Category: Teaching

Teaching Writing in ELA/English: “not everything to do, but something”

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

“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau

It is a misguided and unfair reality, but middle and high school ELA/English teachers are in many ways asked to do everything—and they cannot, of course.

Traditionally, ELA/English teachers have been charged as the primary, if not exclusive, teachers of all things literacy as well as their field of English; in other words, charged with teaching students how to read, write, speak, and listen along with covering whatever body of literature a particular grade level is assigned (and about which students may be tested in high-stakes ways).

My dissertation focus and most-times muse, Lou LaBrant was as acerbic as she was brilliant (and she was brilliant). Once when fielding questions, she chastised a teacher that if she did not know how to teach ELA/English, she should quick, learn how, and then return to the field.

Not a shining moment for LaBrant, and an attitude we must not tolerate. It is not ours to eat our own kind, and it is far past time that we allow ELA/English to be under the weight of doing everything.

This has been weighing on my mind as an 18-year high school English teacher and current English educator for 15 years and counting because of several conversations around my blog posts challenging the teaching of research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

Maybe I was drawn to LaBrant because we share a tendency to seem strident when we are passionate—or maybe studying and writing about LaBrant so deeply infused my passion with a strident streak. Honestly, it is likely the former.

So I am guilty too often of allowing my genuine passion to come off as demanding, judgmental, and unyielding.

Shame on me.

“The Kindness of Strangers”

But I am also fortunate to be in the presence of the kindness of strangers—those who ask, prod, challenge, and join the quest.

In particular, comments by a beginning teacher and a teacher at a school that seeks to prepare students for college really hit home for me in terms of asking what ELA/English teachers are to teach in terms of writing if they abandon, as I believe they should, the traditional and scripted research paper assignment and the 5-paragraph essay.

First, I must stress that for all teachers, and particularly beginning teachers, the transition from traditional practice to warranted or best practice must be through baby steps: choosing one or a few changes to practices that are manageable, incorporating them, and then pacing over a long period of time (months, years) further changes as manageable.

I cannot stress enough, whether it is about so-called best practice, responding to student writing, or preparing students for college, we must be neither martyrs, nor missionaries.

To be a teacher of ELA/English is honorable in itself.

To move from the 5-paragraph essay/template approach to writing instruction to a workshop/authentic form approach, then, begins by identifying the components of writing workshop (time, ownership, response) in order to implement some of those components within the current traditional structure. And then gradually adding components until the traditional structure is replaced with writing workshop.

If you are not ready to release the 5-paragraph essay form, can you drop the prompt and allow student choice in topics? And can you remove some direct instruction for students to draft and collaborate on their essays during class as well as your own conferencing with students as they brainstorm and compose?

Along with baby steps, change is facilitated by purposeful abandonment of traditional practices that are discredited by evidence (both the research base and a teacher’s own practice). No teacher should try to cram in new practice along with old practice.

Incremental change and abandonment allow teachers to take the needed time to prepare themselves for teaching writing more authentically, without templates—finding, reading, and gathering mentor texts of the types of essays they believe their students should be writing, for example, along with honing their craft at guiding students through reading like a writer activities in order to build the writer’s toolbox for students.

That said, the field of ELA/English as the place where writing is primarily taught is in dire need of recalibration—as I have addressed related to research papers and the 5-paragraph essay.

The Literary Analysis Essay: “is this even necessary anymore”

Let’s go back for a moment to my opening lament about asking ELA/English teachers to do everything—and consider the opening quote from Thoreau.

ELA/English teachers must stop carrying the weight of doing everything, but they must do something, with a critical eye toward avoiding doing something wrong.

The powerful dilemma, I think, is posed in a question from Elizabeth Hall on the NCTE Connected Community: “How do I teach students to write a literary analysis essay or is this even necessary anymore?”

Teaching literary analysis essays (and the use of MLA in the traditional research project) has its roots, I am sure, in several different reasons: tradition, seeking to address English as a discipline, and preparing students for college directly and indirectly (the Advanced Placement tests).

“Because we have always done it” is a shallow reason to keep a teaching practice so I’ll set that aside.

Next, do we as English teachers have an obligation to the discipline of English? Just as we feel compelled to teach British lit or American lit, we feel compelled to teach students about literary analysis. And we are quite justified in that—although with two caveats: first, virtually none of our students will become English majors, and second, to teach literary analysis writing should still be couched in authentic writing.

Therefore, canned literary analysis is not warranted, just as remaining trapped in New Criticism (and its more recent cousin “close reading”) and perpetuating the literary technique hunt is not warranted.

Even when teaching students who needed to do well on AP tests, I started by investigating authentic mentor texts modeling literary analysis—notably Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home,” which redefined how many viewed Emily Dickinson.

Unpacking Rich’s masterful interrogation of Dickinson, we found she begins with and depends heavily on personal narrative mode, and her analysis highlights that textual analysis requires substantial quoting of the examined texts that anchors the writer’s analysis and synthesis.

But Rich has no clunky introduction with the traditional assertive (read: overstated) thesis, and she does not spend time cataloguing Dickinson’s use of literary devices.

And here is a key point of departure: Rich comes at Dickinson through many analytical lenses, but she does not forefront New Criticism (as most ELA/English teachers do and as AP Literature and Composition exams do).

Further, our high school students, by the way, cannot write with the mastery of Rich, but they can build their toolbox of genre awareness about how professional writers do literary analysis—including being exposed to a much wider set of analytical lenses than teachers have traditionally explored (see Cody Miller’s post, for example).

One answer to Hall’s question is “yes,” because literary analysis essays can be very valuable for students as critical thinkers (to read and re-read the world, to write and re-write the world), as liberal arts grounding (students knowing the wide array of disciplinary ways of knowing), as one type of authentic writing, and as a foundation for the few students who will in fact major in English.

Another answer, however, addresses Hall’s “is this even necessary anymore.”

The truth is that first-year writing (back in the day, “freshman comp”) and so-called “college writing” have never been well served directly by ELA/English teachers assigning primarily or exclusively literary analysis essays.

Again, literary analysis essays are a part of the English discipline and very few high school teacher’s students will be English majors.

So this harder answer is about addressing the “everything” dilemma.

Each ELA/English teacher, then, must not feel compelled to prepare students for college entirely or to address the discipline of English completely. Each ELA/English teacher must be committed to doing something, guarding against doing something wrong (such as making students hate to read and write, demanding student conformity over student agency, or presenting inauthentic templates that inhibit students as readers and writers).

That something may include a literary analysis essay, but ELA/English teachers should feel far more obligated to investing time into helping students gain genre awareness and developing themselves as autonomous thinkers and writers through the reading and writing processes—reading and writing workshop grounded in mentor texts and requiring students to produce authentic texts themselves along a wide range of writing types, some of which they will be required to do in college (disciplinary writing).

Middle school teams and high school departments could very easily organize so that teachers who feel more comfortable with some types of writing than others can choose to distribute what writing experiences students have over the course of several years.

ELA/English teachers must resist isolated individual responsibility for the “everything,” something that can be approached (but never accomplished) over six or seven coordinated years as teams and departments.

None of this is easy, and I regret to offer, none of this can be scripted for any teacher.

But, while I resist suggesting changes are urgent, I do believe they are damned important.

So I return to LaBrant in a slightly less strident mood:

Teachers who follow the rule of emphasizing meaning and true communication find children eager to accept conventional form, and to choose words carefully. But the choice is then in terms of the purposes of the writer or speaker, and not in terms of artificial or superficial standards [emphasis added]….Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum. (p. 97)

The Irony and the Dishonesty: Revisiting 1999

First, let’s do the irony: Think outside box inside S.C. classrooms by SC’s executive director of StudentsFirstSC (a political journeyman, and never an educator) is the least outside the box commentary you can read.

The least.

Propaganda and baseless claims from a deceptive organization—this is what we face in SC:

  • “The key is developing real-world solutions to help students learn, regardless of the hurdles they face outside of the classroom.” No. This is a harmful and failed approach. We need to address inequity in children’s lives and in their schools. Asking children to pretend their real lives don’t exit while they happen to be in school is cruel.
  • “Quality teachers should have the freedom to fully use their passion to fuel innovation within their classrooms.” Hint at this sham Op-Ed: “innovation.” A hollow “business” term that means nothing.
  • “A great example of innovation is happening right here in Charleston. As recently highlighted in The Post and Courier last week, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a local, public-private partnership. In a short time, this school has achieved remarkable results—setting challenging goals for students and working to help them achieve more.” There remains no proof of these claims except by MSE advocates and those who benefit from such claims.
  • “South Carolina’s embrace of educators from Teach for America is a step in the right direction for our state.” TFA is de-professionalizing teaching, has failed as a sham organization, and has seen its popularity significantly decline because of the harm the program does to its recruits and the students they teach.
  • “Bradford Swann is executive director of StudentsFirstSC, a non-profit, membership- based organization working to ensure all students have access to great teachers and a quality education, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” This is a pollitical propaganda organization that has no credibility—begun by the thoroughly discredited Michelle Rhee and run by political want-to-be’s.

StudentsFirst churns out the same Op-Eds all over the U.S.—piling on lie after lie in the seemingly never-ending parade of dishonesty in education reform.

Quite disturbing, however, is that this sort of dishonesty has been refuted for decades. For example, I published a piece in 1999, predicting and addressing this exact phenomenon.

A New Honesty in Education—Positivist Measures in a Post-Modern World addressed virtually every element of the recurring Op-Eds by StudentsFirst minions and other edureform robots.

Let me catalog a few here, and, again, this is from 1999 (all directly quoted from the article, with some emphasis added):

  • The debates swirling around education never stray too far from the fore-front of key concerns for Americans. In South Carolina, for example, education grew to be a central issue of the 1998 governor’s race—the arguments centering on the lottery and video poker versus vouchers and high standards for teachers and students. Concurrent with the political season, The Atlantic ran a feature article on education—Nicholas Lemann’s “‘Ready Read!'” applauding Robert E. Slavin’s Success for All reading program. Both the South Carolina governor’s race and the Lemann article epitomize a central aspect of the current educational debate—dishonesty. That dishonesty runs through almost all the educational discourse within political arenas; such dishonesty grows from the clash inherent in the power of positivist measurements—primarily through standardized testing—within a culture that is concurrently influenced by post-modern perspectives.
  • Since the rise of Taylorism at the turn of the century, education has been driven by a belief in empirical data, the belief that we can objectively generate data from standardized tests to assess both individual students and entire educational systems (Kliebard, 1995, pp. 81-82).
  • We must be honest about textbooks and curriculum programs, we must be honest about standardized testing, we must be honest about the nature of educating, and we must be honest with our students in the classroom.
  • Gerald W. Bracey (1997) and Herbert M. Kliebard (1995), among others, have noted that throughout the 20th century, the American educational debate has been rife with dishonesty when it benefited both politicians and educators.
  • They touted higher standards for teachers (including a new testing format that would reward existing teachers with a bonus if they would take the test and would raise the score needed to gain initial certification); higher standards and a stricter, more scope-and-sequenced curriculum; and choice in education driven by vouchers.
  • Lemann clearly embraces a belief in empirical data, a belief that schools should produce workers, and a belief that teachers should get out of the way of a content-rich prescribed curriculum.
  • Soon politicians will realize (some already have) that if a test is designed first, and if that test dictates a prescribed curriculum that can be scripted, and if teachers can be forced to train students along that and only that curricular course, tests scores will increase, the public will be pleased (though horribly fooled), and the politicians’ careers will have been boosted.
  • Educators must acknowledge that we are increasingly overwhelming students, primarily because too many factions contribute to the educational mix—parents through school boards, politicians through legislation, publishers through textbooks, and educators as practitioners. Prescribed curriculum guides, statewide standards, and textbooks often create a monster too large for either teachers or students to handle.
  • A second area for educators to attack vigorously and honestly is the standardized test.
  • We must assert honestly that education is still not good enough; it never will be.
  • Students leaving third or fourth grade as independent and willing readers will benefit more from their educational experience than our current focus on third graders taking a wide range of standardized tests that do not force the students to produce anything, except merely to bubble.
  • Clinging to that which is easily transferred to the student, that which is most manageable to assess, is the most morally and educationally bankrupt behavior existing in education.

Sound familiar? These warning from almost two decades ago?

The StudentsFirst playbook is predictable, but it is also tired and thoroughly disproven.

I begged for a new honesty in education as I taught in public schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

When will political leaders, the media, and the public choose to listen to educators and not con artists out for their own political gain? [1]


[1] Yes, I know, a very hollow questions in the 2016 presidential election.

Educators, Be Neither Martyrs, Nor Missionaries

While discussing with a colleague strategies for responding to first-year students’ essays, I stressed the importance of giving students feedback, but only when students are required to respond to that feedback in some way—such as revising essays.

My standard line on this is: “Don’t be a martyr.”

In other words, too often educators work long and hard just to work long and hard—without monitoring if and how that work translates into student learning.

Teaching writing and handling the paper-load are incredibly demanding teaching tasks even when done efficiently.

Earlier that same day in my foundations class, a student raised a question about Teach For America—leading to my pointed criticisms and rejection of TFA. Much of my concerns about TFA are grounded in the program’s attracting young, smart, and idealistic college graduates and then using their “missionary zeal” in dehumanizing ways that negatively impact TFA recruits and their students.

Just this morning, I noticed Walt Gardner treading on the same topics, asking Is Martyrdom Necessary to Improve Schools?

Historically and currently, teaching cannot be separated from the broader sexism and misogyny in the U.S. Most K-12 teachers continue to be women, and in many subtle and blunt ways, teaching is burdened by sexist stereotypes and expectations.

While women labor under social pressures to be subservient wives and sacrificial mothers, teachers also feel compelled—and often perpetuate themselves—the twin burdens of martyrdom and missionary zeal.

Paradoxically, TFA as a non-traditional source of teachers is the most extreme example of why all educators must resist being martyrs or missionaries.

Two excellent works of scholarship—one by Sarah Matsui and one edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais—investigate how TFA exploits the idealism of recruits (often framed positively by TFA as “missionary zeal”) and then demands martyrdom from these young and idealistic candidates, made even more disturbing since the program depends on only 2 years of service, thus creating an expendable revolving door of teachers in the field.

Despite the warranted criticisms of TFA by traditional teacher education and critical scholars, we must not ignore that these demands of TFA core members are disturbingly common among traditional teachers as well—some from the norms of teaching, and some among teachers themselves. And demands that teachers be martyrs and missionaries have been intensified over the past thirty years of accountability as political and public discourse has increasingly blamed teachers for low test scores among impoverished and minority students.

Let’s consider, then, why both martyrdom and missionary zeal are the wrong poses of any educators.

Broadly, crisis discourse about school and teacher quality that marginalizes and ignores social factors—such as poverty—driving measurable learning outcomes works to justify extreme and impossible expectations for teachers. However, education is not in crisis, but is an incremental process over a long period of time.

Yes, ER doctors often work in crisis conditions, and having extreme expectations for their profession may be appropriate, but education requires patience and the fostering of relationship over time.

Impoverished and minority students are being mis-served far more significantly from cumulative neglect—limited access to challenge courses and experienced/certified teachers—than from urgent harm (although, regretfully, some students still are exposed to such harms).

That cumulative neglect does not need martyrdom nor missionary zeal—both of which, ultimately, are damaging, psychologically and physically, for teachers directly and then their students indirectly (see Matsui).

While many with professions identify themselves strongly with their professions, especially teachers, allowing your profession to consume you (martyrdom) is self-defeating—just as missionary zeal as extreme idealism will ultimately be deflating.

Having idealism and lofty goals are powerful. And while fatalism is corrosive, having unattainable and unrealistic goals-as-demands is just as destructive.

Both martyrdom and missionary zeal are often grounded in good intentions, but as Paul Gorski explains, good intentions cannot justify harmful and misguided practices.

And finally, missionary zeal like colonialism ultimately fails students because, Gorski argues, “despite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US, accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies.”

As I offer my beginning and early teachers, teaching is an evolving practice—it is about baby steps.

Ultimately, educators must resist martyrdom—working long and hard just to show we are working long and hard—and must reject missionary zeal, particularly in our work with vulnerable populations of students.

Our profession and our students will be better served if we are fully and richly human, diverse in who we are and how we be. To teach is to more forward carefully, with purpose, and intentionally.

Let us leave martyrdom to the mythologies and missionary zeal to a history we have learned to rise above.

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

Anonymity and Professionalism: Teacher Voice in a Time of High Anxiety

Briefly on the National Council of Teachers of English‘s Connected Community, members could post on forums anonymously, spurring a few discussions and debates about anonymity and professionalism (as well as attribution of ideas and accountability during a thread about plagiarism).

When I first moved to higher education, my current university had an online platform that included a discussion feature, one that also allowed students (or anyone in the university community) to post anonymously with screen names.

One particular group of students connected with a powerful and controversial (also highly politicized and well funded from outside sources) student organization often posted anonymously and tended toward personal attacks of university professors—xenophobic and homophobic slurs included.

Several professors also participated in these online debates, but with their names openly displayed.

This situation was a subset of a larger campus tension between very conservative students and a much more moderate faculty. Ultimately, that forum was closed and never resurrected; however, a key element of the situation was the debate over whether or not anonymous posting was appropriate—notably in the context of an institution of higher learning.

Then and during the recent NCTE Connected Community discussion, I have always maintained that a key element of professionalism is the relationship between a professional’s name and her/his stances, claims.

In my professional scholarship and my public work, my name and even access to my email are prominent always.

As a writer and career educator, I see my scholarship and public work as extensions of teaching—and believe all teachers must be authoritative, earning the trust of those they serve as teachers. The who and what of teaching and making claims, for me, is inextricable.

However, there is a long and powerful history of pen names/pseudonyms in traditional writing as well as the more recent world of blogging.

Anonymous voices have risen out of oppression in the name of overcoming that oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.

So if we return to the anonymous posting on NCTE’s Connected Community and place that in the context of students posting anonymously at my university, we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.

Students feared grade and course retaliations for posting under their names in the same way K-12 teachers in the U.S. fear speaking publicly because educators’ job security has deteriorated significantly in recent decades.

Educators at all levels are also under a powerful norm to avoid being political, to resist activism—much of which is about the cultural silencing of women.

Nonetheless, anonymous public and forum commentary often emboldens people to be reckless and unprofessional—personal attacks, trolling, etc.

As I noted above, all of my professional and public writing and commentary are under my very public name; therefore, that forces me to hold myself to an incredibly high standard—primarily to make only warranted claims.

Especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I seek ways to model the same sort of standard for making claims in public contexts that I make in scholarship. Even my Op-Ed and commentary work in journalism is meticulously cited (through hyperlinks)—although some online publications still resist including them.

Further, as a teacher 24/7, I believe I am a model for my students who need to embrace a way of being in a democracy that includes their voices and their ethical acts of rewriting the world.

My students are unlikely to be writers or scholars, but they certainly should be living by and making warranted stances. And possibly more than ever, they must be able to read and re-read the world in order to know when others are being credible or petty and vile.

Let us not trivialize the urge to raise anonymous voices, but also, let us not ignore that the most vicious among us are empowered by anonymity: the terror and power of the KKK were intensified by the white hoods and gowns.

A free and just society in which there is no need for anonymity is a wonderful ideal, but I am certain we have yet to reach that situation.

Those of us who have levels of privilege that allow us to model the ideal must continue to do so. Using those privileges to silence others with legitimate concerns about their own imbalances of power is inexcusable.

In any and all connected communities, then, it becomes more about the nature of the conversations than professional or personal accountability.

Anonymous or not, public or professional, we teachers must always resist being petty, and those who need the veil of anonymity would serve their own causes well to have high standards for that context in the same way linking professionalism and our names should.

Readers, Writers, Teachers, and Students: “the pointlessness of so much of it”

I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.

I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have words.

“Four Bookshops,” The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman

After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years and counting as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting a couple weeks ago in our second workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.

Both the formal teaching of reading and writing—notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels—is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher [1].

While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in the former, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often comes off as a heated debate instead of a productive conversation.

I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared to teach a very narrow version of literary criticism—mostly addressing fiction and poetry, and mostly through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)

During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, no real-world writers do this).

I will not explore this fully here, but we cannot ignore as well how the commodification of education has eroded the authenticity of reading and writing. Textbooks and teaching materials feed the accountability dynamic narrowly but also speak to viewing reading and writing as students and teachers, not as readers and writers.

A Case for Readers and Writers in Formal Schooling

I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, and this adventure in a writer’s-writer offering essay after essay about his love affair with books, writers, libraries, and genre is both a pure joy for me as reader and writer as well as yet another journey into trying to understand better the teaching of reading and writing.

Gaiman is an incredibly successful writer who cannot resist constantly reminding his readers how his life as a writer grew from his love affair with books and writers, how bookstores and libraries were his sanctuaries.

His is also a testament to the power of a wide variety of genres and media in the life of avid readers and writers.

“The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” and “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” are powerful essays about the importance of teaching literacy as readers and writers (and thus at least tempering teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers) but also about how literacy is a journey, not something to be acquired or mastered.

To focus on the second essay noted above, Gaiman shares a story of his telling a joke to a fellow eight-year-old, a joke including the word “fuck”; the controversy that followed, including the friend’s parents removing that child from the private school, taught Gaiman “two very important lessons”:

The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.

And the second is that words have power.

This essay on children’s literature is also about children, as Gaiman explains:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.

And then, Gaiman confronts formal schooling—reinforcing something I have found to be a pattern among some of the most well regarded writers (I have written and edited a number of books on writers, focusing often on Kurt Vonnegut):

For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….

My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was—C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers. [1]

And here is where I believe the tension I noted earlier comes into play.

Again, I am not arguing here that teaching literacy as a reader/writer is necessarily better than teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher, but I am extremely concerned that the latter dominates formal schooling to an extreme that is harmful to both literacy and basic human dignity and agency.

Gaiman’s essays, however, shout to those of us who teach literacy that formal schooling and teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers stood between Gaiman and works such as his wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that Gaiman has become a gifted and treasured writer in spite of his formal education (like Louise DeSalvo, Gaiman honors the coincidental lessons of libraries and bookstores).

I am fairly certain now that lumping all sorts of literacy instruction into a course called “English” is a really bad idea—teaching literary analysis is often at odds with fostering a love of reading, but being a teacher of reading and/or literature is simply not the same thing as teaching writing.

So much of my antagonism about how we teach literacy isn’t at us teachers so much as at the system itself—how formal schooling too often is rightly analogized as prison, how many of us have excelled in many ways in spite of our education.

As a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores; as a writer who views nearly every moment of this life through writer’s eyes; as someone who, like Gaiman, remains moment by moment aware of the “powerlessness” and “helplessness” of being a child or teen, of being a student—I make the case often that the teaching of literacy—reading and writing—needs less school- and test-only versions of reading and writing, but much more authentic reading and writing.

At the end of his contemplation on what makes a book for children (or adults), Gaiman returns to a point he makes early in the talk: “But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions”

And it is here that I think we have a better way for formal schooling—the pursuit of questions with the joy and wonder of a child.

And I’ll thus end with a question: What value is there in rules, tests, templates, and requirements if in the end our classrooms have resulted in children seeking ways to escape “the pointlessness of so much of it”?


[1] Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is reduced to tests, templates, and narrow views of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.

[2] On Science Fiction, C.S. Lewis:

They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.

In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).

Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.

Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.

Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.

Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.

All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.

During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”

Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.

As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.

But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.

And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.

So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.

From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.

The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”

In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.

So what does all this mean?

Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.

Two of the best examples of this skills plague are the obsession with prescriptive/isolated grammar instruction and the Queen Mother of literacy scams, the “word gap.”

The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]

Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.

Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.

Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.

Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.

First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.

As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.

But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.

Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.

And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.

We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.

Let me end with my graduate course.

For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.

I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.

I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.

I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”

I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.

I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.


See Also

Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

It’s finally time to stop correcting people’s grammar, linguist says

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Oliver Kamm