Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Discussing scholars as writers, Michael C. Munger explains, “We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

And that practice, Munger argues, must be “like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days….Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.”

This interview about the intersection of scholars (academics, professors) and writing wades into a fascinating and troubling phenomenon that I expose first-year writing students to in their seminar midterm. I ask them to choose a professor on campus in a discipline they are considering for their major, and then to interview that professor about writing as a necessary aspect of being a scholar.

My students discover, and are surprised to discover, that most of the professors openly share that they dislike writing, struggle with writing, and/or simply tolerate having to write in order to have their research published.

A parallel reality exists in K-12 education. During my current graduate course in literacy, I asked how many of the eleven students had ever been participants in a writing workshop; none of them raised a hand.

Taken together, we are faced with a important hurdle in the teaching writing: at all levels of formal education, writing is taught by scholars/academics and teachers who themselves are not writers, who have had no or very little direct instruction in being writers (as noted by Munger above).

Some of the questions we must investigate, then, include the following:

  • Must anyone who teaches writing be a writer?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster the teaching of writing among those who are not writers, who struggle as writers, and who see writing as a necessary evil?
  • How can and should we support those who write by necessity but never feel compelled as writers (a reality that comprises most students and many scholars and teachers)?

Having been a writer and a teacher for about the same amount of time—37 years writing and 33 years teaching—and since my primary focus as a teacher has been the teaching of writing, I often wrestle with the questions above, but during the last decade while I have been teaching first-year writing at the university level and also providing faculty development for professors teaching writing, I have come to understand better that there are more disjunctures than intersections among scholars, teachers, and writers.

As a high school English teacher for 18 years, I had to fight for time to write; my life as a writer, in fact, intruded on my work as a teacher in direct and indirect ways (about the latter, I suffered subtle and not-so-subtle antagonism from some colleagues for publishing). When I moved to higher education, writing became something valued as part of my work, my schedule allowed ample time for me to do as Munger suggests and write daily, and the expectations for being a professor (teaching, scholarship, and service) included explicitly scholarly publication.

However, lest you believe higher ed to be some sort of writer’s Shangri-la, being a productive writer and writing for the public have also created tensions for me in academia, where a very narrow expectation for being a writer persists (being prolific viewed with skepticism, hints that one cannot write that much without sacrificing something such as teaching; public writing viewed as frivolous use of a scholar’s time and too political).

As noted above, though, what links my K-12 and higher ed experiences is that most teachers/professors charged with teaching writing are not themselves writers—although most professors are more likely than K-12 teachers to write by necessity.

Here is a lesson I now see more clearly: We have failed, mostly, to confront directly that writing is typically taught by those who aren’t writers, but we have implicitly addressed that disjuncture by attempting to make the teaching of writing teacher-proof.

To teacher-proof writing instruction, we have chosen, as Johns examines, genre acquisition over genre awareness [1].

Briefly, that means in-school writing instruction tends to assign writing in template form (five-paragraph essay and its cousins) and to reduce all writing to that artificial form (in terms of what “essay” means to students as both writers and readers).

In effect, teacher-proofing writing instruction removes most of the instructional decisions from teachers and almost all of the writing decisions from the students-as-writers. As well, both writing instructors and students-as-writers are primarily complying with directives that are artificial (or as Johns notes, “‘staged'”).

To foster the most effective writing teachers—and thus to foster students-as-writers—a few key approaches are warranted:

  • Couch calls for writing instructors to be writers in the acknowledgement that most are not, and may not feel compelled to be writers.
  • Be aware of and avoid shaming writing instructors who are not writers or who see writing as merely functional to other pursuits.
  • Provide all writing instructors with authentic experiences in direct writing instruction themselves; teachers of writing need to have had experiences as writers and students in the instructional practices they should use with their students.
  • Reject the traditional efforts to teacher-proof writing instruction and begin to build for teachers and students a broad range of experiences with genre awareness grounded in the disciplines and so-called real-world writing.
  • Revitalize reading and text experiences in formal schooling from K-12 to college so that students experience powerful models for the ways in which writing occurs, both within and against a manageable toolbox of conventions linked to the disciplines and published writing.
  • Include for all teachers/professors, K-12 and college, expectations for writing, professional rewards for writing, and then the sort of time and administrative support needed to fulfill writing obligations without impinging on primary obligations to teach.

The irony, I believe, is that the road to effective and empowered writing teachers is as nuanced and complex as the sorts of lessons we need to teach about writing, a many-headed beast that is often hard to wrangle, much less understand.

We can and must admit that more disjunctures than intersections exist among scholars, teachers, and writers. Bridging those gaps is a daunting challenge, but traditional teacher-proof approaches fail both teachers and their students.

Both writing instruction and how writing is viewed by teachers/professors and students require that we step away from many reductive and ineffective assumptions so that we can start again for the first time more honestly and newly committed to teaching and writing as valuable but complex endeavors.

Suggested

The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham


[1] From Johns:

GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….

GENRE AWARENESS…is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts.

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

Analogies Like Land Mines: Treading Carefully When We Discuss Teaching Writing

Metaphor is a powerful element in the craft of language. Writers and speakers seek metaphors, similes, and analogies to produce rich expression, but the analogy is a part of everyday discourse and all types of public expression and debate.

One of the staples of my years teaching high school English was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a dark satire and enduring example of the brilliance found in Southern literature.

My students and I always paused early in that story, the second paragraph, that begins:

Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit’s ears.

As a cabbage? we would always ponder. The early descriptions establish O’Connor’s use of contrast to cause tension between some of the cartoonish elements with the grim reality of the story’s plot.

But I also feel in the cabbage simile that O’Connor was poking a bit at metaphorical language itself—something like a meta-metaphor.

Less as craft and more as a strategy for argument, however, Donald Trump, apparently, has posed that he avoids exercise because, he claims, humans are like batteries, having a finite amount of energy. He believes we waste that energy store when exercising.

Both of these example highlight, I think, that we must always investigate the use of analogy for the essential validity of the relationship being presented.

At different times in the past, the mind, for example, has been characterized as a blank slate and a muscle—and then, evidence and careful consideration of these analogies have been discredited.

Where analogy fails, it seems, is when we take a position and then reach for a comparison that confirms the position. Trump, in his baseless battery analogy, simply clamored for something to justify his position—one that falls apart if we interrogate the comparison.

Yet, the analogy is a powerful tool, and often compelling because analogy brings the concrete and the understood into complex and often abstract settings: the mind as a blank slate or muscle is far more manageable for the average person than how the mind actually functions, a domain for specialists.

As a writer and a teacher, my world is often deeply entrenched not only in language, but also in investigating how language works (and doesn’t) to create warranted meaning.

Both as a writer and reader, I have come to live by a guideline that helps remind me of the need to resist the uncritical allure of the analogy: Just because someone can make a comparison doesn’t mean that the comparison is valid.

Writing Is Like?

Recently, I have had several experiences with people making analogies in order to understand writing (composing) and teaching writing: writing like learning to ride a bicycle (starting with training wheels to justify teaching the five-paragraph essay), writing like playing a piano (moving from scales to playing a full piece).

Both of those are recurring analogies, and thus, they must be compelling. However, here I am asking us all to think more carefully about these analogies.

Writing (composing) is nothing like riding a bicycle, and is also nothing like playing the piano, because writing (composing) is creating something from nothing, an act of synthesis.

“Writing” as a term can cause some of the problem, in fact, so let’s first consider writing (as handwriting) versus writing (as composing).

Even in behaviors that depend on something like rote actions (such as handwriting, riding a bicycle, and playing a piano) [1], the repetition of behaviors must be “correct” (or you are learning to do something “wrong”) while also incrementally moving from something like novice to proficient to expert.

Let me risk next an analogy between coaching a scholastic sport and teaching.

As a soccer coach, I worked hard to maintain some level of quality in drills during practice (isolated and rote), for the fact above, to prepare players for playing an actual soccer match (holistic and autonomous, although conforming to a body of rules); but my work as a coach would have been much different if I were helping the team create a whole new game instead of teaching them how to conform to an existing system.

Now we have come against the inherent flaw in the analogies about writing like riding a bicycle or playing a piano because writing (composing) is not of the same kind of behavior. Instead, writing is more validly analogous to visual art such as painting or drawing.

While writing (composing) and visual art do in fact have discrete skill sets that can and should be honed in isolated and somewhat artificial ways, practice, composing a written piece and visual art come from trying the whole thing inexpertly at first and then continuing to do the whole thing in incrementally more proficient ways until some level of expertise is achieved.

Writing (composing) and visual art begin by facing blank paper, acts of synthesizing and creating from nothing to something.

And thus, in pursuit of a more valid analogy, just as we do not teach painting by first asking students to paint-by-number, we should avoid at least an overuse of templates (five-paragraph essay, etc.) when teaching composition.

Further, the field of composition has ample evidence (as do those of us who teach writing/composition) that once students have been prompted to conform to a template, they are dogged in never letting go; the template, sigh, is not a set of training wheels easily removed.

Metaphor, simile, and analogy are powerful tools, but the pursuit of analogy is like navigating a field littered with land mines; we should tread more carefully when making our comparisons, avoiding the Trump error above (selecting the analogy to confirm a belief without investigating if the comparison is accurate, without starting with a credible claim itself).

Just as we scramble to understand better how the brain/mind works, often resorting to analogy, we who write and teach writing (composing) are confronted with something equally complex, and are rightfully looking for how to better navigate that understanding.

In that pursuit, I believe the bicycle and piano analogies to writing mis-serve us and our students. Let us seek instead analogies grounded in capturing the holistic and chaotic nature of rendering meaning from nothing and presenting comparisons that are of the same kind.


[1] I urge you to look into how the 10,000-hour rule was misrepresented in the media by Gladwell and others.

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

One aspect of blogging that is a recurring pleasant surprise is when an older posts pops up in the daily stats; someone has discovered and shared, and then, it resonates, often in a way it did not when I originally posted it.

Since my primary focus as an educator has been writing, I have accumulated a significant number of posts on being a writer and on teaching writing/composition. Here, I want to catalogue my writing posts by topics in order to make them more accessible to anyone interested. I will also try to update as I write more.

Hope this is useful to writers and teachers of writing.

Accountability, Standards, and High-Stakes Testing of Writing

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

Why You Cannot Trust Common Core Advocacy

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Being a Writing Teacher

A Community of Writing Teachers

Fostering the Transition from Student to Writer

Who Can, Who Should Teach Writing?

Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Being a Writer

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

Teaching, Writing as Activism?

Three Eyes: Writer, Editor, Teacher

Writing versus Being a Writer

Choice

Student Choice, Engagement Keys to Higher Quality Writing

Citation and Research Papers

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Community

A Community of Writing Teachers

Creative Writing

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling

Diagramming Sentences

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Direct Instruction

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

Disciplinary Writing

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

First-Year Composition

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

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

Is Joseph R. Teller Teaching Composition All Wrong?

Fostering the Transition from Student to Writer

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Five-Paragraph Essay

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

Genre Awareness

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Investigating Zombi(e)s to Foster Genre Awareness

O, Genre, What Art Thou?

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Grading

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

Not How to Enjoy Grading But Why to Stop Grading

Grammar

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing

LaBrant, Lou

“We Teach English” Revisited

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

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

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

Scapegoat

Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum”

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Literacy

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy

Literary Analysis Essay

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

Literary Technique Hunt

Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy

Plagiarism

On Citation and the Research Paper

Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Poetry

What Makes Poetry, Poetry?

Writing versus Being a Writer

Teaching Essay Writing through Poetry

Public Intellectual (Writing for the Public)

Writing for the Public: A Framework

Publishing

Advice for Submitting Work for Publication

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

Guided Activity: More Reading Like a Writer

Teaching English

“We Teach English” Revisited

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

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

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

Scapegoat

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum”

Writers on Writing

Investigating Text with Writers

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

O, Genre, What Art Thou?

Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Stephen King: On Teaching

Writing Workshop

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

 

“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.