Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.



My Journey with the Essay

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

I am a writer.

I am a teacher—often and maybe essentially a teacher of writing.

Through no real singular decision, I have become mostly a writer of essays and a poet, and concurrently, when I teach writing, almost exclusively a teacher of essays.

In May of 2018, I submitted a manuscript of a book on teaching writing. Recently, I have been compulsively checking the publisher’s web site because that book has been listed as “in press” for several weeks now.

Today, I checked and saw “published”—somewhat symbolically, I suppose, about a nine-month journey to its born-on date.

Those intervening months mean, as I argue in this collection of essays drawn from several years of blogging about teaching writing, that today I am a different writer and teacher of writing than when that manuscript was compiled and submitted.

Writing and teaching writing as journey, not destination, remains a powerful metaphor that grounds me because both avocations spark powerful and nearly debilitating anxiety in me.

As a regular blogger, I have become more and more skeptical of and terrified by the fixity of published works, especially books.

I like hyperlinks and being my own editor and publisher (although I often fumble these roles quite badly); I feel as if the blog posts are more living documents (I can and do copyedit them whenever I find mistakes or am prompted by a kind reader). And I have some concrete recognition of readers, a readership quantified and displayed daily for me by WordPress.

Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love a book.


Frost’s ode to a wall, I think, captures a similar ambiguity about books, especially for those of us enamored by them and for those who spend their lives critiquing and even criticizing them.

For the past nine months, I have been wading deeply into books about teaching writing—the production of my own book of essays and then reading and reviewing two published volumes by John Warner, Why They Can’t Write and  The Writer’s Practice.

This wading and mulling, nearly constantly thinking and rethinking, however, are nothing new because I exist in a permanent state of feeling compelled to write and teach writing along with being terrified I have no idea how to write or teach writing.

At the center of my compulsions and insecurities lies the essay.

Poets Write Beautiful Essays: On “Coyote” by Chloe Garcia Roberts

Like Warner, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I struggle with how to provide students some structure and guidelines for writing, and specifically writing essays, without reducing their task to templates, prescriptions, and rules that prove often to be false.

This morning as I saw that my book is now published, I read Chloe Garcia Roberts’s “Coyote,” and searched her book title, discovering that she is a poet.

And as I teach my students, I tend to read as a writer.

The essay “Coyote” opens with narrative, immediately engaging the reader with character, plot, and setting. While the first paragraph reads nothing like the introduction/thesis often prescribed to students, it does end by focusing the reader: “But actually what was happening here when the coyote was being seen as a dog was not passing, it was shifting.”

Soon, we realizing that Roberts is exploring ideas and words, “passing,” “shifting,” among others. But this isn’t some simplistic “definition essay” that may be assigned to high school students.

This essay by a poet is a testament to the power of mode—narration, description, exposition, persuasion—and a model of craft; Roberts offers historical references and literary allusions, and she breaks the narrator/reader wall.

What becomes compelling to me, however, is her diction, this essay as tour de force of seeking not a good word, but the right word, pushing me to google some along the way: liminal, thaumatrope, oscillation, crepuscular, rife.

The voice of the essayist, the poet-as-essayist, speaks through science, through history, through literature; layers here, I think, at the core of the essay speak about being an essayist like a coyote:

The ferryman is never the hero. He is always heartless. If your family cannot pay, you cannot pass. Reviled by both sides, his only purpose, his only function, is to change people from one side to the other. In Western myths, the ferryman sometimes rows alone and sometimes is accompanied by Hermes the trickster, the guider of souls. In American mythology, Coyóte plays all the roles. He is not a note in a larger spiritual pantheon but a full revolution of unraveling and creation, of journey and return.

The essay itself is a journey, and the essayist, then, is the ferryman.

“Coyote” is beautiful, and it meets the broad characteristics I often share with students: essays start somehow, develop some focus briefly and somehow, and then ends somehow—hopefully always compelling.

Now, with my teaching writing book published, I have come yet again to something new, something that will not be in that book about the essay itself as a journey, captured with poetic shape in the last paragraph of “Coyote,” again nothing like a traditional conclusion guided by the worst writing advice ever (restate the introduction in different words):

In English, a siren song is another way to say an alluring deception, a seductive lie. But I ask you: how can a song be deceptive if it is a matter of life or death that it be sung? If our very existence depends on it being sung? And in case you cannot see it, I should inform you I am singing right now.

Roberts ends with questions and her own alluring image of essayist singing, embracing the complexities she has drawn for us and drawn us into.

I, a fellow essayist and poet on a much less successful level, am further ferried along in my journey as writer and writing teacher, awaiting my copies of a book of essays, themselves fixed but just markers in my rearview mirror as I continue on my way.


Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice”

One of the most valuable habits I have cultivated as a teacher for 35-plus years is listening to my students in the spaces before and after class time. This is a kind of professional eavesdropping not intended to pry on my students personally but to hear who they are as students when they are relaxed and speaking with each other (not under the teacher’s gaze).

Before class during the start of this semester, I saw one of my students diligently reading and then talking with other students near her. She was reading “They Say/ I Say” for her first-year writing (FYW) seminar.

When I asked her about the text and the course, a floodgate opened; she and other students in the class truly dislike the text and the course using it.

Since I teach two sections of FYW each fall, and held a small administrative role for a few years over our retooled first-year seminar program, I often ask students to talk to me about their FYW experiences. Too often, I continue to hear that our students are in seminars that put writing instruction secondary, although writing is the primary purpose of the courses.

First-year writing for many students remains drudgery, repeating the experiences they have had in high school and throughout their K-12 courses.

As a teacher of writing, first at the secondary level for 18 years before teaching college writing currently, I have fought a long and discouraging battle against template approaches to writing instruction (typified by “They Say/I Say”), the five-paragraph essay, and rubrics.

Seeking authentic practices and teaching writing as a writer have been my guiding principles, but too often, that journey has been over rocky terrain and decidedly uphill. Writing prompts, templates, and rubrics are powerful and often necessary tools for teachers of writing with little or no experiences as writers, and these artificial tools also facilitate some of the most entrenched, and worst, practices in traditional schools—grades, testing, and accountability.

Fortunately, I have discovered an important and engaging (mostly virtual) colleague in the pursuit of effective and authentic writing instruction—writer, public intellectual, and teacher John Warner.

Quickly in the wake of his excellent Why They Can’t Write (see my review here), Warner now offers The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

In the former volume, Warner takes solid aim at the five-paragraph essay and this work appeals primarily to teachers of writing, I think. His Practice serves more as an authoritative guide for anyone who wants to be or grow as a writer.

While I think the title offers an excellent focus for the book and how to become a writer, or better writer, “practice,” Warner’s opening framing is also extremely important: “In this book, rather than ‘assignments’ or ‘essays,’ I want us to consider what we’re doing in terms of ‘experiences.'”

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the annual convention of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE). Throughout the sessions, keynotes, and conversations among teachers, I witnessed why Warner’s newest book is so valuable.

Many who teach literacy struggle with the tension between being authoritarian and being authoritative—a foundational teaching decision emphasized in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Writing and writing instruction driven by prompts, templates, and rubrics are authoritarian, thus simultaneously inauthentic and effective for control. Writing and writing instruction driven by structure (negotiated between teachers and students) and committed to providing students with many varied opportunities to make and practice the decisions writers make are authoritative, thus authentic but prone to uncertainty and unpredictability.

The authoritative teacher must have expertise and the ability to teach on the fly, regardless of the lesson plan.

Formal schooling tends toward the former because of the perceived need for control. However, writing is a complex behavior, and teaching writing often requires a teacher who is also a writer, who can guide novice writers through practiced experiences.

Practice, then, Warner explains, offers an authoritative text:

The goal is to provide a non-prescriptive alternative to a text like They Say/I Say while still honoring the kind of critical thinking we’re supposed to value in academia. I want that thinking to be fun, and engaging, and empowering, rather than intimidating, or something performed by rote to please a disembodied authority like a teacher, or worse, a faceless, unknowable “assessor.”

As I listened and discussed with friends and others at SCCTE, I once again recognized how many of us have failed writing instruction, allowed writing workshop and student choice to flounder because these practices have been confused with class time and student assignments devolving into unstructured and unguided license.

Writing workshop and student choice, however, are not about allowing students (who have little experience or expertise as writers) to do anything they please, but about an expert teacher providing purposeful structures within which students as novices can practice, revise, and grow as writers against their rich reading lives.

And thus, Warner’s Practice, which offers excellent opportunities for writers and teachers of writing to experiment with his framing in search of the practice that works best for them.

The volumes sections—skills drills, analytical writing, research and argument, other writing experiences (including a broad range from jokes to thinking about sentences)—are ideal for K-12 and post-secondary writing instruction that is primarily aimed at all students (not just those who want to be writers) and seeks a variety of essay writing grounded in the academic disciplines (more so than writing fiction and poetry).

Finally, a real gift of this volume is the Appendix where Warner offers some possible weekly structures for using this as a text in first-year writing.

As I did with Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommend Practice, especially for those who teach writing. It is a needed and compelling argument that writing requires structure and practice, but too often is muted by prompts, templates, and rubrics that serve an authoritarian goal but not the needs of students who could be writers.

Coming Soon (Shameless Plug Edition)

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP), P.L. Thomas

“Despite the Data”: Higher Education Fails Equity, Inclusion with SETs

Entering higher education in my early 40s after 18 successful years as a high school English teacher, I remain 17 years later baffled and even disappointed at the mess of contradictions that characterizes an institution populated by the most educated people possible.

Immediately I had to hold my tongue against the pervasive culture of college professors bemoaning constantly how busy they are. When my high school teaching career ended, I was wearing a wrist brace because I was hand marking about 4000 essays and 6000 journals per year while teaching five course and about 100 students (many colleagues taught 20+ more students per year).

I also coached many of those years, with work days from about 7:30 AM until 10 or 11 PM in the evening.

By contrast, I teach two first-year writing courses each fall (as part of my full load, a minimum of five course per academic year), a total of 24 students, and my teaching schedule tends to be three days a week, often a Monday evening class included.

The Ivory Tower effect is a bit more accurate than I would prefer.

More disturbing, however, is the power of tradition among academics, a dynamic that works against practices and policies being based on evidence (and thus in a state of flux when that evidence changes).

While the U.S. has a long history of characterizing and even demonizing higher education as some sort of liberal cult, the truth is that the very worst qualities of higher education are from its conservative urges as institutions.

Of course, you can find a disproportionate number of professors who have left-leaning social and philosophical ideologies, but the most powerful department/colleges in higher education are often the most conservative—political science, economics—or the most apt to take non-political poses—the hard sciences.

This disconnect between how higher education is perceived and how higher education exists stems from, in part, I think, higher education presenting itself rhetorically as progressive—mission statements, social justice initiatives, etc.

However, with a little unpacking, we can expose that practices and policies often contradict and even work against that rhetoric and those initiatives.

One example that I have addressed again and again is the use of student evaluations of teaching (SET) to drive significantly the promotion, tenure, and reward process.

Consider a few points raised in Colleges Are Getting Smarter About Student Evaluations. Here’s How by Kristen Doerer:

“Having a female instructor is correlated with higher student achievement,” Wu said, but female instructors received systematically lower course evaluations. In looking at prerequisite courses, the two researchers found a negative correlation between students’ evaluations and learning. “If you took the prerequisite class from a professor with high student teaching evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “you were likely, everything else equal, to do worse in the second class.”

The team found numerous studies with similar findings. “It replicates what many, many other people found,” said Harbaugh. “But to see it at my own university, I sort of felt like I had to do something about it.”…

Studies since the 1980s have found gender bias in student evaluations and, since the early 2000s, have found racial bias as well. A 2016 study of data from the United States and France found that students’ teaching evaluations “measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” and that more-effective instructors got lower ratings than others did….

Despite the data, at many colleges, particularly research-based institutions, student evaluations are still the main measure, if not the only one, of teaching effectiveness in promotion-and-tenure decisions.

Common among universities and colleges across the U.S., diversity and inclusion are pervasive problems. Poor students and students of color are underrepresented in many colleges, especially the so-called elite institutions; women and people of color are equally underrepresented on faculties.

Nothing rings more true or frustrating than Doerer’s use of “despite the data.”

I have rejected SETs directly in my bi-annual self-evaluation for merit raises. I have consistently advocated the administration and our faculty status committee to end or greatly reduce the influence of SETs.

In all of the situations, I have repeatedly shared the research, the data:

And without fail, those with power, who tend to be white men, offer a tepid acknowledgement of the research followed by a quick “But we have to do something.” Doerer includes a response (from a white man) that sounds all too familiar:

Ken Ryalls, president of the IDEA Center, a nonprofit higher-education consulting organization, recognizes the bias but thinks doing away with evaluations isn’t the answer. He opposes efforts to eliminate the voice of students. “It seems ludicrous,” he said, “to have the hubris to think that students sitting in the classroom have nothing to tell us.”

“The argument that you should get rid of student evaluations because there is bias inherently is a bit silly,” he said. “Because basically every human endeavor has bias.”

The “yes, but” dynamic works to maintain the inequitable status quo. And as Ryalls’s comment shows, the “yes, but” response is often a distraction.

No one is arguing to remove the voice of students, but as Doerer’s reporting confronts and as the research base shows, student evaluations of teaching are fraught with student biases that corrupt the teacher evaluation process, effectively discouraging women, people of color, and international faculty from remaining in a hostile environment with very real negative career consequences.

For example, calls to end SETs a primary or major instruments for promotion, tenure, and merit pay are often part of a larger examination of how to make student feedback more effective for teaching and learning.

Doerer notes:

That’s in large part why Oregon decided to try a midterm student-experience survey that only the applicable faculty member can view. An instructor can make changes in the middle of a semester, when students can still benefit, encouraging them to give constructive feedback.

For many years, I have asked students for feedback at midterm, and explained that I would like the opportunity to address their concerns, and also to identify what is working well, because receiving complaints after a course really benefits no one.

Further, when student feedback is for the professor only, it becomes a conversation about improving teaching and learning, and as a professor myself, I am best equipped to interpret student comments. I consistently receive feedback intended as negative by students, but will never change them because they misunderstand my role and their roles in the classroom.

Yes, student feedback is valuable, but it likely cannot be simply or easily reduced to numbers, formulas, or even verbatim interpretations of their direct words.

It has taken nearly four decades of high-stakes accountability in K-12 education for people to begin to acknowledge that high-stakes accountability causes far more harm than good.

In higher education, if equity and inclusion are real goals, we can and must seek ways that students have safe and open spaces for providing their professors feedback, we can and must better support faculty in how to interpret that feedback in ways that improve their teaching and student learning, but to reach those goals, we must end the practice of using SETs in significant ways to evaluate faculty.

Higher education must end the tradition of “despite the data,” recognize that rhetoric means less than nothing if contradicted by practices, policies, and a culture of “yes, but.”

How to Avoid the Tyranny of the Lesson Plan: Planning Less to Teach Better

woman holding marker

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

My journey to becoming a certified high school English teacher occurred during the early 1980s. My methods course work was solidly grounded in an era obsessed with behavioral objectives and highly detailed lesson plans.

This approach to preparing to teach centered content acquisition and the authority of the teacher. In many respects, I was trained to teach as if students didn’t even exist in the process.

I immediately entered an M.Ed. program since I graduated in December and would not find a full-time teaching position until the coming fall. Those courses further entrenched mastery learning, although I also had my first glimpse into a much broader array of educational philosophies that included reading John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and others I would eventually recognize as my own critical perspective.

Many years later, after those nearly overwhelming first years of teaching when all that philosophy and theory has to be put into some sort of practice, I was well on my way to being a student-centered and critical teacher when I had a student teacher. She was a very short black woman who taught from a script—every single lesson she taught.

I immediately thought of my initial training to teach as well as this student teacher as I was reading Christine Tulley’s How to Avoid Overprepping for Your Classes.

First, after my 18 years teaching high school, I have been working in teacher education for 17 years while also helping with providing university professors attaining and improving their writing pedagogy. In both cases, I have witnessed what Tulley confronts:

I recently consulted with a Ph.D. student who was logging long nights and weekends in her office. I knew she was trying to revise her dissertation into a book and complete a book proposal, but I soon learned that she was also using the late nights to get ready for class and “keep up” with course planning. With classes and committee work scheduled during the day, she never had time to write.

When I do classroom observations, for example, my teacher candidates feel compelled to perform, believing that “teaching” is about the lesson plan and teacher behavior (again, as if students are not present).

But it is Tulley’s next point that really sparked my memory of my student teacher from many years ago:

I often see this pattern of overpreparing among the early-career faculty members whom I mentor. Many have unwittingly fallen into what Armando Bengochea terms “the teaching trap.” Bengochea notes that such overprepping is a real problem for faculty members who suffer from impostor syndrome or use course preparation as a procrastination strategy because it sounds legitimate. They often engage in extensive lecture preparation, working to fill all available class time as a protection mechanism. The result is they have to do a time-consuming deep dive into content each week to develop lengthy lecture slides or handouts. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of faculty of color, non-native speakers, women and other marginalized populations prepare too much for the classes they teach.

Even though I now work at a selective university with students often benefitting from a great deal of privilege, my teacher candidates are often young women, several of whom struggle against being small in stature or “looking young.”

Tulley has prodded me to understand better why I have struggled for years to help my teacher candidates understand, and practice, a key distinction I make about teaching: Teaching is not about meticulous and detailed lesson plans but about being prepared every day you enter a classroom.

In some significant ways, I am here once again addressing that teachers need both pedagogy and expertise. The urge to hyper-plan—my student teacher who scripted every lesson—is often a self-defense mechanism, but it is one that is counter to our goals as educators.

I want here to examine briefly how to avoid the tyranny of lesson plans while also building on and pushing against Tulley’s alternative to “overprepping”:

Pattern teaching is a solution I regularly offer to faculty members who seek parameters on preparing for courses efficiently and effectively. The premise is simple and not revolutionary: develop a regular pattern or structure to the class. Often instructors create such a pattern (the first 15 minutes are used to review homework, group work is always done on Wednesdays and so on) for their students’ benefit. But pattern teaching can also influence how content is delivered, making it a useful strategy for streamline course preparation.

One nuance I would offer to Tulley’s ideas is that teachers should distinguish between planning (what we should decrease) and being prepared (an ongoing state of gaining both more effective pedagogy and greater expertise).

While I am not opposed to “pattern teaching,” I have adopted a different language cultivated in my years teaching for the Spartanburg Writing Project. We used the metaphor of writing teachers building and expanding their “teaching toolbox.”

That toolbox would be available so that daily teaching did not need to be scripted or meticulously planned. Teaching in a frame structure (for example, the writing or reading workshop guided by elements similar to Tulley’s patterns) allowed the teacher to pick and choose among the tools to apply as needed in the flow, spontaneously, of teaching.

Finally, here let me offer a few different ways of thinking about being prepared to teach daily instead of planning:

  • Create a syllabus/daily schedule and each lesson plan as tentative frames, not “that which you must execute.” The key here is that when any teacher spends an inordinate amount of time planning schedules and lesson plans, they feel compelled to follow through on that plan regardless of how it works, or doesn’t, in practice. Syllabi, daily schedules, and daily lesson plans should provide some organization and structure, but they are not exhaustive or fixed.
  • Rethink what counts as preparing to teach. Preparing to teach includes a teacher’s time spent being a student themselves, reading, researching, thinking, discussing with other teachers, etc. While Tulley recognizes many young professors lament so much time planning as a distraction from doing scholarship, I would argue all teachers at every level are preparing to teach by being scholarly; the two must not be in conflict, in other words.
  • Consider first and foremost what students will be doing in daily lesson plans. As I have noted above, too often teaching and planning to teach remain focused on teacher behaviors. The key, I think, to avoiding the tyranny of the lesson plan is to recognize that the essence of learning is student behavior, students being actively engaged in behaviors the teacher fosters and negotiates, but does not orchestrate.
  • Seek ways to build self-confidence by always being a student of how to teach and the content of courses being taught. Teaching is a state of constant learning and growing. That process occurs outside the classroom, but also in the classroom every day. Our teaching goal is to become adept at improv, not playing a role.
  • Resist the allure of being a martyr. Teaching has an unhealthy culture that includes who can make the best case about their martyrdom—lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or posting on Facebook about hours and hours spent planning and grading. There is clearly something compelling about this, but I believe it is ultimately not personally or professionally healthy.

I certainly understand why beginning teachers at all levels are drawn to over-planning, even scripting daily lessons. But I also recognize that this urge has more to do with matters not related to teaching and learning.

The lesson plan outlined down to the exact minute and governed by the teacher may leave no space for problems or look effective and efficient to anyone watching the play work out. What is sacrificed, I am certain, is student engagement and that teacher’s emotional reserves. This is not sustainable.

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty.

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

English educator Lou LaBrant taught in a wide variety of contexts for 65 years while also producing a significant body of scholarship from the 1920s into the late 1980s. Her career was nearly as prodigious as her attitude.

Writing in 1931, for example, LaBrant announces: “The cause for my wrath is not new or single” (p. 245). Her “wrath” was pointedly aimed at the rise of the project method in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Projects, LaBrant noticed, began to dwarf, and even replace, time students spent on authentic literacy—students reading and writing by choice, the practices LaBrant advocated for over decades as “scientific.”

As I write this 9 decades later, project based learning (PBL) is, once again, all the rage. And from my perspective, similar to LaBrant’s, I watch as teachers and students are put in impossible teaching/learning situations all in the service of “doing PBL.”

While PBL flourishes in my home state of South Carolina, I also have witnessed throughout the past four decades a mind-numbing parade of new standards, new high-stakes tests, and new regulations and processes for certifying and evaluating teachers.

Formal teacher education and K-12 education suffer from the same problem LaBrant wrestled with her entire career—the misapplication of scientific principles in the pursuit of codifying “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

The current teacher evaluation rubric (with over 400 indicators) SC teacher educators and evaluators must navigate is disturbing proof that we have chosen The Hulk (the monster misguided science produces) over Bruce Banner (the measured scientist) in our unbridled lust to control how teachers teach and how students learn.

The Incredible Hulk showed the transformation of scientist Bruce Banner into the green monster.
The Incredible Hulk 1 (vol. 1) offers a powerful contrast between the scientist and the potential monster science can produce.

LaBrant resonates with me because I have existed in the field of education for almost 40 years now in a constant state of “wrath” because of one of the most disturbing dichotomies that define the field—the disconnect between pedagogy and expertise.

This disconnect, or false tension, is best reflected in the on-going discussions about teaching writing. To teach writing well, many of us argue, teachers must have some authentic experience and expertise in writing themselves; without that expertise, all the pedagogy one can attain is ultimately inadequate.

Expertise grounds teaching, I think, in authentic goals, also essential for any pedagogy or program to be effective.

For example, best practices in writing instruction, a well-planned and implemented workshop model, is for naught if teachers are mandating students produce five-paragraph essays that are driven by a prompt and rubric mandated by the teacher.

Now here is the problem: A seasoned and active professional writer would fair little better if tossed into a teaching situation with no experience or expertise in evidence-based pedagogy.

This false dichotomy is well represented by the contrast between K-12 teaching and higher education. K-12 is dominated by the belief that anyone can teach anything if equipped with pedagogy, programs, and accountability (see The Hulk rubric now governing teaching in SC I have confronted in the link above); higher education embraces a laissez-faire norm that anyone can teach when equipped with expertise.

My second career as a teacher educator has proven to me what I long suspected as a high school English teacher for 18 years: There are profound limits to our urge for discovering and prescribing “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

I have railed against this often, but I call this our technocratic urge, a perverse and dangerous form of “scientific” (again, The Hulk, not Bruce Banner).

During the early decades of LaBrant’s career, there was a relatively balanced tension among educational philosophies and theories that included at least two factions using the term “scientific” in dramatically different ways.

John Dewey’s progressivism, which LaBrant practiced, argued for an amorphous, classroom-based approach to what today we would call action research (each teacher is a researcher-in-practice with every different class of students). The goal here recognized that students and learning are fluid and relative.

To teach, Dewey tried to advocate, is to experiment, perpetually. What works for one student today may not work for another on that same day, in that same lesson. And what works in a lesson or unit this year may inform a future lesson or unit, but it certainly can never be reduced to a template for future teaching.

Dewey’s scientific lost, however, to the efficiency educators who sought a different type of “scientific”—one that identified a fixed prescription for what “good” teaching must look like and what “student achievement” must conform to.

Today as a teacher educator in SC, I am supposed to learn The Hulk rubric and then I am supposedly equipped to visit any teachers classroom, regardless of grade level or content, and be able to make a credible assessment if the teacher is effective or not.

This cult of pedagogy, I think, has only one compelling quality, efficiency. This is the same problem with education’s pursuit of “the” program, such as PBL. Design a program, detail the parameters of what make the program “work,” and then anyone can observe to simply verify if the program is being met.

Having taught now about an equal time—almost two decades each—as a K-12 teacher and a college professor, I am far more disturbed by the cult of pedagogy in K-12 than the laissez-faire, and even dismissive, attitude about pedagogy in higher ed.

A colleague in economics once confessed to me that he held conservative ideologies in economics and liberal social beliefs. As a result, he had decided to function mostly as a Democrat because, he believed, it was easier to teach Democrats better economics than to make Republican “give a damn” about human suffering.

I find this fits the false dichotomy I have examined here. I worry that we have two problems in teaching and learning—fostering expertise in “generalist” teachers (K-12) and fostering a greater understanding of and respect for pedagogy in experts (higher education). I suspect the latter is easier.

LaBrant ended her unpacking of the project method with a key element of how “scientific” can work in education. Science at its best requires that we define problems, generate evidence, and then conform the solutions to the problems.

The project method, LaBrant noted, was missing an obvious solution as educators lamented students either not reading or lacking reading ability:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

Our rubrics and programs are the wrong goals, the wrong solutions, even as we occasionally recognize the problems of needing “good” teachers in order to increase student achievement.

Neither pedagogy nor expertise is itself the solution, but a complex understand of how both of these work together helps us seek the best possible pursuit of science and avoid the monster we currently embrace.

A Modest Proposal: Teaching without Students

This is not satire. Not even the sort of satire that opens with that disclaimer. But I would say this is a counterintuitive take on what it means to be a student from the perspective of a teacher.

I am considering here some of my lessons learned at the end of a semester. This fall schedule included an overload and variety of courses.

I also have been thinking about a couple of recent articles: Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had as a response to Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students.

In my young adult literature course, undergraduate and graduate students had to develop a resource unit grounded in young adult literature. They also needed to link that unit to either of the two elective texts for the course (one on critical media literacy or one on women in pop culture/comic books).

That resource unit assignment asked students to submit a proposal for the unit as the midterm exam. Of course, the purpose of the proposal is for students to have a plan by midterm and then to develop the unit over the rest of the course.

Here is the problem: Several students remained trapped in behaving as students (and not as teachers/scholars preparing a teaching unit). They viewed the proposal as an assignment instead of a proposal.

In other words, students kept asking to revise the proposal or have fretted about changing the unit as they worked. Instead of focusing on creating a powerful unit, they have felt compelled to remain true to the original proposal.

Student behaviors that are driving these problems include fulfilling assignments versus engaging with authentic behaviors and artifacts. These student behaviors lack an appreciation of discovery, and students seem unable to draft any product and to allow the process to evolve so that the final product is both high-quality and appropriate for their goals.

What students have learned for many years limits those students struggling with the proposal. For example, they have had to submit introductions and thesis statements for essays before drafting and then feel compelled to fulfill those regardless of what develops during the drafting.

Student behaviors and seeing their work as assignments also strip students of autonomy and agency. They fail to see their own role in the work because they are focusing on meeting requirements.

Across all my course, as well, students submit essays with drafting mandatory. While I have long struggled with fostering authentic drafting with students for many reasons, I encountered this semester a high rate of good students being stuck themselves in correcting based on my feedback. These students have resubmitted work too quickly, and seem unable (or unwilling) to behave with autonomy in revising and editing beyond my feedback (copyediting and highlighting).

In these situations, I am doing most of the work writers do. I resist this dynamic (while trying to avoid muting these students’ genuine interest in doing well) by highlighting areas of the drafts that target what we have covered in class and what I have addressed in my feedback.

Some students have resubmitted drafts without addressing areas highlighted, noting they didn’t do anything because they weren’t sure what to do. Another student response has been that students delete anything I have highlighted instead of revising or editing. One student deleted several excellent quotes although I had highlighted because she had formatted the quotes incorrectly.

Students not using technology as a tool contributes to the ineffectiveness of students drafting guided by my feedback (both on their essays and in conferences). Baffling to me, students submit drafts with Word Spelling and Grammar notifications (jagged underlining) enabled and ignored. Even more concerning, many students resubmit essays with elements as they were before I copyedited their drafts.

During a conference, I discovered that many students open my copyedited file beside their original file, working back and forth on two files instead of using my copyedited file. I should note that I tell them at the beginning of the course to learn how to save my returned files, rename those files for their next drafts, and then to interact with my highlighting and copyediting (using the Review features of Word).

Across these experiences with students this semester, I have seen even more evidence of my career-long fear that student behaviors are counter to rich and engaged learning, growth, and authentic creation. The young people I teach are too often paralyzed by student behaviors that mute their ability to engage with authentic work with agency and autonomy.

To be the best teacher I can be, then, means teaching without students.

For this to happen, I must find ways to deprogram students, to help them replace student behaviors with authentic behaviors. My goal is to create mentor/apprentice dynamics. I also recognize that introducing students to new ways of being in formal education can inhibit learning (my experiences with a de-grading and de-testing classroom).

My call for teaching without students is not satire, but a pretty high bar for any of us, teachers or students.

As a teacher always learning I am encouraged that there will be next semester, more students who I will urge to be different than the students they have been before.

Side Note

I revised this post using the Hemingway Editor.