Anonymity and Professionalism: Teacher Voice in a Time of High Anxiety

Briefly on the National Council of Teachers of English‘s Connected Community, members could post on forums anonymously, spurring a few discussions and debates about anonymity and professionalism (as well as attribution of ideas and accountability during a thread about plagiarism).

When I first moved to higher education, my current university had an online platform that included a discussion feature, one that also allowed students (or anyone in the university community) to post anonymously with screen names.

One particular group of students connected with a powerful and controversial (also highly politicized and well funded from outside sources) student organization often posted anonymously and tended toward personal attacks of university professors—xenophobic and homophobic slurs included.

Several professors also participated in these online debates, but with their names openly displayed.

This situation was a subset of a larger campus tension between very conservative students and a much more moderate faculty. Ultimately, that forum was closed and never resurrected; however, a key element of the situation was the debate over whether or not anonymous posting was appropriate—notably in the context of an institution of higher learning.

Then and during the recent NCTE Connected Community discussion, I have always maintained that a key element of professionalism is the relationship between a professional’s name and her/his stances, claims.

In my professional scholarship and my public work, my name and even access to my email are prominent always.

As a writer and career educator, I see my scholarship and public work as extensions of teaching—and believe all teachers must be authoritative, earning the trust of those they serve as teachers. The who and what of teaching and making claims, for me, is inextricable.

However, there is a long and powerful history of pen names/pseudonyms in traditional writing as well as the more recent world of blogging.

Anonymous voices have risen out of oppression in the name of overcoming that oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.

So if we return to the anonymous posting on NCTE’s Connected Community and place that in the context of students posting anonymously at my university, we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.

Students feared grade and course retaliations for posting under their names in the same way K-12 teachers in the U.S. fear speaking publicly because educators’ job security has deteriorated significantly in recent decades.

Educators at all levels are also under a powerful norm to avoid being political, to resist activism—much of which is about the cultural silencing of women.

Nonetheless, anonymous public and forum commentary often emboldens people to be reckless and unprofessional—personal attacks, trolling, etc.

As I noted above, all of my professional and public writing and commentary are under my very public name; therefore, that forces me to hold myself to an incredibly high standard—primarily to make only warranted claims.

Especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I seek ways to model the same sort of standard for making claims in public contexts that I make in scholarship. Even my Op-Ed and commentary work in journalism is meticulously cited (through hyperlinks)—although some online publications still resist including them.

Further, as a teacher 24/7, I believe I am a model for my students who need to embrace a way of being in a democracy that includes their voices and their ethical acts of rewriting the world.

My students are unlikely to be writers or scholars, but they certainly should be living by and making warranted stances. And possibly more than ever, they must be able to read and re-read the world in order to know when others are being credible or petty and vile.

Let us not trivialize the urge to raise anonymous voices, but also, let us not ignore that the most vicious among us are empowered by anonymity: the terror and power of the KKK were intensified by the white hoods and gowns.

A free and just society in which there is no need for anonymity is a wonderful ideal, but I am certain we have yet to reach that situation.

Those of us who have levels of privilege that allow us to model the ideal must continue to do so. Using those privileges to silence others with legitimate concerns about their own imbalances of power is inexcusable.

In any and all connected communities, then, it becomes more about the nature of the conversations than professional or personal accountability.

Anonymous or not, public or professional, we teachers must always resist being petty, and those who need the veil of anonymity would serve their own causes well to have high standards for that context in the same way linking professionalism and our names should.

Imagining a Society where All Lives Matter

The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966.

The U.S. suffers from “myths that deform” [1].

As George Carlin quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

At the core of that deforming American Dream is a cultural clinging to individual responsibility and its negative—a rejection of both community/collaboration and systemic forces.

In the U.S., so the story goes, you are successful or a failure because of your own individual traits, regardless of the power of inequities (racism, classism, sexism) to shape your life.

Also necessary for the American Dream and bootstrap narratives to endure, the U.S. has a love affair with outlier antidotes: One black man’s success proves no racism exists.

Idealism in the U.S. sustains offensive slogans such as All Lives Matter, but also feeds whitewashing of the ugliest parts of our history (know-nothing pundit Bill O’Reilly, for example, arguing that slaves building the White House were well fed).

This belief in individual responsibility has created a culture in the U.S. that allows and embraces a militarized police force, one that defaults to an excessive use of force.

Just as our idealism blinds us, we in the U.S. are simplistic thinkers. Instead of questioning why in the U.S. police kill hundreds of citizens each year (2014: 630 killed) while in German police routinely kill fewer than 10 citizens a year (2014: 7 killed), the urge to whitewash shouts that police kill more whites than black—disregarding that black and brown U.S. citizens are killed at much higher rates than whites.

Let’s then imagine what a society would be like where all lives do matter—even though we really don’t have to imagine.

If all lives mattered, we would expect that no citizens be killed by the police each year, and that no police officer would die in the line of duty.

Our default would be zero in each case, and instead of rushing to justify either, we would see both as failures of our free people. “We are better than this,” we would say, “and we shall do better.”

In this imaginary society, most of us would have never known Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice—now perversely immortalized as victims of a people who do not value some people’s lives as much as we rush to justify our violent culture, our militarized police, and our sacred guns.

In this imaginary world where all lives matter, there is “nothing to kill or die for”—but this is a type of idealism we refuse to pursue in the U.S.


[1] Paulo Freire’s Teachers as Cultural Workers.

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

The presidential election cycle provides one powerful and disturbing lesson in the U.S.: formal education has failed to accomplish the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people.

Often, we view formal education as a key to economic success, emphasizing the strong correlation between higher educational attainment and greater income. But we also remain committed to our mythologies and cultural narratives about education being the “great equalizer.”

However, as this discussion will examine further, these beliefs are not supported by evidence. Yes, greater educational attainment correlates well with income, but schooling does not create equity; for example, see the inequity remaining by race:

fig_2

And the inequity remaining by race and gender:

access to good jobs race gender

While the relationship between formal education and any person’s career and earning potential remains incredibly important in a capitalistic society, the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people remains the relationship between formal education and freedom as well as social equity.

Integral to the role of formal education as it contributes to individual freedom and societal equity is critical literacy: “challeng[ing] the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development.” For Paul Freire, a founding thinker in critical pedagogy, critical literacy is the ability to read and re-read the world along with the ability to write and re-write the world (see Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

In more accessible language, critical literacy is the ability of any person to act on her/his world instead of being a slave to that world.

Critical literacy is living instead of simply surviving.

Here I want to offer one caveat: As I note often, formal schooling is not the only way to being educated. Many people (writers notably) have achieved a high level of awareness and education in spite of formal schooling.

Yet, universal public education—as created by our very flawed founding fathers—was rightfully placed as essential if people were to achieve freedom and if a country were to ever become equitable (in our inception, we were far from that; today, equity remains a goal of the U.S., not something we have achieved).

But being well educated is not simply about the acquisition of knowledge (what Freire rejected as the “banking” concept of education). Being well educated is about being able to acquire knowledge in order to investigate and interrogate that knowledge: What is the source of that knowledge? Whose interest does that knowledge serve?

Despite being economically and militarily powerful, the U.S. remains stagnated, when compared to other democracies, in a belief culture—stubbornly clinging to unwarranted beliefs despite an abundance of evidence easily accessible to anyone.

My public writing is dominated by interacting with well-educated people (often edujournalists) who are committed to provably false claims, and daily I interact with family, friends, and students who also cling to falsehoods and function while holding contradictory beliefs.

These experiences are vivid to me because they reflect my own journey, having been raised in the South and indoctrinated with beliefs that I now reject strongly—racism, classism, sexism, homophobia.

Much of my life over the past thirty years has been stepping back from beliefs that I discover are false, flawed. That process is hurtful, disappointing, even embarrassing.

Even though I am 55 and well educated, it still happens.

When teaching writing, I am so aware of the power of misconceptions and false beliefs, that I teach students to focus on misconceptions when doing public writing—a dependable pattern of “you likely think X is true, but consider this.”

And throughout all my teaching, grounded in critical pedagogy, I foster critical literacy as a foundational commitment to individual freedom and equity.

Let me end with a couple examples.

Critical literacy is an awareness of and investigation of codes. For example, why are blacks often called “thugs,” but whites demonstrating similar behaviors are not? Because “thug” is a code for “nigger” that remains socially acceptable only because of a lack of critical literacy.

And research shows that when whites are confronted with the fact of racism, they immediately emphasize their own hardships. This also is a lack of critical literacy.

Critical literacy allows an understanding of percentages: more whites are shot by police because whites outnumber blacks about 5 to 1, but blacks are more likely to be shot by police in terms of percentages—a fact of racial inequity.

Finally, as well, that whites suffer hardships isn’t the issue—because whites do. Racism is about power, and the fact that white hardship is not because of being white while black hardship often is because of being black.

Belief is dangerous because it oversimplifies the world to the point of being harmful.

Critical literacy is about being able to step back from those simple beliefs in order to negotiate and even change the real and complex world.

This is the more important why of education, more important than what job or salary anyone will have or achieve.

Education is about taking control of life so that it doesn’t happen to you, so that it doesn’t steamroll over you.

Without critical literacy, a people become pawns to demagogues and buffoons.

We are a people without critical literacy and that may result in our being the pawns we deserve to be.

Plagiarism: Caught between Academia and the Real World

An international student enrolled in a U.S. university presents her first speech for a introductory public speaking course. English is not her first language so writing and delivering the speech present for her problems not faced by students native to the U.S.

All students in the course also submit their speeches to the professor electronically so that the texts can be run through plagiarism detection software. This international student’s speech is flagged for two passages being over 40% unoriginal, word-for-word identical in many areas to a high-profile political speech easily found online.

In academia, students accused of plagiarism and then proven to have plagiarized face dire consequences—failing the assignment, failing the entire course, and/or expulsion.

Having taught high school English and then first-year writing for a combined 30-plus years, and having served on a university academic discipline committee, I have witnessed a wide range of problems with how academia defines plagiarism (including different bars for plagiarism from professor to professor in the same university), how professors detect and address plagiarism, and how students are taught and not taught the ethical and technical aspects of proper citation and use of sources in original writing.

The scenario above, however, has now been very publicly presented through the speech offered by Melania Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

While Melania Trump’s speech has become fodder for parody and humor as well as partisan bickering over whether or not it is plagiarism and whether or not it matters, several key aspects of this act of plagiarism in the real world is being ignored, especially as it informs how we treat plagiarism in academia at all levels.

Here is the ugly truth we in the academy fail to teach students: In formal schooling (and most scholarship), plagiarism is punished harshly, especially when the plagiarist is a student; but in the real world, plagiarism occurs quite a bit, especially in politics, and with very few negative consequences—mostly because the plagiarists are powerful people.

The significant gap between the consequences for plagiarism by a student in school and for powerful people in the real world offers some important lessons for both academia and the public.

In K-12 and higher education, students are subjected to a high level of focus on and scrutiny about plagiarism. However, much of that is about detection and punishment—while too little time is spent directly teaching students about the ethics and technical aspects of choosing, using, and citing sources for original work.

When Rand Paul faced multiple cases of his work, including speeches and publications, being flagged for plagiarism, his response is important to consider (and in many ways parallels defenses of Melania Trump’s plagiarism):

Paul has argued that his speeches aren’t meant to be meticulously footnoted academic papers. He has also noted that he cited the movies he talked about and, in the case of his book, that the Heritage Foundation study and Cato were cited in the endnotes. Heritage and Cato have both released statements saying they don’t take issue with Paul’s use of their work.

For students, this real-world situation seems to suggest that only in academia is plagiarism a big deal, and thus, the academia is over-reacting.

Ultimately, plagiarism in any setting is about attribution of words and ideas to others [1]. From Rand Paul to countless students, the ease with which words and ideas can be lifted from Wikipedia combined with seeing education as mere credentialing or seeing a speech as just a functional thing is a dangerous formula—if ethical considerations matter at all in either academia or the real world.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism deserves scrutiny [2], and plagiarism must remain a line not to be crossed in academic and scholarly work.

While the real world will likely continue to allow some people to skirt consequences for plagiarism, I believe the academy needs to think carefully about how we address plagiarism and the adequate citation of people’s ideas and words.

Here, then, are some guiding thoughts about what must be confronted about plagiarism in the academy:

  • Proper citation and plagiarism are ethical considerations; therefore, formal schooling needs to increase requirements for courses in philosophy (to know the body of thought about ethical considerations) as well as embedding greater time spent on ethics within all disciplines.
  • Students deserve honest discussions of how plagiarism and its consequences are about power as that intersects ethics. Inviting students to investigate real-world cases of plagiarism is an important gateway to their understanding what it entails as well as why they should be making ethical choices in their own education and beyond.
  • Formal schooling needs to reconsider the intensity placed on detecting and punishing plagiarism (including rejecting technology as a central device for the detection) and to place more time and value on teaching students how to gather, use, and cite sources for their work. Too often students are simply told their work is incorrect or plagiarized; too rarely are students then guided through a revision process that requires and allows them to complete their work ethically and properly.

The phrase “merely academic” is a damning one because it captures the gulf between what we do and profess in formal schooling as that is refuted by the real world. When students see the real world functions under significantly different norms than formal schooling, they are apt to tolerate (at best) schooling until they can be released into the real world—too often unmotivated to be critical of or to seek ways to change that real world.

If education is more than credentialing (and currently it may not be) [3], and if education seeks to be transformative for both the students and the society the schools and universities serve, that gulf must be bridged.

Our society and our politics are neither equitable or ethical.

Our schools and universities have a duty to address both—but we must do it through rich and robust teaching and learning, not mere detection and punishment.


[1] While writing a blog post a week ago, I compared edujournalists discovering topics to claiming Columbus discovered America, but as I was writing, I had a nagging feeling I had read that comparison in a slightly different context. I had, and with some searching, realized it was here—thus, adding the hyperlink to my blog post.

[2] The political justifications for Melania Trump’s word-for-word plagiarism reveal the failures of the academia to properly teach people about language use. The online software detection company Turnitin.com notes: “The likelihood that a 16-word match is ‘just a coincidence’ is less than 1 in a trillion,” and her speech had a 23-word match.

[3] See Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name), Brent Staples:

Not everyone who gets caught knows enough about what they did to be remorseful. Recently, for example, a student who plagiarized a sizable chunk of a paper essentially told my friend to keep his shirt on, that what he’d done was no big deal. Beyond that, the student said, he would be ashamed to go home to the family with an F.

As my friend sees it: “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”…

If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.

Investigating Text with Writers

In a previous post, I stressed the importance of listening to published and successful writers to guide the formal teaching of reading (texts) and writing.

While Neil Gaiman, for example, provides English teachers a wealth of writing about books, bookstores, libraries, and writing, many writers talk and write about their lives as readers and writers, and as English teachers, we should be seeking to build a toolbox of writers on texts and writing for our classrooms and students.

Poet Matt Olzman offers such an opportunity.

In an interview, Olzman discusses aspects of his writer’s life of a poet that speak to key aspects of formal writing instruction. Inviting students to compare what Olzman explains to their own understanding of key concepts about text and writing helps avoid overly simplistic and school-only versions of reading and writing.

On daily writing, inspiration, the writing process, and revision:

It’s very rarely a matter of inspiration. I try to write a little every day, and that quickly wipes out your reservoir of backup ideas. Often I sit down, unsure what I’m going to write. I like writing just for the process of writing. I like the way it makes me slow down and think something through. Sometimes it’s just writing out thoughts, writing a scene, writing a sentence, and then if something sparks or seems promising when I return to it, then that’s when the real work often begins: revising and developing the idea. I think C. Dale Young once said that drafting a poem is like an artist gathering materials, but revising a poem is an artist shaping the materials. So the poem truly begins in revision, when I have something that I want to try to expand and develop.

More on revision:

In revision, one of two things usually happens. I can tinker at a poem, just making small changes—a word here or there, line ending, inverting the order of two different clauses—or a complete reimagining of the entire poem. I might like the first stanza, but I not anything else that follows, so I restart using that stanza. Or there might have been an idea that I was trying to convey, but I’m not excited about any of the ways I actually said it. Small adjustments, or a massive overhaul. It seems to vary between those two extremes.

On form (connect to genre and mode):

If I’m writing a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, those never happen by accident, so you have to just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a villanelle or a sonnet,” but with free verse, the form can sometimes come more organically, and the shaping starts to happen later in the drafting process. But I think that all poems, in some way, have some sort of formal structure, whether it’s rhetorical, tonal, etc. I don’t know what a formless poem would look like.

On audience, readers:

It’s hard to even guess. I think that the biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to anticipate what the reader is feeling, to look at your own work through a stranger’s eyes and imagine what they’ll experience when reading it. Are they going to be surprised? Are they going to be confused? You’re constantly trying to walk a very fine line between things being spelled out too much and the poem becoming boring and predictable or the opposite: being too elliptical and the poem becoming confusing. You’re always having to guess how the reader is going to be responding. I think the thing you strive for most as a writer is tension or interest. You just want the reader to want to make it from one line to the next and to feel like they’re not necessarily laboring or confused or left behind or fading out. So engagement is something you’re always pushing toward as a writer.

On the influence of other poets (writers):

There are many poets I admire. The list is somewhat infinite. But for a book that has a single subject that binds the whole collection together, I was just rereading Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which talks about Lead Belly’s life and the world he lived in, and all the poems are about that one title character. My wife, Vievee Francis, is a poet who can return to a single subject and mine it for material in a way that I’m not able to do. If she wrote about a glass of water, there’d be a poem about the person who made the glass, a poem about the river where the water came from, a poem about human thirst in general, and suddenly she’d have ten poems on that one subject. It’s a way of seeing the world that I really admire….

I think every book I read probably influences me in some way, but some of the poets I’ve recently been returning to are poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, some of my teachers such as Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Martha Rhodes, Brooks Haxton—they’re poets who taught me, both as my teachers and through their writing. Also, a lot of contemporary poets like Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Cathy Linh Che, Patrick Rosal, and Jennifer Chang. And, of course, Vievee. The list is kind of endless. I think most writers are always in conversation with the writing of the world around them.

Collecting powerful and complex discussions of texts, reading, and writing from professional poets allows our formal instruction in reading/text and writing to gain a higher level of authenticity, complicating and enriching the aspects of responding to text and classroom writing that too often push students away from reading and writing.

Connecting Olzman’s comments above to his poetry, then, can be an effective series of classroom activities that allow students to discover and create their own developing understanding of how to read and re-read, write and re-write the world.

Some of Olman’s poems available online include:

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz 

The Millihelen and Wreckage Gallery

Notes Regarding Happiness

Four Letters: Letter to a Dead Goldfish, Letter to the Flying Dutchman, Letter to Jennifer Chang and Evan Rhodes Regarding a Variation in the Fabric of Time, Letter to The New Year

Choice and Walling Off Poverty

School choice has remained a compelling part of education reform discourse and policy into the twenty-first century—but not simply among conservative politicians and stakeholders.

For example, despite growing evidence that charter schools are essentially no better or worse than traditional public schools, political and public support for charter schools remains robust primarily because they are touted as parental choice.

And especially in the good ol’ U.S. of A., what could be wrong with all parents having the same choices that wealthy parents have?

Except, that bromide is compelling only within the context of idealizing choice—ignoring that parents make all sorts of horrible choices daily, negatively impacting their children, ignoring that parents tend to choose schools for socio-political reasons that have little to do with academic quality, and thus, that choice isn’t a positive market force for education reform but for one of the greatest ills to ever impact society and education in the U.S.: segregation by race and class.

While the talking points for school choice advocates have shifted over the last few decades, “all parents should have the same choices that wealthy parents have” drives the essence of their advocacy, and allows this ideology to skirt the overwhelming evidence against school choice as a positive mechanism for education or social reform addressing inequity.

During this presidential election season, amid rising social tensions, there is renewed calls for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Like school choice, this plan is compelling along extreme ideological lines only; in practice, both are unwarranted and even incendiary.

Yet, what we are failing to acknowledge is the act of walling is already in place in the U.S.—the wealthy walling off the poor, and the mechanism for that is choices made by the wealthy [1] that school choice advocates idealize:

There are over 14,000 school districts across the country. Many of the 35,000 borders that divide them contribute to increasing economic segregation and create barriers to opportunity that is sometimes just out of reach. This occurs in large part because between 40-60% of schools’ fortunes depend on property values in the neighborhoods that surround them. This reality creates incentives for wealthy areas to wall themselves off from their needy neighbors, keeping their property wealth for their own children’s schools and leaving other communities to fend for themselves.

Ironically, the school choice charade is about choice. [2]

As a country, we have made a choice not to address social, economic, and educational inequity directly. We have chosen instead to remain faithful to the invisible-handed God of Choice who daily raises one defiant finger toward the poor and disenfranchised.


[1] Explore the powerful interactive map at this link.

[2] A great deal of irony exists also in the funding for edbuild, including a number of neoliberal, pro-choice organizations.

Readers, Writers, Teachers, and Students: “the pointlessness of so much of it”

I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.

I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have words.

“Four Bookshops,” The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman

After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years and counting as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting a couple weeks ago in our second workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.

Both the formal teaching of reading and writing—notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels—is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher [1].

While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in the former, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often comes off as a heated debate instead of a productive conversation.

I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared to teach a very narrow version of literary criticism—mostly addressing fiction and poetry, and mostly through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)

During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, no real-world writers do this).

I will not explore this fully here, but we cannot ignore as well how the commodification of education has eroded the authenticity of reading and writing. Textbooks and teaching materials feed the accountability dynamic narrowly but also speak to viewing reading and writing as students and teachers, not as readers and writers.

A Case for Readers and Writers in Formal Schooling

I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, and this adventure in a writer’s-writer offering essay after essay about his love affair with books, writers, libraries, and genre is both a pure joy for me as reader and writer as well as yet another journey into trying to understand better the teaching of reading and writing.

Gaiman is an incredibly successful writer who cannot resist constantly reminding his readers how his life as a writer grew from his love affair with books and writers, how bookstores and libraries were his sanctuaries.

His is also a testament to the power of a wide variety of genres and media in the life of avid readers and writers.

“The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” and “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” are powerful essays about the importance of teaching literacy as readers and writers (and thus at least tempering teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers) but also about how literacy is a journey, not something to be acquired or mastered.

To focus on the second essay noted above, Gaiman shares a story of his telling a joke to a fellow eight-year-old, a joke including the word “fuck”; the controversy that followed, including the friend’s parents removing that child from the private school, taught Gaiman “two very important lessons”:

The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.

And the second is that words have power.

This essay on children’s literature is also about children, as Gaiman explains:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.

And then, Gaiman confronts formal schooling—reinforcing something I have found to be a pattern among some of the most well regarded writers (I have written and edited a number of books on writers, focusing often on Kurt Vonnegut):

For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….

My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was—C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers. [1]

And here is where I believe the tension I noted earlier comes into play.

Again, I am not arguing here that teaching literacy as a reader/writer is necessarily better than teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher, but I am extremely concerned that the latter dominates formal schooling to an extreme that is harmful to both literacy and basic human dignity and agency.

Gaiman’s essays, however, shout to those of us who teach literacy that formal schooling and teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers stood between Gaiman and works such as his wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that Gaiman has become a gifted and treasured writer in spite of his formal education (like Louise DeSalvo, Gaiman honors the coincidental lessons of libraries and bookstores).

I am fairly certain now that lumping all sorts of literacy instruction into a course called “English” is a really bad idea—teaching literary analysis is often at odds with fostering a love of reading, but being a teacher of reading and/or literature is simply not the same thing as teaching writing.

So much of my antagonism about how we teach literacy isn’t at us teachers so much as at the system itself—how formal schooling too often is rightly analogized as prison, how many of us have excelled in many ways in spite of our education.

As a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores; as a writer who views nearly every moment of this life through writer’s eyes; as someone who, like Gaiman, remains moment by moment aware of the “powerlessness” and “helplessness” of being a child or teen, of being a student—I make the case often that the teaching of literacy—reading and writing—needs less school- and test-only versions of reading and writing, but much more authentic reading and writing.

At the end of his contemplation on what makes a book for children (or adults), Gaiman returns to a point he makes early in the talk: “But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions”

And it is here that I think we have a better way for formal schooling—the pursuit of questions with the joy and wonder of a child.

And I’ll thus end with a question: What value is there in rules, tests, templates, and requirements if in the end our classrooms have resulted in children seeking ways to escape “the pointlessness of so much of it”?


[1] Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is reduced to tests, templates, and narrow views of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.

[2] On Science Fiction, C.S. Lewis:

They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

The Everyday Crimes of Race and Class

Consider carefully the U.S. when children were subjected to horrific labor.

Were the children culpable for that abuse? Did children have the physical or political power to end the abuse?

Or were the adults responsible—the only agents of that process capable of ending child labor?

These may seem to be silly questions with obvious answers, but when racism, classism, and sexism are confronted in the U.S., many shift the accusatory finger to the victims, calling for the victims themselves to right the wrongs leveled against them.

Black and brown people in the U.S. did not create racism, do not perpetuate racism, and cannot end racism. Poor people do not cause poverty, and despite what pandering conservatives believe, cannot “think [their] way out of poverty.” And women are not the cause of rape culture, inequitable pay, and domestic abuse; they cannot end them either.

Change ultimately lies with those who have power—physical, political, financial, ideological.

And there isn’t a damn thing fair about who has power in the U.S.—or who does not.

And while the U.S. has mostly eradicated child labor through laws, we are still confronted with Tamir Rice—a boy, a child shot and killed by a police officer sworn to protect and serve.

Tamir Rice was a child.

For the most part, those people with power don’t give a real damn about Rice’s tragic story. There is some passing rhetoric, but there is no action to prove otherwise.

Philando Castile lies before us now. His tragic story also means almost nothing to those with power, but the lessons are dark and powerful:

“What Mr. Castile symbolizes for a lot of us working in public defense is that driving offenses are typically just crimes of poverty,” says Erik Sandvick, a public defender in Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul and its suburbs….

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University and the author of Crook County, which documents the problems in the criminal justice system of Chicago, said Castile was the “classic case” of what criminologists have called “net widening,” or the move of local authorities to criminalize more and more aspects of regular life.

“It is in particular a way that people of color and the poor are victimized on a daily basis,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Rice and Castile were criminalized—rendered by the mere facts of race and class.

Being black or brown, poor, or female are burdens from which people cannot take a vacation. Because of systemic racism, classism, and sexism, the condition of scarcity “leaves citizens with no good choices — having to pick, for instance, whether to pay a fine or pay for car insurance,” as Castile represents.

Interpreting Tamir Rice as older than his age and violent, dangerous was nested in the police officer—not Rice.

That officer was an agent of systemic racism that justifies excessive use of force, racial profiling, and a whole host of criminalizing practices by the state.

From school-based discipline polices to zero tolerance, we have ample evidence that formal schooling creates criminals in the same ways policing creates criminals in some neighborhoods (read poor and black, brown).

But as we ignore the tragic stories and lessons of Rice and Castile—among so many others—we also ignore who controls the game.

One day, marijuana possession and sales are crimes, and then, the next, marijuana possession and sales are good ol’ business. In the first case, criminalizing disproportionately black and poor people, and in the second case, making monied white folk wealthier.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about using or selling marijuana; only who controls the right and wrong matters.

Racism targeting blacks in the U.S. suggests the problems lie in blacks themselves. Classism in the U.S. blames laziness among the poor for poverty. Sexism deems women inferior to men and the cause of their own sexual abuse.

All of this, however, is as obvious as the opening questions.

Brock Turner—privileged, white, and drunk—and Judge Aaron Persky—white, male, and drunk on privilege—are the problems to be addressed.

The even uglier reality is that the power to admit these problems of white privilege and to do something about it rests in people just like Turner and Persky.

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.

Anna Scott, Notting Hill

Everything that is wrong with edujournalism and the teaching of writing in the accountability era can be found in Education Week: the anemic examination of the five-paragraph essay (or when edujournalists discover a field in the same way Columbus discovered America) and Lucy Calkin’s interview about the state of teaching writing (or when edugurus package and promote educommerce).

Both of these pieces frame how the teaching of writing now faces greater demands from (you guessed it) the Common Core. But neither piece admits that the Common Core is at best on life support or that this puts the cart before the horse.

You see, the teaching of writing should be driven by the field of composition—the decades of expertise that can be found in the scholarship of writers and teachers of writing as well as foundational and powerful organizations such as the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Common Core is no more than bureaucratic nonsense; these standards serve the needs of educommerce, but do not reflect the field of literacy, do not meet the needs of teachers or students.

And thus, these standards, the high-stakes tests inevitably linked to all standards, and the coverage of writing in EdWeek, as Anna Scott opined, it’s all nonsense.

A little history here: Zip back to 2005 when Thomas Newkirk detailed in English Journal that the “new” SAT writing section had already resulted in “students [being] coached to invent evidence if they were stuck.”

In other words, writing was reduced to conforming to the 25-minute, one-draft prompted assessment in one high-stakes test.

Newkirk confirmed what George Hillocks found about the accountability movement’s negative impact on writing:

[W]hen students have been subjected to this instruction for eight to ten years, they come to see the five paragraph theme and the shoddy thinking that goes with it as the solution to any writing problem. Directors of freshman English at three Illinois state universities have complained about the extent of the problem. The English department at Illinois State University publishes a manual advising their incoming freshmen that while the five para- graph essay may have been appropriate in high school, it is not appropriate in college and should be studiously avoided. It shuts down thinking.

This is a crucial time in American democracy. We are faced with problems that demand critical thinking of all citizens. We need to help students examine specious arguments and know them for what they are. Our tests encourage the opposite. They encourage blurry thinking and obfuscation. As a society, we cannot afford to spend valuable classroom time on vacuous thinking and writing. (p. 70)

So let’s consider the state of writing instruction in K-12 public schools—and let’s try looking at the overwhelming evidence as detailed by Applebee and Langer’s 2013 Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

In my review of this research, I detail both what we know about the state of teaching writing and what the roadblocks are to effective writing pedagogy:

In Chapter Two (Writing Instruction in Schools Today), Applebee and Langer (2013) lay the foundation for what becomes the refrain of the book:

“Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face” (pp. 15-17)….

And those concerned about or in charge of education reform policy should use this study and analysis as a cautionary tale about the unintended and negative consequences of the current thirty-year accountability era that has failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its call for scientifically based education policy (Thomas, 2013). Since the central message about the gap between best practice and the day-to-day reality of writing in U.S. middle and high schools is consistent in Applebee and Langer’s work, I want to highlight several key points and then conclude with a couple caveats that help inform teachers and policy makers:

  • Across disciplines, students are being asked to write briefly and rarely, with most writing falling within narrow templates that are unlike discipline-based or real-world writing.
  • Teachers tend to know about and embrace the value of writing to learn content, but rarely implement writing to achieve rich and complex examinations of prior or new learning.
  • Student technology savvy is high (notably related to social media), while teacher technology savvy remains low. Technology’s role in teaching and learning is detailed as, again, narrowed by high-stakes testing demands and “primarily…used to reinforce a presentational mode of teaching” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 116). These findings call into question advocacy for greater investments in technology absent concern for how it is implemented as well as raising yet another caution about ignoring research showing that technology (especially word processing) has the potential to impact writing positively if implemented well.
  • While English language learners (ELLs) tend to be one category of students targeted by education reform and efforts to close achievement gaps, high-stakes testing and accountability stand between those students and the potential effectiveness of extended process writing in writing workshop experiences.
  • Like ELL students, students in poverty suffer the same fate of disproportionately experiencing narrow learning experiences that focus on test-prep and not best practice in writing instruction:

“By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149).

  • One important counter-narrative to the education reform focus on identifying top teachers is that Applebee and Langer (2013) note that when teachers have autonomy and implement best practice, high-poverty students outperform comparable high-poverty students in classrooms “with more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction,” driven by test-prep (p. 148).

The problem with teaching writing is not that teachers lack knowledge of good writing pedagogy (although that certainly is a concern), but that accountability and high-stakes testing (read: Common Core and whatever the next wave is) have supplanted teacher autonomy and the expertise in the field of teaching writing.

The five-paragraph essay was never good writing pedagogy, and abdicating the field of composition to Common Core, any set of standards, any high-stakes testing, and the concurrent educommerce all that nonsense feeds is the problem with teaching writing.

Period.