The Inhumanity of Humanity: The Real American Value

As I have detailed when examining science fiction (SF) and speculative fiction, the roots of my fascination with those genres include my mother’s love for science fiction as well as my journey from watching 1950s SF films and Shock Theater with her and then discovering my own foundational works, including the original Planet of the Apes films.

Two of the best moments for me as a parent were when I discovered my very young daughter watching over and over the video-taped Tim Burton Batman with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and then Planet of the Apes films.

Since I love the original Planet of the Apes films, I have always been skeptical of the reboots, but when I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was pleasantly surprised—I think mostly because the technological advances that have made superhero-comics-to-films work also gave a new life to the Apes franchise.

None the less, even when mostly good, Hollywood films designed as blockbusters tend to have far more problems than I can stand.

A week or so ago, I noticed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had come to my cable service and I caught it after more than 30 minutes in and while my granddaughter was visiting—so I actually only semi-watched some of the film.

My film-watching life has been limited now to cable film watching, but that facilitates my obsessive self—the urge to watch, re-watch, and re-watch films—often in pieces and out of order.

Tired after a hard cycling day in the late May heat of South Carolina, I noticed Dawn running again last night, and then an interesting coincidence occurred: I watched The Good Lie wrapped around the re-watching of Dawn.

Waiting for Dawn to start, I scrolled past Lie, pausing after reading the synopsis. I do not recall ever seeing Lie advertised and had also missed the controversy about the film, but I wondered how badly a Reese Witherspoon vehicle would mangle what appeared to be an important (and mostly ignored in the U.S.) consideration about the Sudan.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I had to switch to my full viewing of Dawn; however, after Dawn, I noticed Lie on a different time zone channel, resulting in my watching both mostly back to back.

Keeping in mind a strong caveat about popular films, I found Dawn to be quite good, and in many ways, Lie is horrible, inexcusably so.

Both films struggle (I think unconsciously) with the white savior motif that plagues Hollywood, and viewed together, the films are stained by sometimes gross stereotyping.

When the films are not simplistic (and when Lie isn’t muddled by a complete lack of control of tone), there are thematic moments shared between them that should not be ignored underneath all the faults.

Dawn shows the inhumanity of humanity, and Lie exposes the inhumanity of capitalism in the U.S.

Both messages are vivid, intense, and mostly accurate; but I suspect also missed by audiences.

Taken together, the films also dramatize the power of cultural norms to shape individual behavior—a story that refutes the rugged individualism narrative endorsed in the U.S. (and typical of U.S. films).

There is a nobility to Caesar (Dawn) and Jeremiah (Lie) that stands in stark contrast with the basic nature of humans (Dawn) and the capitalist ethic in the U.S. (Lie).

Caesar is forced to break and twist his dictum when Caesar kills Koba (the ape embodiment of human nature):

Koba: Apes not kill apes.

Caesar: You are no ape.

And Jeremiah must choose between his own need to work and his ethical code when faced with a grocery store throwing away food and refusing to give that food to the needy:

Nick: What are you doing?

Jeremiah: It is a sin not to give to those in need.

Nick: According to who?

Jeremiah: Jeremiah.

Nick: And who is that?

Jeremiah: [turning in his apron] Me. My name is Jeremiah.

I suppose if nothing else, popular films have their moments when they are so simple even a child can see the messages: Caesar is more humane, more human than the humans, and Jeremiah is more Christlike than the citizens of a so-called Christian nation.

In his 2013 speech about reading and libraries, writer Neil Gaiman could just as easily been talking about the possible consequences of all art:

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:


He then explains about fiction:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And these words ring true in the wake of my having watched a mostly good film (Dawn) and an often really bad one (Lie) that both demand of the audience: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Humbly, I would add: If we truly were discontent with this world we have created.

And with deep regret, I must conclude that we can tolerate things being different only in these Other Worlds, but not right here in the real world—one in which we are content with pervasive human-made violence and grocery stores that throw away food while the undeserving poor go hungry because that is what the market demands.


Advice for Submitting Work for Publication

While I have blogged before about submitting work as a student and author, I want to focus here on submitting work for publication in academic, scholarly, or professional venues, especially work submitted by K-12 teachers and university scholars.

For those new to submitting work for publication, an important first step is understanding academic and professional publishing. Academic/professional journals and books are edited and managed often by teachers and professors who are rarely paid for that work, and thus, must edit and manage along with maintaining their full-time academic work.

IMPORTANT: Submit your work in such a way that you honor the time and professionalism of the editor(s).

What does that entail?

Do your homework. Before submitting, and even before writing your submission, read and carefully consider the publication (journal) or publisher (books) for which you are seeking publication. You should read and familiarize yourself with the work of the editor(s) as well.

Especially if you are submitting to a journal, read and analyze several recent works in the journal or column you are targeting. Journals and columns can change significantly under different editors, so “recent” is key.

Draft with the publication in mind. Writing your submission must include maintaining a focus on the journal, column, or book call for manuscripts. Original pieces drafted after seeing the call or revising/reshaping existing work (such as a thesis or dissertation completed for degree work) must be crafted to fulfill the call focus and guidelines, including conforming to the word count.

Never submit a thesis/dissertation excerpt or manuscript for publication without revising/reshaping the work to meet the call you are targeting.

Format manuscript to citation/publication specifications. Two important points here: (1) manuscripts must be formatted and texts cited properly (impeccably), and (2) formatting should honor “less is always better.”

Formatting your Word document should conform to some standard guidelines:

  • Use Times New Roman (or similar standard font—although never submit a work with different fonts in body, headers, etc.) and 12 pt. font; double space throughout with the standard 1/2″ indent for paragraphing and 1″ (or per style sheet) margins.
  • Use appropriate header/footer requirements of style sheet identified by publication, but avoid decorative formatting of headers/footers (lines, images, etc.). Editors want and need clean files. All submitted work will be reformatted if published so your decorations are time wasting. (Don’t use italics, bold, or quote marks unless necessary—as in proper formatting required by the style sheet identified. Quote marks should never be used for emphasis.)
  • Note proper formatting for your title, subheads (academic/professional writing tends to have subheads), and references. Take great care not to mix citation conventions for levels of headings and designation of citations as well as the listing of sources (such as the use of footnotes/endnotes, in-text citations, and heading for references). Typically citation generating software or apps should be avoided since they are often flawed and also embed formatting that can be problematic.
  • Be sure to use your word processor appropriately. Know how to format paragraph indentations, hanging indents (citations), and block quotes with the ruler or menu options (and not manually with Return>Tab).
  • Include your name (as it should be once published) and contact information on the manuscript as noted in the publication guidelines. Also, be sure to have a reliable email address that you check often.

In academic/professional publishing, there simply is not room for muddled citation and documentation formatting. Yes, the many and varied style sheets are mind-numbing (APA, MLA, Chicago, Harvard), and the odd changes publications will make to those standards are a maze (use MLA but also for this publication …), but citation conventions constitute a significant part of the professionalism of your work.

Check, double-check, and have a peer check your citations—the consistency, accuracy, and formatting.

Submit a clean document. Submitted manuscripts send a powerful message to editor(s). Sloppy manuscripts (poorly copyedited, mangled formatting, improper citation, active track changes/comments) suggest the writer isn’t serious and the piece isn’t ready for consideration (note the “honor the time and professionalism of the editor(s)” above).

Rolling over a manuscript from one submission to another can be a problem if you are not careful to fully revise and reformat a piece. Never submit with the caveat you’ll properly revise to fit the guidelines if accepted.

Here, again, asking a colleague to read for edits is essential.

Make your contact with the editor(s) count. The actual submission of the work is a last and important step. Use email or postal as required, but make sure that the file or hard copy conforms exactly to the publication requirement (many publications have limits on Word file types; some hard copy submissions must have multiple copies included; and always note the guidelines for cover page and author identification on the manuscript).

Since most submissions are now electronic (either by email or through a submission system), be sure to name the electronic manuscript file as required (or if no requirements, be simple and practical, such as naming the file your name), put required or practical information in the “subject” line (if no requirement, your last name and call date/topic are helpful), and include a brief but effective cover letter.

The cover letter should, again, consider the time and professionalism of the editor(s)—so brief is excellent. However, be sure to include the title of your piece, the call topic/date you are addressing, and then a few details that may help your piece:

  • Note your professional context and why this piece is something only you could have written or is credible because of your background/expertise.
  • Identify your understanding of the publication by referencing a previous article, another work by the publisher, and/or some relevant work by the editor. These must be sincere gestures of your having researched the publications, however, and are not intended as merely cozying up to the editor.
  • Include any required information from the call, and verify you are available by a reliable email address.
  • If your submission is in any way unlike what the publication tends to accept or varies from the call in some significant way, you should note those differences with a brief explanation of why you think they are justified.

Blanch Dubois relied on the kindness of strangers. In academic/professional publishing, mutual kindness is a must.

Those submitting work should do so with the labor and time of the editor(s) in mind, and then the editor(s) must handle those submissions with the sort of care she/he/they would appreciate.

The Unintended (and Mostly Ignored) Lesson of Common Core: Race Inequity

You would be well advised to read Andre Perry’s examination of Common Core and race, carefully and possibly more than once: How Common Core serves white folks a sliver of the black experience.

I would also like to draw your attention to two key points that may get lost in the provocative and powerful crux of Perry’s piece:

I simply can’t manufacture the passion for or against curricula reboots or changes that eventually must happen. I’m sure there’s someone still lobbying for Home Economics as a required course, but gladly most have progressed. The researcher in me can’t argue against wanting a better means to measure educational performance nationwide. However, having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students [emphasis added]. Still, I know that kids overcome….

As Sen. Lamar Alexander-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. rewrite No Child Left Behind, they must consider giving teachers the freedom to teach while providing consequences to those districts and schools that don’t provide the education all students deserve [emphasis added].

Finally, I want to make two responses to Perry’s piece—with the caveat that I am not suggesting my perspective is better but that I have held nuanced differences with some of the important issues Perry is raising.

First, unlike Perry, I do not support Common Core because I do not support any standards changes as well as the inevitable high-stakes testing standards-based reform produce because—as Perry himself notes above—standards and high-stakes testing have not (and will/can not) create the equity in education all children deserve.

And finally, I am an advocate for the inverse of what Perry has scathingly recognized about the backlash against Common Core: “Common Core is serving white folks a sliver of the black experience.”

Education reform needs to make two dramatic shifts: (1) Commit to social reform first, and then (2) address equity of opportunity for all students (again, as Perry notes above).

My grand plan would be not that we subject privileged children (mostly white) to the horribly inadequate and criminally reduced educational experiences that have failed black and brown children for decades, but that we grant black and brown children the dignity they deserve by guaranteeing them the rich and rewarding educational experiences that privileged children have received on top of their privileged lives for decades as well.

As Perry highlights:

Black, brown and poor people take tests every single day. Confrontations with police, hunger, unemployment and biased teachers overshadow the feelings of taking computerized tests. Low expectations, a lack of inclusion, a leaky teacher pipeline for communities of color, and punishing disciplinary policies [hyperlink added] all threaten authentic learning and teaching more than PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests ever will.

For good reason, people in the ’hood have always been more worried with how test results are used.

It is no flippant call to say that all black and brown children deserve the schooling Barack Obama’s daughter have—and not the abusive and insulting “no excuses” charter schools many now must endure.

Ultimately, any aspect of the Common Core debate is an inexcusable distraction—”it’s easier to shout down Common Core than battle for a viable solution to our accountability problem,” Perry acknowledges—and it is thus vital that we open our eyes as Perry demands we do.

Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague and also couch the entire discussion in a caution raised by Johnson, Smagorinsky, Thompson, and Fry: “Just as we hope that teachers do not oversimplify issues of form, we hope that critics do not oversimplify intentions of the legions of teachers who take this approach” (p. 171).

Writers and People Who Write

My colleague Mike Svec and I are working on a chapter in a volume, and we are examining our work as teacher educators who have working-class backgrounds.

Mike is an academic who occasionally writes. I am a writer who happens to be an academic.

And therein lies a problem for our work as co-writers. Mike spends a great deal of time mulling, reading, planning, and fretting (my word) before committing anything to the virtual page.

I write as part of my brainstorming, and fill up the virtual page so I will have something to wrestle with, revise, reshape and even abandon.

Filling up virtual paper is Mike’s late stage. Filling up virtual paper is my first stage.

This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

  1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
  2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:

[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:

Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Few issues in education seem more important or more universally embraced (from so-called progressive educators to right-wing politicians such as Jeb Bush) than the need to have all children reading on grade level—specifically by that magical third grade:

Five years ago, communities across the country formed a network aimed at getting more of their students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. States, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, and foundations in 168 communities, spread across 41 states and the District of Columbia, are now a part of that initiative, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

However, advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas.

This text, some claim, is a fifth-grade text, and thus children who can “read” that text independently are at the fifth-grade reading level.

While all this seems quite scientific and manageable, I must call hokum—the sort of technocratic hokum that daily ruins children as readers, under-prepares children as literate and autonomous humans, and further erodes literacy as mostly testable literacy.

So who does this grade-level reading and proficiency benefit?

First, lets consider what anyone means by “reading.” For the sake of discussion, this is oversimplified, but I think, not distorting to the point of misleading. Reading may be essentially decoding, pronouncing words, phrases, and clauses with enough fluency to give the impression of understanding. Reading may be comprehension, strategies and then behaviors or artifacts by a reader that mostly represent (usually in different and fewer words) an accurate or mostly accurate, but unqualified, restating of the original text.

But reading may also (I would add should) be critical literacy, the investigating of text that moves beyond comprehension and places both text and “meaning” in the dynamic of reader, writer, and text (Rosenblatt) as well as how that text is bound by issues of power while also working against the boundaries of power, history, and the limitations of language.

In that framing, then, grade-level reading and proficiency are trapped mostly at decoding and comprehension, promoting the argument that all meaning is in the text only (a shared but anemic claim of New Criticism).

This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.

Consider first the allure of formula that masks the arbitrary nature of formula. Plug “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams into a readability calculator—first in its poetic format of lines and stanzas, and then as a grammatical sentence.

As a poem, apparently, the text is about 4th grade, but as a sentence, nearly 9th grade.

The problem is that readability formulas and claims of “grade level” are entirely the function of the limitations of math (the necessity to quantify and then the byproduct of honoring only that which can be quantified)—counting word syllables, number of words in sentences.

Reducing text to numbers, reducing students to numbers—both perpetuate a static and thus false view of text and reading. “Meaning” is not static, but temporal, shifting, and more discourse or debate than pronouncement.

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is really “easy” to read, both aloud and to comprehend. But readability formulas address nothing about genre or form, nothing about the rich intent of the writer (for example, poetry often presents only a small fraction of the larger context), nothing about all that that various readers bring to the text.

And to the last point, when we confront reading on grade level or reading proficiency, we must begin to unpack how and why any reader is investigating a text.

As I have detailed, we can take a children’s picture book—which by all technical matters is at primary or elementary grade levels—and add complex lenses of analysis, rendering the same text extremely complex—with a meaning that is expanding instead of static and singular.

Text complexity, readers’ grade level, and concurrent hokum such as months or years of learning are the grand distractions of technocrats: “it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5, 5).

Grand pronouncements about grade-level reading and proficiency, then, benefit politicians, textbook companies, and the exploding testing industry. But not children, not literacy, and not democracy.

Leveled books, labeled children, and warped education policy (grade retention based on high-stakes testing) destroy reading and the children advocates claim to be serving.

Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.

The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.

See Also

CQ Researcher:  Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

21st Century Literacy If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, Schmidt and Thomas

Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling

Benjamin Bloom’s eponymous taxonomy has been bastardized, oversimplified, and misunderstood for as long as it has been a staple of teaching.

My major professor for my doctoral work, Lorin Anderson, was a student of Benjamin Bloom, and Anderson has also spent a great deal of scholarship revising Bloom’s taxonomy as well as refuting the ways it is typically misused.

In the revised taxonomy, noting that seeing the taxonomy as linear and sequential is distorting, the earlier elements of “synthesis” and “evaluation” (often interpreted as evaluation being the highest) have been revised to “evaluating” and “creating,” again with the implication often being that “creating” is the highest.

I would argue that some elements of the taxonomy are more complicated but not necessarily qualitatively better, but it does seem credible to suggest that creating is an advanced act by anyone, especially a student, since it involves synthesis—the drawing together into a new whole parts that may or may not have previously been considered related.

And here we come to art, the hard-to-define product of synthesis, purpose, and expression.

Written art, fiction writing, has now been examined by neuroscience, revealing as Carl Zimmer explains:

Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying, the researchers found. During the brainstorming sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active. It’s possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.

Other regions became active when the volunteers started jotting down their stories. Dr. Lotze suspects that one of them, the hippocampus, was retrieving factual information that the volunteers could use.

One region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

For teachers, especially English/ELA teachers or all teachers who teach their students to write, this study, although limited, should help push them away from traditional template and prompted writing assignments and toward a redefinition of “creative writing” that Lou LaBrant called for in her 1936 piece, “The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing.”

Consider these excerpts from LaBrant, urging teachers to foster authentic, and thus creative, writing by students:

Although teachers of English should be an especially discriminating group when verbal products are concerned, unfortunately we have been as guilty as other educators in devising equivocal phrases and vague statements. We have talked about “tool writing,” “mechanics of reading,” “creative writing,” and “functional grammar.” We have suggested a knowledge as to where grammar ceases to be functional and becomes formal, although grammarians have assured us that all formal grammar is derived from speech. We have verbally separated good usage from grammar, reading skills from reading, and implied other such distinctions. “Creative writing” is probably another one of these vague inventions of our lips. (pp. 292-293)

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product [emphasis added]. (p. 293)

Before continuing I should make it clear that in discussing creative writing and its basis in child need, I am not suggesting that this is the total writing program. There is no necessity for deciding that formal, carefully organized papers have no place in the high-school student’s writing; but neither is there need to conclude that the necessity for writing assigned and limited history papers precludes the possibility of creative work. In my own classes both needs are recognized. (p. 294)

The foregoing are the chief reasons I see for a program of creative writing. Such a program as here outlined is not easy to direct nor is it a thing to be accepted without careful thought. It demands a recognition of each pupil as an individual; a belief in the real force of creative, active intelligence; a willingness to accept pupil participation in the program planning. I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little. I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…. (p. 299)

Let’s not tell them what to write. (p. 301)

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Kurt Vonnegut declared in “Teaching the Unteachable”: “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

Of course, Vonnegut was speaking about fiction writing, and although we may disagree with him about his broad claim that it is unteachable, his implication remains important: Teaching creative writing is extremely complex because creative writing itself is extremely complex.

But let’s also acknowledge that having students write creatively (“that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product”) must not be reserved for gifted students only, but something every student deserves to explore.

Redefining creative writing in school (rejecting template and prompted essays) and inviting all students to write creatively raise expectations while also insuring equity.

#Isuck: On the Heart, the Vulnerable, and Listening

“You must listen to me.”
Muhammad Ali

The 2015 Assault on Mt. Mitchell was the 40th anniversary of a challenging cycling event that begins in Spartanburg, SC and covers over 100 miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

Mount Mitchell State Park, Mount Mitchell Tower. Edward Farr (2014-11-11)

Including this year’s event, I have been riding the Assault since 1988, entering about 18 times. As I lined up a few days ago, the 6 AM temperature was already over 70 degrees, and heat is my kryptonite. So despite my hope otherwise, within fewer than 15 miles, I knew my day was going to end well short of the top of the mountain.

About three or so hours later, I rolled into Marion, the 75-mile mark, and abandoned.

When I uploaded my ride to Strava, I labeled it “I suck.” In part, the label was a typical effort to deflect, to mask among those of us with low self-esteem—self-deprecating humor. The numerous “likes” this received on Strava was interesting, and funny: Were my friends “liking” that I suck? Were they confirming that I suck?

With a cumulative 10,000+ feet of climbing, the Assault route is very hard, rolling and challenging hills throughout the first 30-40 miles, and then a short mountain climb, Bill’s Mountain, at about the 50-mile mark.

During the 2015 Assault on Mt. Mitchell, I stop at the Bill’s Mountain rest stop where good cycling friends Kelly and Steve treat me kindly.

The ride from Bill’s Mountain to Marion, the campground where all riders are brought after ascending Mt. Mitchell some 30-plus miles farther on the route, includes rolling and steep grunt hills.

This year, I dropped from the front group at the 12-13-mile mark—although in 2014 (and many years in the past), I stayed with the front group past Marion and onto the challenging first extended climb (3-4 miles) along Highway 80 leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

My 2014 Assault has proven to be even more significant after this year. Despite being with the top riders after almost 80 of over 100 miles of the event, I nearly quit in 2014. I became increasingly depressed as I climbed Highway 80, and then creeped along the next 12-plus miles of the Parkway, concluding with the hellish final 5 miles in Mt. Mitchell State Park.

However, at the age of 53, I discovered once I finished in 2014, I have achieved my highest placing ever, 58 out of more than 800 participants and over 600 finishers.

Endurance cycling is often as much psychological as physical, and especially for me, the competition is primarily with myself—pushing myself when I am on the edge, surpassing what I have accomplished before, performing along with cyclists much younger and much more gifted than I am.

Age—I struggle to admit—becomes a terrible weight on this self-competition, the realization that my best efforts must begin to always fall short of my younger self. This is a cruelty of sport that is humbling at best and demoralizing at worst.

My early life as a serious cyclist was spent often with two riding partners, Don and Dave—both were older and much stronger cyclists. On most rides, they dropped me, and often, they berated me.

On Tuesdays, we went to the Donaldson Center near Greenville, SC to do a practice race around a 7-mile loop. The practice race began with a warm-up lap, but I was typically dropped quickly in the first race lap (practice races were about 3-4 laps early in the summer, expanding to a 10-lap race on the longest daylight of the summer).

Dave was adamant in those early years that I was just quitting—that all I had to do was push myself and I’d discover I could remain with the main pack. I was certain Dave was wrong, that these cyclists were just better than me.

That was well over twenty years ago, and not long after Dave admonished me in those first several weeks of doing the practice race, I discovered Dave was right. I held on, I finished the practice races, and I discovered a hobby that continues to teach me the value of pushing myself.

In many ways, despite my advancing age, I have been a much better and stronger cyclist throughout my mid-40s and into my mid-50s than when I was racing in my 30s.

Once I was dropped from the front group during this year’s Assault, I had to confront that my heart wasn’t in it. I think in part, that is the result of growing older and wiser, and a large part has to do with what now occupies my heart.

My daughter and granddaughter certainly have recaptured and captured a significant amount of my passion. As a serious cyclist for 30 years, I have put cycling before many things, but in the last year, I have set aside riding, happily, to see my daughter and granddaughter (my longest drought away from the bicycle was when my daughter was young and I spent a large amount of my life supporting her being a soccer player).

I don’t believe our hearts are finite—we can love deeply people and things without having to choose what things and people receive our love and what things and people do not.

But as the heat of this year’s ride intersected with my heart being strongly drawn to people I love and not my own cycling, I was both open to simply stopping the ride early as well as at peace with that decision.

Nonetheless, while my heart wasn’t fully in the ride, my heart also hurt at having failed me.

Those painful miles between psychologically abandoning the event in the first hour and then physically abandoning the ride in Marion were travelled by a vulnerable man.

Periodically, I found myself in groups with my cycling friends, some of whom were also struggling mightily.

On one the hardest hills before reaching Marion, I saw a friend and said, “It’s hot.” He immediately said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

Matt Bruenig has recently explained and shown graphically that over 80% of the poor are “vulnerable populations.”

As a white male with a lucrative and stable career, I am certainly not among the vulnerable, but my cycling hobby (one I can pursue because of my privilege) often renders me vulnerable—stressed, overwhelmed, depressed, and distressed.

The unintended consequence of this hobby, for me, includes those moments when I am forced to consider those who have no choice about being among the vulnerable.

A poor child cannot abandon that poverty—although I was allowed to abandon with almost no consequences this year during the Assault.

As well, while in a self-induced vulnerable state, when a friend did not listen to me (“It’s hot” was a genuine and all-too-real expression of my reality) and immediately imposed his view over mine, I was further deflated.

That mostly inconsequential moment has remained with me especially since I am now teaching a May course on educational documentaries and asking my students to listen to perspectives (of the poor, or racial minorities) that are often different from their own, and that directly challenge beliefs they have never questioned.

My students are facing how documentaries choose whose voice matters, whose voice is allowed—but they are also being challenged to listen while setting aside a perspective they prefer, a perspective that keeps them from listening with any sort of empathy for how another person’s life is.

My #Isuck tag for my athletic failure, I believe, is a way to embrace a humility that is necessary for my own recognition of my humanity and the humanity of everyone else.

Arrogance has a way of appearing to pay off in sport and life, but the consequences of that arrogance are tremendous because in our arrogance we are denying our human dignity, and the dignity of others.

There must always be room in our hearts for allowing the voices of the vulnerable, of course, but we must also be eager to listen to stories of others or the Others as if they are our own because they are.

From #Ferguson to #BaltimoreUprising, voices are being raised, demanding they be heard.

In the web of those tragedies, Tamir Rice, too, has had his life reduced to a hashtag—and is mostly forgotten while those in power seek to rewrite his story in his absence. But his story lives in his family members—who are we if we are willing to listen with open hearts.

Those of us fortunate not to be among the vulnerable are bound by our privileges to listen with empathy and then to act—but the vulnerable should not have to demand that we do.

Mostly in the U.S., we the privileged have abandoned that responsibility, and when we do, we must admit #Wesuck.

Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

According to Liana Heitin at Education Week [1]:

[S]ome reading experts, including those who helped write the Common Core State Standards [emphasis added], are saying what’s critical about vocabulary instruction is how the words are introduced—and that context is key.

“We’ve known for a long, long time from research that giving students a list of words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and write a sentence is not an effective way to teach vocabulary,” said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A better approach, some say, is to have students focus on a topic—anything from the musculatory system to the Great Depression to Greek myths.

“It turns out that learning about the world is a great way to build your vocabulary and knowledge,” said David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team at the New York City-based Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common-core standards [emphasis added].

But this amazing revolution in vocabulary instruction created by the Common Core is not the much more dramatic story.

It appears the power of Common Core to reshape vocabulary instruction reaches back to 1944, when English educator and former National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) president Lou LaBrant wrote in “The Words They Know”:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading. The teacher can make sure that words are related to things seen….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context [emphasis added]. This is the natural way. Children learn to talk through hearing words in context, deriving meaning from the situation (other words used, speaker’s tone, objects present, actions which accompany the words)….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…[W]e can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)

Or Do We Witness Yet More Hokum?

Well, yes, the pose taken in the EdWeek piece above is yet more hokum.

As I have noted, the miracle of “close reading” offered by the marvel that is Common Core is just repackaged New Criticism, and now, the miracle of Common Core and vocabulary instruction is little more than even more evidence that enormous amounts of money, manipulative politicians seeking their own aggrandizement, and an uncritical media are a powerful and dangerous combination (and I made that calculation without the benefit of Common Core math).

If anyone actually cares about effective literacy instruction, and not pandering to fruitless but incessant obsessions with accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, the published works of Lou LaBrant spanning the 1920s into the 1960s offer a wealth of the many ways we have known to foster literacy in students, well before the Common Core architects and advocates were born.

In 1944, after almost four decades as a teacher herself, with almost three decades ahead of her as a teacher as well, LaBrant recognized about deciding what vocabulary to teach students: “We cannot foresee all these needs.”

Her conclusions (in the sexist language of her time) remain a powerful frame today, one that is obscured by the lingering failure of seeking better standards:

There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry [2] is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)

My ongoing coverage of low quality education journalism is not supported in any way by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[1] Noted at the end of this piece: “Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation*. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.”

Bill Gates Spent More Than $200 Million to Promote Common Core. Here’s Where it Went.

Source: Gates Foundation Photograph: Win McNamee

[2] See In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart” for the likely impact of Common Core on teaching poetry.

SchoolED Podcast: Paul Thomas on Grit, Slack, and the Effects of Poverty on Learning

SchoolED Podcast: Paul Thomas on Grit, Slack, and the Effects of Poverty on Learning

[Subscribe to see/download this episode]

My posts on “grit”:

I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

UPDATED (Again): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

Enough Talk About Grit; It’s Time to Talk About Privilege

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

Kids Count on Public Education, Not Grit or “No Excuses”

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure

An Open Apology, with Explanations: Math, Behaviorism, and “Grit”

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

From Ira Socol:

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg – or – the Advantages and Limits of “Research”

“Grit” Part 2 – Is “Slack” What Kids Need?

“Grit” – Part 3: Is it “an abundance of possibility” our kids need?

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

Angela Duckworth’s Eugenics – the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

From Katie Osgood:

Ignoring Mental Health in the Grit Debate

And (please see the discussion thread):

Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion?

Note Living in Dialogue post from Lauren Anderson, EdWeek Editor’s Note, and comments:

Lauren Anderson: Grit, Galton, and Eugenics

And a consideration of Anderson:

Grit and Galton; Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic? Cedar Rienar


I Think a MacArthur Genius Is Wrong About ‘Grit,’ John Warner