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Thoughts on the Book Burning Crazies: Censorship in American Life 📚

A friend of mine recently theorized on the weird book burnings and bannings that are happening around the country, and all I want to say on the subject is that it is only a form of intimidation meant to conjure up images of Nazi boot lickers, and such, so that us open-minded sorts will become fearful. I would like to remind the white nationalist crowd that we live in the modern era where nothing can be erased. Even that embarrassing tweet or fakebook post that you authored several years ago is still out there in the great expansive internet lurking around, waiting to creep up on your dating profile or something. Think about Janurary 6th...how all of those nifty social media posts made it possible for some of you to do serious jail time. Deleting that from your profile didn't work all that well, did it?

Burning a book or banning it someplace is a tremendous waste of your time and energy. Something so stupid and pointless hurts your image and makes you look like a fool. It really is a sidecar issue because as soon as you make a book a point of controversy, people trample each other to go buy a copy. But out of respect for my friend, I will post her thoughts on the subject. I would like to add that getting any of these fanatics to do any actual work, like writing a book report or something, is not going to happen. If they had literacy skills, they wouldn’t feel any desire to suppress any books:

So, I'm wondering, if it would be helpful to require a book report be submitted along with the complaint on a said book before its being pulled from a library shelf or educational curriculum. Maybe requiring an item be read before being cancelled would cut down on the growing epidemic of book burning that is sparking across this country. At worst, the book burning devotee might actually learn something if required to read the very novel they are striving to stifle.

Just saying that I'm becoming more and more suspicious that some of the authors of these book banning lists can neither read nor write but can only cut and paste.

On the positive side, Gandhi tells us that you cannot destroy an idea. 

What this country needs is another Kirk Douglas, Dalton Trumbo, and a return of the rule of law to come in and save us from the jackbooted crazies.

My dog barks a whole lot, and it is a kind of game for him. I think the same thing is happening with a bunch of these school boards and such, everyone is after power and wants to tell the teacher what to do. They are much like the dog though, just barking and accomplishing absolutely nothing beyond looking foolish. Our children experience things two ways: vicariously and in real-life. Which do you prefer? One way or another, they are going to indulge in these happenings. I prefer to see my students experience the negatives in life vicariously, and that is why we read certain texts. Watching someone make bad decisions in a great book is much better than going out blindly and doing it yourself. Think about it.

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Interesting Vaccine Mandate History that Everyone Should Know

JUST GO BUY A BOAT 

~ Professor Lee Hester, author

Due to personal stuff I haven't posted much... but I'll post this note out of frustration concerning people who are against Federal vaccine/masking mandates.

I don't know why there is even a question, legally. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), made it clear that states could mandate reasonable regulations for public health and the case was SPECIFICALLY ABOUT VACCINES. The plaintiff arguing against vaccination provided evidence that some medical professionals thought the vaccine was potentially harmful or ineffective. The court ruled that these objections were not well-founded given the overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence. Face it, there will always be naysayers, or conspiracy theorists. No matter what, you can find someone to gainsay anything. The court made it clear that states could follow the lead of the best science, rather than fringe groups in deciding policy.

The person that penned the decision, John Marshall Harlan, was a REPUBLICAN. He was nominated to the court by Rutherford B. Hayes... another REPUBLICAN.

Four more Republicans joined Harlan in favoring public health mandates along with two Democrats. Only one Republican and one Democrat dissented.

At one time, Republicans were not only the Party of Lincoln, but also the Party of Science and Reasonable Government it seems.

Some may say that this decision was only about state mandates. But that is silly, especially in the U.S.. With no borders between states, a single state passing such a mandate would constantly face the problem of infected people of neighboring states coming in.

A 50 state mandate of the Polio vaccine literally ERADICATED IT FROM THE U.S. The only cases recorded since 1979 were brought in from outside.

When we can't get 50 state mandates. we may need a Federal one.

Morally, it has always been clear to me that one person's rights end when another's begin and my right not to be infected greatly outweighs another's right to not get a needle prick, wear a mask or quarantine.

I've had three shots of COVID vaccine. Three FULL doses, not just half-dose boosters. I haven't grown tentacles and as far as I know, the NSA can't track me or listen in on me with some microchip. If you are so worried about that GET RID OF YOUR CELLPHONE. A vaccine is the least of your worries. You might also want to check with a mental health professional.

Of course some people cannot be vaccinated for valid health reasons. That is not a problem and would be covered in any reasonable mandate.

We are all part of a society, not individual atoms. We all affect each other, whether we like it or not. We can't all have absolute freedom because of that interaction. Regulations exist, in part, to ensure a balancing of individual freedoms. As an example, traffic laws restrict your freedom to drive 70mph across town without stopping, but they help ensure your freedom to drive across town at a slower rate with a much less chance of getting killed. And face it, realistically we can't all go 70 and not stop.

I'm tired of it. The people that hate mandates should think about whether they can even live within a civil society. The kind of freedom they want can only be achieved by living alone on a deserted island. Perhaps they should buy a boat.

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Argument Writing with the Oratorio: Some Truth, some Fiction

I must admit that I love pretending that I'm fully invested in my English degree with a PhD in rhetoric and composition, but the truth is I only had time for a masters. Maybe when I retire, I can do the PhD for fun. If that's possible; if I have any brains left by then. For now, it's enough to just play around with all of the cool things I've learned. Recently, Dr. Joliffe taught us to use the ancient oratorio for our arguments, and I had quite a bit of fun with that by just writing to a prompt that asked me to argue whether or not perfection is a "good" thing. I actually despise the perfectionist in a general type of way, but I knew I would have to write about some specific examples, so I decided to pick on my sister. It's okay if I pick on her because she isn't worried about me at all, and she has enough self confidence to fill a battle ship. 

After a rough edit, this is what I ended up with.

Perfection? Not us!

    While striving for more money and property, my sister, a millionaire with ties to Moscow and the legal financial world, managed to ruin my perception of the perfectionist. At dinners around the table with my elderly grandmother and infant nephew, my sister would chronically fling her micro and macro aggressions in my direction. My free spirit and lack of accountability irritated her sense of perfection. I wanted to spend my life traveling, not crunching numbers (she's a certified public accountant), and I rarely left anything on my plate because I was dirt poor. Starving, the dinners with Grandma helped me survive my poverty. 

    The grades seemed to matter to my sister: the F in journalism because I failed to withdraw; the C in psychology, a class she despised; the multi-national group of students that drew me in, none of us focusing on perfect attendance, perfect scores, or even a perfect character--no moral compass for us--no perfection, not even close. Because I learned how to become inwardly happy, to accept my imperfections and embrace them, happiness has not eluded me as it does for the millions of overstressed and angry type A perfectionists that suffer from loneliness and isolation.

    Perfection in itself is an unattainable goal as I noted in yesterday's faculty meeting. While other overstressed teachers contemplated how to make a perfect 100% on the ridiculous Danielson framework for providing feedback to students, I kept to my inner mantra--"I can try, but I'm not going to kill myself if I am not perfect." I know perfection eludes the people that seek out its fellowship. I've seen its lack of grace and style, its slump into solipsism, and its retreat from society. I've seen its relentless pressure paint a grimace across my sister's lips and chin, and strip the laughter from her throat.

    But me, I'm a proud gypsy, a hobo, with tattered accoutrements, failed plans, and a surging deficit. I'm an imperfect laugh and smile, a bottle of gin, a hangover, a happy clout. But a perfectionist? I think not!

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Professional Development: How Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking is Helping Me on Day One

It is impossible for me to quantify the many various ways that Bard College IWT has helped me become a more effective teacher. In the past, I participated in three week-long summer workshops on their campus that guided my pedagogy and introduced me to a bevy of other teachers from around the world that shared their own best practices and innovations. Today we did several activities that will inform my future teaching, including a loop writing activity that I must admit that I have neglected to incorporate into my own classroom. 

The theme for this workshop is "margins" and "centers," a confusing concept for someone that might not teach. But for me this poses a true reality as I think about what exists in the margins of my classroom and what exists in the center. I decided to share, verbatim, a couple of excerpts from my loop writing from today because I want you to possibly use this technique to improve your own classroom or workspace.

My teacher asked us to write about what is in the center of our classroom. 

The students are at the center of my classroom because, of course, I am a student-centered teacher. I want every student in my class to feel valued and appreciated so that they can have enough self-esteem and confidence to forge ahead and become happy, productive members of society. The goal, in my case, is to make my students be able to yield power in nonviolent ways by using the pen instead of the sword. I think humanity is tired of the sword.

One of our team members attending from Israel had an interesting response to this question. He wrote that the text is the center of our classroom, the reason we meet at all. I think we both gave pretty good answers. A class needs cohesion, so this emphasis on fragmentation, lit circles if you will, interferes with advanced interpretation and significantly reduces the possibilities of creating a valuable community in a challenging environment. A shared text brings the class together.

My teacher asked us to write about what is on the margins of our classrooms.

I am on the margin of my classroom because this is my students' high school experience. Even though I advocate for them whenever possible, I want them to solve their own problems and be active learners. That can't happen if I don't step into the margins. I don't want my students constantly looking to me for the answers. I want them to take my guidance and then create their own compositions based on what they believe to be true about the text, or I want them to be able to use style and voice to explain what they like or dislike about the text. I want argumentation and persuasion, and that takes confidence.

We did several more loops today, and then we used a metacognitive strategy to analyze what we had written. 

The loops gave me a way to visualize the interplay between myself, the students, and the materials presented. This activity also enabled me to visualize strategies used by my workshop colleagues as we shared our writings. The loops served to fine tune my planning--helped me access those murky spaces in my pedagogy.

We analyzed a visual. I am sad to admit that this has always been an area that I ignore or only briefly examine. My teacher used a photo that had meaning to me personally. Of course, my teacher doesn't know me, so he couldn't have known that this visual would lead me into some interesting ideas...in short, this activity is going to help my students on their exams. This activity is going to help my students with inference, symbolism, and interpretation. 

The pandemic created a climate of confusion and distraction for almost everyone. Thanks to Bard, I am finally breaking out of my cycle of confusion and distraction that haunts me continuously and rediscovering my ability to get in the zone and write. 

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Explaining Myself: Why I Want to Become an Anti-Racist Teacher

First of all I would like to remind my readers that in spite of a stereotypical African American first name, I am a white person of western European descent with only a smattering of Native American thrown in. I know this for a fact because I took the 23&Me DNA test, and it turns out I'm nearly as white as a person can get. I do have skin that darkens up nicely in the sun, dark green eyes (cousin to brown on the DNA strand), and an overall 'Indian' look, but only one of my ancestors can be verified as native.

Discrimination and prejudice certainly impacted my life in an ongoing and rather problematic way because my family members stepped out in nontraditional roles and some of them worked in what could be considered as odd career choices, including myself. I'm not a stranger to white elitism and snobbery. But my challenges stack up nicely in the columns of inconvenience or mild heartbreak, even though I now realize that some of my old associates either hid their distorted and ignorant opinions from me, or have, over the decades, became disgustingly narrow minded and ridiculous, even ungrateful.

In recent years, some of my African American friends and coworkers quietly and patiently pointed out some of my own dumb blind spots and unearned privileges. Even if I earned the right to some of my privileges through hard work or suffering, I still enjoy a ton of White-Bread-American advantages that people of color righteously feel angry about. The best place to view this list of unearned advantages built into the racist American system are listed in Peggy McIntosh's essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, lists 50 ways that white people experience privilege over people of color. All 50 of them are relevant and important, eye-opening and true, but for now I want to talk about number 39: I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race. 

The best school leader I have ever known was a younger and wiser African American woman. She is honestly gifted, an amazing writer and communicator, a wonderful teacher and friend to every person that knows her. She goes out of her way to think open-mindedly about people that I typically write off as plain stupid and fake (this is hyperbole because I seldom write anyone off). Obviously, her heart is ten times bigger than mine because she strives to see the good in everyone, no matter their background or identity, while I'm a skeptic when it comes to adults. But she sometimes, like a million other qualified and gifted people, would be late to a faculty meeting or other function. On one notable time, she was stuck in a meeting with a parent, and I watched and listened as she entered the room; I witnessed the negative body language and eye-rolling, and I heard the comments that were made:

"There she is, late as usual. I wonder if she knew we had a meeting. She's late all the time." 

It's true that occasional lateness happened, but if the occasional lateness happened to me, or some other white person, nobody ever cares or makes any audible comments. When it's a white person, people tend to mind their own business when it comes to lateness. When it's a person of color, it's because the person is not organized, or they are lazy. This is just plain wrong.

Number 13 has to do with money: Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. Let us be honest white people--most of us don't deserve the bank credit that we get. Some of us start businesses and fail to properly pay or compensate our employees. Some of us are not worth the paper we are printed on, and that includes me. I am just not worth much, and I may never be worth much. But I have something that most people of color don't; I have some generational wealth. It's not much, but it's still amazing. It's better than nothing. When I walk into a bank, I get a ton of respect, respect I definitely do not deserve. If my qualified and gifted person of color walks into a bank, she receives less attention and gratuity, even though she is trying much harder than I am to establish herself as a reliable and current bank customer. 

We all know these stereotypes and racist beliefs are built into everything American. The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, wants to make it illegal for teachers to point these facts out to students. He wants to forbid teachers to speak freely about critical race theory; but I'm positive that Abbott doesn't know what CRT is, or he would want to have it taught in our schools, because, after all, isn't Greg Abbott an open-minded and well-educated man? Critical race theory basically teaches us to notice the built in racist structures that exist, and then it teaches us how to reject and resist these ignorant ideas personally. For example, CRT points out that many deed restrictions disqualify residents based on their race. This is a fact of life, not a fairy tale or fake news. If it is our goal as a society to make opportunities and the American dream available to everyone, then how do these deed restrictions concerning race further equity? And, of course, this example of deed restrictions is just a tiny, petty example. If you really want to examine CRT, then look at incarceration rates, the war on drugs, immigration, and healthcare disparities, to name just a few glaring, national problems.

The real threat to American life is right wing extremism--neoliberalism. Donald Trump, Greg Abbot, and a slew of other ignorant politicians and demagogues clearly aim to normalize white supremacy, and they personally enjoy indulging in hateful and divisive acts and speech. They want wealth for a few and subservience for everyone else. Wealth for a few and subservience for everyone else is the political and economic theory known as neoliberalism. If you are following this ideology, if you are falling for this scam, then you are part of the problem. You are voting against yourself. If you are indulging in hateful thoughts and ideas, then you are doing something that is causing you to feel a temporary relief from what is buried under your psyche: the knowledge that you are wrong. You are actually causing Americans, including yourself, to lose freedoms. Neoliberalism and white supremacy are dangerous ideologies, but Critical Race Theory is an idea that will help you understand our national history; CRT will help you know yourself better, especially if you are white.

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The Campus Level Writing Program Administrator: A Way to Ensure College Success 🏛

After taking practicum in composition at the masters level, I am more convinced than ever that my campus should have a writing program administrator to help streamline assignments across disciplines and develop a common standard that reduces confusion and technical inconsistencies across departments. As a rule, professors write and publish their own materials using an individual set of norms and practices that work for them. But when students enter college classes, they are often not prepared for this next stage of vigorous academic writing. In one glaring example of malpractice, teachers in a previous social studies department taught high school students that topic sentences were little "baby thesis statements" and then insisted students write in generalities rather than prepare strong and assertive arguments because "it is more academic sounding." 

My experience in one prominent charter school chain convinced me that even a writing program administrator situated at the top level of the organization in the central office, someone with a PHD in English with a focus and background in rhetoric and composition theory, would alleviate some of the inconsistencies in vertical alignment and help teachers prepare all students equally for college writing. But realistically a writing program administrator at the campus level would certainly be preferable, and this person could also teach a few English classes. Basically this would eliminate the low quality instruction that is happening now with teachers packing students down with poor and erroneous pedagogies and clobbering them with low-quality, computer-generated, drill-and-kill, grammar exercises. 

During practicum as I struggled to write a college-level syllabus for my imaginary 1301 composition and rhetoric class, and as I struggled to internalize the basics of each composition pedagogy, I couldn't stop thinking about how badly writing program administrators were needed at the high school level. Now that almost anyone with any kind of academic background can certify to become an English teacher, even without any advanced coursework or quality professional development, writing program administrators are desperately needed. Helping incorporate writing into other subjects in a streamlined and cohesive way is essential in a STEM school.

The moments when I observe students floundering academically, and I see teachers struggling with a lack of content knowledge and writing experience, I think of the inequities that I witnessed in 2004 when I briefly worked as an adjunct teaching basic composition. Some of my students had been removed from their college level writing class because they had never been effectively taught how to take notes, write a thesis statement, organize a text, annotate, or read aloud. They literally tested their way into college without basic writing or moderate literacy skills. Angry and disillusioned, many of them felt used because they had been passed along because of some substantial talent at one sport or another. Now when I work with my students, I feel a sense of urgency. I know that if they fail to write adequately, they will never complete a four-year degree. Allowing students to move into the world of academia without providing them with solid writing experience is unconscionable. It is my hope that future high schools will begin to align goals and standards across disciplines and hire professional writing program administrators.

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On this Last Day of Love Month, A Cat Story

I can't do my own writing anymore, especially after the angst and misery of Valentine's Day, and the month of love: the month of crazy, wild weather; the month of a near total Texas electricity blackout; the month of a broken service pipe; the month of extreme Covid swings; and another month of grief over the death of not one, but two, little, precious pets. 

On this weird night, on the eve of Women's History Month, I am thinking about writing an article that features an important female in the world of rhetoric, like Ida B. Wells, an African American writer, or maybe Christine de Pisan from the Medieval era. Women in the rhetorical tradition typically receive some pretty outdated criticisms, so I'd like to offset that with some strong opinions of my own.

How do women balance all of these silly expectations about communication? What's wrong with writing aggressively? Should I write like a girl so that men won't be offended? Should I defer to the male voice? Is civil discourse really that important, or is that just another term for oversensitivity? I was told recently that I talked too loud, but my response was that I thought I couldn't be heard. 

Is that what men think we are doing when we write an aggressive text? Do they think we are trying to yell? Is that what the good conservative woman thinks? 

Anyway, the cat story submitted by my writer friend contains a message about gratitude. I am grateful that my voice continues to matter to my readers and friends, even though I am an outdoor cat. I am grateful for all of you. I'm thankful that you don't find me too loud for trying to get your attention. I am hoping you will continue to support me through these weird times. 🌹

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To train the cat or be trained by the cat that is the question.... Whether it is better to take a shoe to the Siamese or squirt him with the water bottle, after his sixth attempt to get one up at 5:00 in the morning, when he has been howling at one's bedside since three, or just to give up and open a can of cat food and stagger off and wait for the alarm to go off in just a few minutes, or throw his hairy little bohuncas into the garage, where it is freezing cold but there are mice....? These run on sentences frame the eternal questions of cat owners, who've been struggling with their cat masters, since the Egyptians made the mistake of first letting the cat gods into their hearts and granaries, in order to kill the rodents eating the grain.....

If I am sleep deprived, do I not get cranky? If I am tortured, do I not break? Even now, that Siamese is stalking me, complaining that the canned cat food doesn't meet up with his expectations for good service.... If I am harassed, will I not fight back; or will I just give up, give in, and buy the cat some tastier brand.....?

The outside cat thinks the canned cat food is damned tasty! He just ate it up in one gulp.

I give up.....

Just who is running this household?


Teacher and Student Burnout: The Battle is Real

I sit here helplessly in my little living room /slash/ office area of my tiny little apartment in this huge metropolis and I listen to people that have never worked in a public school, in any capacity, talk about how safe it is to go back to the classroom. I sit here and I listen to them compare me to the grocery store clerk, or the trash collection service. I hear them making a moral judgement about my courage and fearlessness in the midst of this crisis, as compared to my counterparts in other public service arenas. Well, I just want everyone to know that I'm not a coward, and I am tired of my opinion being overshadowed by people that have no experience in the classroom. At the same time, I'm not stupid either. I know for a fact that schools are disease factories; I know that schools can never be clean enough to "stop the spread"; I know how many colds, coronaviruses, streps, stomach illnesses, and other infections I have caught and/or transmitted over the past ten years of my career in public school, so how can this disease be any different? Uninformed people think if you throw some hand sanitizer, a mask or two, and some big cash at the problem, along with some attempted social distancing, that all of the kids can just march right back into the school. The reason that schools are not significantly contributing to community spread is because they are currently rather underpopulated, so how can anyone sit there and confidently pressure teachers and support staff to just go and willingly sacrifice their own health, or their family's health, for a job that they are not even adequately paid to do?

Kids and teachers are definitely unhappy right now. One thing that is getting my goat is this business about my online class. We are to slavishly follow the five-part lesson plan as it is laid out by Doug Lemov in his book, Teach Like a Champion. I have no problem with Lemov, and I like some of his ideas, but making a student do 7 Do Nows a day, along with 7 Exit tickets a day, all online, is just the dumbest thing ever. My kids are complaining voraciously about spending 7 hours a day doing a repetitious five-part lesson for each online class. That is 7 Zoom meetings a day. Making the teacher create 5 separate folders for each day and script out each step of the class, and then make that same teacher slavishly follow this five-part, five folder, five day a week, boring repetition is a burn out machine major-deluxe. I have heard in songs and stuff that it is better to burn out than fade away, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Maybe fading away is not a bad idea, a sentiment now shared by many educators.

This week I had the unique experience of getting an administrator in my online class asking questions. All of my kids can follow my class, open my materials, and work with my digital content. I am running 4 digital platforms: Schoology, the community college I work for, Skyward, and the College Board. All of these have some different requirements and portals to put grades in and different things for students to do. I am trying my hardest to keep it simple for my students by engaging them in creative and colorful discussion boards and assignments. My attendance is amazing, and the vast majority of my students are growing as writers, thinkers, and readers. Even though we are separated by distance and this disease, we enjoy our classes. In spite of everything, I have been able to build some robust relationships with my kids, so their suffering is my suffering. But I got a weird dressing down of sorts from my administrator because I don't have little folders for each day, with little lesson plans in each day, with my content spread out into these separate days. It's the craziest, most clerical intensive, mindless, and uncreative mandate that I have ever been asked to engage in. My students go back and revisit materials constantly, so I don't see how making them hunt and peck in daily folders is of any use to them; nor is this hunting and pecking of any use to me, as it completely stifles my ability to create a meaningful lesson plan or unit designed on the unique and specific needs of this crucial moment. My lesson plans, when I do them the way they are mandated, are fragmented and not unified. When I do them the way I have been taught in college, then my students are happier. I create a new folder every week, but these lesson plans and folders as mandated are harming my students' classroom experience.

I want to know when it started becoming important for me to write lesson plans that prioritize my administration over my students so that I can be judged, not for my teaching, but for my ability to make little daily folders, and all of this during a world health crisis.

This kind of negativity, looking for fault and calling teachers cowards, should be forbidden during this crisis. It is an all-hands-on-deck kind of a mess. Administrators and the public should be looking at ways to get teachers and kids safely back into the classroom where we do our best. If that means moving teachers up the line to get a shot, then why not? When you ask a politician or some high-level administrator this question about the vaccine, you get a bunch of weird lip service, but no answers. We are talking about the safety of our kids and the people in the schools that are charged with spending long hours everyday with them in close proximity. Only a fool or a charlatan would go around making the claim that schools are safe. Clearly, they are not, and they won't ever be if people in power can't focus on what is important, rather than what is petty. 

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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.

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