Adventures in Classroom Discussions: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”

My career as an educator now includes about equal parts but different roles as first a high school English teacher, for nearly two decades, and now a college professor of education and composition/first-year writing, approaching two decades quickly.

My high school students were like family and friends, young people who were growing up in my hometown; therefore, my classes were energetic with lots of discussion—often rambling—and plenty of laughter. Those conversations carried over into non-class times of the day, after school, and during extracurricular activities, such as the years I was a coach.

When I switched to higher education, however, I encountered very silent classes—students who still tend to request that I talk most of the class because, as they say, they enjoy hearing someone knowledgable discuss the topics of the courses. This silence bothered me so early on I conducted several years of questionnaires asking students about why they tended not to talk in class.

Students openly confessed two reasons: (1) fear of being wrong in front of the professor, and thus hurting their status (re: grades), and (2) not wanting to “give away” the work they had done to peers in the class who had not prepared (a disturbing sort of capitalistic view of knowledge rejected by Paulo Freire as the “banking concept”).

As a result of this change in student behavior from high school to college teaching, I have had to work much more diligently and think much more deeply about classroom discussions in this last half of my career so far. Here I want to offer some guiding principles I have developed for classroom discussions and place them against one of my favorite lessons, using “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros—a story set in the classroom so it fits well in all the courses I now teach.

First, here are some guiding principles that I continue to wrestle with as I implement them to encourage student engagement and improve the effectiveness of classroom discussions:

  • Create opportunities for students to offer artifacts of being fully engaged in a class lesson and discussion that expand beyond only speaking aloud in class: Allow students to share in small groups before whole group discussions, provide students handouts that allow them to annotate on text to show engagement, and establish discussion journals that provide students spaces to write comments and responses that they would prefer not to say aloud. Traditional approaches to classroom discussion can be distinctly unfair to students who are less assertive or naturally vocal—students who are introverted, student still navigating their understanding and not ready to assert any claims.
  • Anticipate and then “deprogram” students from a common dynamic they have experienced with teacher-centered class discussions: When students reply correctly, teachers confirm (often interrupting the student) and move on; when students are off-base, teachers redirect, ask another question, etc. Therefore, students learn to use the teacher as the only/primary locus of authority, and (worse of all) are trained not to elaborate through providing evidence and explanation (two academic moves far more important than having the “right” answer). All student responses should be prompted to support and elaborate so that students (not the teacher) can tease out the validity of the response. If students need basic information, that should not be the goal of class discussions, but provided as a foundation before a discussion occurs.
  • Create a classroom environment around open-ended questions instead of “guess what the teacher wants you to say”: Who is the most interesting character in this story (and why)? v. Who is the protagonist in this story? Or, what is the best (most effective) sentence in this story for you (and why)? v. What are some metaphors and similes in this story? Open-ended questions are not, however, allowing students to say anything they please, but a way to avoid just filling in the blanks and asking students to provide evidence and elaborate.
  • Arrange the class so that students are looking at each other (not the teacher), and then foster a collaborative discussion in which students respond to each other and work through “confirming” as a class (a community) instead of relying on the teacher to confirm or reject. One way to move toward that is after a student replies, ask another student to restate what the first student said, and then to either defend it or help reframe it. This helps students see that knowledge is communal and constructed, not some divine pronouncement.
  • And a pet-peeve caveat: Do not get trapped in the misguided Bloom’s Taxonomy approach to questions; Bloom never intended for the taxonomy to be used as a linear/sequential guide to how we teach (it was designed for assessment). The six elements are valuable if we see them as holistic and interrelated aspects of how we learn and interrogate the world: Remembering, understanding, and analyzing contribute to evaluating and synthesizing while applying.

As I mentioned above, “Eleven” is often a powerful text for a class discussion—one that can be framed around effective writing and craft; around thinking about teaching, learning, teachers, and students; around understanding family and peer dynamics; or around identifying and confronting cultural tensions.

One key to vibrant class discussions is to be sure students are primed and not cold on the elements of the discussion. Therefore, I give students some guiding activities for them to complete as I read “Eleven” aloud to the class.

Some of those are:

  • Mark key sentences or passages that stand out to you because they are well written, interesting, problematic, or confusing. After the story is completed, pick the one you would most like to share.
  • Identify your mood in the margin of the story as I read aloud, noting when your mood shifts. Mark key words or sections that create the shift.
  • Pick the best single word in the story.

These activities while I read aloud help create something for students to say during a discussion. Next, I ask students to form small groups (I prefer three to a group) and to share one item with the group from the actions above.

I use that time to walk around and listen to the small group discussions and to look at the annotated stories on their desks. This allows me to confirm engagement so when we go to a whole-class discussion, the students who remain silent still can be identified as engaged.

Students can also be prompted to annotate the text further while discussing or to make entries in a class discussion journal they maintain throughout the course—even asking for those copies to be turned in for informal assessment.

Once we begin whole-class discussion, I implement the above principals by asking them to turn desks so they are facing inward and each other. I begin with asking for a volunteer to share any of the ideas prompted by the during-reading activities.

Once a student shares, I usually ask, “Can you show us where that is in the story? And can you elaborate on that for us?” Next, I typically ask another student to react to the first share—confirm, reframe, or build on the point made.

Here, I want to emphasize that this strategy and text are always successful in the context of my instructional goal: I am not trying to make students expert on Cisneros, this story, or literary terms/analysis, but I am helping students develop a set of important academic moves that translate into their writing—making credible claims and then providing valid evidence for the claims before elaborating on the importance of those claims to a wider purpose.

In other words, the discussion is student-centered, not allowing students just to say whatever they want, and grounded in the content in a way that uses content as a means and not the ends of the discussion.

For example, students often identify this passage as key: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

The important aspect of the discussion, however, is not that they identify the passage I have decided is key, but that they are able to explain in a detailed way what makes the passage key.

Students often share their own personal experiences similar to Rachel’s with her math teacher—feelings of anger and being insignificant. And from that we explore student/teacher dynamics and the often oppressive nature of schooling.

While I don’t want to oversimplify, vibrant class discussions are rarely about identifying and acquiring content knowledge, but are best when designed to foster powerful student behaviors that contribute to their development as critical thinkers, engaged listeners, and responsive speakers.

For this discussion as blog post, that key passage—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—can serve as an overarching guiding principle for orchestrating class discussions since it warns us about the failures of class discussions being more about students guessing what the teacher wants (and thus the teacher is the primary or sole arbiter of right and wrong) than about fostering students as critical and engaged thinkers.

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The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America

Writing about the class of 2017’s performance on the newly redesigned SAT, Catherine Gewertz notes, “The number of students taking the SAT has hit an all-time high,” and adds cautiously:

What appear to be big scoring increases should be understood not as sudden jumps in achievement, but as reflections of the differences in the test and the score scale, psychometricians said.

More test takers and higher scores, albeit misleading ones, are the opening discussion about one of the most enduring fixtures of U.S. education—standardized testing as gatekeeping for college entrance, scholarships, and scholastic eligibility.

However, buried about in the middle of Gewertz’s article, we discover another enduring reality:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Throughout its long history, the SAT, like all standardized testing, has reflected tremendous gaps along race, social class, and gender lines; notable, for example, is the powerful correlation between SAT scores and takers’ parental income and level of education as well as the fact that males have had higher average scores than females for the math and verbal sections every year of SAT testing (the only glitch in that being the years the SAT included a writing section).

The SAT is but one example of the lingering and powerful legacy of “scientific racism” in the U.S. Tom Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, punctuates his racist outbursts with “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Buchanan represents the ugly and rarely confronted relationship between “scientific” and “objective” with race, social class, and gender bigotry. In short, science has often been and continues to be tainted by bias that serves the dominant white and wealthy patriarchy.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research along with so-called standardized testing tends to avoid being implicated in not only identifying racism, classism, and sexism, but also perpetuating social inequity.

As I noted recently, since Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have produced mainstream scientific studies and published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, their inherently biased work has been nearly universally embraced—among the exact elites who tend to ignore or outright reject the realities of inequity and injustice.

As just one example, Duckworth grounded her work in and continues to cite a Eugenicist, Francis Galton, with little or no consequences.

Racism, classism, and sexism are themselves built on identifying deficits within identifiable populations. Science allows these corrupt ideologies to appear factual, instead of simple bigotry.

“Scientific” and “objective” are convenient Teflon for bias and bigotry; they provide cover for elites who want evidence they have earned their success, despite incredible evidence that success and failure are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of birth—race, social class, gender.

It takes little effort to imagine a contemporary Tom pointing to the 2017 SAT data and arguing, “‘It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Such ham-fisted scientism, however, mutes the deeper message that SAT data is a marker for all sorts of inequity in the U.S. And then when that data have the power to determine college entrance and scholarships, the SAT also perpetuates the exact inequities it measures.

The SAT sits in a long tradition including IQ testing that speaks to a jumbled faith in the U.S. for certain kinds of numbers and so-called science; when the data and the science reinforce our basest beliefs, we embrace, but when data and science go against out sacred gods, we refute (think climate change and evolution).

Science that is skeptical and critical, questioning and interrogating, has much to offer humanity. But science continues to be plagued by human frailties such as bias.

Science, like history, is too often written by the winners, the oppressors. As a result, Foucault details, “[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” [1]

“Scientific racism,” as a subset of science that normalizes bigotry, allows the accusatory white gaze to remain on groups that are proclaimed inherently flawed, deficient, in need of correction. “Scientific racism” distracts us from realizing that the tests and science themselves are the problem.

And thus, we must abandon seeking ever-new tests, such as revising the SAT, and begin the hard work of addressing why the gaps reflected in the tests exist—a “why” that is not nested in any group but our society and its powerful elite.


[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 203.

See this thread:

 

Seeing the Essay Again for the First Time

Teaching writing, like writing itself, is an arduous journey without any hope of a destination fairly called “finished.” Both require equal parts confidence and humility as well.

Each fall, then, when I wear my writing teacher hat most visibly while teaching two sections of first-year writing, I am as anxious and apprehensive as my students about teaching them to write. This past Friday, I responded to their first essay submissions, and then, I posted on their course blog a brief set of common issues we will explore during the require conferences before they revise essay 1, and prepare to draft essay 2:

I recommend reading these two pieces:

Here are some common issues you should focus on for rewriting Essay 1:

  • Work more diligently and purposefully on your openings and closings. You need to take more care with specifics and details; avoid telling about and show the reader a story instead.
  • Establish your focus (thesis) within the first 4 or so paragraphs and then keep the discussion on that focus throughout the essay.
  • Can you explain briefly to someone what your focus is and what organizational planguides your essay?
  • Reconsider your title and subheads (add subheads if you haven’t used them). Be interesting and vivid with both.
  • While one or two purposeful fragments can be effective even in academic writing, run-on sentences always appear to be “errors.” Edit run-ons and take much greater care with sentence formation and sentence variety.
  • Huge and formless paragraphs are unappealing and ineffective. Form your paragraphs with purpose and prefer shorter, not longer.
  • Integrate quotes with care to both how to punctuate and in connected to the source.
  • Add sources where needed and begin citing properly using APA.
  • Avoid extreme claims of “all,” “none,” “most,” etc.
  • Your word choice (diction) determines the tone of your writing, and also creates your authority. Lazy verbs and informal words should be revised.
  • Verb tense should be appropriate but also should be purposeful and consistent. Verb tense shift (jumping between, among tenses without any clear reason) exposing the writing as careless.

Having taught writing for 34 years—from high school through graduate courses—I have adopted a process I find most effective (although still lacking): I provide students ample models of the whole authentic artifact I want them to attempt (in this case, the essay), and I ask them to make a genuine attempt with some but not full explicit instruction before that attempt; after I have their work in front of me, I then prepare a more explicit plan for direct instruction (the bullets above).

Somewhere long ago, I culled from the work of Howard Gardner that teaching should begin with clearly identifying what students know, what they don’t know, and what they misunderstand. I build on what they know, provide them what they don’t know, and then wrestle like a priest confronted with Regan in The Exorcist to release them from those misunderstandings (a task Gardner admits is nearly impossible).

Over my more than three-decade adventure as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I have rejected writing templates (five-paragraph and otherwise), the tyranny of the thesis sentence, rubrics, and writing to prompts as well as detailed writing assignments that relieve students of any choices as writers and thinkers. However, I remain mostly baffled at what works instead of these traditional approaches—and continue to seek ways to understand better what impedes my students from writing—and thinking—with greater sophistication.

This fall’s experience with essay 1 has revealed to me, I think, a bit of an epiphany.

While I am never really surprised at any of my students’ essay drafts, and I can predict many of the revision needs before I see a set of papers, I do continually read those essays not to uncover my students’ deficits, but to rethink how to teach writing better.

Over the past few days, I have come to recognize something, if not new, that is far more clear to me.

In one of our course texts, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, the concept of coherence is central—but I have never thought of the importance of that concept as clearly as I do now. The essays I read demonstrated to me that these very smart and genuinely engaged first-year students, admitted to a selective college, have almost no real conceptual understanding of sentence formation (and variety), paragraphing, and worst of all, just what the hell an essay is as a form.

That itself is not anything new, but what is new, for me, is that I can argue very directly that the root of what my students do not know and often badly misunderstand is the template used to teach students in most K-12 settings. Further, I now believe that teachers using those templates are also misled about their students’ concepts of sentence formation, paragraphs, and essays because the template and prescriptions mask the lack of understanding.

Of course, this may seem obvious, but the path to understanding the essay as a form, and then the academic essay as a discipline-specific form, includes not a linear or sequential but foundational grasp of both sentence formation and paragraphing.

My work as a teacher of writing will now include more aggressively investigating how to address coherence better, how to foster purpose and awareness in my students-as-writers.

Rules and prescriptions, I am convinced, impede the development of conceptual understanding of how and why to form sentences and paragraphs in order to achieve an essay—a non-fiction short form with an opening and closing, with claims supported by evidence and elaborations.

Again, my students have taught me that our traditional urges to start with parts and build to wholes is flawed; students often need to have the whole in mind so that the parts make sense.

As we work toward revising these first essays, I am more convinced than ever that we need to keep our eyes on model essays, asking always: What makes an essay, an essay?

Templates and prescriptions may make the journey seem easier, but ultimately, that trip is hollow because students have mastered mostly compliance.

Writing, however, is an act of composing—building something new out of the craft at the writer’s disposal. There is no way to make that easy, but there are ways to make it purposeful. That is grounded in conceptual awareness of authentic and whole artifacts; the essay always in pursuit of the essay.

First Days of Class: Who We Are, Why We Are Here

At least the first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years was spent learning to be the sort of teacher I wanted to be. I often feel I should apologize to those early-career students, many of whom remain kind and even praising.

Along that journey, I came to realize that the first days of any class or course must be a clear and inviting message to my students about who we are and why we are here.

A watershed moment for me was somewhat an accident. My administration ended the long and tedious tradition of spending the first day or two issuing textbooks by having all students’ texts placed in their locker before they began the year.

With that freedom, I stopped the equally tedious roll call and dedicated myself to conducting class on that very first day in a way that told students what the class/course was going to be about.

As I start my 34th year as a teacher, now a professor teaching two first-year writing seminars as well as a couple eduction courses, I also dedicate the first days of class to practicing what I preach: incorporating one or two different strategies or changes each new course (what I call taking baby steps since no teacher should feel compelled to overhaul entirely their teaching when they feel the need to change).

Here I want examine some first-days texts and activities, not as prescriptions but as models for how any teacher may take this same larger concept of how those first days establish who you are, who your students are, and why you all are on this class journey.

First, some of my new commitments are grounded in being more intentional about inclusive pedagogy, much of which will draw on the guidance of Dr. Anita Davis, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Associated Colleges of the South, who is helping facilitate a year-long seminar for a group of faculty at my university this academic year.

These new commitments allow me to incorporate existing activities and texts in order to improve the inclusive environment of my classes as well as establishing the disciplinary grounding of the courses I teach.

Regardless of the course, I use several of these activities on the first days, but I also will include a writing-specific opening days activity toward the end.

A central message for my students in the first days is that we will be bound to texts, important texts, and then we will also be using those texts for our own discussions and to write. The key texts I currently use for the first days include the following, all of which also model for my students that we are going to explore diverse voices and writers in order to challenge and interrogate our own ideas and assumptions:

Who We Are

Anita Davis opened her first seminar by explaining that she includes full name citations on her PowerPoint slides, even though most citation styles require last names only and APA hides first and middle names in initials. Davis stressed that names matter, especially if we are seeking to be inclusive.

Over the course of the seminar we also examined that roll calls can be intrusive and even stressful for students who are struggling with gender identification, establishing on that first day a hostile environment counter to our efforts of inclusion.

Part of our goal to be inclusive, we must all be better equipped when our students must name and identify themselves—issues about gender identity and pronoun preferences.

“My Name” (Cisneros) and “Naming Myself” (Kingsolver) are powerful texts for helping students think about how to introduce themselves in the context of a new learning community. I read these short texts aloud to emphasize there will be a common activity in my classes, read alouds.

Then we discuss how the speakers in the novel chapter and the poem emphasize the importance of names and of being named; both texts ask readers to consider sex/gender and race.

As well, “My Name” includes a recognition of how children/young people come to understand themselves in their names while “Naming Myself” challenges social norms of women being erased through re-naming during marriage.

These texts and activities establish that our names matter, but that naming ourselves is more complicated than some students have considered. I also want students to know that I appreciate texts, the read alouds, but that texts are not simply fodder for the sort of narrow analysis they have done in their English classes.

Finally, we introduce ourselves, first in small groups and then as a full class. This semester, I will invite students to talk about their names, and their pronoun preferences if and when this is important to them. I will also stress that our learning community must be a place where we honor confidentiality; we are free to share outside of class the topics we explore, but we should avoid naming our classmates in ways outside of class that breaks confidentiality, that fails to honor each person’s right to speak for themselves.

On the first day, we have avoided the drudgery of calling roll—and engaged in the sort of class dynamic that characterizes my classes throughout the semester. But I now will also establish an environment that honors inclusion more intentionally than I have in the past.

Why We Are Here

While the naming texts and activities are entry points for introductions and creating an inclusive learning environment, that first day also begins a journey into disciplinary expectations—why we are here.

Another first days activity I use is based on Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” but I will now include an activity, “Save the Last Word,” Davis used in our seminar.

“Theme for English B” lends itself well to any class because it investigates the power relationship between teachers and students; like the Cisneros and Kingsolver texts, Hughes also confronts the role of race in that power dynamic.

When I have used Hughes’s poem in the past, I have struggled with students shifting immediately into the literary analysis mode, eager to analyze the poem’s structure and technique to the exclusion of engaging with what the poem’s speaker is saying about power as that intersects teaching/learning, race, and age.

“Save the Last Word” is a wonderful strategy for keeping students focused on what a texts says (not the how of literary analysis) and encourages student voice in the context of that text.

My slight adaptation of the activity includes the following: (1) my read aloud of the poem, (2) asking students to read the poem again silently to themselves, (3) placing students in small groups (preferably of 3), (4) having students copy what they consider a key or challenging stanza on the front of an index card, (5) having students reflect on that stanza in writing on the back of that card, (6) after all students have done this each student shares out to the small group the key stanza so that the other two can respond to that stanza first, and finally (7) each person shares their reflection last for that stanza.

Through a whole-class discussion of “Theme for English B” following the “Last Word” activity, I will share with students why we are here: to take words, each other, and ideas seriously and carefully in the pursuit of our own growth through disciplinary moves as well as our developing literacy.

The course, like the activities around Hughes’s poem, will be both individual and collaborative as well as interrogating and investigating key ideas and concepts.

Why We Are Here (Writing Specific)

Finally, I want to touch on a first writing activity I use in order to highlight how to use the first days to stress the narrow goals of any course or class.

The first writing activity I do with students involves Cisneros’s “A House of My Own”:

  • I read the passage aloud.
  • Students are instructed to write their own versions of the passage, changing “house” to an object of their choice and then mimicking the passage exactly except for the content. I refuse to give more directions and urge students to trust themselves and complete a draft.
  • After most of the students have a full first draft, I ask for volunteers to share their versions aloud. During the sharing I ask the others to compare their drafts to the one being shared.
  • Next I ask other students to share or discuss how their version does something different in terms of mimicking Cisneros exactly.
  • Always students begin to re-think their mimicking as well as how carefully they read any text for the how (technique) and the what (content).
  • Finally, I invite students to revise their versions and send them to me by email for the next class meeting.

This activity stresses the importance of completing a full first draft (especially as a discovery draft not as a process to fulfill a set thesis), the value of peer conferencing and sharing drafts, and the necessity of revising all writing with purpose.

We also begin to look at the craft of language—sentence formation (the entire passage is a series of fragments), rhetorical and literacy techniques, vivid and specific details, grammatical and syntactic awareness.

One unexpected but consistent consequence of this activity is that students often email their revision to me and call the text a poem—even though Cisneros’s mentor text is a prose fiction passage from a novel.

This means the following class allows me to begin a conversation about genre awareness, how we determine the form any text takes (poetry v. prose, fiction v. non-fiction, etc.).

In short, an opening activity models why we are here and how we are going to proceed.

Throughout my career, I have rejected traditional views of the first days of any class or course needing to be about establishing teacher authority (don’t smile until Christmas) and classroom rules or management.

Instead, I am committed to making the first days of class about who we are and why we are here while remaining true to my larger critical philosophical and ethical commitments as an educator and a human.

See Also

Inclusive Teaching Resources and Strategies (University of Michigan)

Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.

In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.

First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.

Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).

Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.

My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).

That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.

While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.

Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.

Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.

So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.

If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.

Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.

As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.

There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.

Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.


See Also

Many Teachers Have ‘No Say’ in Decisions About Their Own PD, Survey Finds

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