Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

The Death of Teaching and Learning in America

“We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Kasky said.

Parkland Students: ‘We’re The Mass Shooting Generation’

As a teacher educator, I am fortunate to maintain professional and personal relationships with wonderful early-career educators. But here are a couple stories from one young teacher I’d rather not tell.

First, this early-career teacher has distinguished herself already; in many ways, she represents the very best of who we all want to be teaching students. But at a recent meeting about pay and benefits next year, she was informed that the slight raise she was anticipating would be negated by new retirement deductions.

Her response: “I love to teach, but I know a day is coming when the negatives outweigh the benefits, and I just won’t be able to do this any more.” She added that this moment seemed to be coming sooner rather than later, that she wasn’t going to be a martyr.

As an English teacher, she also has been struggling with her canon: the steady drip, drip, drip of male authors exposed for sexual harassment and abuse—Garrison Keillor, J.D. Salinger, Sherman Alexie.

As she has confronted these issues, and stopped assigning those writers, she has witnessed students come against a very troubling reality; one student noted in class, “Everybody we read has committed sexual harassment.”

These two moments represent the professional weight of being a teacher—issues about pay and benefits as well as pedagogy.

Now, let’s mix in something that may prove even more daunting.

At the sparsely attended walk out on my campus, one student showed up with a sign: “I am scared to be an Ed Major.”

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The very real specter of schooling as a place in which students and teachers must be vigilant about safety, about the possibility of being shot; the very real specter of calls for turning schools into fortresses, with teachers armed like prison guards.

As David Edwards reports, students increasingly see attending school not as a place of learning, but a place to survive:

“It’s really scary,” the organizer added. “This is a turning point. Things really have to change. We won’t tolerate it. We won’t tolerate being scared to come into school. We won’t tolerate having to stay out of school because we’re scared. It has to change. We can’t be hunted.”

[MSNBC’s Ron] Allen observed that “hunted” was a “powerful word” to use in this context.

“I think that it’s become obvious that we’re the victims,” the girl insisted. “That we are the ones that are going to die if this continues. So I think that we have to fight to at least say that we don’t want to die.”

For decades now, many of us in education who believe in the possibility of universal public education have feared the death of teaching and learning, but we have imagined that coming from policy, free market and accountability approaches to so-called reform.

But something more sinister is happening: Schools have always labored under the weight of the communities they serve, and teaching and learning is now dying a slow and horrible death because of America’s gun culture combined with those bureaucratic monsters many of us were mostly pointing to.

In America, our students and teachers have become martyrs for our misguided politics and ideology—from abdicating teaching and learning to the standards and testing industry, to literally sacrificing lives in the name of gun lust.

Some of us have feared the death of public schools, the death of teaching and learning. Our outcry for decades now may have seemed like hyperbole—or to some, self-interested whining.

But now we are watching both the literal and figurative death of teaching and learning, and too many think the best recourse is doubling down on all the ways this death has come about.

As more and more teachers and students declare that they will not be martyrs, what role will the rest of us take—in their defense or to their demise?

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

These may have seemed petty or just pet peeves to my students, but I would not tolerate this sort of framing in student essays about literature:

Emily Dickinson says, “Because I could not stop for Death – /He kindly stopped for me –.”

William Shakespeare is often quoted as saying “brevity is the soul of wit.”

In the first example, I would note that poems have speakers, some personae that may or may not be the poet. I encouraged students to take great care to identify “speaker” if a specific voice isn’t identified in the poem along with nudging them to avoid the lazy “say” verb choice.

The second example is far more vexing since it makes the same error (the line is spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, and is not Shakespeare expressing a pithy idea); however, it is far more flawed since the phrase absent the context of the character speaking and the play itself allows people to completely misrepresent the line as a truism—instead of acknowledging that it is a hollow claim of a blowhard.

What I was teaching students included a couple of broad and narrow lessons about writing: one, broad, captures the need for precision in writing that is far more nuanced than what many expect in speaking, for example, and two, narrow, teaches some of the nuances of writing in the discipline of literary analysis.

It is at that second and narrow lesson I want to focus on some of the strategies connected with helping students develop a toolbox as writers that supports them shifting gears among different disciplines.

For example, let’s think about how students must navigate (too often without explicit instruction) the conventions of the humanities (writing in English or history courses) and the conventions of the social sciences (writing in psychology, sociology, education).

Two ways we fail students in those contexts include laying almost all of writing instruction at the feet of English teachers (K-12) and first-year writing instructors (as a one-shot inoculation), and then focusing too narrowly on the mechanics of citation style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) instead of the broader approaches to writing in the disciplines that those styles support.

In all of my courses—first-year writing, foundations education, upper-level writing/research, graduate—I require extensive writing assignments, and students consistently demonstrate a lack of awareness about disciplinary expectations for writing. Primarily, they come to writing assignments with literary analysis and MLA “rules” that they impose on all types of writing.

Therefore, some of the nuances I must address include the following:

  • In the humanities, source-based writing tends to focus on textual analysis of a primary source supported by secondary sources. Writing in the social sciences rarely involves textual analysis (except when including critical discourse analysis), but asks the writer to synthesize bodies of research to address key topics or questions.
  • Therefore, writing in the humanities often explicitly identifies authors and titles directly in the flow of sentence and discussions: “In her ‘Vesuvius at Home,’ poet Adrienne Rich explains, ‘But of course Dickinson’s relationships with women were more than intellectual.'” As well, writers in the humanities may explore one source at a time (both primary and secondary) to make a larger case about the primary source being addressed (for example, Rich examining the poetry of Dickinson).
  • However, writing in the social sciences synthesizes patterns of claims and conclusions across several sources, and thus, authors and titles rarely appear in the flow of sentences with attributions mostly parenthetical or in end/footnotes: “For this volume on comic books, then, interrogating the medium in the context of race is extremely complex because comic books are a significant subset of popular culture (increasingly so with the rise of superhero films based on comic books throughout the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries), which necessarily both reflects and perpetuates all aspects of the culture it serves—including bigotries such as sexism, racism, classism, jingoism, and homophobia (McWilliams, 2009; Rhoades, 2008a, 2008b; Singer, 2002; Thomas, 2010; Wright, 2001).”
  • In the context of the second and third bullet, then, students must confront that writing in the humanities often requires direct quoting, but writing in the social sciences prefers synthesis (often oversimplified as paraphrasing*). Here, there are disciplinary contexts for how a writer supports claims that contradicts most students’ belief that all writing requires quoting.

These problems for students as writers and for teachers of writing also complicate my argument against templates and my commitment to students choosing their type of essays and topics.

Since writing and teaching writing are extremely complicated, then, I want to end here with how I have organized my upper-level writing/research course around commitments to scaffolding assignments, student topic choices, and supporting students as writers confronted with a variety of writing modes and disciplinary expectations.

Students have three major writing assignments—annotated bibliographies (sources that serve as the foundation for their scholarly essay), a major scholarly essay on an educational topic of their choice, and a public commentary incorporating hyperlinks for support and addressing the same topic as their scholarly essay but for a lay audience.

After students gather evidence that an educational topic has been covered often in the mainstream media, they choose that topic to investigate the research base, producing 8-10 annotated bibliographies of high-quality sources. In this process, students practice evaluating sources and also refine their skills in APA formatting (focusing on the bibliographies).

After they submit the first draft of the annotated bibliographies, we discuss how social scientists write, contrasting that to their humanities/MLA assumptions (addressed above). In a class workshop format, I then ask them to revise the annotations (and edit the bibliographies) by focusing on discussing the content of the research, and not announcing authors and titles. For example, a first draft includes: “DeLeon suggests that the archetype of the “urban” criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.” Then revised as: “The archetype of the ‘urban’ criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.”

The major scholarly essay challenges them next in several ways. The recommended structure includes the following: a personal narrative or narrative opening (supported by Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative), a section applying critical discourse analysis to several media reports on an educational topic (requiring them to analyze text and quote, similar to their humanities background), a section that is a mini-literature review of the research on the topic of choice (requiring them to write as a social scientist, synthesizing their annotated bibliographies, and practice the nuances of APA citation), and a closing (introducing them to the concept of framing, in which they return to their opening narrative in order to frame their essay focus—either that the media misrepresent or credibly represent the topic they chose).

The scholarly essay demands that students shift modes and investigate purpose as writers; the assignment is not prescriptive or narrowly prompted, but it is structured while also being demanding (although each student and I discuss how to revise that initial plan if the topic demands a different approach).

After drafting a scholarly essay using formal citation, students then condense what they have discovered into a much briefer (750-1250 words) commentary that incorporates hyperlink support and addresses a lay audience. Here, students must reconsider diction and sentence formation while also being more selective about using evidence. On that last point, we discuss the need to use individual examples that are accurate reflections of generalizations; in other words, focusing on one source but being careful that it fairly represents the body of research they have examined in their scholarly work.

This process, I think, helps represent how complex both writing and teaching writing are. Further, it shows that we serve our students best by avoiding writing assignments and instruction that oversimplifies the writing process and products (not asking students to write a narrative, but inviting them to integrate the narrative mode in service of a larger cohesive essay, genre, and discipline).

Where templates and prescription fail, we must seek ways to provide structure and scaffolding so that students can have multiple experiences shifting disciplinary gears as writers.


* Students admit that they have tended to use a passage from one source at a time and paraphrased by looking up synonyms one word at a time in that passage.