational about either the anticipation or the days and even weeks struggling against the weight of all that anxiety.

Firmly underneath that this year (tempered briefly when I sit quietly with my granddaughter sleeping on my chest), I was immediately drawn to two moments on social media.

First (either on Twitter or Facebook), I saw this quote attributed to Gandhi:

There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.

And then, this headline at Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet: Mom: How I know my anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher is great.

What I would call normal (for lack of a better word) worrying and anxiety can be exhausting—even if it is rational and based in healthy responses to the world.

But irrational and relentless worrying and anxiety are characterized by the fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable, and (I think, worst of all) highly negative “what if” thinking.

As an adult and life-long sufferer of anxiety, I can attest that these psychological experiences are physically taxing, nearly debilitating even though many of us have learned how to mask for others (in 1999, my family physician could not diagnose my panic attacks because he said I always seemed so relaxed) and how to function in self-denial (we fear admitting our own human frailties, I think, because we anxious are also perfectionists).

As I read Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s celebration of her anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I started seeing more clearly how my discomfort with our field of education grows directly out of my own lived experiences with anxiety.

“As you can imagine, I too love my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Brooks,” Dimyan-Ehrenfeld explains, adding:

Although she is an anxious kid, she loves school, not only because in her classroom learning goes hand in hand with joy and inquiry and creative exploration, but also because she adores Mrs. Brooks, who knows how to solve my daughter’s nervous stomachaches with a hug and a little bit of extra attention, who understands and honors her strengths, and who makes her laugh and teaches her funny sayings like, “Wake up and smell the cappuccino!” My daughter has watched Mrs. Brooks and learned kindness and compassion, becoming an important friend to a student with severe developmental disabilities in the classroom, no doubt in large part because she saw how much Mrs. Brooks. adored this little boy (Mrs. Brooks cried when he left for another school, and threw him a beautiful party on his last day). Where other teachers might have been relieved to lose a high-needs student from their rooms, Mrs. Brooks mourned the loss of a sweet kid, and my daughter watched this and learned.

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s point focuses on the current failure of addressing teacher quality by emphasizing measurable teacher impact on student test scores. And here, I agree, but I think the issue is even larger than that.

Education has historically trained teachers under some dictums I have always rejected: don’t be friends with your students, don’t touch students, and start the year as a strict disciplinarian (you can always ease off a bit later).

So I think Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s essay about her daughter’s kind and compassionate teacher is a charge against historical and current failures about what it means to be an effective teacher.

In part, it makes sense that education and schooling focus mostly in the cognitive domain; of course, that is what learning is, I suppose.

But we fail education and our students if we ignore that teaching and learning exist in the emotional realities of being a human.

In my high anxiety phases, I am much less capable of attending to myself, but I also must retract from the needs of others (anxiety drains our ability to be the compassionate people we wish to be, and need from others)—even if that is nearly imperceptible to others.

And worrying/anxiety share a quality with poverty (as examined in Scarcity) that must be central to our work as teachers: No one—especially children, teens, and young adults—can take a vacation from anxiety, stress, or poverty because they are pervasive states beyond the control of many people.

“Don’t worry” or “relax” serves about the same purpose as “stop being poor” by placing all the emphasis (and possibly blame) on the person who is actually under the control of the anxiety/poverty but not necessarily capable of overcoming those forces alone or under that weight due to personal failure or weakness.

All humans—especially children and the young—need the empathy of others, a community of support grounded in having the awareness of what others may be experiencing if it is beyond your own experiences.

For me, part of the urge to mask grows from how exhausting it is to explain irrational anxiety to someone with no context for understanding what I struggle against. There’s a certain peace among we anxious commiserating, but those who have no experience with “what if” worrying must have empathy in order to grasp something beyond their world.

Thus, when Dimyan-Ehrenfeld emphasizes “kindness and compassion,” I was compelled by her “I too love my daughter’s teacher” to consider more deeply just why I have set out to confront corporal punishment, grade retention, and “no excuses”/deficit ideologies related to children and students: they all breed stress and anxiety unnecessarily in children/students.

Public schooling has a long history of creating stress and anxiety in the education and lives of children; over the past thirty years, that historical reality has been amplified under the guise of rigor, standards, and “no excuses”—all of which erase any hope for kindness and compassion unless each teacher her/himself is willing to risk either.

Teaching the whole child is often trivialized, and mostly marginalized—even mocked. But the great paradox of honoring the cognitive growth of children and students is that we must create lives and classrooms filled with kindness and compassion first before those cognitive goals can matter.

Recess, friendships, laughing, reading by choice, art, band, chorus, clubs, athletics—these are the moments of formal schooling that remain with children and teachers because they are filled with emotional and interpersonal meaning.

Of course, we want our students to learn and our children and youth to grow, but those aspirations are not purely cognitive and not measurable in any valid ways.

Teachers who love their students in word and deed, students who love their teachers in word and deed—these are the foundational conditions of high quality teaching and excellent student achievement.

If we start with kindness, compassion, empathy, and love, and if we remain always true to those ideals, we have a much better chance to achieve the so-called high expectations many champion while creating heartless and soulless schools that impose stress and anxiety on children that erode their capacities for learning and growing.

This is the ultimate immeasurable of being a teacher, the humanity of “a hug and a little bit of extra attention.”

Eyes of the Beholder

Rain and cold at the beginning of my holiday break this late December forced me onto the bicycle trainer, something I loath doing. But to off-set that torture, I was pleased to find Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of my short list of favorite movies that I watch over and over: Blade Runner (1982), Solaris (2002), Lost Highway (1997).

These films draw me in part because of genre—surrealism, fantasy, science fiction—and the allure of considering alternate worlds, alternate consciousness, alternate minds. But there are thematic threads pulling these films together as well.

The folding of time, or the urge and then opportunity to relive, revisit opportunities; questions about reality and what constitutes basic humanity (specifically the human mind and will/spirit); the complicated relationship/tension with each person between mind and heart—these are dramatized and personified in those films in ways that continue to help me wrestle with those realities, but also imagine beyond this temporal existence that is inevitably linear and cumulative.

As a university professor, I am each semester reminded of how perception shapes reality when I read my student feedback forms, almost always including both a few students who think I am the best professor ever and a few students who think I was pure torture and failure. In the same course, the same classroom.

As a parent, I experienced similar swings from my daughter’s own perception of me, especially in those volatile teen years.

Few things sting, hurt as much as disappointing those you love, care for, or are seeking to do nothing except the best in their interests.

I still flinch a bit each time (and it happens regularly) students inform me that I seem “mean,” that students are “afraid of me.” How, o how, could I have possibly sent such completely opposite messages?

In a recent post about the death of Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man, I touched on superheroes’ internal struggles as those intersect with the duality motif common in superhero narratives (Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne/Batman, etc.).

But another pattern found especially in the Spider-Man narrative is the contrast between what Peter Parker/Spider-Man intends and how Spider-Man is perceived. The graphic novel Death of the Stacys collects The Amazing Spider-Man #s 88-92, 121-122, combining the deaths of Captain Stacy and his daughter/Peter’s girlfriend Gwen. The stories are about the collateral damage of vigilante justice.

After Captain Stacy’s death, the public and Gwen begin to view Spider-Man as the villain, and thus, Peter’s internal struggle over great power/great responsibility is magnified by the social construction of him as evil.

Since I have just finished a semester, I am typically concerned about what students I have failed to reach as I intended, which students are apt to see the professor I never intended to be. This cycle is very powerful in teaching, and although somewhat anxiety triggering, it also helps drive me to be a better teacher next time; teaching affords us those opportunities of another chance without having to be in a dystopian future or a mind-bending David Lynch nightmare.

This winter of 2014, however, has offered me the most significant moment yet in terms of having another chance: my granddaughter, who has recently begun to look at me (and everything) quite intensely.

I have, then, begin to contemplate what she will come to think of me—who will I be in here eyes?

I still walk extremely fast—I do almost everything extremely fast—and I admit to having raced through much of my 20s, 30s, and 40s (sometimes dragging my daughter along the way).

A granddaughter’s five-month-old stare has made the world slow down, some, or at least those eyes have asked of me: Who do I think I am? Who do I want to be? (Yes, these existential questions remain throughout our lives; they are not things to be answered in youth.)

In my advancing age, I am more capable (I hope) and at least more aware that there isn’t necessarily a tension between who we are and who others think we are/want us to be but the need to negotiate those parallel realities.

I will continue to gift myself re-watching the films I love, re-reading the books that move me, but through those, I hope to live better, recognizing that today is the only today I will have, and then tomorrow—not as an act of regret but as an act of being fully human.

The Epilogue in The Amazing Spider-Man #122 is one page of nine panels. In the wake of Gwen’s death, for which he feels responsible, Peter Parker lashes out at Mary Jane, who turns to leave but in the final three wordless panels (except for the onomatopoeia “click” in the final panel) she closes the door and turns back to Peter.

Mary Jane is looking at the distraught Peter. In her eyes, he is worth it.

I think that is what we are hoping for from the ones we love. I think that is what is ours to offer.

The Power of Superhero Mythology: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

Risking hyperbole, I believe Spider-Man saved my life, much like Max Dillon/Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2except mine was metaphorical.

Watching the sequel of the 2012 reboot that had the cinematic guts to replicate possibly the most important moment in the Spider-Man Universe (and even the entire Marvel Universe)—“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”—I was powerfully forced into two minds paralleling the Peter Parker/Spider-Man duality: my 53-year-old academic mind as it interacted with my teenaged self, a traumatic period in the 1970s when I found myself strapped into a full body brace in hopes I could overcome scoliosis without major back surgery.

In the summer of 1975, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a medical shock tossed on top of my frail self-concept wallowing in the typical throes of adolescence. I was scrawny, and I was destined not to become the strapping young male and athlete I believed my father wanted. And then, scoliosis—a curving spine and an affliction mostly common among females.


The body brace I wore was a torture device of straps, metal rods, and a solid plastic body mold, designed to force my spine straight so that the defective vertebrae could regain their proper shape. Wearing the brace 23 of 24 hours a day was how I spent my ninth grade, an adventure horrifying all on its own without the brace waving out to everyone, “Hey, look at the nerdy cripple kid!”

And then there was Spider-Man.

My wonderful parents not only sacrificed financially for the brace and seemingly never-ending visits to the orthopedist, but also scrambled to find anything that would help off-set what they must have recognized as a significant blow to who I was becoming, how I saw myself.

The saving choice was comic books. And to this day, I cannot set aside how hard that must have been for my very-1950s, rugged, working-class father, a four-sport athlete in high school who lost all of his teeth to sport and fights before graduation.

At first, I began buying comics mostly to stand at the long bar separating our kitchen/living room and draw (starting with tracing, and then freehand with pencil followed by teaching myself how to ink those pencil drawing as comic book artists did).

Drawing led to reading and reading, to collecting. One of our spare bedrooms became my comic book room, and I even built a chest to hold my comics in my ninth-grade wood working class at school.

Those familiar with Peter Parker/Spider-Man likely already anticipate what had to happen; I fell in love with Spider-Man comics—the Holy Grail of low self-esteem nerd superhero mythologies.

Science nerd, orphaned, painfully thin and wearing glasses, Peter Parker walked into my life both as a stark reflection of my Self and a promise that transformation was possible (although with a price). But in 1975, I was dropped into the post-Gwen Stacy world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but that was about to change.

“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

As my comic book fascination grew, somehow my father was snagged in the collecting bug, taking me to the local pharmacies and quick shops in my small hometown that carried comics and even to one comic book convention in Atlanta, GA. But he also noticed comic collections being sold in the ads of the newspaper.

Over two visits spurred by the ad of a 20-something still living at home but obviously making a decision to shift into adulthood, we bought about 1000 comics, essentially a complete run of Marvel comics spanning most of the 1970s.

Sorting, cataloguing, and carefully placing each comic in the prerequisite plastic bags of true comic book nerdom—these were my solitude. I also ravenously began to piece together the Peter Parker/Spider-Man Universe, significantly the death of Gwen Stacy.

In The Power of Myth, an interview between Bill Moyers and popular comparative religion guru Joseph Campbell, I came to understand many years later the mythological patterns in superhero comics and the science fiction I would also begin to consume.

Throughout 30-plus years of teaching, I have grown more and more fascinated with genre and form; and as a reader, I can now trace my early comic book love that fed into Arthur C. Clarke to the logical path through Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, leading then to Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami.

Mine is the story of the power of secular mythology—as Campbell may explain, the Truth beyond the narrative that need not be factually true (in contrast to the literalist Christianity of my Southern childhood).

That brings me back to watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as both teenage-Me and current-Me.

The updating of the Gwen Stacy arc (set in contemporary times, for example) hurts my soul, but I found the film ambitious for remaining true to the only conclusion possible in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man narrative, the death of Gwen Stacy.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man has always been a bit about working-class insecurity, but the current-Me feels deeply uncomfortable about the failures in the original Silver Age arcs absent sophisticated portrayals of race and gender (the latter captured in the character of Gwen Stacy, blonde, pretty, and more Ideal than person).

I want to set aside, however, a critical re-reading of Spider-Man to embrace again why I believe the myth remains enduring and ultimately important, despite the many flaws.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man is grounded in the central superhero motif of duality: the mere human and the masked superhero.

Spider-Man grew out of the seminal Marvel method—personified by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby—of collaborative creation and genre blurring (superhero, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).

As the domain of child, teen, and young adult males, comic books from Marvel in the 1960s succeeded by tapping into teenage angst and alienation, relationships, and the transition from formal school to work.

While often misquoted, however, the ethical dilemma of Peter Parker/Spider-Man endures: “WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME — GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”—anchoring the final panels of Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin of Spider-Man.

The duality motif in Spider-Man is about much more than hiding Peter behind a mask. Peter the nerd, before the spider bite, was lonely and alienated; and then, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) discovers over and over that he remains lonely and alienated because of not his super powers, but his great responsibility.

Silver Age Spider-Man, from the origin in 1962 until the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, confronts the mythology of the individual heart in battle with that individual’s social responsibility.

Despite all the villains the Marvel bullpen could muster, Peter Parker’s greatest battle has always been with himself.

And the one moment that matters above all others is captured in a way that sequential art demands:

Gwen Stacy’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (June/July 1973)

The Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy storyline—for all the camp and flaws—remains in mythological terms a disturbing and fatalistic story of the sacrifice of the individual heart against our obligations, about the limitations of the human need to connect and then protect.

As a parent/grandparent and teacher, I lay on the couch and re-watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2 through layers of me and then tears because I have lived and live a very real battle with myself that is our essential humanity: how do we follow our hearts and offer those we love and world the selflessness it deserves?

Beneath the mask of superhero lies a secular myth of duality that is each one of us, a calling not for superheroes but every human. All of which we can find in classic mythology about gods and humans.

In Peter Parker’s universe, Gwen Stacy had to die, and then die again in the re-imagined universe of film.

Gwen Stacy’s neck breaking is the frailty of human limitation, ironically, at the end of a web—Gwen’s own mortality as that intersects with Peter’s humanity, even as Spider-Man.

In existential terms, our passions are our suffering—the essential duality of being human.

As we watch Peter Parker fight himself, it is ours to recognize that to avoid our passions is to avoid living, to avoid the very humanity that should be our joy.

Max Dillon/Electro fumbles badly the gift of being saved by Spider-Man; I continue to try to find ways to serve it well (parenting, grand-parenting, teaching), although I do so in the only way a human can—I race forward, I trip, I pause on the ground, and then I stand again, committed to doing better this next time.

Each time, the spider webs are metaphorical.

For Further Reading

Challenging genres: Comic books and graphic novels

See this sample, including a brief history of comics in Chapter 1.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

After speaking and guiding a workshop recently, I was struck by some distinct impressions I witnessed among several hundred educators.

First, although teachers and educational leaders coming to a conference are a skewed subset of teachers, I was impressed with their passion for teaching but more so for their students.

However, I must add that these teachers repeatedly expressed a lack of agency as professionals; a common refrain was “I [we] can’t,” and the reasons were administration and mandates such as Common Core (or other standards) and high-stakes testing. That sense of fatalism was most often framed against these teachers clearly knowing what they would do (and better) if they felt empowered, professionally empowered, to teach from their expertise as that intersects with their students’ needs.

This experience came just two weeks after my trip to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, this year in Washington DC—where I presented on the value of books and libraries as well as delivering the Moment of History as the Council Historian. Again, I spent several days with a skewed subset of teachers, but there I would also characterize much of the talk as “I [we] can’t”—because of administration, because of Common Core.

I must admit that during my 13 years as a teacher educator, once our students enter the field of education, I listen as my highly motivated and bright young teachers begin to speak in “I [we] can’t,” often apologizing for essentially never being able to implement in their classes the many research-based practices and robust philosophies we explored when they were in methods courses.

Let me now highlight here that the first experience above was with all unionized teachers; the second example, with active members of a professional organization; and the third, with traditionally certified teachers from a selective university and a highly praised and accredited program.

Earlier this year, Helen Klein reported:

American teachers feel stressed out and insignificant, and it may be impacting students’ educations.

Gallup’s State Of America’s Schools Report, released Wednesday, says nearly 70 percent of K – 12 teachers surveyed in a 2012 poll do not feel engaged in their work. The study said they are likely to spread their negative attitudes to co-workers and devote minimal discretionary effort to their jobs.

…When compared to 12 other occupational groups, teachers were least likely to report feeling like their “opinions seem to count” at work.

And thus, I have a very serious question:

If being unionized, a member of a professional organization, or certified results in teachers feeling the same powerlessness, the same lack of professionalism as most other teachers, how do teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education justify themselves?

I think this question is valid, and I think we now stand at a watershed moment for teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education. And I offer this hard and blunt question because, ultimately, I believe in the promise of teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education as a discipline.

My first impression about this question is that far too often unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have failed teachers and education by racing to grab a seat at the table—eager to contribute to how to implement standards, testing, and bureaucracy. All three arenas of educational leadership have failed educator professionalism by rushing to participate within the partisan political accountability movement over the past thirty years.

Leadership from unions, professional organizations, and teacher education has been overwhelming as fatalistic as the teachers I described above; diligently compromising, eagerly complying, breathlessly trying to excel at accountability and bureaucracy—in effect, leading by following.

If we return to what we know about how teachers feel, Klein noted the ultimate danger of a lack of teacher professionalism:

“The problem is that when teachers are not fully engaged in their work, their students pay the price every day,” says the report. “Disengaged teachers are less likely to bring the energy, insights, and resilience that effective teaching requires to the classroom. They are less likely to build the kind of positive, caring relationships with their students that form the emotional core of the learning process.”

And thus, compliant, fatalistic educational leadership feeds compliant, fatalistic teachers—failing the most important aspect of universal public education, students.

Instead of challenging the assumption that public education needs accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing, unions, professional organizations, and teacher educators have mostly focused on helping teachers navigate each new round of standards and tests—even praising each new round despite no evidence that standards and testing work (or are in any way address the real roots of educational inequity).

Too often, that same pattern has occurred with value-added methods for teacher evaluation and calls for reforming teacher education. [1] The responses have been about implementing policies slowly so they can be done correctly—not substantive rejecting of deeply flawed policy and the dismantling of teaching as a profession.

I do not discount that a powerful consequence of high-stakes accountability is that educators and educational leaders are on the defensive, often frantic because a failure to comply with flawed policy can result in serious consequences—risking funding, lost jobs, ruined careers even.

However, the exact reasons that teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education should matter are the antidotes to remaining trapped in a state of frantic reaction: Collective and professional noncooperation with any policies not supported by the knowledge-base of the field of education and the established norms of professionalism.

So this is my point: Teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have a duty to their own existence and to teachers as well as the field of education; that duty includes no longer fighting for a place at the education reform table, no longer putting organizational leadership and bureaucracy before the integrity of education as a discipline and a profession.

As English educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant announced in 1947: “This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

As James Baldwin declared in Nobody Knows My Name: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

This is about time. It is time to set aside the failed pursuit of accountability, the corrosive insistence on rigor, and the dehumanizing commitment to standardization.

It is time that teaching reclaim its rightful place as a profession, setting the table for how teachers teach, how students learn.

It is time leaders in teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education lead by leading.

[1] We do have examples of resistance, although too rare; see this response to NCTQ by NCTE.