On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

“The cause for my wrath is not new or single,” wrote Lou LaBrant in 1931, targeting how too often the project method engaged students in activities other than literacy.

This sharp critique by LaBrant has always resonated with me because even though I am now a teacher educator and have been a teacher for well over thirty years, I have always balked at pedagogy, instructional practices of any kind but especially those driven by technocratic zeal.

As one example, literature circles as an instructional structure represents the essential problems confronted by LaBrant about 86 years ago: the instructional practice itself requires time to teach students how to do the practice properly, and thus, “doing literature circles” becomes a goal unto itself and as a consequence subsumes and/or replaces the authentic literacy goals it claims to seek.

Further, many instructional practices border on being gimmicky because they are constructed in such a way to facilitate that anyone (regardless of expertise and experience) can implement them in the role of “teacher.”

For a while now, I have been contemplating the tension within teaching writing (composition) between those who teach writing as teachers and those who teach writing as writers.

I certainly default to the latter, and am drawn often to John Warner‘s public examinations of his teaching of writing (see below) because he also teaches writing as a writer.

Warner’s pieces about grading contracts and de-grading his first-year writing course have come when I am beginning my English/ELA methods seminar and wading into how my candidate must navigate ways to seek authentic practices in the context of the real world of teaching that often models for her teaching writing as a teacher, as a technocrat.

Here, then, I want to pull together a few concepts that I think are at their core related to LaBrant’s “wrath” and my rejecting of technocratic instruction—writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing.

Warner in blog posts and on Twitter questions his commitment to writing workshop, and offered that he has abandoned the term “workshop” for “laboratory.”

In one response, I mused that this all depends on what we mean by “writing workshop.”

Teaching about and practicing writing workshop for me have always been grounded in Nancie Atwell’s use of Giacobbe—that writing workshop incorporates time, ownership, and response.

Of course, writing workshop also typically involved peer and teacher-student conferencing as well as a number of other strategies such as read alouds and examining model texts.

So, although I do not wish to put words in Warner’s mouth, I believe he and I share a skepticism about writing workshop when “doing workshop” becomes so time consuming and complex that the pursuit of workshop replaces students actually doing the very messy and unpredictable task of writing, composing.

This is again the technocratic trap of instructional strategies of all kinds.

For the teaching of writing, something Kurt Vonnegut claimed could not be done, this trap is more common than not, particularly because teachers are often under-prepared as teachers of writing and teachers who are not writers (most ELA/English teachers, I would suspect) dominate who is charged with teaching writing.

Technocrats have ruined concepts such as the writing process, conferencing, and workshop by scripting and work-sheeting them into practices anyone can implement.

The teaching of writing requires teacher expertise and a high level of teaching as a craft—but fastidious attention to doing workshop or intricate peer-conferencing or mandating students demonstrate the writing process or essay templates ultimately fails fostering young writers.

Concurrent with the problems inherent in technocratic pedagogy is failing to consider the importance of cognitive overload when students are developing complex behaviors such as writing or reading.

Each of us has a limited amount of cognition we can devote to behaviors. When something becomes “second nature,” we then free cognition space. For me in the past year or so, returning to mountain biking has exposed this dynamic since road cycling had become “natural” to me, but mountain biking demanded so much purposeful thinking, I was constantly bumbling and frustrated.

Few truisms mean more to me as a teacher of writing than paying attention to (thus, avoiding) cognitive overload when your main instructional goal is fostering students as writers.

For example, if the topic or writing form is too demanding for students, they will often devote less or nearly no energy to writing itself. Many of us as teachers have read garbled essays by students, blaming the students instead of recognizing that we have asked them to do more than they were capable of doing concurrently.

For this reason, I stress the need to use personal narrative (because the content of the writing is an area of student expertise) as one foundational way to help students focus on craft and authentic writing forms.

K-12 students and first-year undergraduates, I think, need some careful consideration of cognitive overload as they acquire writing craft, and for first-year undergraduates, as they become more adept at the nuances of disciplinary writing in academia.

Avoiding technocratic pedagogy and cognitive overload, then, share the need for the teacher to keep primary the goals of learning; if we are fostering writers, we need to be sure time and effort are mostly spent on writing—not doing a pet instructional practice, not acquiring some disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, as I was discussing avoiding cognitive overload with my ELA/English methods student, I had her reconsider her plan to have students write short stories as the composition element in her short story unit this coming spring.

Just as I balk at technocratic pedagogy, I struggle with asking K-12 students to write fiction and poetry—primarily because these are very demanding forms of writing that encroach on my concern about cognitive overload; student must have both high levels of writing craft and the ability to fabricate narratives in order, for example, to write short stories.

As a high school English teacher, I found that students often reached for derivatives of derivative fiction in order to have something for characters and plot in their original short stories; for example, a student would write about an ER doctor as a main character (he or she always committed suicide at the end), drawing from almost entirely what the student knew about ERs from the TV show ER.

I made my case about cognitive overload, and then, she and I brainstormed what to have students write instead of their own short stories during her short story unit.

First, I asked her to reconsider her definition of “creative writing” being limited to fiction and poetry. I prefer LaBrant’s definition:

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

This pulls us back to honoring the broad concepts of writing workshop above, focusing here on “creative” being linked to student choice (ownership) over what s/he writes about and what form that writing takes.

Next, we brainstormed the possibility of asking students to write personal narratives while also emphasizing that their original personal narratives would have in common with the short stories they are studying—craft elements.

Students could focus on organizational techniques in narratives, for example, while reading fiction, and then, incorporate that craft in their own personal narratives.

I have examined here ways to rethink writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing so that we forefront our writing goals when teaching writing and guard against technocratic and reductive instructional strategies that can mask our own expertise and experience as writers.

From LaBrant to Warner, we can unpack that teachers of writing are often working from places of fear—fear about losing control, fear of not being adequately prepared to teach writing, fear students will not write if given choice and freedom.

However, “I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little,” LaBrant explained. “I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…” (p. 299).

And then Warner: “With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.”

Our antidote to these fears is trust, and then the willingness to honor for ourselves and our students the value in risk.

Teaching writing like writing itself is fraught with fits and starts as well as failure. Trying to control those realities results in either masking them or destroying the greater goal of fostering writers.


For Further Reading

Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Grading Contract Journey Part II: Fiction Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

Measuring Proficient Teachers Codifies Bad Teaching

Maja Wilson and Alfie Kohn have found themselves in a problematic minority during the accountability era dedicated to standards, high-stakes testing, and the ever-present rubric.

Rubrics, they argue, ultimately fail complex human behaviors such as writing. While rubrics facilitate statistical aspects of measuring human behaviors (such as teaching and learning), by doing so, they also tend to erode the quality of the very behaviors being measured.

As a writing teacher, I can confirm Wilson’s and Kohn’s critiques that student writing conforming to a rubric and thus deemed “proficient” or “excellent” can be and often is quite bad writing. Rubric-based labels such as “proficient” reflect compliance to the rubric, not writing quality.

Wilson, in fact, has demonstrated this by revising a professional and beautiful piece of writing by Sandra Cisneros so that is conforms to a computer-graded system’s criteria for high-quality writing. The result was more than disturbing with the revised work substantially worse but better correlated with what the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has deemed “good.”

While Wilson’s experiment focuses on computer-graded writing, the basis of that is having a generic rubric to determine writing quality, and thus, here we begin to investigate why rubric-driven evaluation of complex human behavior always fails:

  • Rubrics reduce the unpredictable to the prescribed.
  • To be practical, rubrics often attempt to be generic enough to cover huge categories—such as writing and teaching—and thus failing the reality that poetry writing is significantly distinct from journalism or that teaching second grade is significantly distinct from teaching high school physics.
  • When rubrics use terminology that is broad enough to address those varieties, they are useless due to being too vague; when rubrics use terminology that is specific, they are useless because they are unduly prescriptive. If the learning objective is jumping rope, if proficiency is “students jump well,” we have no idea what “well” means, and if proficiency is “students jump 10 times without missing,” that 10 becomes all that matters. In other words, in both cases, complying to the rubric ultimately supersedes the actual jumping rope.
  • Rubrics replace substantive feedback conducive to learning, and in fact, stagnates learning and reduces all assessment as summative.
  • As with high-stakes testing, high-stakes rubrics connected to course grades and/or as part of state accountability systems carry the weight of authority—shifting that authority from teachers and students to the rubric itself and the bureaucracy behind it.

So this brings me back to South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET).

SC’s version of the NIET rubric, as I discussed, is marred by being unmanageable due to its length and inadequate due to the inordinate amount of terminology that is too vague (and again, if we address that vagueness, we still have a flawed instrument that is all prescription).

While going through a first session of training in the rubric, I witnessed the greatest problem with using generic rubrics to determine teacher quality: a very bad literacy lesson was pronounced at the high end of “proficient” by how it conformed to the rubric, but the lesson was in fact terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive—as well, it likely eroded significantly the students’ passion for and interest in reading and literacy.

Adopting and implementing a new teacher quality rubric, however, have been committed primarily to training those who will evaluate teachers so that the assessors are familiar with the rubric and the endorsed process; and then, above all else, a central goal is to produce inter-rater reliability with a rubric that NIET and others have already deemed valid.

In other words, this is a statistical enterprise—not an adventure in teaching and learning.

Lost in the technocratic orgy about validity, reliability, and the all-things scientific, we have made the mistake confronted by John Dewey:

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

The irony here, of course, is that Dewey is one of the seminal voices for education being scientific; however, I cannot imagine his expecting this reductive outcome.

All aspects of teaching and learning are poisoned by our misguided pursuit of a very narrow version of “scientific” that has been subsumed by the bureaucratic and turned into pseudo-science.

What avail is it to label a teacher proficient, if in the process the teaching is terribly uninspired, overly teacher-centered, and reductive, if in the process the students are rendered lifeless and uninspired as well?

On Education and Credentialing: “Mak[ing] a Straight-cut Ditch of a Free, Meandering Brook”

“What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asked in his journal, answering: “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

As a former high school English/ELA teacher for 18 years, as I sat in the first of two training sessions yesterday, this from Thoreau came to mind.

Over the past 15 years, I have been a teacher educator, now a full and tenured professor in my university’s Education Department. Yet, from 9-4 yesterday, as representatives from the state department of education trained our full-time and adjunct faculty on the new South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) standards, I felt more like an elementary student because the so-called training was mostly condescending and entirely unprofessional.

But the unprofessional, I regret to acknowledge, is business as usual for teacher education, as a faux-field in higher education, and for K-12 teaching, a faux-profession.

Some of my doctoral courses for an EdD in curriculum and instruction covered educational leadership. In that work, I was always fascinated by what the research often describes as three types of leaders—authoritarian, authoritarian-light, and collegial.

The most chilling of the three is the authoritarian-light, which is a style that includes finding strategies that manipulate stakeholder buy-in by making it appear the stakeholders are making decisions even though they are actually being coerced to comply with mandates about which they have no real choice.

This is the process I suffered through yesterday as bureaucrats from the state department assured a room of professors and practitioners that the new state rubric for teacher evaluation is backed by research and that we already know and do everything therein.

Again, as a former English/ELA teacher, I am struggling with describing the experience as Orwellian, a Kafkan nightmare of reason, or both.

Training Teacher Educators to Train Teachers to Train Students

Some of the early session dynamics are worth noting upfront.

As part of the authoritarian-light strategies, the facilitators had lots of group work with large sticky paper and markers. Much laughing and chatting included references to the numerous teacher evaluation systems SC has adopted over the past three decades and how everyone in the room knew all this stuff.

We all shared our very E.D. Hirsch moment of knowing all the acronyms for the four or five systems many of us in the room have experienced.

And then the dramatic kicker: But this new rubric and system is different, better, and supported by research!

[Let’s note that no time was taken to acknowledge that this same framing occurred each time all the former systems were introduced.]

In passing, the credibility of the rubric was linked to the fact that the rubric includes footnotes (so do Ann Coulter’s books, by the way) to the incredible work of Danielson and Marzano!

However, as I found the rubric online, I noticed that neither were in the 23 footnotes.

[Let’s note that no time was taken to examine very powerful and credible counter-evidence refuting the credibility of the cult of Danielson and the cult of Marzano. Also, the cult of Hattie is in footnote 7, a hint to the hokum therein.]

Not to belabor the seven-hour training session, but a few additional points:

  • This rubric is highly touted, yet when we raised concerns about vague terms such as “most” and “some” to distinguish between “proficient” and “needs improvement,” that conversation was mostly brushed aside, except that we discovered if you look under “Description of Qualifying Measures” on page 8, you learn that “most” means “some” (though “some remains undefined). By any fair evaluation of this rubric, it fails miserably the basic parameters of high-quality rubrics (interestingly something I teach in my methods courses).
  • And then there is the rubric’s enormity: 404 bullets over 4 categories and nine pages of small Helvetica font. To navigate these bullets (and we were warned repeatedly to do so “holistically and not as a checklist” as we walked through the bullets as a checklist and not holistically) with any care at all requires nearly three hours for just one lesson, assuming about 2-minutes per bullet. Not only does the rubric fail basic expectations for clearly defined terms (just what the hell are “powerful ideas”?), but also it fails for being incredibly unwieldy and overwhelming.
  • Throughout the training, two key points were emphasized: mastery and teacher impact on student learning. As I will discuss below, we were given no opportunity to explore the serious problems with both, and no time was spent highlighting how the training itself practiced faux-science in the context of each.
  • As we explored the rubric, as well, the facilitators unpacked key factors that are not expressed in the rubric itself. Even though the language of the rubric under “proficient” references the teacher, the facilitators noted often that to move from “needs improvement” to “proficient” was dependent on students demonstrating mastery (showing “proficient”), not teacher behaviors (merely “needs improvement”).

To clarify how problematic this training proved to be, let me offer briefly the last activity, our viewing a lesson and watching the facilitators model how to use the rubric.

The lesson was a ninth-grade ELA lesson on inference, and the class was a “no excuses” charter school with black and brown children all adorned in matching purple shirts.

Here is the short version: the lesson, we were told, met the upper range of “proficient.”

Yet, what the activity highlighted was quite different than the intent.

The lesson was weak, a reductive attempt to teach inference to mastery that confuses isolated literacy skills with teaching literacy or literature. But this sort of bad lesson is necessary once you reduce teaching to mastery and teacher impact on student learning.

Instead of addressing this substantive problem and ways to conference with the teacher about focusing literacy instruction on rich texts and inviting students to explore those texts with more and more sophistication over a long period of time, the points of emphasis were on transcribing verbatim the lesson (although we could barely hear the audio) so that we could give lots of evidence for the bullet points we were not supposed to view as a checklist.

[Let’s note that no time was allowed to acknowledge that if and when teacher evaluators need detailed evidence of teaching, the video itself is superior to transcribing.]

The Big Point here is that once a rubric is codified by the state as a credentialing instrument, that rubric determines “proficient,” which may also simultaneously be a very bad, uninspiring, and reductive act of teaching.

Within that, as well, we witnessed the faux-science of claiming to embrace concepts while simultaneously contradicting them.

While only a few students out of a class of 20-plus students responded aloud during the lesson (our only potential evidence of learning), that constituted “most” and thus “proficient”—and represents in the Orwellian confines of this rubric “mastery.”

A few students offering one or two comments aloud in no reasonable way constitutes mastery, and there were no efforts to control for anything that justifies claiming this lesson by this teacher was a direct causal agent for the supposed learning. For example, those students willing to share may have come to class already capable of playing the inference game in school.

Teacher education as a bureaucratic mandate has mostly and currently functions as faux-science—adopting the language of being a certain kind of reductive behavioral psychology without taking the care and time to understand or implement the concept with fidelity.

This is a tragic consequence of the low self-esteem of the field—which becomes a vicious cycle of pretending (badly) to be a field deemed more credible (psychology) but unable to become a credible and independent field unfettered by bureaucracy.

Everything Wrong with Teacher Education Is Everything Wrong with Education

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy,” concludes Rebecca Smith, adding:

Data hold elusive promises of addressing educational concerns, promising real-time personalized instruction, predicting student growth, and closing the achievement gap of marginalized students (Bernhardt, 2006; Earl & Katz, 2006; Spillane, 2012). Today collections of student data are considered a reliable and a scientific way of measuring academic growth, mobilizing school improvement, and creating accountable, qualified teachers. Influenced by policy, pedagogy, and governing school procedures, data collection has become normalized in schools. Instead of asking what we can do with data, the better questions are: How did the accepted practice of quantifying children become normalized in education? How does our interaction with data govern our thoughts, discourses, and actions? (p. 2)

And as Smith details, the historical roots are deep:

Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where “knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity” (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision. (p. 3)

As a logical although extreme consequence of this historical pattern, Common Core represents the false allure of accountability and standards as well as the quantification of teaching and learning within the idealized promise of “common.”

Common Core was doomed from the beginning, like the many iterations of standards before because as a consequence of the accountability era the evidence is quite clear:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum.

And thus:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

For decades and decades—and then to an extreme over the past thirty years—education and teacher preparation have been mired in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The quality of education, teaching, and learning is not in any reasonable way connected to the presence or quality of standards, to the ways in which we have chosen to measure and then quantify them.

Training education professionals to use a really bad rubric that will determine if candidates are allowed to teach “proficiently” (which I can define for you: “badly”) is insanity because within a few years, another rubric will be heralded as the greatest thing while teaching and learning are no better—and likely worse—for all the bluster, time, and money wasted.

Education and teacher education are trapped in a very long technocratic nightmare bound to a reductive behaviorism and positivism.

These false gods are useful for control and compliance, but are in no way supportive of educating everyone in a free society.

Technocrats and bureaucrats cut straight ditches; teaching and learning are meandering brooks.

Not What, But Who: Remaining Grounded as a Teacher of Students

Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven”

The field experience students complete as part of my foundations of education course has this semester blended well with their reading Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

As we have discussed both during class sessions, students have been drawn to witnessing and reading as well as thinking about how teachers view and respond to their students.

Although these students have virtually no background in formal education, they have been very perceptive about the inordinate, and distracting, pressures on teachers to cover the curriculum (standards) and prepare students for testing—notably while observing and tutoring at a local majority-minority elementary school.

High student/teacher ratios have also been identified as making good classroom practice nearly impossible.

Running through our discussions has been a concern about how teachers treat students (often more harshly than my students anticipated or endorsed) and about the pervasive deficit perspective throughout the school.

Observing and tutoring in special needs classes and among Latinx students needing to acquire English have intensified how my students have responded to their field placement and their recognition of the myriad factors that impact negatively formal education.

Often unspoken, but what teachers and students share in far too many schools is a “no excuses” imperative that demands teachers perform well (even miraculously) despite being placed in circumstances that work against their efforts and that demands students somehow leave the pressures and inequities of their lives in order to excel at academics being imposed on them.

Teresa Watanabe’s Can a child who starts kindergarten with few reading or math skills catch up? is a snapshot of what my students have witnessed and what Emdin’s work challenges.

Responding to that article, Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has identified the problem that my students have observed:

But there is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning, and no evidence showing that the Common Core standards are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards….

Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car and spell words during family outings in order to “master” 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind.  Children who develop a love of reading will master thousands of words, without suffering.

Although political leaders and the public often view the authoritarian classroom where teachers are charged with keeping order and demanding that students learn standards and content about which they have no choice or input as the solution, it is now far past time to recognize that this is the problem with formal schooling.

Of course, what we teach is important at every level of education, and that what is becoming even more important for our democracy as we are confronted with a new post-truth media and politics.

That what needs to be the sort of truth that empowers a free people.

That what also needs to include a clear focus on the civility of learning and wrestling with ideas since our post-truth media and politics are increasing and justifying the demanding and nasty tone that is already a problem in many schools.

However, the what must remain secondary to the who—who we teach is what makes teaching an essential calling grounded in the dignity of both teachers and their students.

And the what can never be well taught or learned unless we attend to the conditions of teaching/learning and living among our teachers and students.

The authoritarian classroom, deficit thinking, “no excuses” ideologies and practices—these are corrosive elements for teaching, learning, and democracy as well as liberty.

The very long era of standardized testing and the more recent and relatively shorter era of accountability and standards have inflicted immeasurable harm on teachers and students.

And even as educator autonomy and professionalism become daily further eroded, we are morally obligated to call for and remain grounded in our role as teachers of students.

The who of teaching and learning must always come before the what.

Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

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Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with our students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016)

“All we gotta do is be brave
And be kind”

“Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” The National

…the world is gone daft with this nonsense.

John Proctor, The Crucible, Arthur Miller

In a keynote address at the 1960 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant asserted:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which [she/]he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Published as The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English in the September 1961 English Journal, this characteristic call to action from LaBrant resonates in 2016 as English teachers prepare to gather in Atlanta, Georgia for #NCTE16 with the increasingly important theme of Faces of Advocacy.

Fifty-five years ago, LaBrant advocated for teaching:

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A [hu]man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner….But the teacher is something quite different from the [hu]man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results. (p. 380)

Most practicing teachers today work within and against political and bureaucratic forces that “[reduce teaching] to a mechanical procedure.”

And even more disturbing is LaBrant’s warning:

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which [she/]he deals and the very materials with which [she/]he works, that teacher is a robot [her/]himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless [she/]he knows [she/]he will have freedom to use [her/]his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

At mid-twentieth century, LaBrant spoke against the all-too-familiar “bad” teacher myth used in contemporary calls for accountability:

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when [she/]he has to face [her/]his own decisions, and when [she/]he supports that decision. (p. 383)

The de-professionalizing of all teachers, then, is not something new, but a historical fact of being a teacher. However, LaBrant confronted the culpability among educators themselves:

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master [her/]his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But [her/]his right to choose comes only when [she/]he has read and considered methods other than [her/]his own. [She/]He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” lamented LaBrant. “By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire”:

There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about [her/]his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which [she/]he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (pp. 390-391)

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux

“Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it,” writes Teju Cole in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S. “It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”

LaBrant wrote about the field of teaching English throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the power—both for evil and for good—of language forefront of her concerns:

Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. (“The Individual and His Writing,” 1950, p. 265)

So we teachers of English/ELA—and all educators—sit in 2016 confronted with a “[m]isuse of language” that has given rise to a presidency built on racism, sexism, and xenophobia; therefore, as during LaBrant’s career, we teachers of English/ELA must embrace the most pressing responsibilities.

But driving Trump’s and his supporters’ bigotry has been a powerful corruption of language: blatant lies, denials of those lies, and the ugliest of coded language. In short, bullying has rewarded a political leader with the highest office in a free society.

Parody of Trump’s misuse of language cannot be taken lightly, but that misuse has real consequences on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, including children in the classrooms of teachers across the U.S.

Immediately, then, teachers must admit “that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces” (Kincheloe, 2005).

In other words, although teachers are historically and currently de-professionalized by being told not to be political, as LaBrant argued, educators cannot reinforce that mantra by calling for politics-free zones in our classrooms and in our professional spaces.

Calling for no politics is a political act of silencing that brazenly takes a masked political stand in favor of the status quo.

Teaching and learning are unavoidably “politically contested spaces,” but they are unavoidably ethically contested spaces as well.

Language is a human behavior that allows us to wrestle with and find our moral grounding; and thus, those teaching literacy have a profoundly ethical mission to work toward the Right, Good, and Decent—in the act of teaching but also as a personal model.

As philosopher Aaron Simmons argues:

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

The naive stance of neutrality can no longer be who teachers are because, as I noted above, to be neutral is to support the status quo, and in the U.S., the status quo is a cancer that left untreated promises to kill us all.

As Lucas Jacob argues directly:

Calling a politician out for Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny is not a matter of exerting undue influence by favoring one political party over another; nor is it a matter of disrespecting the presidency. Naming Mr. Trump’s hate speech as such is, rather, a moral imperative for supporting the missions of K-12 schools, in which Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist words and actions are punishable offenses that can (and must) be treated as being beyond the pale.

“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979 on Black English. “It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

Just as LaBrant linked language and power, Baldwin extended that dynamic to include race—and called for using that power in the name of community instead of divisiveness.

The word “critical,” now, has taken on exponential layers of meaning.

We are in critical times, and thus, as Kincheloe explains about the political and ethical responsibilities of being critical educator who seeks for students critical literacy:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

In its simple form, to call a lie, a lie; to name racism, racism; to reject hate as hate—these are the undeniable responsibilities of teachers, especially teachers of English/ELA.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of a lie is to lie.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of racism is racism, in the face of sexism is sexism, in the face of xenophobia is xenophobia.

To divorce the act of teaching from the world within which it resides is to abdicate the greatest potential of teaching and learning: to change the human experience from dark to light.

If we shun our responsibilities as teachers in 2016, we are turning our backs to the ugliest realities faced by Baldwin nearly forty years ago:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Writing two decades before her NCTE keynote examined above, LaBrant made a foundational request: “For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that [she/]he teach in [her/]his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life” (p. 206).

And about “this honest use of language,” there are only two options—although remaining neutral is not one of them.

English Journal November Sneak Preview

English Journal November Sneak Preview

The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of the English Journal and guest editors, Sean P. Connors and P.L. Thomas. 

We are delighted to invite you to preview our November 2016 issue of EJ, which—in keeping with the presidential election—is particularly provocative and compelling. In this blog post, we feature the issue editorial, composed by guest editors Sean P. Connors and P. L. Thomas, as well as the introduction to a special section on teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.We hope that the issues highlighted in this month’s EJ will open conversation among English teachers everywhere. —Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski

NOTE: In part, this special issue was prompted by the NCTE 2014 National Convention and this blog post resulting from that: Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance