Writing as Discovery: When Process Defaults to Script

For most people, I imagine, vacations spur thoughts of welcomed relief from day-to-day routines and obligations. But as a writer—one who writes almost daily—I find vacation’s necessary break from routine is almost unbearable.

My ideal existence would include waking early, 5:30 or 6, and then shuffling through my morning ritual online—some things practical and some, quasi-recreational/quasi-professional—while drinking coffee.

And then I would write for several hours.

Just last week, I was on a 6-day cycling trip to Asheville, NC, and did not have any of those options for the first few days. While cycling and touring the breweries of Asheville were wonderful, I grew increasingly anxious about not writing.

Friday, then, we took a break from cycling and ventured that morning to a donut and coffee shop where I did begin a blog post about the trip after taking care of bills and some of the typical online patterns of my normal life.

While I was still meandering into that post, we decided to shift to a local bookstore in town so I stopped mid-blog. As we heading to the bookstore, I talked about what I was blogging and realized it was about political bravery—realizing and saying aloud I should have titled the blog “Brave.”

Once settled in to writing again at the bookstore, I revised the title, and waded back into the blog post with a renewed sense of what I was trying to examine. The piece is typical of my public blogging—a weaving of personal, political, and literary remnants that I quilt together, hoping to produce a cohesive whole.

A better title and a clearer understanding of what my purpose as writer seemed to be, however, still did not fulfill me; I was nearly paralyzed with a sense that I had nowhere to go, no way to bring the post to an end.

I paused my drafting and scrolled through my Twitter feed, discovering an interview with Arundhati Roy. As I read, I recognized that Roy was herself discussing political bravery, what I was investigating in my blog post about visiting Asheville and watching the train wreck of debate about healthcare in the U.S.

Returning to my draft, I weaved in a bit about reduced circumstances from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and then included some key points from Roy’s interview.

I had throughout that morning discovered what I was writing and had also discovered the elements I needed to create something more cohesive than I had when I sat down to write.

I must emphasize that I had none of that before I drafted, what most people would call “writing.”

Stopping and restarting, talking through the post with someone else, and reading had all charged and shifted what that post became.

Of course, I had some initial urge to write, some focus in terms of content, but most of that post is similar to the vast majority of my work as a writer—the thing itself does not come into focus until after the drafting.

So when I came across Ann Curzan’s Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First, I was immediately drawn to her central points:

In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. …

I want students to have that experience of using writing to explore and figure things out, even when they are doing it for a course assignment (i.e., a requirement). The best essays, I believe, start with questions: questions about something we are curious about, a puzzle we can’t seem to figure out yet, a position or a text or an event or a kind of human behavior that we are struggling to understand. I fear that when we ask students to start with a thesis — an argument or a defined position — rather than a question, before they even begin the process of writing, we are setting them up to write less interesting essays. And we don’t set up essays from the very beginning as a chance to explore. When I came to this realization, it changed my pedagogy.

As a writer and teacher of writing, I have had the same discomfort with the writing process as I experience with the five-paragraph essay template—authentic writing guidelines are reduced to harmful practices when a script supersedes the authenticity in the practice.

In English Journal (May 2017), Nicole Boudreau Smith argues for principled practice in writing instruction, what I call warranted practice. Two of her principles are Component #1: Writers Need Process, Not Product and Component #2: Writers Need Strategies, Not Formulas.

Curzan’s piece on the pre-draft thesis and then writing to that thesis helps us investigate how our students of writing need process, but how we also need to be wary of reducing the process to a script.

In other words, for many writers, drafting is brainstorming—yet teachers often portray brainstorming as a step before drafting, just as teachers often require a clear thesis statement before students write.

I come back, then, to be a writer who teaches writing as well as the never-ending pursuit of authentic practice.

I reject completely the template approach to the essay, the five-paragraph form, but I also push against teaching students the writing process instead of helping student experiment with and discover their writing process.

Brainstorming, drafting, conferencing, revising and editing—these are common elements of the writing process, but they are not sequential or linear, and they are not exhaustive; abandoning drafts, reading, taking breaks—these are also aspects of the process that students must be aware of and then allowed to investigate.

More broadly than requiring a thesis and demanding a sequential writing process (which must be documented by the student for the teacher), we as writing teachers need to foster in students writer’s purpose, the urge to write that then intersects with process and form as well as the myriad aspects of creating a coherent text for an audience.

Asking students to identify their text outcome before they draft may be one of the most prohibitive practices in our classrooms. Writing as discovery has the potential to unlock the writer in our students that we often lament not seeing.

When teachers, especially teachers of writing, reach for templates and scripts, I believe that urge comes from a good place, the recognition that students who are novice or developing need structure.

However, I also recognize that templates and scripts tend to do more harm that good; we have ample evidence that students rarely release rigid templates if they have worked for them (in other words, students who made A’s using the five-paragraph essay have been conditioned that the template is effective).

The writing process is incredibly important for students learning to write, and asking them to work from blank paper can be far too daunting.

Instead of reducing the writing process to a script and demanding a definitive thesis from students before they draft, we should offer structure through a broader array of ways to begin a text—questions, problems, provocative passages from other writers, personal stories, an exciting turn of phrase, a title.

To return to Smith’s principled practice (my warranted practice), I suspect that we all must step back from time to time and investigate if our practice matches our goals.

When, how, and if students write with or to a thesis is a set of practices that may be better replaced by seeking ways to help students see writing as discovery.

Brave: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

If memory serves me well—and it is failing in that regard as I tumble toward 60—this is my fifth summer in a row to take a week-long or so vacation grounded in cycling.

For a couple summers, we went to Colorado, Boulder and Ft. Collins, but now we drive the brief hour just north of where I live to Asheville, NC.

But for all the proximity of geography, I might as well be slipping through a worm hole or walking into some sort of science fiction portal involving much more than time.

Jack of the Woods
A blue grass band performs at Jack of the Woods in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.
This summer of 2017 has come at significant costs to someone with incredible privilege and a life of mostly leisure—a traumatizing car and bicycle accident at the end of 2016 and then June brought my father’s death just days after my mother’s stroke.

More physically and psychologically tired than I can ever remember being, I walk around Asheville now as the U.S. spirals further and further into proving ourselves to be a truly awful people—primarily because of what we refuse to do.

The majority political party, Republicans, maintain a relentless drumbeat toward repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), pronounced Obamacare, as political theater and a not-so-thinly veiled next step in the renewed racist energy embodied by President Trump.

While the virulent racists in the U.S. may be few, the “best lack all conviction,” more than willing to remain neutral on this moving train of inequity.

A sizable majority of comfortable people (what we enjoy calling “the middle class”), mostly white but all financially stable enough, may think things are bad here and there, but doing something about pain and suffering for the struggling among us (children, the elderly, carers, the disabled) could disrupt what they have, and they’ll risk none of that.

Just last night a few senators (all of whom are enormously wealthy) stalled (derailed?) yet again the repeal of the ACA—some offering rhetorical flurries about their own medical struggles and eliciting praise for their bravery in the face of political pressure.

Also last night, I had a conversation about the fractures among feminists, specifically involving someone such as Emily Ratajkowski who shares a sort of capitalist feminism once championed by Madonna—the right for a woman to control and market herself as men are free to do even when that crosses a line viewed as objectification or sexualizing.

Not to be too simplistic, but Ratajkowski is the sort of brave witnessed in the senators—brave within a system but unwilling to overthrow a system that benefits them.

And I watch and feel this as I walk around Asheville where a bohemian way of life looks brave to me but is really not that brave at all in Asheville, where this has become normalized by being monetized. Part of the tourist schtick of Asheville is dreadlocks, tattoos, tie-die, and quirky eateries along with lots of breweries.

I mean lots of breweries, including the mega-craft brewery New Belgium, which boasts a powerful ownership model and much-praised corporate values.

NB Asheville
The view from the back deck of New Belgium Asheville is scenic and a picture of revitalization of long-ignored areas of cities. But how often do we ask for whom and why?
So on vacation for daily mountain biking and several rounds of breweries each afternoon, I am mired in thoughts of bravery—or to be honest, the lack of bravery in me and those around me whether I am where I live or here in Asheville.

No matter where you go, there you are, and mostly everyone is cowardly and selfish.

And as I often do, I think about the reduced circumstances of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The rarely discussed consequence of the sacred Invisible Hand is that it keeps us often frantic so that behavior that falls short of any sort of human decency looks brave—senators barely keeping a healthcare system afloat that is criminally inadequate but even so better than the alternatives being promised.

To be brave, then, wherever you live, wherever you are, comes with great personal costs. As Ratik Asokan writes: “Most middle-class Indians hate Arundhati Roy—or, rather, they hate the political activist she has apparently become.”

Roy, it seems, has committed the sin of bravery, a sin most offensive to the so-called middle class—and this is about India, a country of tremendous poverty.

“Fiction is the only thing that can connect all of this together,” Roy explains about returning to the novel as a writer after decades writing essays as a political activist. “Fiction is truth. You turn to fiction when you can’t express reality with footnotes and evidence and reportage.”

Normal, it seems, becomes powerful and evil, ultimately. No matter where you go, there you are with your normal against the normal around you.

I feel both at home and entirely out of place in Asheville, but I am merely visiting and spreading my disposable income around town, often at breweries and restaurants where I am just wasting time and hoping to come out the other side—if not brave at least a bit less of a coward.

See Also

The Low Road, Marge Piercy

Please Support #FixInjusticeNotKids

Paul Gorski, currently preparing a revised edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, has initiated #FixInjusticeNotKids on social media, a hashtag that captures perfectly the primary fracture between mainstream education reformers and social justice education reformers.

As some examples, here are Tweets of mine addressing this powerful message:

Many elements of mainstream reform embrace a deficit view of children and students, specifically black and brown students as well as students living in poverty. This ideology blames the victims of social inequity, racism, classism, and sexism; it creates a laser focus on the individual and blinds us to systemic injustice.

Support #FixInjusticeNotKids in word and action to seek ways to reject deficit ideology and to end inequity and injustice so that the potential of all children can be achieved among a people who genuinely believe all children matter,

Florida Education Reform: “It’s a Trap”

In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.

Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.

Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:

Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.

Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.

Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”

Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.

Like all “miracle” claims, however, the Florida “miracle” must be confronted simply: “It’s a trap!”

The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.

Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.

Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”

Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.

For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.

So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.

Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:

  • Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school  choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
  • SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
  • Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
  • The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.

While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.

What If?: Even the Best Republicans or Democrats

When news broke about John McCain’s cancer, political leaders from both major parties weighed in with words of praise and support—even former president Obama.

But here is my first thought: McCain will receive world-class medical care without any real fear of financial ruin because of his health crisis, but this fact is because he is extremely wealthy (much of that accumulated while being a career politician), not because he is a veteran, not because he is an American.

When Al Franken spoke about his middle-class roots and his wife’s struggle to rise out of poverty, Democrats began to post and praise Franken as the Great Hope of the party.

But here are my first thoughts: Franken’s white nostalgia for the good old days erases the very harsh realities for blacks, who did not have the same hope and promises Franken’s family and his wife’s family did (similar to McCain’s current fortune). While the good old days noted by Franken did include some identifiable opportunities gone today, Franken’s and his wife’s stories are significantly buoyed by their white privilege (conveniently omitted in his oratory).

McCain and Franken, I believe, represent both the best each major party has to offer and everything that is wrong with political leaders in the U.S.

McCain has worked his entire political life as a Republican to maintain the inequities of class and race that now benefit him in a very public and tragic way. McCain, in fact, was to be a major piece of Republican efforts to dump people off health insurance and to reduce the tattered safety nets needed by children, the poor, the elderly, and his fellow veterans.

Franken is the classic white progressive Martin Luther King Jr. warned about during the Civil Rights era. He speaks to rugged individualism and glosses past race because both strategies bolster his political capital.

The public in the U.S. is left victim to a vapid and soulless political sparring match between Republicans and Democrats, although neither party really cares about providing for all Americans the sorts of essential promises that every person deserves.

As one volatile example, we remain trapped in the abortion debate—as if that debate is about abortion, which it isn’t.

Throughout the history of the U.S. wealthy women have always had access to safe abortions; and regardless of the law, wealthy women will always maintain access to reproductive rights, safe and world-class healthcare for them and their children.

Roe v. Wade was narrowly about abortion, but broadly about expanding to all women in the U.S. the same rights already afforded the wealthy—just as we are witnessing in McCain’s cancer challenge.

I struggle to have the sort of compassion for McCain and praise for Franken that others are expressing because, in context, these men are—even as the best of their parties—the problems, not the solutions, to a more equitable country.

What if each of these men extended their own great fortune, much not even earned, to all Americans simply for being human? What if both of these men had worked and would now work to insure that especially the most vulnerable among are extended the promise that their human dignity will be preserved against poverty, disaster, and failing health?

What if they admitted the American Dream has never yet been achieved, even in their narratives about the good old days? What if they honestly sought ways to make that dream a reality soon?

What if enough Americans stopped playing petty and self-defeating political games so that our leaders had no choice but to do the right thing?

Yes, what if?

Teaching Students to Dislike Poetry: “What is the most boring subject/possible?”

As an avid reader, teacher, and writer/poet, I read poetry nearly every day, especially now that I am prompted wonderfully through social media such as Twitter.

So Matthew Zapruder‘s recent Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think spurred both my Teacher-Self and my Poet-Self with his lede:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word “purple” or “flower” or “grass” really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.

Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder

Teaching and writing poetry for over three decades now, I have always swum against the “I dislike poetry” tide with equal parts evangelical zeal and soul-crushing disappointment. Poetry, I learned many years ago as a first-year college student, is beautiful; it is the orchestra of words best representing the human compulsion toward language and communicating with each other.

Recently, as I read Randall Mann’s “A Better Life,” I began to cry by the lines “Fear lives in the chest/like results.” That emotional response upon a first reading wasn’t intellectually engaged with understanding fully the poem, or how traditional approaches to teaching poetry demands that readers seek out deeper meanings.

And also read recently, Margaret Ross’s “Socks” prods the reader in the opening lines toward the mundane:

The socks came in a pack of five.
What is the most boring subject
possible?

As I did with Mann’s poem, soon my heart was deeply drawn to Ross’s simple verse:

All that time
I could have touched you and didn’t
or did absentminded, getting in
or out of bed or trying to reach
something behind you.

These two poems are beautiful in the way poetry moves me, and they are both wonderful examples of how the craft of poetry can, and often does, elicit our hearts and our minds through what seems to be very simple language and topics—”a better life” in less purposeful hands is trite, and, I mean, socks?

For those of us concerned about the place of poetry in formal education and then how that fits into the place of poetry in life beyond school, we must consider what the hell we are doing that leads so many people to “I don’t like poetry.”

People all were once children who danced and sang to poetry in their children’s books and cartoons. How many children have you ever known not to revel in rhyme and word play as well as the discovery of utterances and words (o glorious taboo words!)?

And once having gone sufficiently to school, many if not most of these once-children are apt to say “I don’t like poetry.”

Not to be an ass, or simply to quibble, but I think they are actually saying that they have become exhausted with the exact problem confronted by Zapruder; that poetry has more often than not for students been the source of how one adult in the room has the key to a puzzle that is used to make the children feel stupid.

Scanning meter and rhyme scheme, conducting the literary term hunt, explaining some deeper meaning beyond the words on the page—these tasks become laborious and tell students that the tasks themselves matter more than experiencing the poem, that the poem is just some vehicle for these educational adventures in torture.

Here, then, are some suggestions for classroom moves that may better preserve the sanctity of poetry and may better insure that more (but not all) students will retain their childhood joy for words, rhyme, and the feeling of poetry:

  • Expand the responses to poetry from intellectual to emotional, allowing students to begin with (and even linger on) how poetry makes them feel.
  • Emphasize the essential concrete and narrative elements of poetry (instead of making poetry seem as if it is always about Big Meaning, and thus, mostly abstractions). What is this poem saying and who is telling us? These are powerful and important ways to engage with poetry that avoids the pressure of “What do socks represent in this poem?”
  • Focus on how poetry as a form has distinct qualities that impact the reading experience—notably that poets craft in line and stanza form (or in the case of prose poetry with the awareness that they are abandoning even that basic aspect of what makes poetry poetry; none the less, poetry always carries an awareness of lines/stanzas for poets and readers).
  • Encourage students to share their personal reactions and then ask them to distinguish those personal responses from the textual evidence in the poem.
  • Draw them to the text by asking students to identify their favorite word(s) and line(s), and then allow them to highlight the word(s) and line(s) that puzzle or confuse them. This avoids the “guess what the teacher wants” trap of students risking being wrong or right.
  • Read aloud poems, often and repeatedly. Poetry is inextricable from sound as well as how the words are shaped on the page. Most poetry is brief enough to be read aloud and multiple times, making poetry ideal for encouraging these practices in students as purposeful readers.
  • Allow frequent space for the reading of a poem to be enough—no demand for comment or analysis.
  • Share with students your genuine responses to the poems you love—and why you love them in ways that are not about being their teacher, but a human who loves poetry.

No poet writes to be the source of multiple-choice questions on an Advanced Placement Literature exam, or the focus of a 45-minute lesson on scansion and rhyme scheme.

And we can rest assured no poet writes in order to be the reason anyone dislikes poetry.

Late in Ross’s poem, the speaker confesses:

I’ve been
looking for a long time
at the stretch of table where you had
your hand. I am afraid
to touch it.

She has me mind, body, and soul, and as I finished this poem the first time, I wanted to share it with others, which I did.

None of us discussed what it means, or even her wonderfully accessible language that certainly speaks to us beyond the “boring subject” of socks.

Mostly we quoted and often agreed on our favorite lines, and then felt something satisfying about having this poem in common. Nothing about the repetition of blue or what socks really mean.

But I have been thinking because of both poems and Zapruder’s piece about “a better life” for students, for teachers, and for the promise poetry affords us if we simply let it be.

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

On Healthcare and Poverty: The Ill-informed and Heartless U.S.A.

The healthcare debate spurred by the election of Trump has overlapped with my own adventures with the healthcare system due to my accident at the end of 2016 and my parents’ serious and fatal health events throughout the summer of 2017.

As a result, I have witnessed vividly how ill-informed most people are—from the general public to healthcare providers of all types—along with how that overlaps with massive and heartless misconceptions about poverty in the U.S.

While the U.S. has a long and disgusting history of racism and demonizing people in poverty, the current failure to provide social safety nets for the struggling has roots in Ronald Reagan’s politics of hatred anchored by the false but effective “welfare queen” narrative.

However, even more significant, the erosion of social programs became standard policy under Bill Clinton’s tone-deaf and self-serving “get tough on welfare” policies in the 1990s.

A robust welfare system and universal healthcare driven by a single-payer system are not only morally imperative in the U.S., but also fiscally essential to provide the stability that would enhance the market and everyone’s ability to prosper.

Answering honestly key questions about the intersection of poverty and healthcare in the U.S. must be committed to facts and not ideology.

1. Who are the poor in the U.S.?

The poor in the U.S. are not a swarm of lazy able-bodied people drawn to free money and thus living off all the hardworking Americans who hate that laziness.

The facts, instead, show this:

First, you can see above that the non-student, non-disabled, non-working adult poor make up around 11% to 16% of the poor each year. This is a pretty small percentage….

As you can see, more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.

2. Why do many in the U.S. believe the poor are primarily lazy, responsible for their own poverty—ignoring how poverty is mostly a lived condition of the vulnerable?

Maria Szalavitz explains in Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective….

A great example of what the fundamental attribution error looks like in real life can be found in the bestseller Hillbilly Elegy. JD Vance writes of seething with resentment as he worked as a teen cashier, watching people commit fraud with food stamps and talking on cellphones that he could only “dream about” being able to afford.

From his perspective, the food-stamp recipients were lazy and enjoyed selling food to support addictions rather than working honestly. But he had little idea how they saw it from within – whether they were using illicitly purchased alcohol to soothe grief, pain and trauma; whether they were buying something special to celebrate a child’s birthday; whether the hard life that he had been able to manage had just gotten the better of others who were born wired differently or who didn’t have any supportive family members, as he did with his beloved grandmother.

3. But the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—known as Obamacare and mistakenly by many Trump supporters thought to be two different programs—is a healthcare disaster?

The greatest charge against the ACA should be that it failed to go far enough in terms of moving the U.S. to universal single-payer healthcare, but the ACA did achieve greater coverage for more people, especially the vulnerable.

What many who blame the ACA for healthcare problems fail to acknowledge is that Republican-led states have purposeful worked to sabotage the ACA:

While the ACA improved access to health care for millions of Americans, it also amplified existing inequities in how states are treated by the federal government. Unfortunately, the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) proposed in the U.S. Senate not only fails to fix this problem — it essentially locks it in forever. States like Massachusetts and New York spend about twice as much money per Medicaid enrollee as South Carolina. By capping allowable increases in Medicaid spending, BCRA would let northeastern states keep benefitting from more federal funding than states like ours.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that some states expanded Medicaid under the ACA and tapped in to billions of dollars to improve health coverage, while others like South Carolina rejected expansion. Even though BCRA would phase out the Medicaid expansion over several years, expansion states would still collect billions more during that period, while non-expansion states would receive token allocations. There’s something inherently unfair about this — especially since this punishes the states that opposed Obamacare.

4. Isn’t the real solution to better healthcare the free market and not more government?

As J.B. Silvers explains:

This foundational belief rests on general experience in markets for most goods, and it has led to Republican support for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), in which people set aside their own money to pay for their health care costs.

Landmark research showed that this approach could work – but under special conditions. The RAND Health Insurance Experiment is the basis for current HSAs. It demonstrated that people could save money – with no worsening of their health – if the cost sharing (deductibles and co-pays) was completely pre-funded in individual HSAs. The only major exceptions were for kids and some chronic conditions.

But current proposals have extended this logic to populations, such as those with low incomes and few assets, where these findings are not applicable. Furthermore, HSAs generally are not fully funded to the levels used in the RAND research.

Yet, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, as the current Senate bill is officially called, adds a substantial boost to HSAs, and most state-level Medicaid proposals include a modestly funded health savings account. The problem with this Republican approach is that poor people don’t have any money to begin with and typically can’t afford to buy insurance or pay deductibles.

Silvers also discredits the “let them work” argument:

While the Medicaid expansion enrollees are working already (by definition, they have income above the poverty line), their job prospects and history are marginal. The 30,000 Medicaid recipients in the health insurance plan that I ran as CEO, for example, had about nine months of Medicaid eligibility before they got a job and lost coverage.

But the myth persists that Medicaid is loaded with moochers who simply do not choose to work and won’t pay for coverage anyway.

The fact is that very few fall in this category. Work requirements and required premiums may be simply a way to reduce Medicaid rolls using a faulty assumption.

I have watched and am watching my own hard-working parents suffer dramatic and personal negative consequences of being ill-informed and then participating politically on those calloused beliefs.

Understanding poverty, who the poor are, and how universal single-payer healthcare—these are foundational for the prosperity of all Americans, who must set aside lazy and unwarranted beliefs grounded in disdain for a poor class of citizens who do not exist.

All of us are are will be among the vulnerable categories who suffer the most in the U.S.—children, the elderly, the disabled, carers, the working poor, students.

A final important question we must all answer: Should we all reject being ill-informed and heartless?

David Brooks, All-American: A Reader

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

Like Donald Trump and his Stepford Wives sons, David Brooks embodies much of what is wrong with the good ol’ U.S. of A. and the hollow failure that is the mainstream media, notably the floundering Wizard of Oz known as the New York Times.

In short, and while I originally read this about Newt Gingrich, Brooks is what ignorant, ill-informed, and/or simply stupid people believe smart people are.

Brooks matches what the white male ruling elites have sold the American public counts as authority: suit and tie, glasses, haircut with the proper part on the side (although even his hair knows to abandon the ship of his thick and possibly hollow skull).

However, and most importantly, Brooks is a white man who holds forth on everything with a genial authority, and he has acquired a bully pulpit mostly because he is a white man who holds forth on everything with a genial authority.

The schtick here is that Brooks is doing his All-American service by making really hard ideas accessible to the much less sophisticated American public.

It is what stand-up comics have done for decades, but Brooks, especially, and the NYT take him and all that explaining very seriously.

Having taught high school and first-year college writing for many years, I can assure you that Brooks is a case of arrested development found in many more-or-less privileged white men who decide very early that they know everything.

In fact, the Brooks approach to writing would suffer mightily in a first-year writing seminar, and especially in an upper level college course requiring a student to know the material and then to work through ideas carefully.

Some of these know-everythings become pompous and rapacious—think Trump—and others become genial and perpetual explainers to the masses—think David Brooks, All-American.

The problem is that they are both horrible, both eroding the great possibilities of a free people somewhat half-heartedly pursuing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Here is a simple guide for the work of Brooks: do not read it. Ever.

A more nuanced approach is to mine his commentaries for the most simplistic and unwarranted claims about human nature, the human condition, gender roles, and most damning of all, anything he wades into about race or culture.

Again, like Trump, Brooks lumbers through this life almost entirely fueled by privilege that he believes is credibility he has earned. You can tell by the glasses and the smug look in all the pictures of him on google images.

There is a powerful but careless narrative among the “Make America Great Again” crowd that white men made this country, made this country great.

But the truth is that white men like Trump and Brooks are the worst sort of dinosaurs, surviving on their disproportionate influence and crushing everything in their paths to self-aggrandizement.

In the most perverse ways possible, the U.S. deserves both Trump and Brooks because they represent who this country is at the core.

Our only hope is that the margins can overcome that core, find a way to create a more perfect union.

David Brooks, All-American: A Reader

Reconsidering Education “Miracles,” P.L. Thomas

David Brooks Also Eats Cereal, John Warner

Course Catalog for David Brooks’ Elite Sandwich College, Lucy Huber

Explaining David Brooks’ column to a stupid coworker who’s scared of fancy meat, Sean O’Neal

I Am David Brooks’ Friend With Only A High School Degree. I Have Never Seen A Sandwich and All I Know Is Fear, W. Caplan

Reaping What We Sow

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

Galatians 6:7

Today marks about a month spent navigating between two polar worlds of responsibility as I approach 60 in a few years.

My two grandchildren live with me and I often provide care for them. I also now visit my mother every day as she recovers from a stroke in a rehabilitation facility where my father died just over two weeks ago.

My three-year-old granddaughter and mother, in fact, are sharing a similar journey with language—uttering smalls bursts of distinguishable speech among strings of mostly gibberish.

Watching my father’s declining health and death along side my mother’s unexpected stroke and painstaking recovery, I have experienced more directly what I have known most of my adult life: medical insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are frail and inadequate sources for basic human dignity.

But these realities are shared daily by millions of people discarded in the U.S. where we simply have no interest in being a Christian nation or a charitable people. No, we prefer Social Darwinism and burying our heads in the sands of the free market and consumerism.

“Consumerism,” in fact, is the perfect and disturbing metaphor for our self-defeating beliefs and practices.

And that brings me to the ugly facts I have been confronting about my parents for nearly four decades.

My white working-class Southern parents are the poster children for the manufactured angry white working-class voters accused of electing Trump [1].

I grew up in a home aspiring to the American Dream of middle-class materialism, and my parents mostly worked themselves to death to cobble together that illusion.

Hand-in-hand with my parents being whitewashed model Americans was their unbridled racism, unquestioned self-loathing of their impoverished/working-class heritage, jumbled conservatism, and lifelong voting as Republicans.

As I watched my father die and patiently encourage my mother climbing out of the dark hole of her stroke, I have often thought that they certainly deserve so much better than what the end of their lives has brought.

But I also recognize that they were both willing and eager agents in their own misfortune—so damned inspired by racism and fear that some poor person might receive something without working that they cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

The acidic irony in all this is that my parents, especially my father, imprinted on me a manic work ethic grounded in the unspoken bromide “we reap what we sow.”

Work hard and you are rewarded, my parents believed, but half-ass and you will suffer.

The inverse message, the very ugly inverse message, of course, is the false conclusion that those who suffer and fail deserve the suffering and failure due to their sloth.

If we could somehow recreate Our Town so that my 20- or 30-something father could have watched his last days sitting beside my disabled mother, would he have reconsidered his life and what he believed?

But even that isn’t the solution, of course.

To know that what you do and believe has consequences for yourself ignores that we lack in the U.S. any sort of compassion for others, especially others we perceive as unlike us.

We don’t even believe in or practice a belief that all children are innocent, deserving safe and healthy lives that provide them opportunities at the promises the U.S. pretends to embrace—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The paradox of my life is that my parents gave me incredible advantages and a loving idyllic childhood—a childhood abruptly marred as I worked through my teen years and entered college, resulting in my rejecting virtually everything my parents believed.

I certainly do not cling to some delusion that cosmic justice exists for the righteous and the careless.

I also know that social equity and justice are almost entirely rhetoric of the privileged to maintain their privilege.

None the less, I want to believe that my parents deserve better than what they have reaped, regardless of the seeds they planted.

That basic human dignity is not merely something we have to earn by being faithful workers or unquestioning patriots or cooperative citizens.

I want to believe that we should chose to extend compassion, kindness, and material comfort even to those who have spent their lives denying that to others.

Be the kindness and charity you want to find in others.

I sat with my mother yesterday as she rambled on—I eventually figured out—about her therapy, which is frustrating her. She is terrified and confused about having lost the ability to talk, convinced she will never regain the words.

My nephews and I have explained to her repeatedly that she had a stroke from a blood clot, but she keeps thinking she had a tumor.

The words that did come out as she waved her hands wildly gesturing through the therapy were “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It sounded like my granddaughter’s misguided “I’m sorry” when she fears she has done something wrong, but hasn’t.

“Mom, you’re not dumb,” I said at her smiling and shaking her head. “You just have to relearn everything you have lost.”

What else, I wonder, is a son to do?


[1] A false claim masking that wealthy whites overwhelming drove Trump’s victory.