Making Writing Instruction Work: Conferencing

Here’s an open secret about teacher education: While politicians and pundits have been criticizing teacher education intensely since the Obama administration (think VAM), we in teacher education are disturbingly aware that many (if not most) of our candidates do not and cannot practice what they are taught once they enter the classroom.

Let me focus here on writing instruction as an example of that conflict.

Applebee and Langer’s most current and comprehensive research revealed some disturbing conclusions about “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87):

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

As I explain in my review of their research:

This gap between research and practice, reaching back to LaBrant (1947), is highlighted again and again throughout this volume—in ELA, social studies/history, mathematics, and science. Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research (Graham & Perin, 2007; Smagorinsky, 2006), professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

Teacher education struggles mightily against the persistent “considerable gap,” in fact, but the stalemate between informed practice and the realities of day-to-day classroom teaching can be alleviated.

Recently, I was again reminded of this problem when an early career teacher who completed my program was struggling with student-teacher conferences.

One of the greatest benefits I have experienced by moving to higher education (teaching first-year writing) from secondary education is the ability to require conferences from my students and having the time to make these conferences highly effective.

Since I have de-graded courses (as I did when teaching high school by the way), I include minimum requirements for student participation (see my fist-year writing syllabus). Those minimum requirements for writing-intensive courses include submitting full initial drafts, conferencing with me, and submitting at least one revision based on the strategies we identify in those conferences.

My feedback on writing has shifted significantly away from marking essays (using track changes and comments in Word) and toward more and more face-to-face conferencing.

I have, however, far more time available for conferencing than secondary ELA teachers, and my student load for my writing-intensive courses hovers around 20-24 students (a dramatic difference when compared to the 100-150 students most secondary teachers have).

Now if we confront that many K-12 teachers do not practice what they are taught as research-based best practice, we must also address that this gap is driven by the impracticality and inefficiency of effective writing instruction in the so-called real world of secondary teaching.

The early-career teacher mentioned above was exasperated because she had spent a couple days conferencing with students about their first essays of the academic year but had many students still to conference with. This amount of time and energy for conferencing was, she admitted, overwhelming and impractical.

She simply cannot sustain this over the semester weighed against all the other responsibilities she faced as their teacher.

As we discussed how to make writing instruction work, I mentioned I had addressed these problems in her methods course—although we both had to realize that here is another paradox of teacher education: Much of learning to teach cannot and will not happen until teachers are in the classroom, and that learning is an ongoing journey, not something to be acquired and then practiced.

Teacher educators too often oversimplify teaching during teacher preparation (the art of teaching tends to be framed as the science of teaching—rubrics, model lessons, etc.), and then practicing teachers feel they enter the classroom unprepared once the complexity and unpredictability of teaching become a daily reality.

Here, then, let me focus on the conferencing dilemma noted above.

First, when teaching students to write, we all must do less better. Teachers at all levels should decrease how much they mark student writing and then must narrowly target the time and content of face-to-face conferences.

I mark about the first quarter or third of student essays, and then add a few additional comments throughout the rest of the essay. When I conference with students, we create a two-to-three-point revision plan.

Less is more effective, and we must all resist the urge to martyr ourselves. (The lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or on social media about how much of our lives outside of school is spent lugging around and marking student writing is something we should all stop—the lamenting and the time, by the way.)

So, yes, face-to-face conferencing with students learning to write is a powerful research-based part of effective writing instruction, and conferencing is incredible time intensive, nearly unmanageable in the real-world of secondary teaching.

These are pragmatic compromises between best practice and reality that serve teachers and students well while remaining committed to the effectiveness of conferencing:

  • Regardless of how we conference, we must set realistic time limits and then not break those structures. And we must recognize that a few minutes can be more effective than marathon sessions that overwhelms teachers and students. I schedule my student conferences in about 20-minute blocks but we use less than that most times. Conferences of 4-5 minutes can be very effective in the secondary classroom—if well planned and targeted.
  • Another essential element of responding to student writing, whether by marking or in conferences, is to frame that work within students being required to address what is marked. If there is no structure for required revision and editing, and if the amount of revision and editing is unmanageable, then the time spent marking and conferencing is just more martyrdom.
  • While responding to student essays, and remaining committed to marking less, keep notes on common issues among most of the students to drive whole-class instruction (a companion to conferencing*, in fact), and group students by less common patterns to facilitate small group conferences as an alternative to individual conferences. This last practice allows teachers to manage 5 or 6 small group conferences of 5-10 minutes each (one class period if you are on a block schedule) versus trying to conduct 25-30 individual conferences of 5-10 minutes (several class sessions).
  • Create a schedule over your grading period that guarantees each student at least one or two individual conferences by targeting a handful of students for each major writing assignment, but not conferencing with all students for every writing assignment. Here I want to stress Henry David Thoreau’s “A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong” (“Civil Disobedience”).
  • Related to the point above, and significant for all aspects of writing instruction, teachers must have identified goals for each writing assignment, and again, the fewer the better. Responding to student writing either by marking student drafts or conferencing often suffers from teachers marking too much (wasting their time) and overwhelming students to the point of paralysis. But that targeting should also consider levels of importance to that feedback. Elements of revision addressing content and organization as well as word choice and sentence formation should be emphasized over basic editing (not to be ignored, but to be positioned at the end of the writing process once the writing deserves editing).
  • Student-teacher conferencing should work symbiotically with peer conferencing. In fact, student-teacher conferences should have the goal of making students more autonomous so that peer conferences and individual drafting become more and more effective, the role of the teacher gradually reduced. Teacher time and energy, then, more pronounced early in a course but relieved throughout the course. Also, student-teacher conferences can gradually focus on revision while editing can be gradually shifted to peer conferencing.

An irony of how we can close the gap between research and classroom practices is that effective writing instruction grounded in workshop methods requires a great deal of structure and organization. Many falsely see workshop as haphazard and traditional teacher-centered teaching as structured, if not rigid and authoritarian.

However, teaching writing well does not require that teachers martyr themselves. In fact, writing instruction greatly improves once we learn to do less better.


* Another way to make best practice practical is to step back from the practice and understand the concept. One of the key elements of conferencing is that it is based in student artifacts of learning. If most students are struggling with endings in their essays, a whole class session on endings is nearly as effective as meeting each student one-on-one. Here, whole-class teaching grounded in evidence of student needs is honoring a key aspect of conferencing without creating the stress of time.

Advertisements

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

New academic year, and even more stress for new teachers—including the traditional advice heaped on those new teachers, including:

Another pearl of wisdom along the same lines is the warning that teachers shouldn’t be friends with students.

Both are deeply flawed advice because they misrepresent basic humanity, essential goals of being a teachers, and the positive qualities demonstrated by friendship.

Telling teachers to be humorless, ostensibly tough, in the first months of any class is a truly perverse view of the relationship necessary for a teacher to be effective. This advice also expresses a really ugly view of human nature, and young people.

One thing I have learned over 35 years of teaching and almost 30 years of being a parent and now grandparent is that children and young people need and appreciate adult transparency and consistency. They also respond to our modeling kindness, patience, and respect.

Taking on the veneer of being humorless and tough is a false representation of Self, and doing so for a set few weeks or months—obviously as a precursor to becoming your true Self—is setting students up to distrust the teacher as yet another adult playing roles and yet another adult who students cannot anticipate or trust.

So here is better advice: From second one of any new class, teachers should be their full and authentic Selves, and should seek to be kind, open, genuine, and trustworthy.

In short, as the professional in the room, teachers should model from that first second and throughout their teaching the sort of ethical and loving human we would want all children to become.

Of course, the Teacher Self is a version of our fuller Self beyond the classroom. But that Teacher Self should never be something forced or artificial—in part because I firmly believe students sense that and learn to distrust it.

This advice about being stern, deadly serious, is akin to “don’t be friends with your students,” another piece of horrible advice in terms of the relationship between teacher and students as well as a complete misreading of “friendship.”

To be a friend with someone is not monolithic, just as there is no singular love (familial love is not the same as romantic love, although both may run very deep).

Students as evolving humans need teachers as trusted mentors to model being friendly in appropriate and nuanced ways, and showing love, kindness, and even affection in appropriate and nuanced ways.

Friendship includes codes about trust and kindness that are not only appropriate for teaching and learning, but essential.

Over the coarse of our lives, we have dozens, even hundreds of friends—and those friendships are on a spectrum. We have collegial friends, recreational friends, etc.

But all types of friendship are not the same because there are implicit and explicit boundaries to those friendships.

Are you kind and patient with students? Do you spend a great deal of quality time with students? Do you seek ways to make students’ live better, more informed and joyful? Do you develop shorthand ways to communicate, to joke and laugh?

These are elements of friendship—and certainly friendliness in classrooms among teachers and students carries some important boundaries, mostly about levels of intimacy and professionalism (teachers separating the personal from the artifacts of learning that teachers must respond to and assess).

This last point about boundaries is central here since I think people give horrible advice to beginning teachers because we tend to distrust teachers and their ability to be both fully human with their students and able to perform the key moves of teaching (mostly the evaluation and grading elements).

Teachers can and do hold those boundaries, make those distinctions—just as doctors and lawyers do, although doctors are urged to develop “bedside manners” to connect personally with patients in order to improve care.

Ultimately, to teach is about way more than the prescribed content of courses. All teachers are mentors and counsellors, fully human practitioners who are indirectly and directly shaping the full humanity of young people.

To this day, on social media and over text messages, I offer “I love you” to several former students—something I expressed when they were my students, and something they eagerly and often express to me.

We became friends when they were my students and we remain indebted to each other because we made each other’s lives richer in some way.

To recognize the humanity in each other has always meant for me that no boundaries dare be crossed that would hurt those students, mislead them in any way.

Nothing is easy or simple, but teachers being fully human—including being kind, joyful, and loving—is never something to be withheld or hidden from students.

It is imperative, in fact, that we share our full selves the first moment of any class, and then honor our own and their dignity and humanity throughout the course—and into their lives after school.

There is no room for pretense in teaching, and there is no shame in the kindness of one person toward another.

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

When my parents died in June and then December of 2017, they left a meager inheritance to my three nephews and me. The greatest bulk of that is their home, which we moved into when I was 10 in 1971.

My young parents, younger sister, and I lived in rented houses in Enoree and Woodruff, South Carolina before they bought the largest lot on the newly built Three Pines Country Club just north of Woodruff.

Scraping by and paying off the lot, my parents wrangled a local contractor to build their dream house in his spare time. The loan was more than they could handle and a bit less than a car loan for me much of my adult life.

The house they left behind was, then, the house I associate with my formative years, having lived there in some way into my early twenties. Even when newly married, I lived there briefly, and after I did move out, my three nephews all grew up in that house with my parents providing a great deal of their rearing.

So the four of us—and on Saturday my former brother-in-law as well—spent this past weekend doing the final herculean push to clean the yard and the house for selling.

We had begun this journey trying to account for all my parents’ stuff many months ago, and I have been wrestling with watching their life being reduced to so much trash.

There is, however, a finality to this past weekend. The yard has been rendered nearly barren (compared to the jungle my parents spawned), and the house is almost entirely emptied—much of that waiting in the driveway, a dumpster filled with lives now past.

IMG_5562

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the task was overwhelming, physically demanding since it seemed that no matter what we hauled to the dumpster even more appeared to be hauled away.

But until late in the day Sunday, I had not found the experience the emotional hurdle that a best friend anticipated when he offered to help.

The unexpected, I suppose, must be unexpected.

I showed up Saturday after a morning cycling ride not really prepared for the day of work in the yard; my mind had convinced me that I would help inside. Once the scope and weight of the task at hand—having the house ready to sell by the end of the weekend—struck everyone, we were past midday Saturday and had resigned ourselves to the only way to finish was simply to throw everything remaining away.

So after working outside all day Saturday, I returned early Sunday morning with the same stubborn resolve to clean the inside of the house.

I began vacuuming the side porch, and although I was summoned out a few times to help the remaining loads to be packed into the dumpster, I then moved to each room of the house, vacuuming floors again and again.

A few hours after lunch and some unanticipated impromptu pest control, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Last on the list was scrubbing down the bathrooms and the kitchen.

I vacuumed the front rooms and kitchen, saving them for last since we were tracking through them during the day, and moved to cleaning counter tops in the two bathrooms, ending with the kitchen.

And then the unexpected.

As I wiped the counter and sink in the kitchen, my youth flooded over me, and I had to pause in order to restrain a powerful urge to cry.

One of the great joys of my life was simple. We were a breakfast-for-supper family, a treat we allowed ourselves a few times a month.

I grew up, in fact, thinking that French toast was mainly a vehicle for bacon—not a cross between breakfast and confections. French toast began in my mother’s kitchen with frying an enormous pile of bacon, the grease then recycled for cooking the pile of French toast as well as a side of scrambled eggs.

For most of my life, I ate French toast without syrup and butter—certainly no powdered sugar or syrupy fruit toppings.

But none of this is why I felt a sudden urge to cry.

I don’t recall when it began, but I was tasked in the family with cleaning up after supper. I washed the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen, diligently.

My mother heaped praise on me for being so meticulous; it was something I did well, and gave me status in the family.

I still feel something soothing about the process of making the kitchen space tidy, clean.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with Clorox wipes in hand and leaning against the kitchen sink, I felt suddenly heavy, as if I was holding up my entire life lived in that house. I was cleaning my mother’s kitchen for the last time.

Tears made it no farther than the edge of my eyes, blurring my contacts as I breathed against that weight of memory and loss. I gathered myself, wiped the sink, and then moved on to the bar where I had stood day after day in my brace for scoliosis to draw from comic books throughout my teens years.

“The bar is clean,” I told my nephews when they came into the kitchen, “but it is so stained and nicked, it doesn’t look like it.” They mentioned the oven hood, equally clean and terribly stained as well.

My oldest nephew had used the Magic Eraser on the bar, he said, but it still looked dirty.

Some things are indelible, I think, like the sudden realization you are cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

All of us are back at our separate lives today, and that dumpster filled to the rim awaits a truck that will carry all of my parents’ life turned trash to a landfill to be buried.

I left with my baptism certificate and the family dictionary, family names scribbled on the cover since the 1960s.

IMG_5556

At some point, too, this will be just trash. Someone else’s problem, maybe even something to fret over before tossing it into a dumpster.

Later in the day Sunday, my nephews took new flowers and a small urn of my mother’s ashes to my father’s grave. I didn’t go.

I had spent the weekend in a kind of graveyard already. I had grunted and sweated toward a sort of stasis that might allow someone else to own this house and land of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Nothing prepares you for the feelings that rush over you, cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

I am afraid I will never forget. I am afraid I will forget.

Mainstream Journalism Can’t Handle the Truth

Soon-to-be former Associate Editor of The State (Columbia, SC), Cindi Ross Scoppe noted in her good-bye column:

Newspapers the nation over are making a rapid transition into an all-digital future, and right now, there’s not a huge market online for fact-based opinion journalism, particularly when it isn’t extreme, or at least aligned with one side in our culture wars. People like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism, while creating a stronger following, and I wish them nothing but the best with this. Unfortunately, the next round of layoffs came too soon for me.

Mainstream journalism, notably the traditional newspaper, is in rapid decline. Scoppe’s departure is yet one more example of the actual human cost of media contracting.

Having placed a number of Op-Eds with The State, I have interacted with Scoppe for many years. On balance, I would place her in a small percentage of journalists about whom I am mostly positive, keeping in mind that I regularly criticize both mainstream journalism broadly and edujournalism narrowly as deeply flawed.

I have, in fact, stated bluntly that even so-called good journalists and good journalism leave a great deal to be desired. Journalists remain steadfast in their commitment to both-sides journalism, and the entire media field/industry is every day more deeply entrenched in press-release journalism out of necessity.

These on-going contractions require fewer and fewer journalists to do more and more. Journalists as generalists (their expertise is journalism, lacking content expertise in the topics they cover), then, simply try to keep their heads above water even when they are faced with a rising tide they have never navigated before.

I paused at Scoppe’s “[p]eople like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism.” I am deeply torn between recognizing Scoppe as a very good journalist with genuinely good intentions (in my opinion) and also being able to see that her “pragmatism” (and journalistic code that includes both-sides reporting and a naive pledge “to express my political opinions, with no allegiance to any person or political philosophy,” or seek ways not to be political) more often than not trumped that integrity.

Let me give an example that I think reflects the much larger problem in journalism and news reporting across the U.S.

Scoppe and The State have remained supporters of current South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, calling him the best candidate and even praising him for having integrity.

Yet, McMaster is a strong Trump ally and a shameless NRA candidate. In short, McMaster isn’t a candidate with integrity. His partisan politics are an affront to the high percentage of black and brown citizens of SC as well as to the large percentage of the state that lives in mostly ignored poverty.

This state-level example is not much different than The New York Times remaining unwilling (unable?) to call Trump and his administration liars. The so-called newspaper of record is mostly concerned about White House access.

The truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that journalism is its own worst enemy. Journalists are trained to avoid taking ethical stands, to refuse to make evidence-based decisions about credibility and validity.

Mainstream media are complicit in how the U.S. has become a political joke throughout the world.

Chris Cuomo, for example, on CNN plays the role of “journalist holding the administration’s feet to the fire,” but continues to give Kellyanne Conway airtime.

The ugly truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that there is no journalism—only theater.

The U.S. has a faux-billionaire reality-TV star as president. The media created him and the media are playing right along to keep this sinking ship afloat.

Like universal public education (which journalists have covered badly for more than a century and a half), the free press is essential to a free people.

Like universal public education, the free press is mostly a deeply flawed—and failing—experiment in democracy since both are deeply tainted by the free market.

However, universal public education and the free press are not the problem. We have failed them; they haven’t failed us.

Education and journalism are both inherently political. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists remain apolitical.

Education and journalism are both inherently ethical pursuits. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists skirt moral and ethical pronouncements.

One of the greatest risks teachers and journalists can take that can directly threaten their careers is to be activists, the highest form of political and ethical behavior.

The activist is one who seeks to garner power to confront the entrenched power of the status quo in the pursuit of change, change that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Many teachers (and professors) and journalists are in separate boats that are both none the less sinking.

And the harsh truth is that they have created the holes themselves by conforming to the traditional expectations that teachers and journalists simply allow the world to continue as it is.

Don’t be political and surely don’t take any ethical stand in your roles as teachers and journalists.

Almost daily, I see The New York Times begging for subscriptions to keep journalism alive while they refuse to call a lie “a lie.” And while their Op-Ed page devolves more and more into something many of us find hard to distinguish from The Onion.

Maybe journalism deserves to be razed since it can’t stop itself from throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that is U.S. politics and disaster capitalism.

Maybe we must let this all burn to the ground and hope for a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a new version of a critical free press that can handle the truth.


See Also

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

Teaching Writing in the Absence of Expertise

For about the last third of my two decades as a high school English teacher, I served as the varsity soccer coach, at first for both the girls and boys squads and then just the boys.

Soccer was new to the high school, and the athletic director/ head football coach was actively antagonistic about the sport; he basked in calling soccer a “communist” sport, in fact.

The coach before me had played college baseball. He typically arrived at practice in his softball cleats and prompted the team to scrimmage, virtually every practice.

The team’s success was built almost entirely on the expertise of the players, although there was little success.

The dirty open secret about my agreeing to become the coach was that, although I was an active athlete (cycling) at the time and had played team sports in high school and college, I had never once played any organized soccer. My experience with soccer was grounded entirely in having come to the sport through my daughter, who began playing at 4 and within a few years became an elite youth soccer player.

Despite my lack of expertise as a player, my teams soon became the dominant team in our conference, and we posted back-to-back years of 15-4 and 14-5 records at one point.

I often think of my own experiences as a coach when I am confronted with mainstream beliefs that anyone can teach or coach anything because these skills (teaching, coaching) have some sort of generic qualities independent of the thing being taught or coached.

As my stint as soccer coach showed, it can be done, even well—but I would argue that my experience was an outlier and ultimately does not make a valid case for teaching or coaching as professions that can be mastered without the context of content (for lack of a better word).

With a recent flurry of discussions on social media about teaching writing [1], I have returned to my own conflicted beliefs about the need for teachers of writing to be writers themselves.

Much of the public debate about student writing quality and how to teach writing well is, frankly, garbled—such as this:

Today, there is a growing consensus that students need strong writing skills to succeed in the workplace and to fully participate in society, but educators passionately disagree on the best ways to teach those skills. Some call for greater focus on the fundamentals of grammar: building vocabulary, identifying parts of speech, and mastering punctuation. Others believe that students need more opportunities to develop their writerly voice through creative expression and work that allows them to make connections between great literature and their personal lives.

Meanwhile, it appears that many of the methods seem to be falling short: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that only one in four 12th- and eighth-graders is meeting grade-level expectations in writing. In both tested grades, Latino and African American students scored lower than their peers in other racial and ethnic subgroups.

Historically and currently oversimplified as a debate and framed always by “kids today can’t write,” the teaching of writing remains stunted by some systemic constraints that seem never to be addressed because, well, its always a debate and “kids today” can never write well.

One of those systemic problems is, I think, that those charged with teaching writing are mostly teachers who have never written in any context except for formal schooling.

This traditional pattern means that mechanistic approaches such as templates (five-paragraph essay) and rubrics are somewhat necessary structures to support the lack of expertise and experiences by those teachers.

School writing, as Cindy O’Donnell-Allen explains, is in many ways the anti-thesis of writing:

In school, writing was a closed circuit. The teacher gave an assignment, I responded, then she passed it back with a letter grade at the top of the page. I was good at school, but none of it felt like writing. Writing was what I did on my own time. I composed poetry and song lyrics in secret and hid my journal in my sock drawer when I heard footsteps in the hall.

Teaching students to write as students—and currently that means a significant amount of time and energy spent on teaching students to write to prompts in standardized and high-stakes assessments (from state accountability tests to so-called more sophisticated exams such as those for Advanced Placement)—is a narrow and possibly necessary evil. Yet as O’Donnell-Allen muses about students learning to write as students:

But would she have had sufficient experience writing in varied genres beyond the academic argument that writing a feature for The Atlantic would someday seem possible? And would she have had gained enough satisfaction from preparing for the Regents Exam that she would have hoped for a writing life beyond it? (It’s hard to say.)

Templates and rubrics as the guiding structures of teaching writing are about formal education being a “closed circuit” and mostly not authentic.

How many art teachers are not artists themselves? How many music teachers play no instrument? How many chorus teachers are not singers?

The teaching of writing and then the writing that students do K-12 and throughout college are trapped in a misunderstanding about expertise—both the expertise needed by the teachers and the expertise that students should be developing for themselves.

To teach writing, teachers must themselves have some real and (possibly formal) experiences as writers. Teachers who have only been writing in school as students (typically conforming to templates and rubrics, probably to perform on an assessment) are mostly equipped to pass along that “closed circuit” to students.

In a culture that narrowly identifies student success by “closed circuit” assessments, however, this dynamic may be viewed as very successful. Non-writers as teachers of writing may be able to wrangle most of their students into performing proficiently—or even excelling—on formal high-stakes tests (ones that are not valid measures of real-world writing, by the way; see my Chapter 1 on the problems with NAEP writing assessment).

As a first-year writing professor at a selective university, I can attest that these students who excel at writing as students are not equipped for advanced disciplinary writing within their major or in graduate school; they are also not prepared to be writers who makes their own decisions in sophisticated ways—or to write “a feature for The Atlantic,” as it were.

Templates such as the five-paragraph essay and rubrics are practical crutches for an education system that has failed to recognize the importance of complex expertise in the art and act of teaching.

Yes, some broad skills and dispositions can be identified and even taught to those aspiring to be teachers, but we must never leave it at that. Teaching also requires expertise in the thing being taught.

The teaching of writing is the domain of those who write in authentic ways—not just as students—and have some formal guidance in the moves of teaching broadly and teaching writing specifically.

Being a writer is humbling and it defies simple formulas because it is an unpredictable series of questions, fits and starts, and a journey toward a finished product that cannot be explained well in its parts.

That sort of experience over many years is the ideal expertise one needs to guide students to become writers, and not just to corral them into writing as students.


[1] See John Warner’s new book, and the zombie-like persistence of the 5-paragraph essay as well as the debate about that temple here and here.


See Also on the 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)