education Feed

Writing in High School: Why the Standards for Teachers and Students are too Low

Copied from a friend:


Right at this moment I am experiencing the frustration of trying to undo the damage and neglect that happens when teachers fail to take any composition theory courses or engage in any practicums or actual student teaching. I'm basically cleaning up after people that think that teaching English is simple and you don't need a degree for that--a crazy assumption in some education circles that speaking the language is enough and learning everything by the seat of your pants is just as effective as years of education and experience.

Currently, I'm struggling with a group of students that are a case study in the administrative philosophy that English teachers are dumb, expendable widgets. This results in a group of inhibited writers that had no idea that you could compose an expository paper without including sources, or that their instructor would have any respect for their original words, or that some of the silly grammar rules they had been taught are nonexistent, or that writing is for everyone and not just the elites.

This group of polished and polite students had previously fallen victim to a form of teaching that only scrapes on the surface of what one needs to know. They were taught that every paper must be a research paper with boring sources and whacky formatting, that any kind of arrangement and weak thesis statement will suffice.

I had one student tell me that they hadn't written any kind of an expository text since ninth-grade STAAR; I felt intensely sorry for that kid because most of the writing in the world is expository. What do people think most magazine articles, blogposts, newspaper articles, reports, and nonfiction bestsellers are? What about your history textbook and letters to friends? Not every text is a research paper or an argumentative essay even when it contains an artistic arrangement of rhetorical moves. It doesn't require us to follow a process, like a recipe, so it certainly isn't the famous "how to" essay of middle school days, even though it is rich in its own way. It explains something. It's not a story, typically not a narrative, and filled with hypothetical or actual examples. So if these students have no awareness of genre, then what in the world have they been doing in English class?

A simple four page paper that asks the student to identify a problem in society and discuss and explain how they would contribute to a solution should be easy. Using one article for inspiration should be enough. I have kids that have a poorly formatted works cited with eight or nine sources listed in varying fonts and font sizes. I have kids that have plugged in so many quotes--incorrectly--that I can't discern where one thought ends and another begins. I have students who have shrouded their own intellect in a cocoon of worthless ideas belonging to an endless array of dumpster like Google searches of unknown authorship and origin.

Time after time, I have told my students that I want to see their writing, their ideas, their solutions. What I see instead is a dropped quote placed at the end of a paragraph, just sitting there while I stare at it in fascinated horror and wonder where in the world it came from and why it isn't cited. I wonder why it is sitting there in the first place glaring back at me equally horrified when I clearly instructed my class to give me their own expository writing, their own ideas, and their own insightful, original solutions. I would much rather untangle a badly written paragraph and provide a writing conference on original work than look at dumb facts generated from a website. Crazy paragraphs are the kind of horror I can handle.

Around my classroom, I see a multitude of confused faces that ponder and argue back: 

 "I was always taught that everything that I wrote had to be backed up with sources. You mean I can write what I want? How do I just make something up? What do you mean by hypothetical? Is that a medical term?"

My students have no knowledge about genres of writing, or even what kind of writing belongs with what audience. They don't know the first thing about creating a research question, how to avoid cherry picking sources, and most of them can't even embed quoted material. I see every form of accidental plagiarism known to the human species. Think about that. How could they have ever written a successful research or argument paper even under some form of guidance? When the expectation is that the students have surpassed English IV and are ready for dual credit, then one would think that the basics have been covered. My most talented students hesitate to take a risk with anything except formatting. I have seen all kinds of weird headers, footers, works cited pages, fonts, bolds, italics in bizarre spaces, and margins several inches wide. How can this be? 

Well it would seem that at the end of the day, people in power are sitting on their hands avoiding an obvious truth: our kids are being cheated out of a meaningful English class experience. Low level work and zero accountability is an everyday good practice in a low rigor, free-for-all, no pedagogy existence. We are doing a disservice by not raising our standards for our teachers, and by not providing adequate training to our teachers. In some cases, we are just filling a seat with a warm English speaker. In some cases, this warm English speaker would best be cast as an instructional aide or even as a math teacher. We need actual English majors teaching our subject. English majors that are willing to go the extra yard and write for the love of writing. We need English majors that will share that love with their students and enroll in high quality, advanced course work. At the least, we need teachers that are willing to recognize their own gaps. And once we recognize our own gaps, it becomes easier to learn from others because we realize we must. Pretending that we have all of the answers and don't need advanced course work or quality professional development is as mythological as a unicorn wearing a Steelers jersey zooming by freeway traffic perched on a skate board. 

Not only that, the kind of composition theory that teaches teachers to become writing teachers can't be found in the snake-oil, commercial world of quick fix education articles and forums, and it is best accomplished in a college classroom beginning as an undergrad. Composition pedagogy is dense and confusing, takes practice and dedication to master, and promotes student literacy in ways that nothing else can. Books by Peter Elbow, Sondra Perl, Pat Belanoff, and Kenneth Burke, help teachers untangle the mysteries of writing well, responding to student papers, and creating workshops, journaling activities, and professional learning communities that engage everyone with appropriate grade-level materials. And that is only scratching the surface of scholarship available to the dedicated and well prepared English teacher willing to dig in and learn. If we fail to provide meaningful, professional instruction, our students will journey into the world underprepared for work and college. This failure is a problem for all of us, as it impinges on our ability to maintain a just and democratic, civil society, a purview of the English department.

Writer


Fresh Starts, The Crucible, and Joseph McCarthy: Relationships Matter

    Have you ever thought about what happens to a student, friend, colleague, or partner when you refuse to grant them a fresh start? What if we hauled our students into the principal’s office at the beginning of a fresh semester and reminded them of everything they had been accused of the year before? What if we did this to someone year after year? What happens when we continuously degrade a person even after time has passed, new facts have been substantiated, and old bullies and players have vanished from the scene?

    My current students never thought about life in America after World War II, the simmering suspicions, the Red Scare, the liberal silence, and the Senate hearings that blacklisted writers, actors, and artists from their livelihoods. Unwilling to recognize that American power easily overwhelms fringe politics, conservatives clung to the horrific past and fixated on a worldwide Communist movement believing it would overtake democracy. Even after the most obviously innocent citizens were exonerated, many of them never recovered their reputations or lost incomes. They never recovered because they were never really given a fresh start. But my students, open minded and pure of heart, wrestle with persecution and ignorance on a daily basis, so they know something about the importance of a fresh start and its lasting effects.

    By having them read the Crucible and compare it to McCarthyism, they are not only seeing how an artist can affect public policy, but they are also learning the value of a fresh start. They can see how petty grievances and gossip, jealousy and envy, and raw fear combine to create misconceptions and support lies. They can see how this form of finger-pointing indicates a lack of character and integrity that blossoms in a brain overstuffed with fear and silly, low-level thought processes. The Senate hearings differed little from the witch trials…a litany of hateful players, a lack of common sense, and a desire to indulge in cruelty is not acceptable in any business, school, or government. We all deserve a fresh start without prejudice.

Shutterstock_311901704

 

 

 


Dear Readers: Professional Development in the English Community! I Know you are Mesmerized 😃📚

My long journey into education, tough and fraught with peril, has been padded by a long list of fabulous supporters and teachers. Just this summer, I finished a week long training with 29 other people facilitated by a professional that truly knew his content and cheered us all on with a tasteful sense of humor that was both dry and engaging. Believe me, being treated like a professional after a long drought is definitely refreshing because the sense of collegiality and respect had become somewhat foreign to me. Prior to the weeklong experience, I also enjoyed two other summer trainings that incorporated fun activities into a socially relaxing environment. Both of the facilitators were prepared, the materials were of quality, and the content was relevant to the questions that had been roaming around in my head. Recognizing a teacher's right to professional autonomy and choice is what every experienced coach and facilitator prioritizes. Jim Knight writes about the importance of respecting a teacher's choice of professional development opportunities in his book, Instructional Coaching, a valuable 'must read' for anyone in education, especially if you suspect that you could be better supported. Reading the book can at least either validate your suspicions, or help you take advantage of opportunities available to you even if they are limited. In other words, you can fine tune your relationship with your coach if any trust exists. 

Whenever I have problems with parents or students, I try to think back to what I learned from student teaching. I worked side by side with an experienced professional, a truly amazing, organized, and well prepared teacher. She had a ton of tips and tricks that she shared with me that made it possible for me to imagine myself at her level at some far in the future day. No matter how hard I try, or how long I slog away at this, I will never be able to match her expertise because she is just that great. She shared her classes and her students with me for 14 weeks in a spirit of positivity and inclusiveness; she never complained about me because she was graceful and patient, consistently modeling professionalism. Whenever I raised doubts about my own competence, she would point out my strengths.

After I became certified, I started to venture out into other places for professional development. The Writing and Thinking Institutes at Bard can't be matched for intense instruction. Each group consists of at least 15 participants that work in both secondary and post-secondary schools. I managed to attend 3 summers in a row. The first summer I attended I took a weeklong seminar in creative nonfiction, and I can't recommend it enough. The professor that taught this section had lived on the Hudson for most of her life. The texts that she selected centered around the local river culture, and the discussions were thought-provoking. I learned about the area and the people, the history, and how the river sustained them. To say that a Bard Institute is inspirational is to understate the value. At the end of the week, my fellow participants and I had created a lesson plan for our own creative nonfiction unit. This sparked an interest in teaching and writing creative nonfiction, and I learned how valuable it is in the classroom for making students aware of our common humanity.

By the next summer, I was feeling as if I needed more instruction assigning and responding to student papers; I signed up for a seminar at Bard titled, Teaching the Academic Paper. Because I love composition theory so much, the class was a perfect fit for me. The week just seemed to fly by, and every evening was filled with English nerd-type fun. I even met Sondra Perl, a famous writer and leading composition theorist that I had always looked up to and had always felt intensely curious about because she had developed the 12 guidelines of writing that I like to use in the classroom. Finally, the following summer, I took a Bard institute titled, Writing with Technology. All of us participants bonded closely because this class required us to share our journeys into literacy. Not only that, I was able to take a super strong and super smart English professor with me. What could be more important to an English teacher than practicing the continuous cycle of reading, writing, learning, discussing, and sharing with some of the best people in the field? I hate to sound silly, but we were tighter, tougher, and stronger than the New England Patriots when our week together concluded. 

I've been fortunate enough to attend other advanced placement trainings and tons of other one-day seminars, writing retreats, and of course, the daily grind and struggle of grad work and teaching various preps; the intensity of these high quality experiences have helped me improve my teaching. Without dutifully attending these various trainings and zoning in on my grad work, I would be not somewhat mediocre, but truly mediocre. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the people that inspire you the most. Usually the toughest teacher with seemingly unattainable requirements ends up, often after years of agony, becoming the most important person in your professional life. But at this point, I don't have time to tackle becoming that well-versed in my subject even if I was that kind of genius. But I do know that after taking trainings and trainings after trainings, that I am able to learn from the work of other people, especially if it isn't garden variety. I know that at least a few of those people that bothered to teach me do still care about me, just as us fellow participants still enjoy keeping in touch. Being able to differentiate between a quality training experience and one that is mediocre and inspired by nothing but basic low rigor and test prep is an important skill in the education world. Teachers that invest in high quality professional development, that take the time to learn their subject, sometimes have to accept the superficial even though it isn't helpful. It is at those times that I reflect on the differences between quality and low rigor and try to develop fresh ideas for student learning. Now at the beginning of a new academic year, when I once again feel like running away rather than running to, it seems appropriate to reflect on what has brought me to this point.

Blythewood Manor Italian Garden Bard College


Donald Trump, Climate Change, and Totalitarianism: A Connection

Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism is a tough read. And sometimes I wish I hadn't struggled through her dense prose because much of it is making me sick with worry. I feel like an old time fortune teller because everything that I learned in the book is relevant to the Trump administration. Anyway, somewhere deep in her book she begins to talk about how Totalitarianism creeps in without the population's awareness or recognition. I strongly suggest reading this book yourself. I hope you will take time with every word. In the meantime, let me try to clarify what I think is important to understand in this moment. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Origins_of_Totalitarianism

Hitler warped reality for the Germans by using propaganda, symbolism, terror, concentration camps, shame and racism, along with dishonesty and violence. He pretended to care about the working man and woman, the underdog, and he aligned himself with other despots and liars. Education in all forms became not only a luxury, but it became something degrading and negative. The press and literacy became the enemy, so reality became a matter of debate, discussion, and skepticism. Warping reality serves to rip away trust and unity in society, creating a sense of confusion, supporting a rhetoric of aggression. This rhetoric of aggression serves to heighten tensions and stress (even in personal relationships), validating arguments that are essentially destructive and divisive. 

While people are living in this state of confusion and distrust, violence and chaos become more acceptable and frequent. Facts slip away. Society searches for truth by indulging in petty arguments and blundering around in confusion. Meanwhile, Totalitarianism is seeping into the social cracks. She wrote many pages on this subject of reality and confusion. And here we are quite confused arguing about whether or not children are drinking from toilets while living in cages, whether or not they are going hungry, or are ripped from their parents. We are arguing about whether or not the planet will be habitable in 50 years when we can clearly see that if we do nothing the die-off will overwhelm our souls and plunge us into a psychic darkness. We are arguing about science that is settled and factual. We are arguing in the face of science and allowing our government to dismiss this science as if it were some kind of fabricated theory while the evidence exists all around us. People are so confused they are literally becoming fanatically religious because of fear and doubt; somehow the supernatural becomes more reliable than everyday reality.

Arendt would say that Trump is a symbol, a caricature of Totalitarianism; he represents the future if we don't reclaim our reality and stomp out the kind of power he will extend. He is like a nasty seed, and we don't have time for him and his hatchlings because truth is on its way, a truth that will provide a rich ground for the growth of a more frightening and destructive form of Totalitarianism than we have yet to see in any society. With climate change will come massive disasters, resulting in the loss of national worth by depleting our resources and producing roaming populations of climate refugees. This is what they are striving for...a dark and selfish future that will allow for many helpless people to die out in floods and droughts, or to starve in famines while they attempt to build and buy their way out of the consequences of inaction and greed. Help will take years to arrive, and isolated communities will die out. Death due to neglect is just another symptom of Totalitarianism. 

We know what is real. All we have to do is communicate stronger, harder, clearer, and better. We are not communicating the coming catastrophe in a strong enough way. We are pretending that we will always have a voice even in the midst of a climate emergency. Even now, on the cusp of disaster, our voice is already muted and weak. 

Original_1163902144

 


Emergency! Become Aware of the Creeping Consequences of Neoliberal Policy and Learn how to Fight Back 💲

            American parents and students must become aware of how neoliberal values creep into schools and negatively affect the quality of learning. Marketplace ideologies warp education because schools spend billions on test prep and curriculum materials that fail to regard student locality and culture. The “one-size-fits-all” approach to education supports the neoliberal agenda by ensuring that an oppressed underclass will always be available for cheap labor.

            Parents and students need a working definition of neoliberalism so that talking heads such as Sean Hannity can’t deceive them by twisting words such as “socialism” and redefining such words to fit the sneaky neoliberal motive: The removal of all public safety nets and the complete privatization of all pubic resources.

            This economic model has nothing to do with “liberalism” as commonly understood. Rather, neoliberals are generally politically conservative and are always decrying the evils of socialism, even though shared public resources do not equate to socialism and have always been a staple of free enterprise and capitalism. Neoliberals reject any restrictions or regulations on business no matter the human or environmental cost. Neoliberalism’s marketplace theory supports the complete removal or privatization of all public safety nets including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act.

            Neoliberals wish to privatize and profit from everything that is currently remaining in the public sector: National parks, existing state and federal roadways, libraries, remaining public utilities, federal lands, public schools and colleges, and any other form of shared public ownership that is intended to benefit all people in a democracy. NOTE: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell exemplify neoliberalism in all of its greed, corporate welfare, and sneakiness.

            Neoliberalism’s parameters exist worldwide, as the creeping takeover of publicly owned enterprises means these institutions become corporate entities intended to serve the interests of profit and not people. This results in the bottom line, the profit margin, becoming more important than the quality of services rendered to the public. This is how teacher quality and educational access are affected.

            As we monitor the growing spectacle of neoliberalism, and the decay of all public goods and services, schools fight to hire the best educated teachers. But, because of neoliberal austerity policies, they have no budget to attract top talent. Colleges and universities cut funding to writing programs and bend to the will of corporate interests in an effort to meet tight budgets. An explosion of adjunct positions and dual credit courses intended to offset the consequences of neoliberal austerity measures have destroyed countless professional teaching careers, undermining education at all levels.

             Undervaluing the teaching community and ignoring school culture interferes with student ability to critique, write, and practice democracy. If students and teachers become critical thinkers and resist the regressive and punitive policies associated with neoliberalism, then neoliberal politics can no longer continue to infect all corners of our democracy and can no longer continue to profit from human suffering.    

Following is a list of books and articles that can aid in your understanding of neoliberalism as it pertains to education and the destruction of democracy.

For everyday people beginning to become aware of neoliberalism, this book works as an introduction.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007.

If you are an academic and you are beginning to recognize the symptoms of neoliberalism in your own career or institution, this book can help you understand what is happening.

Giroux, Henry A. Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Pbk, ed., Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2014.

For writing teachers at all levels, this book of excellent academic articles can help you see what is happening in your classroom because of neoliberal economic policies. You will learn how your class is connected to the building of a democratic society, and how neoliberal policy is preventing you from fulfilling your pledge to your students.

Welch, Nancy, and Tony Scott. Composition in the Age of Austerity. Logan, Utah State UP, 2016.

Shutterstock_427570147


Fake Apologies, Cowards, and Nothing Burgers

            Fake apologies, the stuff of cowards, come from a place of deficit. Usually the person doing the apologizing fears some kind of a loss, such as a sports contract, a job or bonus, or some position of privilege. They may even consider the recipients of the apology not an intellectual equal, so hubris and arrogance override good old common sense. If someone is giving you a fake apology in front of a camera, during a recording, in front of your boss, or some other “staged” moment in time, consider it a nothing burger.

            A true apology takes incredible courage, and it often comes at a huge personal cost. Someone has to admit that they have been weird, rude, or threatening, or that they have cheated or lied about something. The words must be chosen carefully. For example, if someone tells you that it isn’t their intention to make anyone “uncomfortable” then you can bet that they are lying while apologizing. Of course, when someone is screaming at you across a crowded room, exerting their white male presence, and acting like a sexist idiot, then the full intention is to make you feel “uncomfortable.” The person issuing the apology should at least be courageous enough to admit what they did. This apology is clearly a total nothing burger.

            An “authentic” (a word usually overused by fake people but used now in the spirit of jest) apology, at least between people and not institutions, can be done with a card, or in a private moment. A vow to undo whatever harm has been done is usually paired with a sincere apology.

            People of courage typically apologize with sincere remorse and will fully confess to whatever it is that they have done to hurt someone else. Cowards will stage some kind of a fake apology and offer you a nothing burger thinking that you are dumb enough to accept it. Cowards tend to gather in groups, so you might experience backlash if you fail to accept a cowardly and insincere apology. Remember, cowards know they are cowards, and they actually live with this shame day in and day out. They are recognizable to one another, and this fearful condition, this lack of courage and sincerity, programs itself into the fabric of their everyday lives. Because of this, they trust no one, and a plastic and superficial life is all that they know. They skip from one cowardly incident to another, randomly hurting the people they interact with, handing out nothing burgers right and left.

            Bill Clinton might be the daddy of them all when it comes to handing out the nothing burger. In his apology to the American public after the Lewinsky scandal, he admitted to his sexual peccadillo, but he soft pedaled the enormous lie that he told: “I never had sex with that woman.”

            We all know that he told this lie out of fear so he could keep serving the interests of American politics, but we also know that every single one of his apologies were just a huge order of nothing burgers. When Clinton realized that he was caught and he had no way to cover up the peccadillo, he should have volunteered the truth and mixed that with a sincere apology (I’m just kidding).

The most tragic thing to come of the nothing burger is the unwitting people it involves. Without putting much thought into anything, an unwitting person might say that you should accept a nothing burger and move on with your life. But moving on without expecting sincerity enables the coward to feel courageous about a couple of dangerous things: hurting the same person again, or simply finding a new person to hurt. A cabal of cowards can exist institutionally because they’ve been allowed to hand out nothing burgers as a matter of tradition. When cowards begin to think that their behavior is acceptable, then they are willing to go further.

            Apologizing is hard work, and it does take effort and courage. But when you’ve apologized for the damage that you’ve done, other courageous acts become easier. Apologizing cleanses the soul, clears the air, and creates lasting bonds of respect and humility. Handing out nothing burgers to the people you have hurt proves you are just a coward.

Shutterstock_1166519806

           


Narratives of Negativity: When they obscure the positive

It was the new millennium and my mother's fight with cancer channeled itself to its predictable, unfortunate ending. My child was not yet walking, but he sometimes pulled himself up on a plastic storage tub, yelling and screaming, beating his little fists on the lid for attention while I walked my mother back to the bathroom and then returned her to her comfortable place on the battered, sunroom couch. The routines of care-taking became meaningful, transcendental and comfortable. I had begun to imagine something spiritual beyond those precious days as they counted down to a death that would end a chapter in my hectic and frightening life. I sat in the entry hall in one of the cat-clawed wicker chairs and stared ahead thinking apprehensively about what would happen once my role as caretaker closed and the heavy front door opened into a new life without my mother.

My sister had cleaned out the safety deposit box, hoarding Mother's jewelry, and then hocking it off to some hick town jeweler so that she could pay my nephew's law school bills. Meanwhile, I was busy in my short jaunts away from the house visiting resale shops so I could buy back the family heirlooms that my drug-addicted brother had sold off to make his own ends meet. The "things" of my family's shared life meant much less than the stories that bound us together, the intriguing family legends about half-brothers in foreign countries and Dad's mysterious volunteer work with a bulldozer in some Amazonian rain forest. But some of our family stories were paired with painful realities and outrageous falsehoods, the narratives of selfishness and jealousy. 

One of the most damaging falsehoods concerned my brother, a man that returned from Vietnam with classic symptoms of PTSD. Post traumatic stress syndrome passes easily from one person to the next, and I, as a preteen, found an escape from my brother's rages and paranoia by walking to the library and spending the day under its modern air conditioning and quietly structured rows of books and magazines. The busy librarians ignored me, and I had the run of the place every summer day, poking in shelves, checking out books, thumbing through difficult academic journals, and listening to audiotapes. I was a late comer to the love of reading because I had been placed in the Follow-Through Program, a federal experiment on children from poverty. Once my mother realized I wasn't in a "regular" first grade class, she had me pulled from Follow-Through, and I was an entire semester behind my classmates.

My fascination with learning screeched to a stop when it came to math, but I struggled on with reading, even getting a black eye when my mother, overwhelmed from long hours at work and mental frustration, hit me in the face with a book. That night she came home with a wind up toy, a small furry dog that chased a ball on a string, around and around. Not long after, she came home with a real dog stuffed in the cavern of her huge purse, and I was besotted with love. Several years later, a speeding car struck my little dog because it had squeezed out under the fence to join me with my friends across the street. It died on the curb, and my mother held me as I sobbed.

Much has been said about my mother, and some of it is not that positive. But the narratives of negativity have no real basis in fact, and they are constructed from malice and a desire to control the family narrative. Without my mother's multiplication tables game, I would never have passed fourth grade math. Had she not taken down all of my childish wall hangings and put metal bookshelves in my room, if she hadn't signed me up for the book club, had she not filled those spaces with books and MAD magazines, word search puzzles, and Highlight Magazine, I wouldn't have a college degree of any kind. I remember complaining to my brother about one of my teachers, and his response was not what I expected. He typically took my side on things, and he tended to love me through his haze of anger and addiction. When he told me that my problem with my teacher was a problem with myself, I was shocked. He was right. It didn't really matter whether I "liked" my teacher or not--it only mattered that I learn everything I could from my teacher. His tough stance with me enabled me to open my mind to the ideas of other people. 

They both passed away within months of each other, but they left me with enough wisdom to move on and live a fascinating and fun-filled life. I feel sorry for the people that avoided my mother and my brother because of the negative narratives they had been subjected to. I also pity the source of these narratives because they are an example of how hate and narrow-mindedness constructs an alternate reality that is untrue and negative. 

541846_308


Writing Assessment: Why are we doing this to our students?

The neoliberal approach to education, an approach that bases itself in austerity and cruelty, is rooted in the test and punish cycle. Students are sorted by scores and data, rather than interests and talent. Writing, with its connections to personal style and background knowledge, should never be judged by a standardized test. Teachers that never write anything more than the odd email are charged with teaching basic writing techniques in a pedagogy that is eerily similar to the rejected and formulaic Current-Traditional Rhetoric, known simply as CTR. A top-down, managerial type teaching style is noted by critical theorist Paulo Freire as the "banking model of education" a form of pedagogy that privileges the teacher over the student and "deposits" information into an otherwise empty receptacle. The "banking model" oppresses the student by not providing them with an opportunity to experience the joy of altering reality with a problem-posing pedagogy. The "banking model" suggests that reality is fixed and static.

Peter Elbow points out that three types of assessment exist. In order to better understand why one method of assessment is superior, we have to analyze why writers write in the first place. First of all, people write to salvage something from their soul, especially when they are hurting. From this kind of misery, poetry and short stories are born, along with essays and critical, pithy statements. Transmitting messages and exploring modes of creativity typically arise out of exploratory pieces, and these exploratory pieces bare a connection to some travail in life. Storytelling comes from a well-ordered mind that aims to share a moral or idea. No one writes against their will unless it is for a standardized test. This kind of writing, because of its oppressive nature, fails to measure talent or purpose. 

Elbow, in an essay in College English, observes that gauging a piece of writing on its validity and effectiveness are the most common measures in a typical classroom. His problem with this type of assessment is that it fails to allow for how the piece makes the reader feel. Elbow argues that how the words make the reader feel is the highest form of assessment. If the purpose for writing is not left to the student, then even a well-written piece really demonstrates nothing but an ability to adhere to mechanics and form. Even assigning a particular genre to the student waters down the joy of writing, inhibiting the flow of ideas and artistry.

Obviously, the way we teach writing must change. Our students are actually writing more than ever on social media posts and electronic message boards. Self-publishing is common and apps allow for writers of all levels to share ideas and self-promote. The quality of these communications matter to our democratic society. Unless we are able to concisely explain our positions with clarity, we remain vulnerable to those who want to exploit us. Working to weed out the neoliberal test and punish cycle from the English classroom must become a priority. Neoliberals have no desire to teach civil discourse or share power. They would prefer that our students remain as spectators to democracy, rather than grow into strong individuals with an ability to transform reality.

Hoo4owR5T6eXHVmvTo9DwQ

 


A Few Reasons Why Standardized Testing is Creating a Crisis in Literacy

I'd like to ignore the neoliberal industry that now manages test prep, curriculum materials, and software packages. But I find it impossible to look away from the glossy, well packaged and unlimited amount of stuff that basically manages compliance with all of the so-called reform strategies that crept out of the hideous test and punish culture of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The revenue numbers and profit margins connected with the test and punish culture are astronomical. Even Obama doubled down on the test and punish gold mine to the horror of public school advocates. According to Education Market Watch, Pearson recorded 1.5Billion in revenue for 2017. This is money they are making off of the misery of millions of impoverished and underfunded school children. Most parents are not even aware that the test and punish cycle is a profit-driven machine supported by lucrative businesses with high level marketing and political lobbyists. Because of that, we may never live to see its demise; unfortunately, the negative effects are more pronounced in children of color and children of poverty, the most powerless and voiceless members of our society. 

Test prep, and the test and punish cycle, might be appropriate for some subjects such as biology, history, and math, but literacy is something quite personal and individualized. 

Let me list a few reasons why accountability-based standardized testing interferes with literacy.

  1. A dialogic classroom that focuses on local problems, issues, themes, and events is impossible because of the stale and static content of test prep material and the invasive nature of the test itself. Engaging points of discourse are sacrificed on the altar of accountability. Teachers are forced to introduce materials and standards that sanction a stripped down curriculum, and exploratory and expressivist writing is replaced by something that mimics the old Current-Traditional Rhetoric (CTR). CTR rejects a writing to learn approach, and focuses on correctness. However, even CTR didn't bastardize the essay form like the test prep culture does today. Typically, especially in schools that are labeled underperforming, students are taught to forego an introduction and just plunk in a broad and generalized thesis statement at the beginning of the essay. This creates confusion for young writers. Because of this confusion and because the test is so important to the school, some teachers never get around to teaching any other essay genre other than test-prep. How to really write an essay is never covered. How to write for a variety of purposes is usually only blushed over. Countless hours of classroom instructional time is wasted on teaching students how to write or type a nonacademic and disconnected, formulaic and uninteresting, piece of writing. 
  2. Doing away with context, both in the introduction of an essay and in the student's community, has a way of creating a passive learner. Someone that is forced to passively accept a formulaic, top-down strategy for something as democratic as writing is easier to control but harder to educate. Learning happens as we actively construct and change our reality. Writing enables us to view our thinking as others would see it and develop our style and voice. The top-down and one-size-fits-all test and punish culture erases this process with its need for duplication and stratification. 
  3. Marketed software packages insert control into the English classroom. By forcing students to spend hours responding to drill and kill type exercises via software and prepackaged materials, teachers are excluded from the creative process. These repetitive and joyless kinds of activities cause students to despise their own personal journey into literacy, a journey that should be individualized and sacred. Not only that, these kinds of packages deprofessionalize the act of teaching literacy because almost anyone can present test prep. Even though this is the least effective route to literacy, and millions of dollars in research proves that a qualified, professional teacher is the key to success, districts are spending millions on these products.

Next time I write on this subject, I am going to talk about two types of writing assessment. The least effective type is the rubric style used by the test and punish culture. I will explain why rubrics, while they are good for some basic writing efforts, are harmful to the beginner writer. 

Just to sum this all up, poverty is the problem. Neoliberal economic policy devalues human discourse and intellect, and it places an inordinate amount of importance on market-based principles. Neoliberal economic policy is not about the word "liberal." It is not about whether or not someone is a liberal. Neoliberal economic policy strives to dominate all aspects of culture and market everything to the highest bidder. In education, neoliberal policy doesn't care about civil discourse or civic duty. The object is to make workers out of everyone, and make sure the poor continue to have no access to power. Unless we can teach our students how to access democracy and become relevant (and, as you know, literacy is the key), our way of life will be lost. Everything we own as a society will be privatized and auctioned off. Think about that.

 


Library-425730_640


The People and Subjects that Paulo Freire was Fighting For: Composition and Education, the Poor and Oppressed

 

I've been working on a paper that examines the effects of standardized testing on secondary students. I'm most interested in essay responses and how they interfere with an expressivist pedagogy. I'm trying to argue that even though an essay prompt might have good intentions, it still caters to what Freire would call "the banking model of education" because the test is more constructivist--it doesn't allow students to display the ability to write in an authentic genre because the test itself becomes a genre. 

For example, in the state of Texas, ninth grade writers are asked to compose an expository piece inside of a box on 26 lines. Teachers in schools with socioeconomic deficits really stress over this piece of writing, and it can be taught throughout the school year. While students are being forced to respond to a prompt in a 26 line essay "that explains something" they are missing out on the joys of composing authentic, expressivist writings that explore current events, inner peace, self-exploration, or other topics of interest. 

For example, in one extremely poor urban school students were given a state prompt that asked them to explore and explain why it is important to trust someone. Most of these students had never trusted anyone and with good reason. In fact, someone that was trusting was considered foolish. The neighborhood consisted of mostly public housing and crime was a part of every student's life. Asking them to write about "trust" was a completely inappropriate topic, a topic that was basically foreign to them.

If English teachers are cultural workers with a mission to humanize and teach empathy, then how did they become aligned with this form of oppression? Is the energy, effort, and time wasted on teaching students to write to a standardized test really an act of oppression?

I think that Paulo Freire would say that we have lost our way, and that we have become the oppressor. If "oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization" as Freire says they are, then does the modern English teacher fit this mold? Freire makes a distinction between "systemized education" and "educational projects." Projects involve the student, while systemized education is a top down form of management that disregards the problem with oppression. 

Typically, standardized tests are equated with power, both financial and political, as profits are made and student needs are ignored. The standardized test is a neoliberal and far right conservative manifestation that touts educator accountability but fails to allow the pursuit of a problem-solving style pedagogy. Freire teaches us that:

"In sum: banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take the people's historicity as their starting point."

Why not understand the origins of our students? When people become "aware of their incompletion" then education becomes an "ongoing activity." Standardized testing symbolizes an oppressive barricade, a box much like the one the students are forced to write in. The test becomes an education completed, or in some cases it becomes an education never accomplished. 

Either way, both outcomes send our students the wrong message. 

 

541846_158