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.


In Brief: Drafting Absent Correctness and Universal Literature

Student Drafting without the Tyranny of Correctness

After I blogged about navigating the trivial in writing instruction, I shared the post with two first-year writing seminars. I then asked them a few questions about several of the claims I had made.

Several of the students quickly confirmed that most of their writing experiences before entering college and my class were driven by concerns about being correct and then efforts to correct their work when given an opportunity to revise.

From that, I asked if their experiences with drafting in my class had been different. Interestingly, in both classes, several students shared that they felt much more free to draft because I do not grade, I give them detailed feedback on their drafts and in conferences, and they know they will be able to address correctness later in the drafting process once they develop a draft worth editing.

The discussion did confirm that many of the students have begun to shift from focusing on the trivial and working more directly on the substantive—engaging and focused openings, specific openings and closings that help frame the essay, and maintaining the focus (thesis) throughout the essay.

I stressed to these students that I was aware we could accomplish only so much in one semester, but I felt over the next few years many would make great strides and attribute some of that to what we have established in these seminars.

On balance I feel confident many of my approaches to teaching writing have fostered healthy attitudes about language and writing in my students.

Rethinking Universal Literature: Unpacking Whiteness and Allegory

In her opening talk at NCTE’s 2018 national convention in Houston, Texas, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared a disturbing story about a white male cab driver quickly saying he would not be interested in her writing. The subtext of his response was that he assumed her work to be for women and blacks, only.

Adichie added that she never discounted white male writers in that way; in fact, she said she loved some dead white men writers.

Combined with a Saturday morning roundtable, Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms, experiences at the conference have begun to help me push against what literature we call “universal,” and how whiteness and maleness tend to hide beneath a cloak of allegory in ways that mask the racial and gendered elements in those works.

In my young adult literature class, we are exploring the film Pleasantville as text and how different media and expanding what counts as text can create diverse literature units.

Pleasantville demonstrates in film many of the characteristics we ask students to examine in print texts; it also expects close reading of technique by the viewer.

But one powerful aspect of the film is its investigation of race by using black-and-white against color and then exploring racism with a white cast (the segregation is between those in black-and-white and those in color):

Using this film can help students interrogate what we use to determine universality in literature, and then to consider if allegory allows whiteness and maleness to be normalized, and thus unacknowledged in ways that blackness and femaleness are not allowed to be unacknowledged or universal.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “Why They Can’t Write”

For my 35 years as an educator, I have taught writing and fought a seemingly fruitless battle against know-nothings who either pontificate about or make policy for education.

If I weren’t already an eager fan of John Warner’s blogging at Inside Higher Ed, I feel sure I would have immediately blown a gasket over his newest book’s title: Why They Can’t Write. Although almost immediately the subtitle would have definitely given me hope: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

I can assure you right off that this is not the sort of drivel the title echoes—Why Johnny Still Can’t Read — And What To Do About It—and instead is a very powerful call for teaching writing well from Warner who is both an accomplished writer and a seasoned writing teacher.

In fact, my strongest recommendation for this book is based on Warner’s expertise across writing and teaching combined with his commitment to remaining himself a student of both. Warner embodies my argument that teaching writing and writing are journeys, not destinations.

The opening, “Our Writing ‘Crisis,'” makes a really important and contrarian argument that, I think, guides the entire book. To the title’s assertion/question, Warner explains: “‘They’re doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do; that’s the problem.'”

As a first-year writing teacher at the college level, Warner has witnessed much of the same dynamics I have experienced over about the same time period; if students struggle with writing in ways that are expected at the college level, much of that disconnect can be seen in those students having been taught what is essentially bad practice—focusing on correctness and correcting, conforming to prompts and templates, having over-simplified concepts of evidence and citation, performing very limited writing capabilities that parallel very weak thinking (linked to the five-paragraph essay that Warner rejects).

An excellent evidence-based companion to Warner’s book, in fact, is Applebee and Langer’s research on the teaching of writing at the middle and high school levels. They detail that while most teachers in all disciplines know more than ever about how to teach writing well (in ways Warner outlines in his book), students write less often and shorter pieces in English as well as their other courses.

The culprit? High-stakes accountability in the form of standards and, most of all, testing.

All teachers who have some responsibilities teaching writing should read this book, but those engaged with first-year writing may be most compelled by Warner’s messages.

Another strong aspect of this work is that Warner’s writing is always engaging while remaining very practical—something practitioners tend to demand.

I think his Part II really shines by highlighting problems: atmosphere (“‘School sucks'”), surveillance, assessment and standardization, education fads, technology hype, folklore, and precarity. Many of these are recurring concerns I have experienced teaching high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as college-level writing since 2002.

Stylistically, Warner has chosen to be conversational, so this volume is not heavily cited with current research on composition. While some may bristle at this choice, I am very comfortable noting that Warner’s critiques and recommendations match well with that research base (again, consider Applebee and Langer, but also Peter Smagorinsky and a long list of K-12 researchers and practitioners advocating writing workshop).

What teachers find in Warner is a confession that writing and teaching writing are damned challenging. But he also offers foundational concepts and practices if our goal is to foster developing writers who think and compose by choice and with purpose.

This is not about test-prep. This is not about inauthentic compliance masquerading as writing.

Being a writer and teaching writing are mostly about problems. Warner recognizes the problems (and if you teach writing, so will you), and the challenges, but also provides some important reassurances that we can teach writing better, probably well, and then, our students? Well, they can write if offered the opportunity.

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction

Most teachers charged with writing instruction at all levels from K-12 through graduate education have far too little time and almost impossible learning conditions in order to teach writing well, much less completely.

After decades of teaching writing, I have far more questions, and goals, than I have answers.

But I do have two guiding principles that I believe help my writing instruction to be more effective, if still lacking: (1) no writing-intensive course is an inoculation (writing and students are not diseased things to be cured), and (2) to invoke Thoreau, it is not any writing teacher’s duty to do everything, but to do something well.

With those in mind, this Twitter exchange provides an excellent entry point to how we should navigate the trivial in our very challenging work teaching writing:

Drezner’s original Tweet and Warner’s reply provide an important tension that all writing teachers face, the tension between the trivial (elements such as format, grammar, mechanics, and usage) and the substantive (expression, credibility of claims and evidence, audience awareness, purposefulness, etc.).

Broadly, this debate sits within the prescriptivist versus descriptivist approaches to language. For teachers of writing, I think we must acknowledge that prescriptivism remains the norm in both formal education and social norms. In other words, many people are prone to see (or hear) “errors” and then to draw some evaluative conclusions from those “errors” regardless of the credibility or effectiveness of the whole text or expression.

Drezner is typical of those who cannot look past the trivial (confusing “it’s” and “its”) in order to recognize the ultimate whole of the text.

Like Warner, I rest in the camp that rejects prescriptivism and seek ways to focus my instruction, and student drafting, on the substance of their writing as well as their journey to being writers and scholars.

But this is no new tension, as Lou LaBrant (1946) expresses, many decades before Warner’s retort: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing.”

With limited time and reduced teaching and learning conditions, teachers of writing must focus on priorities—fostering purposeful, thoughtful, and risk-taking young writers who have an awareness of prescriptivism and the consequences of so-called “errors” in their writing.

As a first-year writing teacher, I can attest that most of my students enter my writing-intensive classes mostly viewing their work as students to be about correctness and then when prompted to revise or rewrite, to be about correcting.

Their priorities learned in formal schooling about writing are the inverse of LaBrant’s mantra above; students believe correctness trumps content because they have often submitted “irresponsible, unimportant writing,” driven by the teacher’s prompts, and received high grades simply for having conventional surface features.

One example of how I try to navigate the trivial in writing instruction is the current debates about “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I offer students a mini-lesson on how language changes, a short overview of the history of the English language with some examples (grain/corn, the demonizing of “ain’t” and the tortured construction “Aren’t I?” that grew out of that), and then I introduce them to the “they” debate.

We examine pronoun/antecedent agreement and concerns about sexist language (the use of “he” as gender neutral, for example) before I detail for them that they are living in a time of language flux; many formal publications and organizations now have standardized “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun (see especially NCTE).

However, I also address with them that many people remain trapped in the fading prescriptive view of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I caution students that they may (likely will) encounter professors and others who will, as Drezner’s Tweet in the opening shows, make conscious or unconscious decisions about their credibility as writers based on the developing convention of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I often follow this with a discussion of my own experiences as a student in the 1970s and 1980s that included drills and workbook exercises on “shall” and “will”—noting that poor “shall” is now deceased. This leads me to the certain impending demise of “whom” coming, I think, in my students’ lifetime.

As their writing teacher, I am committed to fostering purposefulness in my students, and to help them rise above the paralysis of correctness. I want them to have healthy attitudes about language and writing, much as linguists and writers do.

Yet, this effort to raise their awareness about the specter of the language police while prioritizing their content, organization, style, and such as purposeful writers is no easy task.

It is nearly impossible to break them from habits formed over years—viewing their job as being correct or correcting their drafts—and my own practice, I fear still seems to them to prioritize the trivial.

One of my strategies embedded in my requirement that students draft and conference with me during each essay is that I use highlighting in Word to draw their eyes to the trivial (issues of grammar, mechanics, usage, and format) and reserve comments and the conferences for what I consider to be substance.

I will still highlight, for example, a singular gender neutral use of “they,” and may add a comment asking if they have used this with purpose and with awareness, but I have no policy about their grades based on that use (I do not grade writing at all in fact).

Since many of the elements I highlight are what most teachers would call “errors,” students tend to ask me why I highlight, leading to a mini-lesson. Occasionally, the highlighting works, and students self-edit, if needed.

My work as a teacher of writing, then, is defined in many ways by the tension in the Tweet exchange above. I feel mostly compelled to foster my students as purposeful writers and scholars with healthy attitudes about language and writing.

But I also feel an ethical obligation to make my students aware that language use is political, that language use (often the trivial) has real consequences for them as students and in their lives beyond formal schooling.

I do invite them to join me is changing the norm of prescriptivism, to challenge the language police, but I also am deeply aware that is a tall task to ask of any of us.

LaBrant (1952) lamented that “thousands of teachers seem to resent or refuse to recognize change.” This, I think, is a grand failure when we are teaching writing and ultimately thinking.

Language is in constant flux, and our students are both agents and victims of that change.

Navigating the trivial in writing instruction is ultimately about honoring the human dignity of our students because language is an essential part of that humanity.

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.

(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Investigating Purposeful Writing: From Poetry to Essay

One of the first activities I share with my first-year writing students is a writing exercise based on Sandra Cisneros’s “A House of My Own,” a chapter from her The House on Mango Street.

A key lesson I am reaching for involves recognizing that each sentence in this chapter is a grammatical fragment. It is here that I introduce my students to the problems they have faced in being taught rules (that fragments are errors and should be avoided in their writing) instead of being guided into purposeful language.

The difference, I explain, between Cisneros’s fragments and most of the ones they have included in their writing for school is that Cisneros constructed these with purpose—and the students likely were completely unaware of the fragments, and thus had no real purpose for them in the writing.

Purposeful writing is an overarching goal in my writing instruction—notably focusing on the craft of word choice and sentence formation as they drive tone. Most novice writers are composing carelessly. The result is that the reader couldn’t care less about the product.

As I have examined before, poetry is an ideal text for helping students grow as essayists.

Here I want to walk through January Gill O’Neil’s “The Blower of Leaves” as a model of purposeful writing.

For poets, the economy of language often required by poetry drives well the need to labor with purpose over word choice and sentence formation (although I often have to stress to misinformed students that poetry is almost entirely driven by complete sentences, even as they carry over for more than one line).

As I anticipated, discussing O’Neil’s poem spurred students to notice a variety of effective examples of purposeful writing.

We highlighted the powerful use of “fall”—signaling both the season and the motion. Here I stress that writers often look for layers of meaning carried in the fewest words possible (the power of concision) as well as reaching for ambiguity (this contrasts with most students believing writing is mostly about making grand certain statements).

The poem draws together simple yard work (and we also noted the effectiveness of the accessibility of language throughout the poem) with a grounded but ambiguous condition: “the hard work/of yard work made harder without you.”

Readers know someone is missing—but not the who, why, or how. That phrasing (repeating “work”) emphasizes a key element of the poem (possibly what we would call its meaning) through repetition, which in this case is a bit clunky, possibly jarring the reader.

I emphasize here that students often come to first-year writing having been cautioned against repetition. But the lesson they have learned is mechanical and works against purposeful writing that seeks key works to repeat for effect. “Hard work”/”yard work” comes not from a careless and lazy writer, but embraces the sound devices common in poetry in order to make the central message cohesive with the literal scene.

Here we may be drawn to discuss emotional labor, in fact, but not because it is explicitly stated—the emotional labor of loss.

Sound, I note moving them back to the beginning, gives the poem cohesion throughout—sound as that is combined with the visual:

A million brilliant ambers twisting into

the thinning October sun, flooding my eyes
in a curtain of color.

The rhyme of “million/brilliant” that is not end rhyme, and then the series of words with double letters—”million,” “brilliant,” “thinning,” and “flooding.”

In some ways, poets play word games, but rarely are they games for games’ sake; in other words, these games lend cohesion through patterns. Patterns, we must recognize, create meaning.

O’Neil’s poem is also driven by imagery, concrete language and details. Augmenting the concrete nature of the discourse is the use of analogy (and personification), a powerful but dangerous strategy in purposeful writing.

“My yard is their landing strip,” “the stiff kiss of acorns puckers the ground,” “the gaping mouths of lawn bags/with their remains,” and the final line, “Dependable as a season”—the comparisons, we examine, help emphasize the concrete—becoming more vivid—but those comparisons must also resonate accurately. In other words, purposeful writing does not make analogies simply to make comparisons; they must be true and then must elevate the ideas being addressed as well as working with the tone established.

This poem raises a complicated aspect of purposeful writing, however, since it demonstrates the effectiveness of specific and concrete details along with craft (comparison, personification, rhyme, etc.) in order to create an ambiguous message.

Readers are compelled to believe the speaker of the poem has experienced loss, and that speaker’s hurt over the loss is somehow triggered by doing lawn work. Yet, we cannot be certain of the who, why, and how—although those details help nudge us in some credible directions.

Maybe the speaker has been left by a lover, or maybe someone close has died?

“Forgive” and “forgiveness” sit near “refuse,” “dying clover,” and “weeds.” Readers may be drawn to reading “leaves” darkly (a double meaning as with “fall”), yet the reader is also left with only informed speculation.

“Nothing is ever easy or true” may serve as a ironic line against the poem’s ambiguity, but the poem becomes effective and compelling because of the power of purposeful writing—moves students can make their own as they grow in the writing of essays.