Why Can’t We Be Friends?

New academic year, and even more stress for new teachers—including the traditional advice heaped on those new teachers, including:

Another pearl of wisdom along the same lines is the warning that teachers shouldn’t be friends with students.

Both are deeply flawed advice because they misrepresent basic humanity, essential goals of being a teachers, and the positive qualities demonstrated by friendship.

Telling teachers to be humorless, ostensibly tough, in the first months of any class is a truly perverse view of the relationship necessary for a teacher to be effective. This advice also expresses a really ugly view of human nature, and young people.

One thing I have learned over 35 years of teaching and almost 30 years of being a parent and now grandparent is that children and young people need and appreciate adult transparency and consistency. They also respond to our modeling kindness, patience, and respect.

Taking on the veneer of being humorless and tough is a false representation of Self, and doing so for a set few weeks or months—obviously as a precursor to becoming your true Self—is setting students up to distrust the teacher as yet another adult playing roles and yet another adult who students cannot anticipate or trust.

So here is better advice: From second one of any new class, teachers should be their full and authentic Selves, and should seek to be kind, open, genuine, and trustworthy.

In short, as the professional in the room, teachers should model from that first second and throughout their teaching the sort of ethical and loving human we would want all children to become.

Of course, the Teacher Self is a version of our fuller Self beyond the classroom. But that Teacher Self should never be something forced or artificial—in part because I firmly believe students sense that and learn to distrust it.

This advice about being stern, deadly serious, is akin to “don’t be friends with your students,” another piece of horrible advice in terms of the relationship between teacher and students as well as a complete misreading of “friendship.”

To be a friend with someone is not monolithic, just as there is no singular love (familial love is not the same as romantic love, although both may run very deep).

Students as evolving humans need teachers as trusted mentors to model being friendly in appropriate and nuanced ways, and showing love, kindness, and even affection in appropriate and nuanced ways.

Friendship includes codes about trust and kindness that are not only appropriate for teaching and learning, but essential.

Over the coarse of our lives, we have dozens, even hundreds of friends—and those friendships are on a spectrum. We have collegial friends, recreational friends, etc.

But all types of friendship are not the same because there are implicit and explicit boundaries to those friendships.

Are you kind and patient with students? Do you spend a great deal of quality time with students? Do you seek ways to make students’ live better, more informed and joyful? Do you develop shorthand ways to communicate, to joke and laugh?

These are elements of friendship—and certainly friendliness in classrooms among teachers and students carries some important boundaries, mostly about levels of intimacy and professionalism (teachers separating the personal from the artifacts of learning that teachers must respond to and assess).

This last point about boundaries is central here since I think people give horrible advice to beginning teachers because we tend to distrust teachers and their ability to be both fully human with their students and able to perform the key moves of teaching (mostly the evaluation and grading elements).

Teachers can and do hold those boundaries, make those distinctions—just as doctors and lawyers do, although doctors are urged to develop “bedside manners” to connect personally with patients in order to improve care.

Ultimately, to teach is about way more than the prescribed content of courses. All teachers are mentors and counsellors, fully human practitioners who are indirectly and directly shaping the full humanity of young people.

To this day, on social media and over text messages, I offer “I love you” to several former students—something I expressed when they were my students, and something they eagerly and often express to me.

We became friends when they were my students and we remain indebted to each other because we made each other’s lives richer in some way.

To recognize the humanity in each other has always meant for me that no boundaries dare be crossed that would hurt those students, mislead them in any way.

Nothing is easy or simple, but teachers being fully human—including being kind, joyful, and loving—is never something to be withheld or hidden from students.

It is imperative, in fact, that we share our full selves the first moment of any class, and then honor our own and their dignity and humanity throughout the course—and into their lives after school.

There is no room for pretense in teaching, and there is no shame in the kindness of one person toward another.

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

When my parents died in June and then December of 2017, they left a meager inheritance to my three nephews and me. The greatest bulk of that is their home, which we moved into when I was 10 in 1971.

My young parents, younger sister, and I lived in rented houses in Enoree and Woodruff, South Carolina before they bought the largest lot on the newly built Three Pines Country Club just north of Woodruff.

Scraping by and paying off the lot, my parents wrangled a local contractor to build their dream house in his spare time. The loan was more than they could handle and a bit less than a car loan for me much of my adult life.

The house they left behind was, then, the house I associate with my formative years, having lived there in some way into my early twenties. Even when newly married, I lived there briefly, and after I did move out, my three nephews all grew up in that house with my parents providing a great deal of their rearing.

So the four of us—and on Saturday my former brother-in-law as well—spent this past weekend doing the final herculean push to clean the yard and the house for selling.

We had begun this journey trying to account for all my parents’ stuff many months ago, and I have been wrestling with watching their life being reduced to so much trash.

There is, however, a finality to this past weekend. The yard has been rendered nearly barren (compared to the jungle my parents spawned), and the house is almost entirely emptied—much of that waiting in the driveway, a dumpster filled with lives now past.

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Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the task was overwhelming, physically demanding since it seemed that no matter what we hauled to the dumpster even more appeared to be hauled away.

But until late in the day Sunday, I had not found the experience the emotional hurdle that a best friend anticipated when he offered to help.

The unexpected, I suppose, must be unexpected.

I showed up Saturday after a morning cycling ride not really prepared for the day of work in the yard; my mind had convinced me that I would help inside. Once the scope and weight of the task at hand—having the house ready to sell by the end of the weekend—struck everyone, we were past midday Saturday and had resigned ourselves to the only way to finish was simply to throw everything remaining away.

So after working outside all day Saturday, I returned early Sunday morning with the same stubborn resolve to clean the inside of the house.

I began vacuuming the side porch, and although I was summoned out a few times to help the remaining loads to be packed into the dumpster, I then moved to each room of the house, vacuuming floors again and again.

A few hours after lunch and some unanticipated impromptu pest control, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Last on the list was scrubbing down the bathrooms and the kitchen.

I vacuumed the front rooms and kitchen, saving them for last since we were tracking through them during the day, and moved to cleaning counter tops in the two bathrooms, ending with the kitchen.

And then the unexpected.

As I wiped the counter and sink in the kitchen, my youth flooded over me, and I had to pause in order to restrain a powerful urge to cry.

One of the great joys of my life was simple. We were a breakfast-for-supper family, a treat we allowed ourselves a few times a month.

I grew up, in fact, thinking that French toast was mainly a vehicle for bacon—not a cross between breakfast and confections. French toast began in my mother’s kitchen with frying an enormous pile of bacon, the grease then recycled for cooking the pile of French toast as well as a side of scrambled eggs.

For most of my life, I ate French toast without syrup and butter—certainly no powdered sugar or syrupy fruit toppings.

But none of this is why I felt a sudden urge to cry.

I don’t recall when it began, but I was tasked in the family with cleaning up after supper. I washed the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen, diligently.

My mother heaped praise on me for being so meticulous; it was something I did well, and gave me status in the family.

I still feel something soothing about the process of making the kitchen space tidy, clean.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with Clorox wipes in hand and leaning against the kitchen sink, I felt suddenly heavy, as if I was holding up my entire life lived in that house. I was cleaning my mother’s kitchen for the last time.

Tears made it no farther than the edge of my eyes, blurring my contacts as I breathed against that weight of memory and loss. I gathered myself, wiped the sink, and then moved on to the bar where I had stood day after day in my brace for scoliosis to draw from comic books throughout my teens years.

“The bar is clean,” I told my nephews when they came into the kitchen, “but it is so stained and nicked, it doesn’t look like it.” They mentioned the oven hood, equally clean and terribly stained as well.

My oldest nephew had used the Magic Eraser on the bar, he said, but it still looked dirty.

Some things are indelible, I think, like the sudden realization you are cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

All of us are back at our separate lives today, and that dumpster filled to the rim awaits a truck that will carry all of my parents’ life turned trash to a landfill to be buried.

I left with my baptism certificate and the family dictionary, family names scribbled on the cover since the 1960s.

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At some point, too, this will be just trash. Someone else’s problem, maybe even something to fret over before tossing it into a dumpster.

Later in the day Sunday, my nephews took new flowers and a small urn of my mother’s ashes to my father’s grave. I didn’t go.

I had spent the weekend in a kind of graveyard already. I had grunted and sweated toward a sort of stasis that might allow someone else to own this house and land of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Nothing prepares you for the feelings that rush over you, cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

I am afraid I will never forget. I am afraid I will forget.

Mainstream Journalism Can’t Handle the Truth

Soon-to-be former Associate Editor of The State (Columbia, SC), Cindi Ross Scoppe noted in her good-bye column:

Newspapers the nation over are making a rapid transition into an all-digital future, and right now, there’s not a huge market online for fact-based opinion journalism, particularly when it isn’t extreme, or at least aligned with one side in our culture wars. People like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism, while creating a stronger following, and I wish them nothing but the best with this. Unfortunately, the next round of layoffs came too soon for me.

Mainstream journalism, notably the traditional newspaper, is in rapid decline. Scoppe’s departure is yet one more example of the actual human cost of media contracting.

Having placed a number of Op-Eds with The State, I have interacted with Scoppe for many years. On balance, I would place her in a small percentage of journalists about whom I am mostly positive, keeping in mind that I regularly criticize both mainstream journalism broadly and edujournalism narrowly as deeply flawed.

I have, in fact, stated bluntly that even so-called good journalists and good journalism leave a great deal to be desired. Journalists remain steadfast in their commitment to both-sides journalism, and the entire media field/industry is every day more deeply entrenched in press-release journalism out of necessity.

These on-going contractions require fewer and fewer journalists to do more and more. Journalists as generalists (their expertise is journalism, lacking content expertise in the topics they cover), then, simply try to keep their heads above water even when they are faced with a rising tide they have never navigated before.

I paused at Scoppe’s “[p]eople like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism.” I am deeply torn between recognizing Scoppe as a very good journalist with genuinely good intentions (in my opinion) and also being able to see that her “pragmatism” (and journalistic code that includes both-sides reporting and a naive pledge “to express my political opinions, with no allegiance to any person or political philosophy,” or seek ways not to be political) more often than not trumped that integrity.

Let me give an example that I think reflects the much larger problem in journalism and news reporting across the U.S.

Scoppe and The State have remained supporters of current South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, calling him the best candidate and even praising him for having integrity.

Yet, McMaster is a strong Trump ally and a shameless NRA candidate. In short, McMaster isn’t a candidate with integrity. His partisan politics are an affront to the high percentage of black and brown citizens of SC as well as to the large percentage of the state that lives in mostly ignored poverty.

This state-level example is not much different than The New York Times remaining unwilling (unable?) to call Trump and his administration liars. The so-called newspaper of record is mostly concerned about White House access.

The truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that journalism is its own worst enemy. Journalists are trained to avoid taking ethical stands, to refuse to make evidence-based decisions about credibility and validity.

Mainstream media are complicit in how the U.S. has become a political joke throughout the world.

Chris Cuomo, for example, on CNN plays the role of “journalist holding the administration’s feet to the fire,” but continues to give Kellyanne Conway airtime.

The ugly truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that there is no journalism—only theater.

The U.S. has a faux-billionaire reality-TV star as president. The media created him and the media are playing right along to keep this sinking ship afloat.

Like universal public education (which journalists have covered badly for more than a century and a half), the free press is essential to a free people.

Like universal public education, the free press is mostly a deeply flawed—and failing—experiment in democracy since both are deeply tainted by the free market.

However, universal public education and the free press are not the problem. We have failed them; they haven’t failed us.

Education and journalism are both inherently political. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists remain apolitical.

Education and journalism are both inherently ethical pursuits. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists skirt moral and ethical pronouncements.

One of the greatest risks teachers and journalists can take that can directly threaten their careers is to be activists, the highest form of political and ethical behavior.

The activist is one who seeks to garner power to confront the entrenched power of the status quo in the pursuit of change, change that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Many teachers (and professors) and journalists are in separate boats that are both none the less sinking.

And the harsh truth is that they have created the holes themselves by conforming to the traditional expectations that teachers and journalists simply allow the world to continue as it is.

Don’t be political and surely don’t take any ethical stand in your roles as teachers and journalists.

Almost daily, I see The New York Times begging for subscriptions to keep journalism alive while they refuse to call a lie “a lie.” And while their Op-Ed page devolves more and more into something many of us find hard to distinguish from The Onion.

Maybe journalism deserves to be razed since it can’t stop itself from throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that is U.S. politics and disaster capitalism.

Maybe we must let this all burn to the ground and hope for a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a new version of a critical free press that can handle the truth.


See Also

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

Teaching Writing in the Absence of Expertise

For about the last third of my two decades as a high school English teacher, I served as the varsity soccer coach, at first for both the girls and boys squads and then just the boys.

Soccer was new to the high school, and the athletic director/ head football coach was actively antagonistic about the sport; he basked in calling soccer a “communist” sport, in fact.

The coach before me had played college baseball. He typically arrived at practice in his softball cleats and prompted the team to scrimmage, virtually every practice.

The team’s success was built almost entirely on the expertise of the players, although there was little success.

The dirty open secret about my agreeing to become the coach was that, although I was an active athlete (cycling) at the time and had played team sports in high school and college, I had never once played any organized soccer. My experience with soccer was grounded entirely in having come to the sport through my daughter, who began playing at 4 and within a few years became an elite youth soccer player.

Despite my lack of expertise as a player, my teams soon became the dominant team in our conference, and we posted back-to-back years of 15-4 and 14-5 records at one point.

I often think of my own experiences as a coach when I am confronted with mainstream beliefs that anyone can teach or coach anything because these skills (teaching, coaching) have some sort of generic qualities independent of the thing being taught or coached.

As my stint as soccer coach showed, it can be done, even well—but I would argue that my experience was an outlier and ultimately does not make a valid case for teaching or coaching as professions that can be mastered without the context of content (for lack of a better word).

With a recent flurry of discussions on social media about teaching writing [1], I have returned to my own conflicted beliefs about the need for teachers of writing to be writers themselves.

Much of the public debate about student writing quality and how to teach writing well is, frankly, garbled—such as this:

Today, there is a growing consensus that students need strong writing skills to succeed in the workplace and to fully participate in society, but educators passionately disagree on the best ways to teach those skills. Some call for greater focus on the fundamentals of grammar: building vocabulary, identifying parts of speech, and mastering punctuation. Others believe that students need more opportunities to develop their writerly voice through creative expression and work that allows them to make connections between great literature and their personal lives.

Meanwhile, it appears that many of the methods seem to be falling short: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that only one in four 12th- and eighth-graders is meeting grade-level expectations in writing. In both tested grades, Latino and African American students scored lower than their peers in other racial and ethnic subgroups.

Historically and currently oversimplified as a debate and framed always by “kids today can’t write,” the teaching of writing remains stunted by some systemic constraints that seem never to be addressed because, well, its always a debate and “kids today” can never write well.

One of those systemic problems is, I think, that those charged with teaching writing are mostly teachers who have never written in any context except for formal schooling.

This traditional pattern means that mechanistic approaches such as templates (five-paragraph essay) and rubrics are somewhat necessary structures to support the lack of expertise and experiences by those teachers.

School writing, as Cindy O’Donnell-Allen explains, is in many ways the anti-thesis of writing:

In school, writing was a closed circuit. The teacher gave an assignment, I responded, then she passed it back with a letter grade at the top of the page. I was good at school, but none of it felt like writing. Writing was what I did on my own time. I composed poetry and song lyrics in secret and hid my journal in my sock drawer when I heard footsteps in the hall.

Teaching students to write as students—and currently that means a significant amount of time and energy spent on teaching students to write to prompts in standardized and high-stakes assessments (from state accountability tests to so-called more sophisticated exams such as those for Advanced Placement)—is a narrow and possibly necessary evil. Yet as O’Donnell-Allen muses about students learning to write as students:

But would she have had sufficient experience writing in varied genres beyond the academic argument that writing a feature for The Atlantic would someday seem possible? And would she have had gained enough satisfaction from preparing for the Regents Exam that she would have hoped for a writing life beyond it? (It’s hard to say.)

Templates and rubrics as the guiding structures of teaching writing are about formal education being a “closed circuit” and mostly not authentic.

How many art teachers are not artists themselves? How many music teachers play no instrument? How many chorus teachers are not singers?

The teaching of writing and then the writing that students do K-12 and throughout college are trapped in a misunderstanding about expertise—both the expertise needed by the teachers and the expertise that students should be developing for themselves.

To teach writing, teachers must themselves have some real and (possibly formal) experiences as writers. Teachers who have only been writing in school as students (typically conforming to templates and rubrics, probably to perform on an assessment) are mostly equipped to pass along that “closed circuit” to students.

In a culture that narrowly identifies student success by “closed circuit” assessments, however, this dynamic may be viewed as very successful. Non-writers as teachers of writing may be able to wrangle most of their students into performing proficiently—or even excelling—on formal high-stakes tests (ones that are not valid measures of real-world writing, by the way; see my Chapter 1 on the problems with NAEP writing assessment).

As a first-year writing professor at a selective university, I can attest that these students who excel at writing as students are not equipped for advanced disciplinary writing within their major or in graduate school; they are also not prepared to be writers who makes their own decisions in sophisticated ways—or to write “a feature for The Atlantic,” as it were.

Templates such as the five-paragraph essay and rubrics are practical crutches for an education system that has failed to recognize the importance of complex expertise in the art and act of teaching.

Yes, some broad skills and dispositions can be identified and even taught to those aspiring to be teachers, but we must never leave it at that. Teaching also requires expertise in the thing being taught.

The teaching of writing is the domain of those who write in authentic ways—not just as students—and have some formal guidance in the moves of teaching broadly and teaching writing specifically.

Being a writer is humbling and it defies simple formulas because it is an unpredictable series of questions, fits and starts, and a journey toward a finished product that cannot be explained well in its parts.

That sort of experience over many years is the ideal expertise one needs to guide students to become writers, and not just to corral them into writing as students.


[1] See John Warner’s new book, and the zombie-like persistence of the 5-paragraph essay as well as the debate about that temple here and here.


See Also on the Five-Paragraph Essay

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

The Pain Closet

In retrospect, that I gravitated toward and then chose recreational cycling as one of the primary avocations of my adult life isn’t really that surprising because I have been trafficking in pain my entire life.

To be a cyclist is to manage pain; to be an elite cyclist is to embrace, even scoff at, pain.

Although I did not make the association for the vast majority of my life, I have been navigating chronic pain and anxiety since my earliest memories as a child.

About 20 years ago, I was forced to admit my clinical anxiety, and depression. But the chronic pelvic pain that the anxiety has cultivated for all of my life has never been adequately addressed—mostly because the medical community has failed me.

I am currently rededicating myself to self-care, to addressing my anxiety and chronic pain. Part of that has been in recent years trying to manage on my own what has been identified by Wise and Anderson (and others) as pelvic pain commonly, and in my case, misdiagnosed as prostatitis (singularly as an infection requiring antibiotics).

As part of my journey, I have discovered that the awareness of anxiety and pelvic pain has greatly expanded in recent years, Wise and Anderson publishing a definitive volume of their work as well as many sufferers now sharing their stories and self-care online.

One set of videos (see this one as an entry point), in fact, includes comments from sufferers, mostly men and many in their 20s, that nearly pushed me to tears; their stories are my story repeated over and over, filled with pain, depression, and hopelessness—and embarrassment.

In my 20s, newly married and starting a life that included plans to have a child, I experienced groin pain one day while sitting in the barber shop. The pain was acute and triggered my anxiousness, my tendency toward hypochondria.

This pain led me to my family doctor, and then a urologist.

For several years, after being diagnosed with prostatitis, I regularly visited that urologist and experienced the same pattern of debilitating pain associated with my lower back, groin and pelvis, and all of my bodily functions (including sexual discomfort).

Each visit to the urologist also followed the same pattern: The urologist would acknowledge my pain and symptoms, admit that the repeated screenings revealed no sign of infection in my prostate, explain (again and again) that prostatitis often is hard to diagnose or treat because the infection routinely cannot be identified, and then prescribe (again and again) extended doses of antibiotics, which never impacted the pain or symptoms in any way but had side effects.

Finally, as I approached my late 20s, I discussed this futility with the urologist, and we decided that simply living with the pain posed no real threat to me since he could never find any real sign of infection. So I simply quit going to the urologist and suffered [1].

Silently.

Closeted in pain that was embarrassing because it impacted necessary bodily functions and cloaked my ability to have normal sexual pleasure.

It would be a decade before I realized I had clinical anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, but it was a couple decades before I discovered the work of Dr. David Wise, who had come to treat his own pelvic pain.

The work and book published by Wise and Dr. Rodney Anderson are a damning indictment of the medical profession, seemingly blinded by assumptions about disease (a physical phenomenon) and treatment (bound by pharmaceutical constraints) [2].

Anxiety, in fact, creates a wide range of pelvic pain that has been misdiagnosed and treated incorrectly for decades (see Symptoms & Treatments links, for example).

Since the Wise/Anderson diagnosis and treatments are rare in the field of urology and even within mental health treatment and physical therapy (I have brought the information to a PT, in fact, who had never heard of the condition or the treatments), however, being aware of my conditions and the relationship between anxiety and chronic pain has not really led to any sort of better quality of life.

To my resignation in my late 20s I have simply added some new knowledge.

Wise/Anderson practice on the West coast and require an extended and expensive commitment of time (and probably will not be covered by traditional insurance).

This tiny ray of hope has turned, for me, always into yet more depression and greater fatalism.

A doubling and tripling down on what I know best—leaning into and living with and through chronic pain, and the concurrent embarrassment.

Being skeptical by nature, and prone to cynicism, I must admit that discovering the 2018 edition of the Wise/Anderson book and what seems to be a growing online community of sufferers, many who are having success with self-care, has spurred a new sense of hope.

I have modified the stretching routine one PT developed for me by looking at the Wise/Anderson book, added new stretching and trigger point massages based on the online videos by sufferers who also have been inspired by Wise/Anderson’s work, and begun to think more intentionally about how to move beyond the chronic pain instead of simply embracing and suffering with it.

Chronic pelvic pain and anxiety are evil twins because they create and are fed by the fretting and embarrassment that they foster in those of us prone to anxiety.

But having mental and physical conditions recognized and treatable only outside mainstream medicine is a really cruel reality.

I watch and hear, for example, dozens of commercials for anxiety/depression medications, ED medications, and the never-ending promises of herbal solutions to prostate dysfunction.

For me, and many others I have discovered online, these are all tremendous wastes of time and money.

Since anxiety/depression, sexual dysfunction, and prostatitis are big money for the pharmaceutical and medical professions, those of us outside this mainstream approach are left in our closet of pain while grey-haired but smiling men on TV lounge in bath tubs outdoors beside their not-so-subtly younger women partners lounging beside them in their bath tubs, hands joined for the TV audience being promised sexual paradise in a pill.

So I am left here in middle age, a small ray of hope sitting beside some anger, anger I will need to work through as I seek ways to move beyond anxiety and chronic pain instead of resigning myself to this as my life as I did in my 20s.


[1] See this blog post:

Added to an individual’s anxiety is the puzzlement of the doctors. The doctor is often frustrated about his inability to help the problem and is not infrequently worried that perhaps he has missed something. Doctors are problem solvers. As we have discussed in our book and other essays, certain doctors do not respond well to their own helplessness to solve the problem of chronic pelvic pain syndromes. Any anxiety, uncertainty or helplessness felt by the doctor is almost always communicated to the patient – a communication whose impact can be overwhelmingly upsetting to the patient.

[2] See this blog post:

Unfortunately, the historical treatment of pelvic pain has almost entirely been a misdirected physical treatment of the organs of the pelvis such as the prostate or bladder. Indeed, the conventional medical establishment unfortunately continues to place most of the blame for pelvic pain on the pelvic organs, and attempts to throw various pharmaceuticals at the condition, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, botox, and other classes of medications, as well as procedures such as nerve blocks and even surgery, all of which have had, at best, mixed results. And, when physical therapy for the pelvic muscles is prescribed, it is almost always prescribed alone, that is, with no accompanying psychological/cognitive support, relaxation training, or self-treatment training.

The Anxiety Chronicles: Travel Edition

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

“The Day I Die,” The National

In November 2007, I flew to Iowa from South Carolina for some work I did with ACT and then a couple weeks later to New York City for the annual NCTE convention.

I had flown only once before that, the first time at 42 for the NCTE convention in San Francisco.

My particular fear of flying is a subset of my life-long battle with anxiety—mine a pervasive anxiety that is very difficult to explain to other people, even those also suffering from situational anxiety because anxiety is not a simple or singular monster.

My trip to Iowa in 2007 and San Francisco in 2003 were alone, but the flights to NYC were with my then-colleague and dear friend Nita.

Because our university allows an unrealistically low allowance for housing on trips, Nita and I booked our flight and hotel together to save money, and since Nita knew I was a less-than eager traveller (and flyer), she was convinced she could make the trip better for me.

However, when we returned to SC, Nita admitted she had not fully understood my problems with traveling and flying, that she had a much greater appreciation for the hell that those are for me—even when I have compassionate traveling companions.

Having just returned from a summer trip for cycling to Fayetteville, Arkansas, prompted by two good friends who are professors at the University of Arkansas, I have had once again to confront the burden that my anxiety is for me and others when I travel (even by car on this particular trip).

As I have written about before, my “I don’t fly” plea is always rebutted with some very brief explanation that I just need some meds or a few drinks on the flight; in other words, the vast majority of people (even those who do not like to fly) just brush aside my very real obstacles with many activities grounded in my pervasive anxiety.

My panic attacks in October of 1999 were the first manifestations of my anxiety that were immediately debilitating. I have lived with anxiety and suffered under the weight of anxiety my entire life, but mostly, I was never really aware that I had a condition since it just seemed normal, what it means to be a human.

Flying, or not flying actually, is a really good example of what virtually everything I do in my life means in terms of navigating anxiety.

To admit I do not fly, or do not want to fly for a trip, is not about the flight itself. If I were just afraid of the flight, then, yes, meds or a few drinks would do the job and I probably would have already flown dozens of places.

My anxiety is about hyperawareness and the inability to manage the burden of the unknown, a series of new experiences.

If I booked a flight today for a trip to France in November, my entire life would then be consumed (off and on) by the uncertainty of that trip. The result is that I could not enjoy my life leading up to the initial flight, I would not enjoy the flight, and then I would not enjoy the trip itself because I would be fretting over the return trip.

That’s why—and friends are well aware of this—my weekly life is one of predictable patterns that include scheduled bicycle rides and nearly an unbroken routine of restaurants each week.

I cringe at “Let’s do this new thing!” in a way that I really am not sure most people can grasp.

Just as another example, when I returned to mountain biking about two years ago, I had a few really bad experiences with group rides that required me to walk across rocks in streams.

These always went badly because the moving water and precariousness of the crossing (carrying a heavy MTB and being a somewhat less stable 50+-year-old), I discovered, triggered my anxiety (I knew the crossings were coming up, so once again, I could never enjoy any of the cycling because of the need to cross the streams, usually twice).

Similar to the lack of understanding about my not flying, many of my friends find this funny, and joke about me being afraid of water—although this has almost nothing to do with water. (A parallel joke surfaced on my Arkansas trip because I balked as canoeing and sat on the bank while friends enjoyed a nearby lake day instead.)

It is about precariousness, a tad bit of vertigo and disorientation, and the overwhelming relationship between the unknown and anxiety.

So on my most recent trip to Arkansas, nearly everything was new—the town itself, the paved cycling trail, the mountain biking trails.

And then on trips, the exhaustion of traveling, the disrupted sleep patterns, and the stress of cycling every day (bad decision) all snowball into a sort of all-consuming exhaustion that renders me incapable of enjoying anything.

Confronted with this reality about midway through the trip, I just confessed in a bit of exasperation that the gauntlet of new experiences had depleted me the same way that being social depletes introverts (which I am).

In other words, the consequence of anxiety for me cast into new experiences is that I am just entirely drained—no psychic or even physical energy available.

None of this, of course, is fair to my friends and companions; none of this is fair to me.

For about 38 years, I lived in silence, actually ignorance, that I suffer from clinical anxiety, something that can be diagnosed and treated in the same way we all experience colds or the flu.

Then I took medication from about 1999 until 2003, eventually gaining some ability to manage the condition but then no longer seeing the side effects as worth the medication itself.

Over about the last 15 years, I have self-medicated (alcohol) and returned to a cycling routine that includes riding about 4-5 times a week. This self-management makes my anxiety nearly invisible to others except those closest to me (the closer, of course, the more severe the consequences for those people), but to be honest, it isn’t really effective for the quality of life I deserve.

As well, the companion to my anxiety is also chronic pelvic pain that also significantly diminished the quality of my life.

Currently, I don’t have a real persuasive way to distinguish for others (or myself) between those things I genuinely do not want to do (canoeing down a river) and those things I simply cannot do because of the weight of my anxiety, the burden of the unknown (flying and traveling).

If left to me, I would simply not do, or in a moment of weakness when I agree to do something new, I would just flee.

Because that is what I almost always want to do—leave the new space if I cannot avoid entering that new space.

I think as a grind toward 60, I am tired of being tired, exhausted by the burden of anxiety, so I am looking into professional help again.

And the paradox of this isn’t lost on me—a new therapist, yet another trip to try to explain to someone else for the umpteenth time my particular journey with a companion I would prefer to be without.

Low-Stakes Environments and Embracing the Value of Failing

Since I am a tenured full professor, I have many conversations with students and friends about the whole tenure and promotion process in higher education—or as I call it, “hazing.”

In a recent discussion about this over breakfast, I began to think about the negative consequences of high-stakes evaluations, about the culture in all formal education in the U.S. that trains teachers/professors and students to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs because of those high stakes.

As a high-stakes process (faculty depend on attaining tenure in order to continue their careers), tenure imposes onto candidates the expectations of the department, the university, and the discipline in ways that erase the faculty’s own autonomy, forcing the faculty member to demonstrate compliance above what should be more desirable qualities such as professionalism, pedagogy, and scholarship.

A clever faculty member can work diligently to create artifacts of what is expected of that faculty member in order to gain a secure status that, ironically, allows the faculty member to then be any sort of teacher, colleague, or scholar they wish (even as that was not revealed by the tenure process).

This problem is grounded in the inherently corrosive influence of high-stakes environments that foster risk aversion as well as compliance.

All high-stakes environments in education are counter-productive for teachers/professors and students.

All of them.

To teach is to fail, and then move forward.

To learn is to fail, and then move forward.

The only way teachers and students can fail with the sort of slack necessary to grow is to do so in a low-stakes environment.

High-stakes breed teaching and learning safely, stunted growth, or even stasis.

To make an analogy, mountain biking is a challenging activity beyond the cardio-vascular demands because this cycling requires in-the-moment technique and decisions that can be learned only by trial-and-error, often that have real consequences (crashing, for example).

And here is a key point because high-stake teaching and learning environments often have artificial negative consequences (such as grades) that may dissuade repeated trial-and-error approaches that cultivate expertise.

A few of us were recently on an out-of-town cycling vacation, meaning we rode new trails on our mountain bikes. These experiences are intimidating because you do not know the trail features, you have not yet made on-the-fly decisions about speed and line that mean the difference between rolling on or crashing.

Nearly all trails are better the second, third, fourth times; nearly always you gain confidence because you failed, because you learned what worked, and what didn’t.

The confidence that grows from failure, then, is the most powerful element in moving from a novice to an expert state.

Recreational mountain biking is often low-stakes because your experiments and failures are not about whether or not you may continue riding, but about how to ride better next time. In fact, the near guarantee of next time is an excellent motivator for taking risks, experiencing a little (or a lot) or pain.

While discussing the challenges of new trails with a friend, we talked about how being able to back-track in order to try a segment again is an exciting feature of riding. It isn’t a race, and there are no expectations except our own about what we want from our riding.

Low-stakes environments with room for failure as a natural feature of growth—this is a healthy way to learn, to teach, to become.

The irony, I think, is that academics on tenure track have a great deal in common with nearly all K-12 and college students because they are all inhibited by high-stakes environments that discourage sincere risk taking and healthy failure.

Academics on tenure track and students are encouraged to be dishonest, to play a game that may benefit them for their compliance but not their genuine selves.

It seems to me that all levels of formal education are the exact places where low-stakes environments that embrace failure should, even must, exist.

Yet, high-stakes environments and risk-averse ideologies tend to dominate all types of formal education, I think, because high-stakes are falsely associated with high expectations.

Here, as my final point, is the paradox since high-stakes environments tend to ask less of teachers/professors and students who are mostly complying to external demands or expectations.

Low-stakes environments that value failure and mistakes are more likely to foster autonomy and original decision making—both of which ask more of teachers/professors and students than deferring to imposed mandates or assignments.

High-stakes environments that encourage compliance instead of risk-taking work against the best possibilities in any teacher/professor or student.

By lowering stakes, increasing the opportunities to take risks, and recognizing the inherent necessity of failure, teaching and learning can and will not only survive but thrive in ways that far surpass the compliance that all too often characterizes both teaching and learning in traditional settings.