Teaching, Writing as Activism?

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.

Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Low self-esteem and doubt are evil, tiny demons, and both have plagued me lately with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?

In the past several months, from Ferguson to Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism.

The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.

To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity.

To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.

Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives.

For me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.

More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context.

As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career.

The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism if we embrace that call.

Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color.

My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history.

In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate SC, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.

Beyond my classroom, as department chair, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them.

Then, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.

So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.

I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves.

Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong.

None of this is easy or comfortable, and I recognize in hindsight, to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.

My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting ones name behind words that challenge.

But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic).

My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.

Thus, my vigilance lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity.

As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?

I say that we can be, that we must be.

But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words.

And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

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

I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists.

These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe.

Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.

Scapegoat

The GEICO Scapegoat: It’s What You Do commercial transports me to 10th-grade English class with Lynn Harrill, who would become my mentor and friend.

Throughout high school, I was living a double life: at school I was a math and science student—the courses in which I made As—but at home, I was collecting and reading thousands of comic books as well as consuming science fiction (SF) novels, starting with Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain and working through Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and other SF writers with the same obsession I brought to comic books.

In Mr. Harrill’s class, I experienced a paradigm shift about English class because 8th- and 9th-grade English had been spent doing grammar text exercises and days on end of sentence diagramming (assignments that earned me As in junior high). But in Mr. Harrill’s class, we wrote essays and spent (what seemed to me) hellish hours doing vocabulary workbook exercises and tests (assignments that pulled my English grade down to Bs).

Vocabulary words struck me as a huge waste of time, completely disassociated from my secret home life dedicated to words.

“Scapegoat” was one of those words that I still associate with feeling no connection between the isolated act of studying and being testing on the weekly list of words and being a young man who would in the coming years discover in spite of formal school he is a writer and a lover of books.

The word itself, “scapegoat,” as the commercial skewers, creates a tension between the word’s meaning and the embedded “goat,” that triggers most people’s prior knowledge. Out of context, studying “scapegoat” for a test cheated me—cheats all students—of being engaged with the rich etymology (one blossoming with allusion) of the word.

Formal English, I regret to admit, has mostly and continues to treat human communication as separate skills—grammar, phonics, vocabulary—meant for lifeless and mechanical analysis and acquisition.

Reading and writing in school are too often reduced to algebra.

I hate to confess also that in Mr. Harrill’s class I was chastised about reading SF—told I needed to read real literature—and never given any sense that my comic book life was worthy of being considered the foundation of my life as a writer, reader, and teacher.

While reading Gary Saul Morson’s Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature, I immediately thought also of my high school experience with English and vocabulary—leading again to “scapegoat.”

“Time and again,” Morson explains, “students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.”

Morson’s three ways (“the technical, the judgmental, and the documentary”) essentially are reflected in my story above—reducing human communication to algebra, stripping the life out of reading and writing through school-only practices such as five-paragraph, prompted writing and answering multiple-choice answers after reading decontextualized passages.

But Morson’s criticism sparked for me the scapegoat-de-jour: the Common Core.

While it is fashionable for some to proclaim that the Common Core will save U.S. public education and others to condemn Common Core as the end to all that is good and right in the world, a much more accurate assessment of Common Core is that it reflects more than a hundreds years of misguided teaching and about thirty-plus years of horribly misguided education reform.

I attended junior and senior high school in the mid- to late-1970s, just a few years before accountability gripped my home state of South Carolina. However, my English classes were dominated by isolated grammar instruction, nearly no original essay writing or drafting, weekly vocabulary lists and tests, prescribed reading lists of novels by white males, and literature textbooks that were mostly god awful.

As I mentioned, Lynn Harrill would teach me 10th- and 11th-grade English, embodying the teacher I wanted to be, mentoring me as a beginning teacher, and guiding me into a doctoral program as well as eventually a university position as a teacher educator.

Many of our conversations over the years have been about his regrets as a teacher—about how even as a young and seemingly “radical” teacher himself, he bent to the pressures of traditional teaching that were not supported by research and instilled in the students he loved what Morson laments in his essay above: English classes often make students hate reading and writing.

How many students, as I did, fell in love with words in spite of school, in spite of their English teachers’ practices?

That doctoral program to which Lynn Harrill guided me opened another world to me—in much the same way a speech class in college opened the world of poetry high school had hidden and my English professors opened the world of black writers high school had ignored—the world of Lou LaBrant, the eventual subject of my dissertation.

“A brief consideration,” LaBrant wrote in 1947, “will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Just as no accountability, standards, or high-stales testing were mandating the bad practices of my junior and high school English teachers, LaBrant nearly 70 years ago leveled a charge that resonates today, coincidentally in our Common Core era.

As English teachers, we have a long tradition of abdicating our autonomy to a shifting series of scapegoats: next year’s teacher, textbooks, the canon, Standard English, standards, and high-stakes tests (to name a few of the most prominent).

Do we love reading and writing, love language? Do we love our students?

Each student who trudges through our classes and learns to hate reading, writing, and language suggests our answer is “no.”

Engulfed in war, the world LaBrant wrote in during 1943 prompted her to note: “Hence teaching is a unique profession, dealing with remote rather than immediate influence over society,” adding:

It is important that we do not set up in our classrooms prejudices or snobberies which will make our students less instead of better able to understand, enjoy, and use this language….

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s….

We are responsible for such writing when we approve the correctly punctuated, correctly spelled, and neatly written paper which says nothing of importance, as against a less attractive but sincere account or argument. Children can and should learn to write correctly; but first should be sincere, purposeful expression of the child’s own ideas….

Similar unsound attitudes can be the result of being taught to “write just anything” (or to write on the teacher’s topic) ; to spend time correcting sentences which someone else has written about nothing of importance; to change one’s structure merely to have a variety of sentence forms; and so on through a whole series of assignments based on the principle that form is first and meaning second….

Today, LaBrant’s final warning rings true still: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum.”

As Lynn Harrill did with me—his greatest lesson—I now often face myself, the struggling me who stumbled and bumbled his way through teaching English—often badly—as I sought to gain my balance, stand on my own two feet in order to continue my journey toward being that teacher who embodies a love of language and students, to be in some small way the because and not the in spite of.

See Also

“A Call to Action,” P.L. Thomas, English Journal, 93(2), 67-69.

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Inducing Students to Write (1955), Lou LaBrant

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

Writing Is More than Structure (1957), Lou LaBrant

The Individual and His Writing (1950), Lou LaBrant

De-professionalization for Profit: “Leery of teachers”

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

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

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

Sapers reports:

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

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

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

leery of teachers

“Leery of Teachers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

Teaching: Too Hard for Teachers, Peter Greene

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ultimate response (prompting this blog):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaning Think Tanks or (More) Flawed Education Journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does all this teach us, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this case, Stephen Sawchuck reports for Education Week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes of the Beholder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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