“We Teach English” Revisited

At times quaint and oddly misguided but unflinchingly confrontational and assertive—the signature tone of her work—Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English (1951) was a rare book-length text over her 65 years as an educator.

While this text for teachers of ELA/English never garnered the status of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (LaBrant and Rosenblatt were colleagues at NYU), both works represent a long history of trying to coral the field of ELA/English teaching.

A recent conversation and debate on NCTE’s Connected Community about teaching whole-class, assigned novels has reminded me of the enduring tensions of what it means to teach ELA/English—tensions that span K-12 grade levels as well as being grounded in responsibilities to student needs and interests, the field or discipline of English, and literacy broadly.

Historically and then magnified during the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, ELA/English has shared with math demands and expectations that are not as pronounced in other disciplines; despite the limitations and problems with the terms, I characterize those demands as addressing disciplinary knowledge (or content) and literacy skills.

Our disciplinary knowledge obligations rest with the compulsion to cover established content, such as identifying the parts of speech, analyzing the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, or explaining the key ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as American Transcendentalism.

Literacy skills comprise reading, writing, speaking, and listening—how we as humans navigate the world through literacy. Some see these skills as a different way to think about content, skills such as comprehension, predicting, narration, and persuasion.

At best, these obligations can and possibly should work in tandem. When we teach a poem, Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” for example, we are introducing students to key content about American literature and the Harlem Renaissance while also teaching them about the elements poetry, reading skills (such as analysis), and reading like a writer so they can transfer those rhetorical and literary strategies into their own writing.

Let me pause here to stress that at all levels from K-12, this is a damn high bar for any teacher. It takes a great deal of time and expertise to learn to manage all that effectively.

At worst, these obligations become professional and disciplinary battles—ones waged among practitioners often at the expense of students we should be serving.

We must teach phonics, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to read?

We must teach grammar, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to write?

Everyone must read The Great Gatsby, but what if that requirement creates nonreaders?

When we form ideological camps about disciplinary knowledge or literacy, we often fail both our field of ELA/English and students.

We teach English means something extremely complex and difficult, something that in fact may be too much to expect of any teacher.

But this is what we do, this is who we are.

If we return to the debate and discussion about teaching whole-class novels, we are revisiting an enduring debate that captures exactly what teaching English means.

To resolve that debate, I believe, we must remain focused on our students, and not on whether or not we address either area of demands in our field.

It is not a simple way to resolve the questions, but it is rather simple: When we attend to either disciplinary knowledge (and we should) or literacy skills (and we must), what are the consequences of those lessons in the evidence of learning by our students?

If we require our students to read Charles Dickens, and many do not read because they dislike the work, and many begin or continue the journey to being a nonreader, then we have failed dramatically any obligations as teachers of ELA/English.

If a whole-class unit on Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games becomes a vibrant adventure in the novel and literacy, and most if not all read the novel, if several become hooked on literature, then we have accomplished everything that can be expected of teaching ELA/English.

In terms of both student reading and writing, there are decades of evidence that show how student choice in what they read and write is most effective in both fostering disciplinary knowledge (because they actually read and write) and literacy skills as well as literacy engagement (because they become eager to read and write).

But we as teachers of ELA/English are confronted with the essential problem beneath the call for student choice: students must have acquired some disciplinary and skills knowledge and proficiencies in order to make those choices.

If we can keep a critical eye on the outcomes of the instructional decisions we make—if we can resist dogged commitments to ideologies—then we can make informed choices about what best serves our students in terms of both what disciplinary knowledge they acquire and whether or not they develop as proficient and eager readers and writers.

Staying big picture is important—always asking what we are trying to accomplish with students and then paying close attention to what our students show us we are teaching.

In 2004, Donald Graves looked over his career seeking ways to teach students writing; he offered some enduring ideas about “what remains the same”:

The following fundamentals have remained unchanged in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  1. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  1. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  1. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  1. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way, the children witness their teacher’s thinking
  2. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation. (Language Arts, Vol. 82 No. 2, November 2004)

In the same way as the debate over whole-class novel instruction, if we view Graves’s fundamentals as strict rules and teach to these rules—instead of to how we are fostering students as writers—we become lost, and we likely fail.

So, yes, students choosing what they read, especially something as daunting as a novel, is a fundamental, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the possibility of whole-class novels.

To answer any instructional questions, then, as a teacher of ELA/English is in our students, not our obligations to disciplinary knowledge or literacy skills—and especially not in covering the mandated standards or preparing students for high-stakes tests.

The questions are worthy of discussion and debate among teachers of ELA/English, but ultimately we must each answer them with each unique group of students we teach.

When faced with the debates and questions about teaching ELA/English, LaBrant could be harsh and demanding—often seeming to teeter on the edge of, if not crossing over into, prescription. However, what LaBrant was demanding about in terms of “we teach English” is not that we follow her rules, or any rules, but that we remain committed to our students and their journeys in both literature and literacy.

During war, in 1942, LaBrant became frustrated with national concerns about literacy:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem.

Sound familiar?

LaBrant argued against what became a recurring political and public hand wringing about a reading crisis:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more.

Here and for over six decades, LaBrant was a champion of the we who teach English but in the name of those students we teach, especially the most vulnerable students.

To that end, when we teach English, we teach students.

And there is where our commitments must lie.

Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

As a first-year English teacher, I joined the department of the high school where I had graduated only five years earlier, becoming a colleague with teachers who had taught me. That introduction to the field allowed me behind the curtain, and one of those secrets was being handed a sheet that detailed every grammar and mechanics error students were likely to make in their writing and the amount of points to be deducted from their grade (writing was assigned the traditional content/grammar grade then).

One fragment, by the way, was an immediate deduction that resulted in an F in grammar.

This was department policy, and my efforts to navigate that system were akin to Sisyphus, his rock, and that damned mountain.

Since then, well over thirty years ago, I have become a non-grader, but I also have investigated and adopted concepts about grading (since we all at some point must grade) that I believe are incredibly important in the context of seeing grading (and feedback) as a part of instruction—and not something we do to students and their work after we teach.

A  teacher recently asked on NCTE’s Connected Community about subtracting points for grammar in student writing, and this is an ideal entry point to rethink how grading (especially of writing) sends instructional messages to our students.

My first caution is about a serious flaw with traditional grading that is grounded in viewing assessment situations in a deficit model whereby we have students start with an unearned 100 points from which we subtract credit by identifying errors. This fosters an atmosphere of risk aversion—which is not a healthy environment for developing literacy.

Specifically when teaching writing, we must abandon the “error hunt” (see Weaver, et al., and Lois Matz Rosen).

Therefore, we can send a much healthier message about student performances of learning if we acknowledge that students begin all assessment situations with zero and then give them credit for what they accomplish, what the artifact of learning demonstrates—and not where they fail.

I learned this concept of grading through my Advanced Placement training that encourages viewing writing holistically and then reading for what students do, not conducting the “error hunt.”

Conceptually, then, we must change our language and then couch our grading in a drafting process that gives students the space to take risks while receiving ample feedback as they revise and edit their writing.

Our language about writing must stop referring to “mistakes” and “errors,” while also not asking students to “correct” their work.

Instead, we should delay addressing if our students are being conventional (grammar, mechanics, and usage) until late in the drafting process when we can agree a piece of writing is worth editing (see LaBrant). The question is not if and how much to deduct for surface features not being conventional, but when to consider those issues relevant to the drafting of the piece of writing.

Our feedback during the drafting process is our instruction, and then, most of us at some point must abandon each assignment, requiring that we assign a grade, an act that also is teaching students lessons—ones that should match our philosophy of teaching/learning as well as what we want them to embrace about writing and literacy.

Here, I recommend that we take a holistic approach (I love the upper-half, lower-half concepts of the AP 9-point scale rubric*), but I also believe we should help students learn that all aspects of writing contribute to that holistic response.

The two categories we should be using to grade writing, I think, are revision (if and how students demonstrate content, organization, diction, style) and editing (grammar, mechanics, and usage). When I have graded, I weighted those categories to reflect my main lessons about what makes writing effective by using a 20-point scale articulated as 10 points for content and organization, 5 points for diction and style, and 5 points for grammar, mechanics, and usage.

In all assessment, we should be seeking ways in which grading is both philosophically matched with our instruction and a seamless aspect of our instruction.

If you are teaching students writing quality is holistic and that surface features are less significant to meaning than content, organization, and diction/style, then calculating a grade based on deducting points for errors contradicts (and probably supersedes) your lessons.

Therefore, reducing the grading of writing by students to a set of points to be deducted fails as assessment and instruction.

While most teachers have no real option to de-grade the classroom, we can step back from deficit views of student work and grading in order to embrace grading and instructional practices that create positive learning environments (where risk is encouraged) and celebrate what our students accomplish in their journey as readers, writers, and thinkers.


* The process for scoring a written response to an AP Literature prompt includes thinking in terms of a range of scores 9-8, 7-6, 5, 4-3, 2-1. Above 5 is upper half, and below, lower half. As you read, you are constantly monitoring holistically if you believe the essay is upper or lower by focusing on in what ways the student is fulfilling the expectations of the prompt and remaining accurate in the analysis of the literature being discussed. Typically, that process allows the reader to return to the rubric to refine the grade after completing the essay. If you know the response is upper half but only marginally so, then returning to the 7 and 6 rubric descriptors help refine the final score.

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

On the NCTE Connected Community a student teacher asked about teaching students to integrate quotes and evidence into their writing.

Although a direct and specific question, there is a great deal to unpack here.

First, my 18-year career as a high school English teacher as well as my current 15 years as an English educator and first-year writing professor has revealed to me that most teachers of high school ELA have much better preparation for teaching literature than for teaching writing.

Next, my first-year writing students show me the consequences of how writing is taught at the high school level, primarily as the responsibility of ELA teachers.

In order, then, to answer this question from a student teacher, we need to explore writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

Problem 1 embedded in this question is that direct instruction of writing remains primarily the responsibility of English/ELA teachers, who also have disciplinary responsibilities as teachers. This means ELA teachers must address literacy skills (reading and writing as well as speaking and listening) while also covering literature content.

And thus, problem 2 with the question is that it reveals how problem 1 creates muddled teaching and learning for students in high school ELA classes, a failure to distinguish between writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

As a first-year writing professor, I have to unteach the muddled learning that my students bring to college from high school—misconceptions student have about citation (from learning MLA instead of broad and discipline-based concepts about finding and using sources) as well as about writing essays (grounded in disproportionately having written literary analysis and being bound to templates such as the five-paragraph essay).

What, then, should high school ELA teachers do in the context of the student teacher’s question?

Start by being more explicit with students about both the broad qualities of effective writing paired with the narrow conventions of effective writing bound by form and disciplinary expectations.

At the high school and college levels, most writing instruction and assignments are grounded in non-fiction essays, and disciplinary essay writing involves making claims along with providing evidence to support those claims.

Writing assignments, then, at the high school level are far more effective for fostering students as writers and preparing them for college when those assignments are discipline-based, and not merely prompts fitted into templates.

Teaching writing in high school must include a wide range of writing opportunities (not just literary analysis) that help students learn broad concepts of effective writing (such as those in Style). But high school ELA teachers also must continue to teach their discipline—how scholars both read and write about literature.

This means that before we can teach students how to integrate quotes into their writing, we must address in what contexts quotes are appropriate types of evidence.

A writing lesson and assignment addressing disciplinary writing begins by examining the conventions of the disciplines.

When do writers use direct quotes? For students, essays that require quotes to support claims may be common in English and history, for example, when the topic of the essay includes textual analysis of both what the text expresses and how the ideas are constructed in the primary text.

A literary analysis of color imagery in a poem requires a writer to quote from the poem to show both the use of color imagery and how that technique creates some meaning for the reader.

However, in the social sciences, essays often are not about primary texts but about ideas, research findings, and students, like scholars, are tasked with showing that the claims of the essay are supported by a substantial number of sources. Quoting from a single source is not a powerful approach, but synthesizing ideas from several credible sources is.

In both situations, claims are supported by evidence, but the type of essay and the discipline within which the essay is constructed both drive how students would choose evidence and then incorporate that evidence into their original essay.

This sort of discipline-based approach to how we assign and teach writing should inform lessons on citation also; MLA or APA use is a question of discipline, not something assigned (arbitrarily) by a teacher.

Once students are aware of the conventions of essays forms and disciplines, we can then address the narrow concerns of the student teacher—the grammatical and stylistic concerns associated with integrating quotes and other forms of evidence into essays.

In the writing text I wrote and used with my high school students, I highlighted some key concerns about integrating quotes*:

  • When quoting or paraphrasing/synthesizing from sources, writers have an ethical obligation to  represent accurately and fairly the original texts; avoid cherry picking and manipulating quotes/ideas to fit an agenda or claim.
  • Quotes must be integrated while maintaining traditional grammatical and syntactical structures; therefore, using ellipsis, brackets, or other mechanics to shape the quote to match grammatically a sentence is necessary and appropriate if those structures do not change the meaning of the original text.
  • Cut-and-paste quoting—and overuse of block quotes—should be avoided since these are typical of underdeveloped or immature writing.
  • Weaving smaller portions of quoted material into original sentences is typically more effective and reflects a more mature writing style.
  • Using source author/primary text author names with quoted material can be a feature of some disciplinary writing. Care must be taken with those attributions, however. The author of fiction, drama, or poetry may be inappropriate as a tag if a character/speaker is being quoted (Polonius, not Shakespeare, pontificates on brevity and wit); if quoting from a non-fiction essay, then the writer as a tag is appropriate. In the social sciences, the names of the researchers and the titles of the research are typically not addressed in the flow of the essay since the findings of the research are more important than who wrote it.

And with this last point, we come back to how we can better address writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines.

My college students typically have a one-size-fits-all approach to writing (thinking as students but not as writers or scholars) grounded in MLA and literary analysis; therefore, when they write, for example, in an education course using APA, they struggle with announcing every source in the flow of the essay (not typical in the social sciences) and tend to plod through each source one at a time without a sense of synthesizing the key findings in a body of research.

These symptoms reflect a lack of understanding about writing in the disciplines.

Finally, let me end here with a few additional thoughts.

Preservice and inservice teachers of ELA/English deserve much better preparation and support as teachers of writing, and laying all or most of the responsibility for teaching writing at the feet of ELA/English teachers is a tremendous disservice to them and students.

We all must work to address those problems, but in the mean time, teaching writing as a discipline and writing in the disciplines can be handled with much more care and nuance so that students are served well as developing writers and thinkers while also being better prepared for the expectations of college.


* See also Using Source Material Effectively (Temple University)

 

A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

#

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

#

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

#

“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

#

The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.

 

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For Further Reading

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

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

Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner

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

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

You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.