Once Again, Zero Tolerance for Corporal Punishment

NOTE: While the research is compelling that there is no safe or effective kind of spanking/corporal punishment, that isn’t necessary for grown humans to reject hitting children. There is a better and more compelling argument based on basic human dignity and kindness. There is also a strong case to be made that if grown men should not hit grown women (seemingly an obvious stance) because of the inequity of power between genders, no adult should hit a child. Ever. Period.

Here’s What Getting Spanked as a Kid Did to Your Personality, According to Science, Jordyn Taylor

If you got spanked as a kid, it probably didn’t do you any good. In fact, it may have made your behavior even worse, new research suggests.

The more kids get spanked, the more likely they are to “defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties,”according to experts at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan.

Their study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, analyzed five decades of spanking research representing around 160,000 children, according to a news release.

Risks of Harm from Spanking Confirmed by Analysis of Five Decades of Research

“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses, Gershoff, Elizabeth T.; Grogan-Kaylor, Andrew

Whether spanking is helpful or harmful to children continues to be the source of considerable debate among both researchers and the public. This article addresses 2 persistent issues, namely whether effect sizes for spanking are distinct from those for physical abuse, and whether effect sizes for spanking are robust to study design differences. Meta-analyses focused specifically on spanking were conducted on a total of 111 unique effect sizes representing 160,927 children. Thirteen of 17 mean effect sizes were significantly different from zero and all indicated a link between spanking and increased risk for detrimental child outcomes. Effect sizes did not substantially differ between spanking and physical abuse or by study design characteristics. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)


Follow Dr. Stacey Patton on Twitter and Facebook; and see Spare the Kids.


Everyone’s an Expert on Education (Not!)

So an assistant professor of finance references a physicist from 1974 in order to advocate for the research of a current Harvard economist—what do you imagine the field is that this assistant professor of finance is addressing?

Well, of course, it is A tutorial on improving education by Noah Smith, who is also a freelance writer for Bloomberg.

Once again, we are treated by mainstream media to the drumbeat that everyone’s an expert on education (not). [1]

Alas, if truth be told (and it shan’t about education from the flurry of so-called media-darling experts on education among whom none have any experience or degrees in education), Smith’s op-ed is mostly a jumbled mess of hokum.

Smith opens by citing from 1974, a practice virtually no one would accept in academia within the hard and social sciences since we tend to expect research, o let’s say, within the last decade at least.

Ironically, Smith is simply highlighting that there has been a long-standing false narrative about educational research among those outside the field of education.

Like sociology, education has suffered under the nonsensical “scientific” mantra as long as people have been doing educational research (easily for over a century, in fact, establishing a robust and powerful foundation of what we do know about teaching and learning).

Smith frames his op-ed with “physicist” (o, physics!) and the concluding smug-a-thon:

Finally, education research is becoming more of a science than a pseudoscience.

The answers we get from experiments may be less bold and confident than the answers we’d get from simply stating convictions or doing sloppy, compromised research.

But in the end, if anything will lead us to truth, it’s careful science.

That’s right, please note the headline; this is a tutorial by an assistant professor of finance citing a physicist and endorsing the research of a Harvard (Harvard!) economist.

Stupid educators! Stupid educational researchers!

But the real kicker in all this is the whole lovefest over the work of Roland Fryer; Smith argues: “Fryer’s paper is a gold mine for education policy makers, and anyone interested in school reform.”

Well, about all this sciencey gold mine? Bruce Baker has some insight on the brilliance that is Fryer on education:

A series of studies from Roland Fryer and colleagues have explored the effectiveness of specific charter school models and strategies, including Harlem Childrens’ Zone (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009), “no excuses” charter schools in New York City (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011), schools within the Houston public school district (Apollo 20) mimicking no excuses charter strategies (Fryer, 2011, Fryer, 2012), and an intensive urban residential schooling model in Baltimore, MD (Curto & Fryer, 2011)….

The broad conclusion across these studies is that charter schools or traditional public schools can produce dramatic improvements to student outcomes by implementing no excuses strategies and perhaps wrap around services, and that these strategies come at relatively modest marginal cost. Regarding the benefits of the most expensive alternative explored – residential schooling in Baltimore (at a reported $39,000 per pupil) – the authors conclude that no excuses strategies of extended day and year, and intensive tutoring are likely more cost effective.

But, each of these studies suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures. [bold emphasis added]

It seems that, gosh, Fryer is rolling out quite a bit of bad science, bad research on education—what Smith calls a “gold mine.” Baker ends with this note in fact:

NOTE: I would caution however, that we have little basis for asserting that a 20 to 60% increase in per pupil spending would be more efficiently spent on these strategies than on such alternatives as class size reduction and/or expansion of early childhood programs. These comparisons simply haven’t been made, and Fryer’s attempt at such a comparison (NYC “no excuses” study) is woefully inadequate. [bold emphasis added] Pundits who argue that class size reduction is an especially expensive and inefficient alternative seem willing to ignore outright the substantial additional costs of the strategies promoted in Fryer’s work, arriving at the erroneous conclusion (with Fryer’s full support) [bold emphasis added] that class size reduction is ineffective and costly, and extended school time and intensive tutoring are costless and highly effective.

And what? Smith makes a case during his lovefest for Fryer that class size reduction is effective, and Fryer says otherwise?

O, never mind. Smith’s op-ed proves to be the thing that is jumbled, the thing that we should not heed in any way—unless we see this op-ed like the hundreds before and hundreds yet to come: nonsensical pseudo-expert commentary from any field other than education offering their smug (and flawed) pronouncements to us lowly educators and educational researchers.

At the risk of being smug myself, please, o please, all you experts out there compelled by the media to hold forth on education, stick to your field and extend the respect we deserve to those of us who have spent our careers in education in the same way you would like your own expertise and field to be treated.

See Also

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

[1] My refrain here is a purposeful allusion to e.e. cummings since we sit still in National Poetry month—his “pity this busy monster, manunkind,/not.”

Even Technocrats with Good Intentions Sustain Classroom Colonialism

Kassie Benjamin offers a powerful confession at Jose Vilson’s blog. Benjamin—like many educators including myself—became an educator firmly holding to the belief that education is the great equalizer, the lever that changes people’s lives and society for the better.

However, Benjamin explains: “Slowly, I came to the belief I have today: education is assimilation. Still.”

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin names the assimilation Benjamin confronts as “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)

Emdin points a finger at urban “no excuses” charter schools as contemporary versions of traditional schooling created to “fix” Native Americans. For example, Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

But we should also look at a number of policies that are thinly veiled mechanisms for assimilation/colonialism.

Just as one example, tracking remains a robust practice in U.S. education, I believe, because it appears to help the so-called top students (mostly white and relatively affluent) even though a great deal of evidence shows tracking hurts the so-called struggling students (mostly black/brown and impoverished).

Further, like Benjamin and Emdin, Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.”

Policy makers, administrators, and teachers promoting and implementing practices, then, who are in effect perpetuating classroom colonialism may often have good intentions.

Charlotte Danielson provides us here an ironic and important model as she confronts teacher evaluation:

The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.

Danielson, of course, continues to criticize the recent push for extended accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing into how we evaluate, retain, and pay teachers (popularly known as VAM, for using “value added methods”).

The irony comes as Danielson slips into what I believe is the central problem driving much of the classroom colonialism challenged by Benjamin, Emdin, Samudzi, and Paul Gorski: Danielson’s alternative to the failed good intentions of teacher evaluation is just another technocratic version of teacher evaluation.

Colonialism in traditional schooling survives because education is a reflection of our society. Schools will never be transformative at the social level until formal education is unlike our inequitable social structures—until formal schooling serves our vulnerable students’ needs first by honoring them as fully human instead of framing them through deficit lenses.

School discipline begins and reflects the racially inequitable mass incarceration of the wider society. Tracking reflects and perpetuates our class stratifications.

Nearly every aspect of school policy and practice is a mechanism for assimilation—not transformation.

Education and education reform are trapped in a technocratic vision that can only replicate our society.

Education reform and the commodification of education are bound by the mantra “My technocratic vision is better than your technocratic vision.”

It isn’t about standards, but the new and better standards.

It isn’t about high-stakes testing, but the new and better high-stakes tests.

And not once, not once, has the promise of the new been realized in any ways that serve impoverished students, black/brown students, or English language learners.

However, nearly always, the policies and practices in place have served well (or at least not impeded) the whitest and wealthiest.

Emdin invokes the metaphor of invisibility throughout his dismantling of “white pedagogy” and call for “reality pedagogy.” But I am drawn to my English teacher and existential roots by the concluding image of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: the guillotine.

Camus’s main character Meursault describes that “the guillotine looked like such a precision instrument, perfect and gleaming….[T]he machine destroyed everything: you were killed discretely , with a little shame and with great precision” (p. 112).

The efficiency of the technocratic mind, the guillotine, that served the interests of the ruling elites at the expense of anyone else who did not conform, assimilate.

The technocrats, even with good intentions, maintain a classroom colonialism that honors “assimilate or die.”


Recommended Reading Week of April 24

This list of suggested readings is eclectic, reflecting my interests, but I believe they are quite important—even though they range from issues of race and class to James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut.

Recommended reading week of April 24:

The Payne of Confronting Stereotypes about Poverty as Educators

Several years ago, I invited Randy Bomer to speak at my university and then at the annual South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE) convention about the flawed but widely used framework of poverty by Ruby Payne.

After Bomer’s presentation at SCCTE, a woman energetically confronted Bomer, offering an impassioned story of her being from poverty and arguing that Payne’s work resonated with her own lived experiences.

I stood there and watched as Bomer patiently walked her through how her own beliefs about poverty were stereotypes that matched the false narratives sold by Payne. This was an uncomfortable and difficult exchange. But necessary, especially for educators.

This experience was brought back to mind when Nancy Flanagan posted Do Teachers Read Professionally?, which included:

In an earlier incarnation of the course, almost half the teachers (from a single state) mentioned Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty, a book whose ideas and scholarship have been roundly criticized by academics. What to say about that? Payne’s training model had been presented across the state, at conferences and in large districts, and teachers were given a copy of the book. They read it and found it useful.

When I shared Flanagan’s post, she responded with this and then my follow up:

I then added a brief comment about my experience above with Bomer, and added an @ for Paul Gorski to offer some advice.

Gorski’s comments include the following:

The powerful stereotypes, negative and deficit-laden, about people trapped in poverty that pervade the U.S. also infect teachers and even people trapped in poverty themselves.

However, the derogatory claims about people in poverty are false narratives, deforming myths that must be confronted and rejected by educators—as well as anyone seeking social justice, anyone who honors the basic human dignity of all people.

I recommend, then, that educators read the following:

Meditation 512: The you in the space we call awake

[NOTE: I typically post my poetry only at my poetry blog, and I typically refrain from profanity on my professional blog here. However, I am posting my newest poem below because it is primarily continuing a few threads of thought I have been pursuing about poetry as well as about how we treat children. Hope you enjoy my risking a prose poem and posting it here.]

You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you for, for twenty-nine years
“Slow Show,” The National

To risk something real as a writer is to risk making a fool of oneself.
“Learning to Be Embarrassed on the Page,” Idra Novey

I am standing outside, smoking & wasting time. I know this is a dream because I would never smoke & I never waste time. But that isn’t true. I didn’t have that dream. This is the making shit up we call poetry. I knew this is how the poem will start & then I realized how the poem will end so I had to write the rest of it. I had to risk writing a prose poem even though I don’t write prose poetry.

This did happen.

I find “Let It Go” from Frozen on YouTube to play on my iPhone for my granddaughter who is not yet two years old. When she hears it & realizes what the song is, she grabs the phone, running&dancing through the livingroom&kitchen. She raises her arms & ballerinas on her toes, singing along that is mostly humming because she cannot really talk yet. Only words here&there. She knows “go” & she knows rhyme. She already loves music&words, she already loves poetry, she dances to poetry. Although she cannot yet talk or read.

I sit on the couch, watching her & crying. I cry during the drive to work the next morning thinking about her singing&dancing. I cry while writing this poem that includes her.

Tears are poetry.

The world is here to beat that out of her because we are self-loathing creatures who deserve hell if there is one. That isn’t true because we have manufactured hell right here&now in fact: To take this away from the youngest of us because we have abandoned it ourselves. We do not deserve these children yet we are allowed to bring them here&now in these times of sleeping&awake.

This happened as well.

I dreamed about the you who was not you. We were in Washington DC together with so many people from each of our lives & I came to your hotel to be with you but you were always doing something else. I woke up several times because of this dream about the you who was not you but I went back into it each time I fell asleep again. Each time you continued to avoid me & I felt sad&ridiculous for trying so hard to be near you.

Now: This is how the poem ends.

About the you who is you. The you in the space we call awake. The you with fingernails the color of the darkest red wine. You would do anything.

The you who is you would do anything.

—P.L. Thomas

Investigating Poetry Because We Love It (and Our Students)

When it comes to love, to falling in love, I remain quite contentedly always a teenager.

I fall hard and with such passion that I think I come close to losing my mind. I am reminded of terms like “gah-gah” and cartoon depictions of people floating off the ground they are so enthralled.

But this falling in love like a teenager is mostly about my love affairs with writers and artists. I discover a writer I love and I am consumed with consuming that writer’s work—all of it, immediately if possible. I discover a new musical group and I am consumed with consuming that group’s work—all of it, immediately if possible.

And with it all, that desire includes returning to those works over and over with nearly the same glee as the first blush.

While my current appointment is in the education department, and I am no longer technically an English teacher, my soul will always be an English teacher. So as I was driving to work yesterday, my granddaughter in her carseat as my dear daughter was well over two decades ago, I was signing loudly (and badly) from The National (my daughter suffered years of R.E.M.).

As I was murdering The National’s “Wasp Nest,” and glancing at my granddaughter in the backseat to see her smiling, my eternal English-teacher Self kicked into motion.

To appease my urge always to be teaching English, including those glorious days of teaching poetry, I began cobbling together a poetry lesson grounded in “Wasp Nest.”

In my ELA methods seminar, then, we did a meta-lesson (talking about what I was doing and why while I was teaching my four teacher candidates the lesson) combining “Wasp Nest” with Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.”

Here I want to highlight some of the key strategies and goals I have found to be both effective and enduring when investigating text, notably poetry, because we love it (and our students).

I often use popular music with high-quality lyrics (in terms of lyrics that include *craft* [1]) as an entry point to the more traditional focus on so-called established or canonized poetry.

Songs allow me to emphasize an important move many students have yet to embrace—repeated experiences with a text, or for print texts, *re-reading*.

In their lives outside of school, lives deeply rooted in pop culture, children and young people do embrace repeated experiences with songs, TV shows, movies, and choice reading (such as comic books).

But since the required reading of traditional schooling—that teachers assign texts we decide or are decided for us and our students in order to analyze the texts in ways that will be repeated on tests—is mostly a chore, students don’t want to read the text the first time, much less more than once.

So my approach is to ask students simply to listen to the song the first time, not handing out the lyrics or demanding any sort of “school” response. I then ask for their thoughts, again emphasizing I have no predetermined expectations—class discussions are not to be about right and wrong, presided over by the teacher-as-authority.

Students often talk about how the song sounds, the music, and typically are perceptive about the tone.

Next, I hand out the lyrics [2] and ask them to *annotate*, but this second time, I still do not guide that annotating.

We share again, often allowing me several teachable moments (please keep in mind that a tremendous amount of good teaching can never be planned, but if a teacher trusts and listen to her/his students, lessons will always blossom).

Finally, I ask student to listen a third time, guiding them to look carefully at the distinction between *literal and figurative language*. Depending on the students, we may revisit what they know about metaphor and simile, but by the teen years, all students have some sense of figurative language.

“Wasp Nest” is a wonderful text for this exploration so I suggest students mark the figurative language. After the third listening, students share the figurative language identified: “cussing a storm” and “killing clothes” two wonderful examples of grammatical constructions of figurative language that challenge students having simplistic views of metaphor and similes.

Yes, we delve into adjective, gerund, and participle because grammatical constructions are part of the writer’s craft.

The discussion of literal and figurative language leads to (or I guide them to) *diction*, *tone*, and *motif*. Two points are key here in my effort to avoid the literary technique hunt.

First, I reserve the use of technical terms mostly to my role in the discussion; I model using technical language, and over the course of the year, students gradually acquire this.

Second, I monitor carefully that discussions of literary and rhetorical techniques remain broad (we frame all technique as “craft”) and within our exploring *what, how, and why*—What is the writer doing? How (technique and craft) is the writer accomplishing the “what”? And why does it matter to the reader?

In “Wasp Nest,” there is a vivid scene with characters (I always emphasize that poetry is *concrete*, depending on *imagery*), but the use of “wasp nest,” “cutting,” “poison,” and “killing” juxtaposed with the speaker’s desire suggests an intriguing tension in the song.

Throughout the discussion of the song, we try to enjoy the lyrics, the song, and the discussion through our analysis—and avoid making a technical and predetermined analysis the goal of the experience with the song.

For a 30 minute lesson, however, the song discussion necessarily gives way to shifting to “Harlem.”

I have always defaulted to the mini-lesson approach, and weave in my content concerns as I keep the focus on text. Yes, I introduce my students to Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, and related literature and history content, but none of that is preparation for a test; nor do I expect students to learn or care about any of that which is so much trivia.

Over a course, much of that will stick and some if not many students will be drawn to our field of literature. But in the grand scheme, as I noted, this is simply authorized trivia.

We’ve more important things to worry about.

The beauty of moving from “Wasp Nest” to “Harlem” is returning students to focus on the literal/figurative language distinction.

While the song is mostly literal with figurative language serving to reinforce the plot and characters, “Harlem” is about “a dream deferred” and drives the tension of this work with mostly metaphorical language, ripe for celebrating the power of imagery (triggering the reader’s five senses) to make meaning more rich than simple literal statements.

“Harlem” as well challenges students in terms of what makes poetry, poetry; the use of *punctuation* as craft; and the power of the *rhetorical question*.

I won’t belabor further the details of a discussion, but with the poem, we follow similar patterns including my reading the poem aloud multiple times, students annotating, and discussions in which I model technical language while students are encouraged to have their wide range of affective and cognitive responses, including making claims beyond the text and asking questions.

While discussing “Wasp Nest,” we distinguish between details of the scene and characters we can confirm with the text along with our impressions, noting both are important but in formal schooling that impressions not supported by the text are often not accepted.

“Harlem” allows a similar examination of “dreams”—Hughes has a racial and historical context literally in mind, but the poem can be applied to a wide range of “dreams” other than those.

I want end here by stressing that no lesson should be restricted by trying to do everything possible with any text; set a time, let it happen, and move on once the time passes.

And above all else, exploring text is about the joy of language, the love of text and your students—and not about sacrificing that text on the alter of the literary technique hunt.

“Wasp Nest” and “Harlem” make me happy to be alive, happy to be human, happy to be fully human because of the magic that is language. My students deserve the opportunity to see that joy in me, and to come to that joy themselves.

School can be and should be a sanctuary for that joy—not a place where joy goes to die.

[1] Throughout, I will place key instructional goals between asterisks.

[2] The lyrics for “Wasp Nest”:

The National, Cherry Tree

You’re cussing a storm in a cocktail dress
Your mother wore when she was young
Red sun saint around your neck
A wet martini in a paper cup
You’re a wasp nest

Your eyes are broken bottles
And I’m afraid to ask
And all your wrath and cutting beauty
You’re poison in the pretty glass
You’re a wasp nest

You’re all humming live wires
Under your killing clothes
Get over here I wanna
Kiss your skinny throat
You’re a wasp nest

Essential Questions: Confessions of My Life as a Misguided Teacher

My seniors returned yesterday to our ELA methods seminar after an extended 2.5 months of their field placement, our program’s condensed version of what most people would call student teaching.

After teaching high school English for almost two decades, and now an additional 14 years as a teacher educator, I am even more aware of how challenging beginning to teach is.

One of the hurdles to entering the field of teaching is the mentoring paradox. As teacher candidates approach receiving their degrees and attaining teacher certification, they are likely to focus more on how they are taught as well as how their mentors teach.

Their university professors, I regret to say, often appear very polished and expert, but even their education professors fail to practice what they preach—endorsing an array of instructional and assessment practices that the professors do not implement in the course (thus, candidates have never experienced these practices as students, never seen what they look like).

As well, teacher candidates are routinely observing formally and informally experienced teachers, who seem far more casual and extemporaneous than they are; as well, these experienced teachers are the culmination of years of failures, fits and restarts that teacher candidates have no way of knowing, have no access to witnessing.

The same sorts of problems exists when candidates are placed with teachers in field experiences and student teaching. Those teachers of record present similar paradoxes of their experience and expertise—questionable pedagogy or classroom management practices appear effective to the novice teacher candidate, teacher planning and instructional implementation seem effortless.

These issues along with how my program compresses methods coursework (and thus restricts my own ability to model how to teach ELA) have been bothering me in the wake of more than two months of weekly observations of four teacher candidates in secondary ELA.

Since my candidates returned in the middle of National Poetry Month, poetry and the teaching of poetry have been much on my mind as well—leading to my starting our first seminar back with Nick Flynn’s “Forty-Seven Minutes.”

From that, I was planning to confront the problem of the literary technique hunt in ELA courses, especially those courses preparing students for high-stakes testing and not a love of language and literature.

As I waded into my opening comments and questions, the result became a confession of my own journey from a beginning teacher with good intentions who felt and believed one thing but his practices were resulting in the exact opposite of those beliefs.

My young teacher Self was also a young writer, including being a poet, but my young teacher Self strangled any life that was there in both the poetry we decimated or the students’ own affection for words, language, and text of any kind.

My young teacher Self was fully aware that formal schooling was doing something wrong—actually many things wrong—in the context of authentic responses to text and writing.

However, my initial strategy was bound by my missionary zeal (oh my god!) and the seductive allure of a technocratic grip on teaching and students.

Probably the very worst manifestation of this was my early efforts at teaching poetry.

For my candidates yesterday, I outlined my transitions from a teacher destroying a form I love to a teacher who taught poetry with fidelity. Allow me here to offer those briefly:

  • In the beginning, I painstakingly taught students my glorious “four characteristics of poetry”—using a wide range of wonderful (I thought) poems to model these four characteristics. This adventure in transmissional instruction was designed to culminate in students choosing a poem (my very progressive element!) we had not covered in class to write a formal essay illuminating the four characteristics of poetry I had “taught” them. Those essays were abysmal.
  • Failing to see the essential failure of this approach, I tried to resurrect my poetry unit by pairing the songs of the alternative group R.E.M. with the poems we examined in class (see the unit here and There’s Time to Teach: Making Poetry Sing with R.E.M.). And while this certainly infused the unit on poetry with some life, my commitment to transmissional and template pedagogy continued to result in fatal blows to any sort of fidelity to poetry, writing, or humanity.
  • The two key moments of transition for me and my practices (which during my doctoral program became more intentionally critical) included having my former English teacher and mentor Lynn Harrill guest teach Emily Dickinson and then my abandoning the four characteristics of poetry for an essential question: What makes poetry, poetry?
  • As I observed Lynn teach Dickinson, I was able to see, confront, and reject how my teaching practices were trapped in a false linear, sequential, and analytic view of learning. I demanded part-to-whole approaches to text, an approach grounded in an uncritical deference to New Criticism. Lynn, however, allowed and encouraged students to make the responses they felt were important—often huge and sweeping responses that were both cognitive and affective—and then he helped guide them to clarifying—and thus proving—how their responses were valid or not. In short, Lynn honored that most people have holistic responses, working whole-to-part, to make meaning.
  • Related to that epiphany, I simply had to admit that my four characteristics of poetry routine was inane—mostly manageable but quite inauthentic. Embracing the essential question approach to genre, form, and text in general allowed every lesson to be about investigating text and reaching conclusions grounded in those texts and not just reaching conclusions determined for all texts and all students by the teacher as authoritarian. The beauty of “What makes poetry, poetry?” is that with each poem, students and I must confess that it may be the purposeful composing of text in lines and stanzas (in contrast to forming text in sentences and paragraphs for prose), but even that is disrupted by prose poetry.

Teaching poetry with fidelity, then, is about the possibilities of poetry, of language. It is about those investigations and interrogations that we must not prescribe, unless we have resigned ourselves to formal schooling being about compliance.

My young teacher Self dedicated in my belief system (although not yet aware these existed) to social reconstruction and critical pedagogy was implementing practices that resulted in student compliance, student dread, and student apathy for the very stuff I myself embraced with joy, best represented by poetry.

My teacher candidates have never seen that foolish young man with good intentions, missionary zeal, and daily failures.

And despite what a monumental task becoming a teacher is, I am in awe each year of these candidates, already well past that early Me.

After her extended field experience, one candidate told me she has realized teachers really don’t teach anyone anything; she’s already reached an awareness of the paradoxes that took me a decade to confront.

As I continue to contemplate teaching poetry with fidelity, then, I am more cautious and intentional about teaching future teachers with fidelity as well: Are any of us practicing what we preach? Are we stepping back and observing the consequences of what we teach and holding that against what we believe?

Here, then, in teacher education we confront more essential questions.

The Real Test

This post is not about high-stakes testing.

It is not about testing in schools of any kind. Or even education.

This post is about human dignity—to put a fine point on it, about our very human propensity to indignity.

So what is the real test? The real test is about whether or not you will stand in solidarity with others not like you for the human dignity and freedoms you demand for yourself and people like you.

In my 55 years as a Southerner, in the Bible belt, I have witnessed daily that those who are loudest about moralizing are least likely to be willing to pass this test.

I demand mine, they shout, but you cannot have yours—thumping their bible all the while. Religious texts were thumped to deny women their full humanity, to reduce blacks in the U.S. to property. When will we unmask these refrains as the worst types of unethical behavior?

You see, religious fervor, moral certitude are the mothers of intolerance.

If any of us expect the basic human dignity of access to a public restroom, we must extend that to anyone, everyone, regardless of whether we understand or know the experiences of others unlike us.

Your religious freedom must not supersede the religious freedom of people holding a different faith—or no faith at all.

And that is the real test—Will you stand in solidarity with others not like you for the human dignity and freedoms you demand for yourself and people like you?—one too many fail on a regular basis.

Until we all are willing to take and pass this test, none of us are free, none of us have the human dignity everyone deserves at birth.

And all of us carry the shame of the daily failures of this test.

Teaching Poetry with Fidelity: “Does it matter?”

My take on Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” has always focused on the callousness of her math teacher and the subsequent marginalizing of Rachel, who represents for me all students and especially vulnerable students.

Due to both historical and recent (the accountability movement) pressures, teachers fail when they see their work as teaching content instead of teaching students.

Students as well as their love of literature and language and poetry are often sacrificed at the alter of the literary technique hunt so that they can answer questions correctly on a standardized test.

Thus we teach Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” to identify the metaphors and similes; we assign Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” for a daring look at rhyme scheme.

What a bloody waste.

For those who teach, and teach poetry, and love poetry—and probably lose a piece of their soul each time they teach poetry—I recommend the brief poem “Forty-Seven Minutes” by Nick Flynn.

The beauty of the poem is that it sets up a classroom situation in which a student pushes back against the literary technique hunt with “Does it matter?

The persona of the poem is forced to conclude:

I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.

We must ask, then, when teaching poetry, what it is we are about.

Do we owe anything to our students, to our students’ love of language, literature, poetry? Do we owe anything to our fidelity to poetry itself?

If yes—and I think it is yes—it does not matter if we name the techniques; but otherwise, if poetry is simply one of many sacrifices to the standards and testing gods, then let us reduce all the beauty that is poetry to covering the curriculum, meeting the obligations of accountability.

And all else be damned.