The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

What do the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), A Nation at Risk (1983), and the seminal “word gap” study by Hart and Risley (1992/1995) have in common?

First, each of these has become a recurring citation in mainstream media when addressing reading (NRP), school accountability (A Nation at Risk), and literacy (“word gap”).

Next, and quite troubling to those of us in education and literacy, all of these have been debunked.

A wide array of scholars have called into question Hart and Risley’s methods, conclusions, and assumptions. Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton have unmasked A Nation at Risk as a false political crisis. And NRP panelist Joanne Yatvin as well as Stephen Krashen have significantly refuted the validity of the NRP report and process.

Recently, the reading wars have been rebooted across mainstream media; concurrent with that has been a rash of new reading legislation in several states.

In both cases, a common phrase is “the science of reading,” a thin veil for renewed emphasis on systematic phonics—in part driven by advocates for children with dyslexia.

News articles across Education Week, NPR, PBS, and other outlets have praised this so-called need for the science of reading while almost uniformly referring to the NRP as the primary research base for that “science.”

One journalist, Emily Hanford, who won an EWA award for her “science of reading” article, discounted my charged the NRP had been debunked with “One member expressing a minority view does not equal ‘debunked.'”

Here, I want to note that I have discovered many people react strongly to the term “debunk,” seemingly because they interpret its meaning simplistically; however, note the nuance of the term:

debunk

In the case of the NRP report, I contend it has been debunked because, specifically, a member of the committee who protested that the panel included no genuine teacher of reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following ways:

FALSE: The National Reading Panel was a diverse and balanced group of reading experts.

TRUE: Congress asked for a balanced panel, but that’s not what it got….

FALSE: The panel carried out a comprehensive analysis of the entire field of reading research.

TRUE: Only a small fraction of the field was considered, and only a few hundred studies were actually analyzed….

FALSE: The panel determined that there are five essentials of reading instruction.

TRUE: Although the NRP reported positive results for five of the six instructional strategies it investigated, it never claimed that these five were the essential components of reading….

FALSE: The panel endorsed only explicit, systematic instruction. [a]

TRUE: Only in the phonics subgroup report is “explicit, systematic” instruction called essential….

FALSE: The panel identified certain comprehensive commercial reading programs as being research-based, and concluded that teachers need one of these programs, or a comparable program, to teach children effectively.

TRUE: No comprehensive reading programs were investigated by the panel. The panel had nothing to say about whether teachers need a commercial program or can develop their own….

FALSE: The panel identified phonics as the most important component of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel made no such determination….

FALSE: The panel found that phonics should be taught to all students throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no evidence to justify teaching phonics to normally progressing readers past 1st grade….

FALSE: The panel’s findings repudiate whole language as an approach to teaching reading.

TRUE: The panel did not investigate whole language as a topic and did not draw any conclusions about it as an approach to teaching reading….

ALSE: The panel found research evidence indicating how teachers should be trained to teach reading. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no such evidence….

I stand fast that even though Yatvin technically is a minority opinion, she has the greatest expertise of the panel and her clarifications have proven accurate.

But there is more reason to reject the NRP report as sacrosanct guidance for how to teach reading; it was at the center of the politically corrupt Reading First scandal that exposed relationships between government officials and Open Court textbooks.

It is not mere speculation that there is a problematic relationship between phonics advocacy and for-profit organizations serving education.

The short version about the fact of the NRP being debunked is that it was a politically skewed panel from the beginning, and then its process was also deeply flawed, manipulating what research was considered in order to favor a systematic phonics message that wasn’t supported by the actual science of reading available then, and now.

To reference the NRP report as credible is to overstate its value, to misrepresent not only the report but the field of teaching reading.

Yet, journalists with no expertise in literacy and no background in the history of reading or teaching reading are falling prey to alluring language, “the science of reading,” and fulfilling the warnings offered by Yatvin nearly two decades ago.


[a] Note that in the current media coverage of “the science of reading,” this is exactly how references to the NRP are being misused.

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45s

My dad drank Crown Royal and collected the purple bags the bottles came in. My dad and mom both smoked, mom preferring Kool brand with the green logo.

This was the 1960s, but with my parents it was the sort of 1960s left over from the 1950s. Not the hippie era yet; that was my mom’s sisters and brother, living then in Asheville among race riots.

We lived until about 1967 or 1968 in a rental house just outside of Enoree, South Carolina, near Kilgore and just south of Woodruff—what would become my hometown once we moved to another rental house near all the schools before our permanent home my parents built by 1971 at the golf course just north of Woodruff.

The Enoree house had a barn as a garage and sat across the street from Lefty’s, a beer joint that shuttered up on Sundays so men could watch 8mm stag films projected on a hanging sheet. My dad went some times.

This was the home where our family dog, a collie named Sonny, was hit and killed by a car, and my dad had to bury it somewhere in nearby woods while the rest of us sat in the house and cried.

This was the home where on rare snow days we had violent and relentless snowball fights.

This was the home where we had tea fights, an open invitation for anyone to toss a cup of tea in a family member’s face starting the tea fight that often ended with my dad bringing the hose in the house to end the tiny war.

This was the home where we played olly olly oxen free, dividing as we often did during card games—me with mom and my sister with dad—to toss a ball over the house for the other team to catch

And this was the home where my mom and dad shagged and slow danced to 45s, my dad drinking Crown Royal, and mom and dad both smoking.

My dad was a stereotypical macho working-class white man reared in the 1950s. But when they danced he was completely unself-conscious as he moved gracefully and with flair, singing along with some of his favorite songs—almost all Motown.

“I don’t like you, but I love you,” Dad would sing, his hand in mom’s as he spun her around the wood floors of that home with sliding glass doors looking out into the backyard.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” came on while I was sitting at a local taphouse recently, and as often happens now when I hear one of those songs played on 45s during my childhood, my mom and dad dancing in their sock feet on a hardwood floor flooded over me.

They were a kind of beautiful, my dad thin and wearing a crew cut and mom a bit more than early Mary Tyler Moore. I liked seeing them sway, hand in hand, and that, I think, was my first lesson in being in love, of being truly and deeply intimate.

In college, my parents had to hide their marriage and romance so my dad would say “You tickle me, nut” for “I love you.” I think watching my parents dance was also a code for “I love you.”

We were never an affectionate family. My parents showed love with things and money—very 1950s American. They worked hard to have stuff, so their children could have stuff.

The American way.

And I loved those 45s of my childhood. That may have been the first trigger of my urge to collect, the 45s and all the different colored labels just about the time I started collecting Hot Wheels die-cast cars and years before I would become a full-fledged collector, amassing 7000 Marvel comic books throughout the 1970s.

All those beautiful scratchy songs over cheap record players. The Temptations, The Supremes, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Drifters.

And Marvin Gaye. God, I still can barely move when I hear Marvin Gaye.

But my parents dancing and my dad singing to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” have a deeply special place somewhere in my being. Those lyrics were so my dad—and so confusing for a child of five or six.

I have an argument with a friend about dancing. I think dancing is very intimate, something for couples, while the friend just doesn’t see it that way.

The last few times I heard one of the songs my parents danced to I began to realize that my parents taught me, showed me a very intimate thing that I will take to my grave.

My parents in their 20s dancing in sock feet on hardwood floors to 45s that my sister and I would change for them.

My dad drinking Crown Royal, and my mom and dad smoking, twirling and intertwined as young marrieds in love.

And I saw something like that again after my mom’s stroke, after my dad died sitting beside her in a care facility.

Mom had a photocopy framed picture of dad from then, black and white with dad in his crew cut. And she wanted it near, but cried and called for “Daddy” after he died and in those last months before she died too.

Mom lost the ability to speak and write just before she lost Dad, but I think she may have become lost as I do some times in memories of them dancing to those 45s back in the Enoree days that they worked so hard to leave behind for their own house.

There at the end I watched her and I knew my dad’s voice singing “You really got a hold on me” was more than a song.

Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

“School days were eagerly anticipated by Francie,” a central character in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p. 143). The novel often is a powerful fictional account of poverty among white working class people at the turn of the twentieth century.

But Francie Nolan is also a girl who loves books, libraries, and an idealized view of what formal schooling will be. Yet, “[b]efore school, there had to be vaccination,” the narrator explains. “That was the law”:

When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was  a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. … Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. (pp. 143-144)

Left alone by their working mother, Francie and her brother, Neeley, must go for their vaccinations, prodded only by a neighbor who rouses them from playing in the dirt and mud. Francie suffers through not only the shot itself, but also the doctor’s insensitive and classist criticism: “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm nurse'” (p. 146).

Despite the trauma of the vaccinations and the class-shaming by the doctor, “Francie expected great things from school” (p. 151). However, “Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days” (p. 153).

That “brutalizing” included:

The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcizing their own fearful backgrounds. (p. 153)

A decade past a century since this novel, and I must acknowledge there is a disturbing series of patterns that remain, including the anti-vaccination movement as well as a significant portion of parents who find public schools unresponsive to the needs of specific populations of students.

Since I am currently reading Smith’s novel, I was drawn to some comparisons when I encountered, once again, the media’s misguided fascination with the “science of reading”: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy from PBS News Hour.

I cannot help asking if mainstream media would ever run this story: What anti-vaccination parents are teaching doctors about disease.

And then, while the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading has been spreading for a few years now, Education Week once again piles onto the bandwagon driven by parents advocating for their children with dyslexia: Stephen Sawchuk’s Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War and College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading.

Sawchuk’s piece recycles both misinformation about dyslexia (1 in 10 children are diagnosed, according to Dyslexia International, but many sources suggest the exact percentage ranges from 5% to 17%) and resorts once again to citing the National Reading Panel as a credible report on reading (it has been thoroughly debunked). In fact, intensive, systematic phonics for all students has also been discredited.

Yet as Andrew Davis acknowledges: “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

As I examined and unpacked concerning school choice, we must resist idealizing parental choice, even in regard to those parents’ children. The anti-vaccination movement occurring now is grounded in both those parents wanting what is best (in their view) for their children’s health and a garbled misunderstanding of vaccinations driven by one deeply flawed study that makes those parents believe they have science on their side:

Lacking the scientific background, in an attempt to protect their children, parents contemplating the risk of vaccine are vulnerable to omission biases by which they are more likely to take the risk of inaction than the risk of action….

The anti-vaccine movement appears to be part of a larger trend of discontent and distrust in the established preeminence of scientific evidence over impressions and opinions. A corollary to the discontent is the democratization of health-related decision making, by which stakeholders have an increasingly stronger voice over experts, as well as the dethroning of the Expert. While democratization of health care decision making is cheered by liberals and conservatives alike, its benefits are still to be proven. Decisions in the area of disease prevention require knowledge of the medical field involved and an understanding of statistics, in the absence of which no amount of communication skills and efforts would do any good.

This, I think, is a powerful harbinger of how the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading is being perpetuated by rhetoric (“the science of reading”) and zeal among parents who seek to democratize the teaching of reading, and as a result, the expertise of literacy educators is erased and replaced by parent will and political caveat.

Here are some essential facts being ignored by the avalanche of zeal among mostly parents of children with dyslexia:

  • No student, regardless of special needs such as dyslexia, should be mis-served by our public education system. Parents of children advocating for best practices in the service of their children must be heard, and public schools must respond, attended to, however, by special needs educators and scholars, not the policy demands of the parents or political leaders. “My child must be served” is different than “This is how you will serve my child.”
  • Reading needs of the general population of students must not be held hostage to the needs of unique subsets of students—especially when the zeal of a few is allowed to overwhelm the expertise of educators and literacy scholars.
  • Historically, reading instruction has been a victim of false crisis rhetoric, and current calls for “the science of reading” is yet another round of phonic-only propaganda that cannot serve students well.
  • The research base on reading instruction (the actual science of reading) has never rejected phonics instruction (including whole language and balanced literacy), but each student needs varying degrees of direct phonics instruction, only enough so that the student begins reading and develops as a reader through holistic experiences such as reading by choice and being read to.
  • There has never been a time in the history of formal education in the U.S. that some have not claimed we have a reading crisis. Never. That crisis rhetoric has always been misguided and driven by those with some ulterior agenda or no expertise in literacy.
  • Most of the ways that formal schooling now fails students in terms of reading instruction can be connected to the accountability movement—focusing on ever-changing standards and high-stakes testing as well as imposing prescriptive reading programs onto teachers and students.

Parental zeal in the anti-vaccination movement has spurred measles outbreaks, proving that parental zeal must not be allowed to trump medical expertise.

Parental zeal for public schools properly serving students with dyslexia must not be allowed to drive reading policy for all children; this is just as unwarranted even as the consequences may not be so easily exposed.


 

Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Using the evocative, lyrical poetry of P. L. Thomas (b. 1961), this work for unaccompanied choir aptly describes the ebb and flow of relationships. The text suggests devotion and togetherness, demonstrated in close harmonies between the voices. I’ve repeatedly been captivated by this poet’s ability to encompass such a variety of experiences and emotions in such direct language. This setting intends to capture the cyclical, circular movement of crashing waves, rippling tides, and stoic, measured moons.

Performed by the CCHS Treble Choir and Kaskaskia College Concert Choir, conducted by Mr. Eric Chrostoski, St. John’s UCC, Breese, IL, March 18, 2019.

tide & moon (2013)
P. L Thomas

i am your tide
& you are my moon

you pull the rhythm of me
& guide me through darkness

i am faithful in my motion
ceaseless as an elliptical orbit

we are water reflecting sky
incomplete each without the other

i will carry your water dear
if you will again swim in my sea

Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Teacher Protests Are Student, Worker Advocacy

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was a public school English teacher, and for part of that time, I was also a coach.

I taught more than 100 students each year, meaning I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries every academic year along with thousands of other assignments and mountains of paperwork. I was responsible for preparing students for state testing, Advanced Placement testing, and the SAT.

While coaching, and during the soccer season, I would run to the gym between classes to wash and dry the soccer uniforms. Most days, I had to find time to go to the bathroom, and rarely had moments alone even during lunch.

I have never loved more deeply anything than teaching, and I so deeply loved all my students that is often overwhelming to think about no longer being a high school teacher. Facebook has provided me some connection with those students, but I miss intensely being that teacher and that coach.

When I left high school teaching for higher education, I was wearing a wrist brace because I could barely move my right hand from almost two decades of marking essays and trying my damnedest to teach young people to write well.

If you have never taught, you cannot appreciate the psychological and physical toll of being on throughout the day and in the service of dozens of young people, children and teens who depend on you. It isn’t the same as roofing or pouring concrete; it isn’t being an ER doctor or nurse. But teaching is tremendously stressful, exhausting, and often seemingly fruitless work.

And here are two facts I think you should read carefully and take seriously: Teachers are workers, and teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Following a pattern across the nation from West Virginia to Colorado and Los Angeles, including non-union states, South Carolina teachers are poised to march for their teaching conditions May 1, 2019, organized by SC for Ed.

South Carolina historically and currently represents some disturbing realities: SC is a politically and religiously conservative state (straight-block Democratic and then straight-block Republican when the parties shifted their conservative cores in the 1960s); SC is a high-poverty state with significant stratification and concentrations of poverty and affluence (resulting in the infamous Corridor of Shame identifying a stretch of high-poverty schools running diagonally along the coast); SC is a right-to-work state (the Orwellian misnomer for being non-union, thus anti-worker); SC is a high racial minority state when compared to the national percentages.

The state, in fact, is a poster child for the self-defeating South.

Once the teacher march gained momentum, with thousands of teachers poised to march and several districts closing, the governor and superintendent of education, both Republicans, have verbally slapped in the face the teaching profession and students once again, reinforcing the hard truth that Republicans in the state are anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-student, anti-worker, and anti-woman.

Nationally, teachers are significantly underpaid when compared to professions with comparable education. A recent analysis has found:

  • Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996 to 2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage penalty (controlling for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. The teacher weekly wage penalty was 5.3 percent in 1993, grew to 12.0 percent in 2004, and reached a record 21.4 percent in 2018.

The wage penalty for teachers in SC is -18%. And SC teacher pay is in the bottom 10 of the U.S.:

SC teacher salary rank.jpg

While salary and benefits are essential aspects of what makes any profession gain respect and thrive, teachers have called primarily for the type of teaching and learning conditions that allow them to be the best they can be for their students.

Teaching conditions include student/teacher ratios, the amount of bureaucratic obligations imposed on teachers, adequate time and space to plan and respond to student work, reasonable opportunities to eat and go to the restroom during the work day, administrative and parental support, and professional respect and autonomy.

We are approaching forty years of high-stakes accountability in education since SC committed to the accountability movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. And with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, the pressure and blame on teachers as failures has steadily increased, peaking under the Obama administration that doubled-down on teacher accountability and scapegoating teachers.

And, yes, the economic downturn during the bridge between George W. Bush and Obama profoundly impacted all public services and institutions. But as the report above explains, the decrease in funding, the lowering of respect for teachers, and the eroding of teaching conditions across the U.S. are not simply a reflection of a bad economy over a decade ago.

In SC and the U.S., we must finally admit that our schools are mostly reflections of our society and communities. Schools cannot alone change the gross inequities that impact our children and their families.

And we must also stop demanding that teachers be martyrs and missionaries. School teachers are mostly women, and these demands that teachers sacrifice themselves for their work while remaining passive and quiet are driven in significant part by sexism.

Teachers are great American workers. Most of us will spend our entire lives as workers.

Being a worker, especially in the service of others, is not only noble, but also worthy of the highest rewards and the greatest opportunities to excel.

Teachers are the only profession that serves all other professions.

That teachers in SC and all across the country have begun to stand up for their profession is a harbinger of our societal need to shift our allegiance away from the rich and the privileged and toward the working class, the working poor, and the poor.

If all the CEOs in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect any of us?

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect the entire nation?

The latter would be devastating so service workers are trapped not only in hourly wages, but also slave wages linked to tips. Most workers in the U.S. cannot afford to advocate for themselves while the wealthy enjoy salaries and the freedom to work as they please and advocate for themselves when needed.

Teachers are increasingly in non-union states where they have the same sort of obligations to work regardless of conditions.

Hourly wages and non-union laws are designed to control workers and benefit the wealthy.

The U.S. has long ago abandoned the worker; the working class, middle class, and working poor have been reduced to fodder for the wealthy.

Our political leader class comes from and serves the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

When political leadership fails us, we have a moral obligation to organize and to demand that we matter.

In SC, the governor and superintendent of education speak for the ruling class, the wealthy, and are effectively spitting in the faces of our teachers and our students. It is unconscionable and inexcusable.

Teachers marching in Columbia, SC are advocating for students and workers.

How are our students supposed to respect and learn from professionals who refuse to take a moral stand for those students?

How can we continue to pretend our public schools are in the service of our democracy if our political leaders deny teachers and students their rights and freedoms as citizens?

It is a cynical lie to accuse teachers of selfishness and “being political” when those making those claims are the ones being selfish and political.

To call for anyone else to not be political is an act of being political—the worst kind of political that silences democracy and freedom.

SC teachers by the thousands are joining a rich tradition of free people and reinvigorating a deteriorating foundational value in the U.S.—what many used to claim was part of American being great—honoring and valuing the American worker.

We cannot emphasize this enough, then: Teaching conditions are learning conditions, and the work of the teacher must be honored because that is also honoring the right of our children to learn.


See Also

In anti-union South Carolina, May 1 teacher protest could make history, Paul Bowers

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins