Atlanta #NCTE2016 : Confronting Educator Advocacy with Pre­Service and Early Career Teachers

Atlanta NCTE 2016

FEATURED SESSION: Saturday, November 19, 2016 – 8:00 – 9:15 am (A 302)

F.01 Confronting Educator Advocacy with Preservice and Early Career Teachers

  1. “But what does this have to do with me?”: Supporting preservice teachers trying to advocate for culturally responsive curriculum

Dr. Ann D. David

Kaci Boylan

Elyse Helbig-Guevara

Description: Preservice teachers face challenges advocating for culturally responsive curriculum in field placements and during student teaching and teachers educators face challenges in preparing them to be advocates.  Elyse and Kaci will share their experiences advocating for culturally responsive curriculum as student teachers.  Ann will share how she designs her course, Culturally Responsive Teaching, to support preservice teachers in navigating the challenges of being advocates.

  1. Challenging Controversy: Affiliate Support Addressing Censorship Issues

Jennifer Paulsen

Kevin Roberts

Katheryn Benway

Sheila Benson

Has anyone questioned why you teach the texts you’ve chosen? This discussion offers resources and support for teachers selecting controversial materials in order to successfully prepare for and address censorship challenges, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and All American Boys. 

  1. Teacher Advocacy: A Southern Dilemma

Nicole Amato

Kristen Marakoff

P.L. Thomas

Sean P. Connors

A round table discussion with teacher educators and early career teachers on advocating both for students and for the teaching profession. The discussion will center on the unique challenges of advocacy in conservative Southern schools, including the politics of remaining apolitical and the lack of support for professionalism in teaching.

  1. Culturally Complex Classrooms: Teacher Advocacy for English Language Learners (ELL)

Tracy Butler

Kayci Owen

Bobbi Siefert

Ashley Zimmer

As the number of English Language Learners (ELL) continue to increase in many states across the country, mainstream teachers overwhelmingly report they are not equipped to respond to unique learning needs in culturally complex classrooms. This presentation will focus on advocacy practices with cultural and linguistic diversity at both the classroom level and the larger educational context. Session leaders will lead discussion about instructional strategies to affect learning outcomes for ELL and advocacy approaches to frame professional conversations among colleagues.

  1. Grassroots activism and the right the city: Preservice & early career teachers and social change

Trevor Stewart

George Boggs

We will lead a discussion about teachers’ efforts to enact social change by contributing to education reform debates online. We explore the alternative forms of civic action and teacher leadership as we consider teachers’ use of online tools for protest.

  1. Speech Title: Risk and Reward in Writing for the Public

Christina Berchini

Peter Smagorinsky

What are the risks and rewards in writing for the public? This roundtable engages English teachers in a discussion of the risks involved when educators seek the rewards available from becoming public advocates of education. Risks include job vulnerability, personal attacks, and other forms of hostile blowback.

  1. Building Preservice Teachers’ Racial Literacy to Foster Activism for Justice

Jill Ewing Flynn

Descriptions: Preservice teachers must reflect on how their own racial identity has shaped their education and understand how race shapes schooling outcomes/experiences. After developing this “racial literacy,” they can then form an action plan for how to address racial injustice in their classroom, schools, and/or communities. Come learn about how three professors foster this advocacy so you can adapt it to your own context!

  1. What Does Advocacy Look Like in the Rural and Small Town School

Drs. Rebekah Buchanan

Daneell Moore

Patricia Waters

How does advocacy work in developing collaborative partnerships among students, parents and families, teachers, schools and communities? Three English Education professors, who rely upon rural and small town school districts for teacher training and whose students come from these same constituencies, have to create networks and build relationships founded on trust and mutual respect. This roundtable examines research-based practices and strategies in promoting advocacy founded on trust and mutual respect among all stakeholders in rural settings.

  1. Navigating the labyrinth of first year teaching without a map

Lawrence Baines

Matt Baker

Stacey Hill

Megan Lawson

Anastasia Wickham

Description: In our study of first year teachers, one teacher said, “My job is 10% real teaching; 90% of the rest of my time is spent unrelated to teaching.” We studied the effects of “additional duties as assigned” on teacher autonomy, teacher dispositions, and student interactions. We will have a short video and a one-page handout highlighting our findings.

  1. Writing for the Public: Positive Stories, Critique, or Both

Steve Zemelman

Karen Mitcham

Roundtable topic description: Critique of education policies is important, but particularly in the present era of distrust of government and public programs, people also need to learn what makes schools worth supporting, why their tax dollars should be devoted to public education. So what can early career teachers say? And while we run blogs and education web discussions, how can teacher expertise and knowledge of conditions in schools get shared more widely so that teachers are not just preaching to their own choirs?

  1. Advocating for Disability Access: More Inclusive Approaches to Reading, Writing, and Assessing

Patricia A. Dunn

We’ll discuss ways to address hurdles pre-service and early career teachers face in questioning built-in ableist assumptions about disability. How might we address stereotypical portrayals of disability in canonical texts? How might we expand views of writing that go beyond pens or keyboards, or views of reading that go beyond eyes-on-text? Can we assess students’ knowledge in more than one way?

  1. Up-cycling Teacher Performance Assessments: Preparing Candidates to Advocate for their Practice through Rhetorical Argumentation

Christine M. Dawson

Anny Fritzen Case

Teaching performance assessments (e.g., edTPA), require candidates to document and analyze teaching practices and literally write their way into teaching. This roundtable explores using argumentation as a strategy and a stance, through which teachers practice identifying audience values, making claims, assembling evidence, and crafting arguments to advocate for their practice and students.

The Gifts and Terrors of Middle Age

As a word person, I have problems with the term “middle age” since I am apparently in middle age, but it seems unlikely I’ll make 110 years old.

And being in the fourth decade of my career, I can’t really imagine another thirty years of work.

So the word “middle” is clearly about something else, something less mathematical.

I do sit among and mostly at the center of elderly parents, an adult child, and two grandchildren just beginning a journey on this planet. And that “middle” is often about obligations—too often about financial obligations and thin margins for being responsible, dependable.

In my mid-50s, I certainly have a profoundly different view of my 20s, 30s, and 40s—the immaturity of the 20s and 30s as well as the peak decade of the 40s now much more clear in hindsight.

But those decades were also characterized by misguided and mostly selfish “adulting”—seeking all the material trappings of being an adult and successful while running roughshod over and often entirely ignoring that which truly matters.

That is the gift of middle age—a shift in existential awareness, a patience, an opening to really recognize and even appreciate.

My granddaughter Skylar is the personification of this transition into middle age. She has been demanding that I sit in the room with her as she watches Little Einsteins this morning as I try to write this post. She just handed me a small blue toy plate to hold for no real reason while she multitasks pretend-playing and performing along with Little Einsteins.

As I hurtle toward 60, she hurtles toward 3—and I am, in middle age, profoundly aware of both in a way that I could not understand time and the human condition just a few years ago.

Yet, that gift of awareness brings as well the terrors of middle age.

The human condition is finite—and the “middle” may as well represent the arc of that condition that includes a cresting and the necessary decline.

I want more than ever to be a loving witness to my daughter’s life—and her family’s lives, including my grandchildren.

But I am profoundly aware of the limited time I have with them—the reality of death, yes, but also the inevitable decline.

Maybe I can make it to Skylar at 30, and I would consider that a wonderful gift.

But given those years, I know, will be years of decline—mental and physical.

It is a very human thing, to lose one’s mind and one’s body, gradually, ever so gradually. Then all at once.

But there is more to that arc of the human experience: we come to see saying “I love” you as trivial, and then urgent, and then irreplaceable, and then quite possibly the only thing that matters.

Now Skylar is singing and dancing to Mickey Mouse’s Monster Boogie, checking every few seconds that I am watching her.

Her eyes recognize that she is the middle—the center of the universe.

Her eyes say this quite possibly is the only thing that matters.

Republicans Have a Yuge Logic Problem

The new (and disgusting) face of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, has anchored his campaign on a foundational slogan he “inherited” from Ronald Reagan (like the millions he squandered from his father): Make America Great Again.

Setting aside that Trump is either a liar (well, is a liar) or is incredibly stupid since he claims he created that slogan, the concept itself creates a yuge logic problem for the Republican Party.

First, the slogan directly states America is now not great.

If this is true, it certainly reads next that whoever is running our state and federal governments must be at least significantly to blame for the lack of greatness, right?

Among Republicans, the anti-government roar has a long and loud history.

So here comes the logic problem: Republicans control the vast majority of state and federal power in the U.S.

That means that if America is now not great, and if government is to blame, then the Republican Party and its candidates are the source of all this not-greatness.

Thus, how in the hell is it logical to vote for Trump or any Republicans?

Hint: It isn’t.


Disclaimer: I am not now a Democrat, and I have never been a member of any political party. I do not support and will not vote for Hillary Clinton (nor for Green or Libertarian). I am very openly campaigning against anyone voting for Trump because he is uniquely a horrible human and candidate. A reasonable person can argue for Hillary or a third party candidate, but nothing can justify supporting Trump. His brand is so toxic, it likely has damaged any credibility the Republican Party was clinging to for years or decades to come.

The False Cult of Effort, the Gender Gap, and K-12 Teacher-Bashing

While the U.S. presidency is rarified air, the presidential election often reflects the best and worst of the American character.

As the country sits in the cusp of the end of the first black president’s administration and the likelihood of electing the first female president, what does the current election show about the lingering privilege of being white, male, and straight in the U.S.?

Being black, brown, female, gay, or transgender requires perfection while being white, male, and heterosexual allows any transgression to be excused.

Hillary must be perfect (her email controversy is oddly identical to millions of erased emails from private servers under George W. Bush, although that is of no real concern to the public or the media, for example), but Trump’s admitted behavior as a sexual predator is swept aside as just a man being one of the boys.

Yes, the glorious sanctity of the office of president must not be sullied—although the Republican Party has elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and W. Bush, a who’s who of unethical personal and political behaviors?

And in this dynamic of privilege we find the cult of effort—the implication that all these powerful white males are in power because of effort, because they deserve the success, earned the success.

Recall that Trump built this off the pittance of an inherited few million. …

On a smaller scale, then, is the K-12 teacher, a profession trapped in the cult of effort and the gender gap.

Having spent my career in part as a K-12 public school teacher and now as a tenured full professor, I have witnessed first-hand a powerful and ugly dynamic.

First, let me work backward.

My university has only about 30% female faculty, which reflects a male norm (linked with a white norm) of university professors:

profs-gender

Few professions have greater professional autonomy that being a professor. I can assure you that rarely do people even bother telling a professor what to do—and among those few, virtually none have any real influence.

The profession of being a professor is a white, male world of autonomy and significant prestige.

As above, there is also a false cult of effort among professors—the professorate, so goes the message, is mostly white and male because of the hard work of those white men.

And if you doubt that, listen carefully to the white male response to initiatives for increasing the diversity of professors: We must maintain our rigorous standards for hiring! they shout.

The cult of effort, the cult of rigor—these are codes for maintaining privilege.

The inverse of this dynamic is at the K-12 level of teaching, a work force still dominated by women:

k-12-teachwrs-gender-2

For K-12 teachers, historically and especially over the past two or three decades, the cult of effort has imposed on the American public that schools are failing primarily because of a slack teacher force (read: a mostly female teacher force), and the way to reform that lazy work force is to raise standard! and demand more!

Let us imagine for a moment that gender divide between the supreme autonomy of mostly male professors and the nearly absent professional autonomy and ridiculous accountability leveled at mostly female K-12 teachers.

The entirely inexcusable “no excuses” model implemented in high-poverty schools serving mostly black and brown students has also become the default environment of being a K-12 teacher: high demand, nearly superhuman demand that erases all professional autonomy and most of the human dignity of teaching.

Yes, teaching K-12 is very hard, but the cult of effort is mostly a lie, and the current high-stakes accountability paradigm is a central cause for driving away teachers.

The accountability era has intensified the historical marginalizing of K-12 teaching as just a woman’s profession; the stakes have been artificially increased while teacher autonomy has been even further eroded.

As a result, K-12 teachers have their work scripted and then are badgered for poor outcomes from the practices they didn’t even choose to implement.

The public and in-school environments for K-12 teachers are toxic—unprofessional and dehumanizing. Administrators who can go to the restroom any time they please demand teachers remain at their doors between classes and never leave a class unattended—relegating basic bodily functions to 20-minute lunch periods (if they are free of students) and planning time.

This reality cannot be disentangled from the gender gap reflected between professors in higher education and K-12 teachers—as well as the current presidential campaign.

K-12 teacher bashing is nested in sexism—assumptions that women are unable and unwilling to make the effort needed to educate children; and thus, K-12 teachers need to be scripted and held to high standards of accountability.

In the political and educational worlds, however, those demanding that accountability and driving the criticism are often far above the standards they espouse.

And that is the ugly truth about women, so-called racial minorities, and gay/transgendered people who must be perfect while white, straight men are forgiven for any and every transgression.

Our democracy suffers under that inequity of privilege and the profession of K-12 teaching is on life support because of the essentially nasty environment surrounding day-to-day teaching.

Democracy and K-12 teaching both require and deserve an atmosphere of patience, compassion, and kindness—traits marginalized by toxic masculinity and white privilege in order to maintain the unearned status of power in the U.S.

At the very least, no one should have to be perfect or everyone should have to be perfect.

Immediately, then, let’s confront how terribly flawed white, straight male leadership has been and is currently—disturbingly personified by Trump himself.

Next, the false cult of effort must end, replaced by the acknowledgement of privilege as central to who has power and why.

With the false cult of effort unmasked, the gender gap can then be erased as well.

From political leadership to the teaching of children in K-12 schools, we will all benefit greatly from the rich diversity of who can and will lead and teach us—especially if that leadership and teaching are rooted in patience and kindness, especially if basic human dignity and autonomy are promised to all.

Free

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]

In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.

It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).

Nothing of the government is free—not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.

All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.

Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.

But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free”—free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.

But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.

Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product—but nothing is free, including freedom.

*

Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”

LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name—these human acts define, shape, and create the world.

But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).

This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic”—and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.

*

Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.

Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?

Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.

Feel free to take such care.

Hu(man)s Choose Violence

In season 4 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I recognized an allusion to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Last night, during the first episode of season 7, however, my literary response was much more generalized and visceral—William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The series adaptation of the comic book has wondered into George R.R. Martin territory in which the primary reason to watch is to determine which major character dies; and last night, viewers experienced the sort of gratuitous violence pornography that the show seems unable to resist. As  harkened in 2012: “The ubiquitous horror and violence of the zombie genre just makes the violence present in our own lives hypervisible”; although Rick Grimes seems to have chosen the lower road anticipated by Oyola.

Dystopian science fiction, what zombie narratives are, tends to render a future world that has come full circle to the earliest consequences of being human—having both an oversized intellect and the ever-present and never-ending need to survive, even if that survival depended on taking the lives of others, possibly even innocent others.

Primitive humans and humans in dystopian futures grapple with the ethics of survival.

But to be frank, watching two popular and engaging characters have their heads battered into bloody pulps by a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat—to have the dark humor of that being called a “vampire bat”—this episode paled in comparison to the anxiety and disappointment I feel about the actual world in which we live here in the U.S.

America has a litany of fatal flaws, one of which is our belief in human choice that has been idealized into a fetish.

Politicians, the media, and the average citizen call for choice as the magic elixir to cure any and all ills.

Despite the numerous lessons of literature and art, despite the daily lessons of being a sentient human.

With our amazing oversized brains, we have created in the U.S. a world in which we mostly do not have to fear a wild animal stalking us or a rival clan set on raping and pillaging our village.

Or at least among the privileged.

The cynical version is that we have the capacity to make this true for everyone—but we choose not to.

But there is an even uglier choice that we make. The choice of violence.

To return to Oyola’s investigation of the comic book, Grimes has repeatedly created the situations in which characters die because of his choices—choices that force him to step into his own quagmire as the White Knight. It is a perverse cycle with which the AMC series seems to have become nearly solely obsessed.

With two heads battered into the dirt and Rick poised to chop off his own son’s arm, the viewer is wrestled once again into Rick’s manufactured hell within a zombie apocalypse hell.

As I tensed wondering how long the camera would be lingering on the hacked off arm, I realized that this episode paled in comparison to Trump’s rise and the unleashed venom of his supporters.

We are a people who still justify violence toward women and children, sexual and psychological violence as well as pure brute force.

We are a people who will shout about being pro life while pretending that our smart bombs don’t erase innocent children, women, and men over there at an alarming rate.

We are a people who are shocked—I mean shocked—that men conditioned to be violent are violent in their daily lives.

The human condition in 2016 is much more upsetting than the slow and nearly cartoonish death of Glenn beside his dear pregnant Maggie.

The cartoonish Trump and the uglier streak of humanity he attracts, emboldens, and represents—that is where there is real terror, real disappointment in who humans are and what humans are willing to endure.

The Waking Dead as a TV series seems, ironically, to be near the opposite of the zombie narrative; it is a thing that cannot long live.

And some other series with promise will fill its void, and soon flounder, sputter, slip through the fingers of popular demand.

But the actual real world—not the reality show version that kept Trump on life support before his turn as clown-politician—is no passing phase of pop culture.

Yes, hu(man)ns have choice, and we have made that choice violence.

Rejecting Cultural Literacy for Culturally Relevant: From Baldwin to Cole, “the custodian of a black body”

…to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Haunting the American character still is a fact confronted early in Teju Cole’s Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (originally published in The New Yorker 19 August 2014 but also opening Cole’s Known and Strange Things): that Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Coltrane are all “people who could still be with us.”

Living, Cole means—because, of course, they remain with us in ways that are both beautiful and disturbing.

Retracing Baldwin’s time in Switzerland and his essay spawned from that visit, Cole recognizes Baldwin was “depressed and distracted” during his trip in the 1950s—in part due to the “absurdity” of being a stranger during his travels as well as alienated in his home city of New York through the fact of the manufactured concept of race.

Cole experiences a “body-double moment” that emphasizes a physical self-consciousness of being black and male; being “like [Baldwin],” Cole catalogues insecurities of the flesh, building to:

and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.

This racialized and genderized self-consciousness, Cole details, is cultivated in being surveilled; “glances,” in Cole’s diction, but commonly identified as the “gaze,” whether the white gaze or the male gaze.

“To be a stranger is to be looked at,” Cole explains, “but to be black is to be looked at especially.” Hard, Cole means, as in the perpetual policing of the black body.

Cole’s “custodian” echoes Baldwin’s witnessing—bound as the two men are by what Baldwin captures in “‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.'”

The black body and the American character—both Baldwin and Cole demand—are inextricable. But for Baldwin, Western culture forced him to conclude: “‘I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.'”

However, Cole, shifting to Ralph Ellison, embraces Western art despite the lingering weight he shares with Baldwin: “I have experienced in my own body the undimmed fury he felt about pervasive, limiting racism.”

Continuing the scarred mosaic of history, Cole’s contemporary reality will not allow him to escape “the news online”:

There I found an unending sequence of crises: in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia, and everywhere else, really. Pain was general. But within that larger distress was a set of linked stories, and thinking about “Stranger in the Village,” thinking with its help, was like injecting a contrast dye into my encounter with the news. The American police continued shooting unarmed black men, or killing them in other ways. The protests that followed, in black communities, were countered with violence by a police force that is becoming indistinguishable from an invading army. People began to see a connection between the various events: the shootings, the fatal choke hold, the stories of who was not given life-saving medication. And black communities were flooded with outrage and grief.

Like Baldwin in 1966, Cole cannot escape the policing of the black body, the political “obsession with cleaning, with cleansing,” that “policymakers believe that going after misdemeanors is a way of preëmpting major crimes.”

Dropped like a stone too heavy to carry any further, Cole concludes:

But the black body comes pre-judged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy. To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.

Endless surveilling, constant policing the black body are fed by the “fantasy about the disposability of black life [that] is a constant in American history.”

Cole as custodian witnesses that “American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage….Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.”

But there remains one more damning stone to drop: “black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard”—one of which, left unnamed by Cole, is formal education.

#

An educational dinosaur who refuses extinction, E.D. Hirsch yet again offers a plea for cultural literacy, folded into the decades-old standards debate.

There is a disturbing irony about a torch bearer of the dominant culture lobbying for that culture to remain dominant—specifically through the codified curriculum of the formal education system.

Hirsch cloaks his message in an unaddressed assumption that knowledge can be somehow politically neutral; it’s all about the role of knowledge in teaching students how to read, you see.

But official curriculum and the current state of high-stakes accountability can never be disentangled from power—who can and does decide what knowledge matters.

Just as Cole above confronts how art, culture, and race intersect—among Cole, Baldwin, and Ellison—when the knowledge that matters is the province of some people (read “white,” “male,” and “affluent”), other people become the Other, marginalized by their identified lack of the knowledge that matters.

Cultural literacy/knowledge as that which is objective, easily identified, and then easily dispensed is the fertile soil within which the status quo of society and formal education thrive. Like the literal policing of the black body in the streets, education becomes an act of “cleansing” the Other of their heritage to make room for cultural literacy/knowledge writ large.

And the status quo of the streets and the hallways must not be allowed to remain: where black girls are policed for their hair, the same hair that is fetishized, rendered exotic; where black boys are seen as older than their biological ages; where the black body has been so demonized that blacks themselves embrace the punishing, cleansing, of their own flesh.

If we pretend knowledge is politically neutral, that whoever is in power has the right to decide what knowledge matters, and if we define reading in a way that depends on that cultural knowledge for anyone to be considered literate, then we are failing to read and re-read the world as it is in order to make a new world.

Not the world as it was during Baldwin’s life. Not the world as it is during Cole’s life.

The “obscene American forms of white supremacy” are the parents of cultural literacy/knowledge.

And this white gaze has also created “no excuses” charter schools that “fix” black, brown, and poor students.

White privilege and its cognate racism, as Cole notes, are invisible: “You don’t see it at first.”

The “at first,” however, must not be undervalued.

To see privilege and racism requires not cultural literacy, but critical literacy—reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world—fostered in a context of culturally relevant pedagogy.

From Baldwin as witness to Cole as “custodian of the black body,” the message about how our society and our schools must change is not absent but “preferably unheard.”

Change must happen, but it must not “shame or defame black people and [black] organizations,” Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry argue, concluding with a stone of their own: “Be accountable to black people.”

Cultural literacy is stasis, not change. It is accountable to white privilege.

Haunting the American character still is Baldwin demanding that we must “cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Traditional Assessment Isolates Learning, Devalues Community and Collaboration

I attended junior high well before the rise of the middle school; therefore, I did not enter high school until 10th grade.

But the greatest shift for me as a student was my sophomore English class taught by Lynn Harrill. Throughout junior high, English class has been a never-ending Sisyphean hell of grammar textbook exercises and a sentence-diagramming marathon throughout 9th grade.

I entered high school a devoted math and science student—but more importantly, I had written essentially nothing of consequence as a student, ever.

Until Mr. Harrill’s class, in which we wrote two essays that sophomore year.

My close friends were a somewhat smaller subset of the so-called “top” students who were tracked in the honors classes. We were both socially and academically close.

By my senior year, we had begun to peer-edit our essays—which we feared was cheating because the workshop approach to teaching writing was not in practice yet and we had as “good students” learned all the unspoken lessons of schooling.

From “Cover your papers” during tests to “Don’t copy your friend’s homework,” we knew that collaboration was cheating—but my close circle of friends also knew something very important: when we were collaborative, we learned, and we learned in ways that surpassed traditional teacher-centered learning.

We were each other’s spell checkers, grammar editors, and unofficial peer-teachers.

Despite the rise of the National Writing Project and the mostly widespread awareness of process writing (although it remains too often misunderstood and mischaracterized), students throughout K-12 and university education experience traditional assessment in isolation—significantly one of the least authentic aspects of traditional assessment.

Throughout my 30-plus-year career, I have advocated for and practiced de-testing and de-grading, but during the more recent 14-plus years at the university level, I have been able to experiment more fully with how this looks in the classroom.

One element of authentic assessment and feedback for students that I have explored is moving away from assessment that isolates and toward collaborative assessment, assessment opportunities that require and emphasize community.

While university professors benefit from much greater professional autonomy than K-12 teachers, university’s still require grades and mid-term/final exams; notably, these exam sessions are pretty strictly regulated in that professors need to show some use of the exam times/days for assessment.

Since I give no tests (a practice I started while a public school English teacher), I have developed mid-term sessions that are collaborative and discussion-based.

For example, each fall my first-year writing seminars and foundations of education class have assignments that build toward spending the actual mid-term exam time in small and whole group discussions.

Class discussions as mid-term exams pose several significant problems in the context of traditional schooling. First, every teacher has experienced the resistance by students and their parents to grades on group work—especially when “good” students get nicked on grades because the group had a member who didn’t pull her/his weight.

Discussion also privileges extroverted students and, just as most of traditional class structures do, disadvantages introverted students.

And as with any form of alternative assessment, students are often uncomfortable with and may fail to perform well because of different contexts for motivation and accountability.

The classroom discussion as mid-term exam originated with a foundations of education class several years ago—as we confronted the problems with traditional grades and tests, I encouraged the class to brainstorm with me how to create a more authentic mid-term experience.

Last week, I implemented the discussion as mid-term exam in both courses I am teaching.

First-year writing students choose, contact, and interview a professor in a department students are considering for a major. Each student records the interview as an artifact to prove she/he fulfilled that requirement, but then, students come to class with several key take-aways from the interview, which focuses on the professor as a scholar and writer.

The class begins with small-group (3-4 students) discussions that I casually monitor, and then we move to a whole group discussion.

I list the departments/disciplines on the board, and I help structure the discussion to focus on what scholars do and how academics write and submit work for publication (and how some disciplines do not conform to that norm, such as artists and musicians who create and perform).

In the foundations of education course, students read Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap throughout the first half of the course, including a few class sessions for discussions of their reading.

Before the mid-term date, students submit talking points for the class discussions. I encourage those notes to be as specific as possible (quotes, page numbers).

The class session also starts with small-group discussion and then moves to whole group, but in this class, I remain entirely outside the discussions and require the students to navigate everything.

Briefly, at the end, I have a debrief about the experience.

These assessments have a few key elements in common: requiring artifacts of participation, creating small spaces for students to share if whole-group dynamics are uncomfortable, and shifting as much ownership of the learning to the students as possible.

I have been doing this for several years now, and every single one has been impressive. The actual mid-term sessions have always impressed me in a way that no traditional tests have.

In the debrief with my foundations of education class last week, I pointedly asked them to compare the mid-term discussion of a textbook reading to a standard test or individual essay.

Students were eager to argue that the discussion was far more powerful in terms of their understanding and engaging with Gorksi’s work; in fact, the whole-class discussion became extremely animated, and I witnessed students negotiating with both Gorski’s ideas on poverty and their classmates evolving awareness about poverty.

In short, the assessment was not a mere recording of learning, but a learning experience itself.

And what I learned, what the experience reinforced for me? Learning is collaborative, knowledge is the result of a community, and traditional assessment fails miserably since it isolates learners from each other and the teacher while reducing knowledge to a commodity.

As a critical educator, I continue on a journey to practice Paulo Freire’s vision of the teacher-student charged with educating students-teachers.

Assessment as collaboration and community is both something we can all practice in traditional settings and something we must do if we honor education as an act of liberation and the classroom as a space that honors human autonomy and dignity.

Political Spaces: More on the Politics of Calling for No Politics

A talking head on my local sports talk radio recently speculated that part of the reason NFL TV ratings are slightly down is that fans in the U.S. do not want politics mixed with their sports.

The touchstone of blame, of course, was Colin Kaepernick, who has now been named starter for this coming week’s game and, subsequently, has become the face on further speculation about how fans will react—since, you know, Kaepernick is being all political.

This lingering debate about “political” reminds me of the politics of calling for no politics that plagues education.

Educators at the K-12 level and professors work within a norm that expects educators to not be political. Something my roundtable at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference this November 2016 in Atlanta, GA is addressing with Confronting Educator Advocacy with Pre­Service and Early Career Teachers.

The current NFL debate centered on Kaepernick and K-12 education share something profoundly important: both simultaneously establish themselves as political spaces and then demand no politics from those with the least political power.

With all NFL games starting with the National Anthem and schools days across the U.S. starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, NFL games and public schooling are political spaces because coercing, demanding, or denying public displays of nationalism/patriotism is profoundly political.

Complaints, then, about “being political” are dishonest; the truth is that those in power want compliance to a prescribed politics—not an absence of politics.

And that can be proven easily. If we want our sport and education spaces to be politics free, stop playing the National Anthem and stop asking children to recite the Pledge.

But that will never happen—not in the good ol’ U.S. of hypocrisy.

Where the ultimate politics is the politics of money—and the best we can offer democracy and human agency is lip service.

Human behavior is always political, and those in power are always exercising their political will—which too often includes demanding no politics from everyone else.

Kapernick is exposing, at least, this fact about the hollowness of calls for spaces free of politics.

If in the U.S., anyone has to relinquish her/his political agency because of her/his profession, then we all have lost our freedom, we have thus conceded to a totalitarian state.

Standing with hand over heart during the National Anthem is a political act, just as Kaepernick’s kneeling. Both are the byproduct from those in power who have created the political space to begin with.

We must, then, resist the urge to condemn and blame those brave enough to respond to political spaces by exercising their politics—and if we truly want spaces free of politics, we must confront those in power, which would, of course, take our own political will to act.

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.

First, a flashback.

I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.

Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.

Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.

In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.

To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.

You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.

You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.

Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”

My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.

Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.

And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.

I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.

And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:

On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)

The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called
“rules.”

My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”

I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.

Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).

But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.

And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”