Daredevil in Trumplandia: “The Kingpin’s weakness is vanity”

The humanities have a long history of being discredited in the U.S. as impractical majors in college. The good ol’ U.S. of A. tends to calculate investment and return at a very simplistic level to determine when the cost of a college major can be linked directly to earnings in a career.

Business majors are destined to make bank, goes the investment/return narrative, but what you going to do with an English major?

Current times are particularly hard for the humanities, especially literature as a track of English as a major.

Here is the real-world irony in the era of Trumplandia: With Donald Trump at the center of 17 investigations, some have questioned why Trump would have pursued the presidency, which clearly opened the door to exposing his criminality.

The explanation lies, you guessed it, in literature.

While many of us found Greek and Shakespearean tragedy serious drudgery in our formal schooling, these dramas told a tale all too familiar: How the mighty are destined to fall because of their unbridled hubris, excessive pride.

Trump born into excessive and ill-got wealth has skirted along his entire life—cut to the scene where young bone-spurred Trump skips past active duty in war—without consequences for his greed, arrogance, and (to tick another work of literature) his pathological mendacity. (See also, like a good parallel subplot in Shakespeare, the Brett Kavanaugh saga.)

Keeping in mind that universal themes in literature are deeply problematic, we have abundant evidence that motifs such as the dangers of excessive pride are at least enduring, and for good reason.

Recently, I have been reconnecting with one of my favorite comic book superheroes, Daredevil.

Season 3 of the Netflix series, despite all the flaws in this adaptation and the original comic book created in 1964 by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby, represents what makes Daredevil compelling—the complex investigation of justice in the context of both human and spiritual justice. S3 draws on Frank Miller’s “Born Again” (1986) while maintaining the Netflix toned down approach to superhero narratives.

Matt Murdock as righteous lawyer and simultaneously the morally ambiguous vigilante Daredevil (the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen)*, at its best, is a much more powerful and compelling examination of justice than, for example, Batman.

While the religious debates in S3 are key elements of why I am drawn to Daredevil, picking up the Conclusion to The Death of Daredevil (612) serves well my point above about the value of literature and the enduring motif about the folly of excessive pride.

Charles Soule (writer) and Phil Noto (artist) dramatize the Murdock/Daredevil duality well as Murdock seeks Daredevil as a witness to remove Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin as mayor of New York.

Four pages provide a thinly veiled indictment of not only Fisk/The Kingpin, but also Donald Trump.

When Murdock confronts the district attorney, we witness how political might trumps ethics and even the law:

DD 612 3

Murdock’s idealism is highlighted in his plea: “But Wilson Fisk is a criminal. He does not deserve that office.” And this exchange also addresses how those connected to an administration are themselves complicit; as Murdock asks the question often repeated in the real world of Trumplandia:

Can you really keep working for an administration you know is illegal and corrupt at its core when you know there’s a way to take it down?

Yes, it’s a risk. But even if you lose it all, you’ll go out as who you are, not the compromised shadow of yourself the Kingpin’s hoping you’ll be.

It is, however, Fisk on the witness stand and then alone in his office that speak directly to Trump:

DD 612 5
DD 612 6
DD 612 4

Murdock/Daredevil narrates the scene and notes:

I can hear Fisk’s heartbeat. Slow, steady. He’s not afraid. He’s like me that way.

He’s not afraid of anything, and you can’t make him afraid. That’s not the way you beat him. That’s not his weakness.

The Kingpin’s weakness…is vanity.

Fisk as an allegory of Trump is yet another tale of excessive pride, hubris.

Not afraid and certain he is above accountability, Fisk storms from the stand: “Enough. This is a farce, and I will not stand for it any longer.” Might we hear “fake news” in the background?

The dynamic page with Fisk being introspective precedes his being removed from office. It appears the fantasy world of comic books still clings to some sliver of justice even as the real world seems unable or unwilling to take such stands against criminals in office.

However, this is only appearances as there is a twist; justice, you see, is no more simple in Daredevil than in our real world of Trumplandia. The battle between good and evil is never-ending, and more things than justice seem blind—and paralyzed.

The Death of Daredevil ends: “I cannot see the light. So I will be the light. I am Daredevil. And I am not afraid.” And let us not forget, walking unafraid is a trait shared by our so-called heroes and so-called villains.


* Season 2 effectively challenges Murdock/Daredevil’s righteousness with The Punisher, and others, noting little difference among Daredevil, The Punisher, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2019). From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Is justice blind? In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Building character and theme (pp. 81-98). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Thomas, P.L. (2012). Daredevil: The man without fearElektra lives again; science fiction.  [entries]. In Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

What’s Wrong with Journalism?: Fake News and Much More

“The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel,” explains Jeff Jarvis, adding:

But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

Amy Orben offers an excellent argument that this recent crisis of journalism has much to reveal about similar problems in academia:

And then Nikole Hannah-Jones unmasks a central problem with the analysis posed by Jarvis:

This recent scandal in Germany, Jarvis notes, has already played out in high-profile cases in the U.S. well before the hand wringing began about fake news in the wake of post-truth Trump.

While recognizing and confronting post-truth politics and media as well as fake news are urgent needs, especially for educators, neither the failures at Der Spiegel nor the pervasive elements of fake news and post-truth politics are really anything new.

What’s wrong with journalism?

The norms and traditions of journalism are at the core of that answer—both-sides journalism as that flawed pursuit of objectivity has intersected with press-release journalism that has evolved due to the corrosive elements of the market.

Not to oversimplify, but due to those market forces, mainstream journalism has moved from one norm of lazy journalism (both-sides faux objectivity) to a new norm of lazy journalism, crossing the Big-Foot line.

As media has contracted, fewer outlets staffed by fewer and fewer journalists, the essential flaws of journalism have been magnified. One of those flaws exposed has been journalists as generalists, not expert in the fields they cover.

Media outlets desperate for traffic push journalists to seek out topics that are compelling, and then those journalists approach topics as they have been trained to do—seeing everything as having both sides that are equally credible (or at least those journalists believe they have no role in determining credibility).

So on balance, Jarvis, as Hannah-Jones confronts, misreads the problem with journalism and wallows in the tired call for traditional norms.

But as Orben notes, the complex picture of what is wrong with journalism can also be placed at the feet of academia where traditional and current norms are essentially as problematic.

Both the flawed norms of objectivity and the corrosive impact of market forces are what’s wrong with journalism. And thus, the solutions are quite complex and include the following:

  • Solutions must resist both the veneer of objectivity as the path to Truth while rejecting the post-truth claim that there is no truth or that truth is driven by a cult of personality (the enormity of who makes the claim driving what is “true”). Humans are incapable of being objective and claims of Universal Truth are mostly lazy depictions of normalization (power portrayed as “normal” or “right” instead of acknowledging that “might makes right”). However, to reject objectivity and to become skeptical of Universal Truth is not abdicating that humans are capable of warranted assertions (a concept found, at least, in William James and John Dewey).
  • Warranted assertions of what is true at any moment in the accumulation of evidence must allow a wide range of different ways of knowing. In other words, privileging only the classic scientific method (in which, for example, controlling variables in order to make causal claims renders the evidence so unlike reality the conclusions are both scientifically true and real-world irrelevant) is no more valuable than lazy and careless uses of narrative. That humans have developed many different disciplines is testament to how complex knowing the world is. This so-called crisis in journalism, then, cannot be resolved by narrowing how we know; but must be a call to expanding how we know the world.
  • Something not examined as fully, I think, as necessary is the role of expertise and then who communicates that expertise to the non-expert and how that expertise is communicated. The who is difficult to resolve, but journalism needs an influx of disciplinary experts also trained in journalism. The generalist approach is defunct. The how is far less complex—although it requires a shift in norms. Neither scientific objectivity nor narrative, for example, are essentially “good” or “bad.” Both can be applied well or flawed. The pursuit of knowledge and truth must have a fidelity sought by the scientific method, but communicating knowledge and truth from expert to non-expert must be compelling and rich in a way that narrative fulfills.

There is a big picture issue here, ultimately.

What’s wrong with journalism is actually a subset of what’s wrong with human understanding.

This may be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that revolutionizing journalism could change human understanding, but changing journalism may not come until human understanding shifts.

I am not sure how to resolve that but I am certain we cannot see the crisis in journalism as an excuse for nostalgia for a good old days of journalism that never existed or the fatalism of post-truth politics.

Truth is attainable, but to reach it is a complicated journey we have mostly not acknowledged yet.

Could Self-Outing by MAGA Crowd Have a Silver Lining? (Or Were We Deplorables All Along?)

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

Growing up and then teaching high school English in my small Southern hometown had one unhealthy consequence. I lead an ideologically closeted life until I was in my early 40s.

Rumors and direct confrontations colored my daily life as a public school teacher for 18 years. He’s an atheist and Are you an atheist? swirled around me as ever-present as oxygen—or as suffocating as a lack of oxygen.

I dodged and deflected as much as I could, but the stress, especially in the first several years, was overwhelming.

After teaching a bit over a decade, I entered a doctoral program and discovered my teaching philosophy matched a rich body of thought, critical pedagogy. That meant I was part of a Marxist tradition.

This revelation made complete sense.

As an undergraduate, I had found, read, and meticulously annotated a copy of The Essential Marx: The Non-Economic Writings, focusing on the education and religion sections.

Marx
My copy remains a testament to a naive and yet critical young man who circled “ossify” because I am sure I had no idea what that word means.

It took more than 15 years, but because of graduate school, I recognized myself as a person and an educator as well as potential scholar in critical pedagogy, traced back to my initial attraction to Marx’s idealism.

Fast-forward to 2002, four years after I completed my EdD. I found myself invited to interview for a university position abruptly available during the summer.

I had been an adjunct at several local colleges and lead instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project, housed in a local university, for many years; however, I walked into the interview with an idealistic view of higher education and a determination that I would teach at the university level out of the closet, with ideological and professional freedom.

During my sample lesson with faculty observing, I shared with the class that I am a Marxist as part of the discussion, fleshing out the terminology embedded in “critical pedagogy” and “critical literacy.” Later in a debriefing at the end of the day of interviewing, one future colleague leaned in close to me and whispered that I might want to avoid disclosing to students I was a Marxist if I joined the department.

I did move to the university, but I resisted that warning. All my classes hear often that they are learning through a Marxist instructional lens. I have nothing to hide, and I feel no shame for my ethical grounding.

My students also learn that ideology drives all teaching and learning. Objectivity and neutrality cannot exist in human interactions. I also warn that while my classes are transparent, they have experienced many courses in which educators mask and even deny ideologies.

Over the past couple years, an entirely different sort of transparency, or public outing, has occurred in U.S politics among Trump supporters. Hats and bumper stickers now gleefully celebrate what had mostly been unspoken or even unspeakable in the twenty-first century:

deplorable

Disregarding that many are now openly confessing their nationalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry, self-outing has become a mainstream part of Republican pride and evangelical zeal.

While not uniquely contentious, current public and partisan bickering and animosity include a disturbing pattern of making false equivalencies. Activism among people from marginalized statuses are in no way the same as neo-Nazi and white nationalist rallies; the former is calling for equity for all (in other words, it is progressive) while the latter seeks to maintain an inequitable status quo (in other words, it is conservative).

The political and ideological division in the U.S., I fear, has no potential for being resolved. That is, I deeply doubt that the MAGA/deplorables energized minority will ever throw up their hands and declare their ideologies as morally bankrupt as they are.

The new Trumpublican movement is paradoxically very much American (who the country has been and remains in practice) and anti-American (antithetical to the ideals the country claims to embrace).

So despite my skepticism bordering on cynicism, I hope that the MAGA/deplorable boldness shakes the core of the centrist punditry that enjoys a hollow and provable false refrain: “This is not who we are.”

During the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas (both like Trumpublicans paradoxes of who America is and claims to be), this is who we are:

Just 7 years old, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin was picked up by U.S. authorities with her father and other migrants this month in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert. Some seven hours later, she was put on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station but soon began vomiting. By the end of the two-hour drive, she had stopped breathing.

Jakelin hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days, her father later told U.S. officials.

If not for MAGA/deplorables, the U.S. would likely remained trapped, as Yeats wrote, here: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

So we are now confronted with the consequences of the passionate worst.

Since the worst seem dedicated to self-outing, the best face an opportunity, not to change anyone’s minds, hearts, and actions, but to rise above as an energized majority.

This is the ideal to which democracy aspires; this is the sort of thing one might expect from people who claim they are a Christian nation.

What remains is whether this is the “deferred” potential of the American character. Or if we were actually deplorables all along.

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

To be conservative is to resist change and to advocate for keeping things as they are.

In South Carolina, with its long history of conservative politics, culture, and religion, that means keeping the complaints the same (public education is failing) and keeping the solutions the same (disregarding that these solutions neither match the problems nor have worked in any way over the last thirty-plus years).

So here we go again, reported by Anna Lee at The Greenville News:

Greenville County legislators vowing to make education reform a top priority on Tuesday publicized an education agenda from the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute.

The Help Our Pupils Excel plan would reformat the state’s education system by addressing “root problems in finance structure, accountability and equity of opportunity for our rural schools,” members of the Greenville County House Delegation said in a letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas.

Lee outlines the reform plan as the following:

  • Streamline and fix South Carolina’s education funding formula. The current formula is overly complex, according to the Palmetto Promise Institute, and “research shows that there is zero connection between how money is spent and actual student costs.”
  • Cut bureaucracy and consolidate small and shrinking school districts with less than 2,500 students. These districts “simply must be incentivized or compelled to consolidate,” the institute said.
  • Provide more education options for parents and students. The plan calls for expanding VirtualSC, the state’s online public learning program, and to create education scholarship accounts, which would give parents direct access to their child’s state student funding formula. Parents could spend the money on approved services their child needs, such as therapy or tutoring, according to the institute.
  • Support teachers. The H.O.P.E. plan calls for more pay flexibility for districts to reward and retain teachers “based on talent and effectiveness, rather than only years-in-service or degrees.”

However, if you search the origin of this plan at the Palmetto Promise Institute, here are the eight grounding proposals:

  1. Let the Education Finance Act (EFA) work.
  2. Equitably fund all forms of public education [Note: charter schools are specifically identified.].
  3. Expand & codify exceptional needs scholarships & credits [“private school choice programs”].
  4. Enact Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
  5. Unleash more online options.
  6. Create true public school open/option enrollment.
  7. Establish an Achievement School District (ASD).
  8. Incent excellence in teaching & school leadership. (Headings taken from Fast facts PDF)

While the headline repeats the refrain of the think tank, “bold,” the truth is that this plan is warmed over conservative ideology that has failed public education again and again.

Most of the reforms are just elements of school choice, charter school advocacy, and school takeover schemes (achievement districts)—each of which has been thoroughly discredited by research (the one element that apparently must be avoided in order to be “bold”).

Below is a reader, then, discrediting this plan, yet again, as baseless conservative ideology that is poised to exploit and further fail public education in South Carolina—not offer our students and our communities the equity of opportunity all people deserve in a free society:

In short, this so-called “bold” reform plan is nothing new. It is the same old mantra of pet conservative political projects SC and the entire nation have suffered under since the early 1980s.

For example, at the heart of the school choice advocacy, charter schools are no better, and often worse, than traditional public schools. Private schools (driven entirely by choice) are also no better than public schools.

Yet, charter schools and private schools contribute significantly to segregation and inequity—both of which are key sources of problems in public schooling in SC.

Broadly, school takeovers (achievement districts, etc.) and school choice create a great deal of churn, but have failed badly the promises made by conservative politicians.

Regretfully, this bogus plan has proven my recent prediction accurate; especially in SC, conservative politicians are doggedly bound to pointing fingers at the same problems, ones they themselves have allowed to fester and even made worse by repackaging and offering again and again failed conservative ideology as solutions in the form of a Trojan Horse named, this time, “bold.”

Comic Book, Graphic Novel Scholarship and Blogs

Thomas, P.L. (2019). From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Is justice blind? In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Building character and theme (pp. 81-98). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Thomas, P.L. (2018). Wonder Woman: Reading and teaching feminism with an Amazonian princess in an era of Jessica Jones. In S. Eckard (ed.), Comic connections: Reflecting on women in popular culture (pp. 21-37). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

9781138649903

Thomas, P.L. (2017). Can superhero comics defeat racism?: Black superheroes “torn between sci-fi fantasy and cultural reality.” In C.A. Hill (ed.), Teaching comics through multiple lenses: Critical perspectives (pp. 132-146). New York, NY: Routledge.

TeachingDemocracy cover

Thomas, P.L. (2014). Adventures in adaptation: Confronting texts in a time of standardization. In Eds. P. Paugh, T. Kress, & R. Lake, Teaching towards democracy with postmodern and popular cultural texts (pp. 7-20). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

CritSurveyGN2012

—–. (2012). Daredevil: The man without fear; Elektra lives again; science fiction.  [entries]. In Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

BoyCulture2010

—–. (2010). Comics and graphic novels. [entry]. In S. R. Steinberg, M. Kehler, & L. Cornish (Eds.), Boy Culture, vol. 2 (pp. 319-328). Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press.

ComicsGN2010
—–. (2010). Challenging genres: Comic books and graphic novels. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

See Comic Book and Graphic Novel blogs HERE.

NEW: Comic Connections Building: Character and Theme

Comic Connections Building: Character and Theme, Sandra Eckard, editor

Comic Connections: Building Character and Theme is designed to help teachers from middle school through college find exciting new strategies to help students develop their literacy skills. Each chapter has three pieces: comic relevance, classroom connections, and concluding thoughts; this format allows a reader to pick-and-choose where to start. Some readers might want to delve into the history of a comic to better understand characters and their usefulness, while other readers might want to pick up an activity, presentation, or project that they can fold into that day’s lesson. This volume in Comic Connections series focuses on two literary elements—character and theme—that instructors can use to build a foundation for advanced literary studies. By connecting comics and pop culture with these elements, students and teachers can be more energized and invested in the ELA curriculum.

Table of Contents

Preface: Becoming a Teacher

Acknowledgements

Introduction: Building Character and Theme, Sandra Eckard

1: Tales and Dreams: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Critical and Creative Thinking in the English Classroom, Carmela Delia Lanza

2: Marvelous Families, Epic Dysfunction: Combining Norse Mythology, the Thor Comics, and Marvel Films in a General Education Literature Course, Holly M. Wells

3: Flip the Hero Script: Kamala Khan and Katniss Everdeen Search for Agency, Purpose, and Identity, Mary T. Christel

4: Marvel’s Civil War: Interrogating Vigilantism and the Superhero Myth in the Post-9/11 Era, Jane Coulter and Keith McCleary

5: From Marvel’s Daredevil to Netflix’s Defenders: Justice Is Blind?, P.L. Thomas

See: Daredevil and Marvel Rising at Netflix 

6: Comics and Philosophy: Batman and the Nature of Evil, Jon Ostenson

7: Discovering and Discussing Tall Tale Elements Through Lemke’s Tall Great American Folktales: The Comic Anthology, Jennifer Toney

8: Finding the Panther: Marvel Comics’ Black Panther Socio-Historical Roots and Their Influences on Character Development, Scott Honeycutt, Karin Keith, Renee Rice-Moran, LaShay Jennings, Huili Hong

9: 21st Century Creature: Analyzing Frankenstein in the Medium of Comic, Jeffrey Hayes

10: Word from Krypton: Analyzing the Character of Superman, Richard Harrison

About the Authors


See Also

Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Misreading Cause and Effect in Literacy Instruction: Vocabulary Edition

A former student of mine in teacher education, who was an English major and is in her third year of teaching, excitedly shared with me that her high school English students have spontaneously begun maintaining a vocabulary list.

What is interesting about this vocabulary list? Students are cataloguing the words they are learning simply by hearing this teacher use the language of a highly literate and well-educated person.

Marakoff word wall
Word wall created and maintained by students at Travelers Rest High School (South Carolina).

I take no credit for this, but this real-world, spontaneous, and rich environment for literacy growth does reflect (although in a more effective way) what I share with my teacher candidates about my 18 years teaching high school English.

Eventually, I ended the practice in my English department of issuing grammar textbooks and vocabulary workbooks to all students. Teachers were given sets of both and allowed to use as they pleased. In my classes, neither were used in any way.

As the example above from my former student’s class shows, I would model for my students how to discuss literature (texts), films, and popular music, often restating their comments in more sophisticated and complex ways.

Gradually, and spontaneously, my students began to mimic the language and terminology in their discussions and writing.

Coincidentally, my former student’s excitement over her students’ vocabulary activities preceded by a couple days a post on NCTE Connects asking about effective vocabulary instruction. I immediately responded:

Like grammar instruction, vocabulary instruction is deeply misguided when it is in isolation and vocabulary-for-vocabulary’s sake. People are confused and tend to invert erroneously what people with high literacy and large vocabularies mean. Vocabulary is a consequence of rich and extended literacy experiences; cramming vocabulary INTO students is not how you make someone highly literate. In short, if you care about vocabulary, reduce dramatically time and energy spent on vocabulary instruction and focus on rich literacy experiences, notably reading by choice and vibrant discussion. One early-career teacher I know has witnessed her students initiating a vocabulary list of words she teaches them simply through her own expression (her talking to the classes and students); they hear new words almost daily, ask her about them, and are engaged in authentic vocabulary attainment. Also fyi: Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

This comment is brief so I want to elaborate on some of the key points.

First, the traditional urge to teach literacy skills—grammar, mechanics, usage, and vocabulary, for example—in isolation and sequentially to build toward some ideal whole is deeply engrained but also deeply flawed.

I find this to be the result of uncritical assumptions about the power and effectiveness of analysis. Education has embraced a truism that likely isn’t true: working from part to whole is easier and better for all learning.

How many of us have uttered or been told, kindly, “Let me break this down for you”?

Let me pause here and ask you to do a thought experiment (or maybe just focus on a very specific memory).

Have you ever purchased something you had to assemble? Furniture, a swing set, the hellscape that is anything from Little Tikes?

These items come with detailed instructions, guiding you from part to whole to construct whatever you have purchased. Have you ever been compelled to dutifully follow those directions, laying out the parts as directed and then meticulously beginning your project?

And do you recall that moment when you were mostly lost because you couldn’t really decipher the directions? What did you do? Maybe you grabbed the box and began comparing your Frankenstein’s monster scattered on the floor with the whole thing depicted in the picture on the box?

This urge, some brain research suggests, may be rooted in that only about 1 in 4 people are predisposed to part-to-whole thinking—while 3 in 4 of us work naturally whole-to-part*.

Here is a powerful example of how norms and assumptions can create ineffective practices. Literacy instruction may not be more efficient or effective for most of our students in traditional approaches grounded in skills instruction because literacy is wholistic.

Next, this flawed set of assumptions is also driven by flipping—and misreading—cause and effect in literacy growth.

Yes, highly literate people and sophisticated uses of language are often characterized, for example, by large and complex vocabularies. However, this characteristic is an outcome, an effect.

The mistake too many make in literacy instruction is viewing targeted vocabulary expansion as a cause for rich literacy; thus, extensive vocabulary lists, workbooks, and tests (including nearly fanatical instruction in prefixes, root words, and suffixes) that waste time and energy better spent in the real cause of literacy growth—rich literacy experiences such as reading often and deeply by choice and having complex discussions grounded in those rich experiences with a wide variety of texts.

Here is a relatively simple and more accurate truism, then: A large and nimble vocabulary is an effect of rich literacy experiences—not the cause of literacy development.

So here is a final thought experiment: Imagine taking those vocabulary workbooks out of your students’ hands (and backpacks) and then lead them to the school library, introducing them to the greatest vocabulary books available lining the shelves all around them.


* My argument about the relationship between part and whole, after almost four decades of teaching and spending much of that studying intently the research on literacy acquisition and growth, is that part and whole are symbiotic, working together in ways that defy a linear/sequential model. So I am not really rejecting part-to-whole for whole-to-part, but arguing for whole-part-whole-part … something not easy to express in words or a diagram.

A Modest Proposal: Teaching without Students

This is not satire. Not even the sort of satire that opens with that disclaimer. But I would say this is a counterintuitive take on what it means to be a student from the perspective of a teacher.

I am considering here some of my lessons learned at the end of a semester. This fall schedule included an overload and variety of courses.

I also have been thinking about a couple of recent articles: Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had as a response to Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students.

In my young adult literature course, undergraduate and graduate students had to develop a resource unit grounded in young adult literature. They also needed to link that unit to either of the two elective texts for the course (one on critical media literacy or one on women in pop culture/comic books).

That resource unit assignment asked students to submit a proposal for the unit as the midterm exam. Of course, the purpose of the proposal is for students to have a plan by midterm and then to develop the unit over the rest of the course.

Here is the problem: Several students remained trapped in behaving as students (and not as teachers/scholars preparing a teaching unit). They viewed the proposal as an assignment instead of a proposal.

In other words, students kept asking to revise the proposal or have fretted about changing the unit as they worked. Instead of focusing on creating a powerful unit, they have felt compelled to remain true to the original proposal.

Student behaviors that are driving these problems include fulfilling assignments versus engaging with authentic behaviors and artifacts. These student behaviors lack an appreciation of discovery, and students seem unable to draft any product and to allow the process to evolve so that the final product is both high-quality and appropriate for their goals.

What students have learned for many years limits those students struggling with the proposal. For example, they have had to submit introductions and thesis statements for essays before drafting and then feel compelled to fulfill those regardless of what develops during the drafting.

Student behaviors and seeing their work as assignments also strip students of autonomy and agency. They fail to see their own role in the work because they are focusing on meeting requirements.

Across all my course, as well, students submit essays with drafting mandatory. While I have long struggled with fostering authentic drafting with students for many reasons, I encountered this semester a high rate of good students being stuck themselves in correcting based on my feedback. These students have resubmitted work too quickly, and seem unable (or unwilling) to behave with autonomy in revising and editing beyond my feedback (copyediting and highlighting).

In these situations, I am doing most of the work writers do. I resist this dynamic (while trying to avoid muting these students’ genuine interest in doing well) by highlighting areas of the drafts that target what we have covered in class and what I have addressed in my feedback.

Some students have resubmitted drafts without addressing areas highlighted, noting they didn’t do anything because they weren’t sure what to do. Another student response has been that students delete anything I have highlighted instead of revising or editing. One student deleted several excellent quotes although I had highlighted because she had formatted the quotes incorrectly.

Students not using technology as a tool contributes to the ineffectiveness of students drafting guided by my feedback (both on their essays and in conferences). Baffling to me, students submit drafts with Word Spelling and Grammar notifications (jagged underlining) enabled and ignored. Even more concerning, many students resubmit essays with elements as they were before I copyedited their drafts.

During a conference, I discovered that many students open my copyedited file beside their original file, working back and forth on two files instead of using my copyedited file. I should note that I tell them at the beginning of the course to learn how to save my returned files, rename those files for their next drafts, and then to interact with my highlighting and copyediting (using the Review features of Word).

Across these experiences with students this semester, I have seen even more evidence of my career-long fear that student behaviors are counter to rich and engaged learning, growth, and authentic creation. The young people I teach are too often paralyzed by student behaviors that mute their ability to engage with authentic work with agency and autonomy.

To be the best teacher I can be, then, means teaching without students.

For this to happen, I must find ways to deprogram students, to help them replace student behaviors with authentic behaviors. My goal is to create mentor/apprentice dynamics. I also recognize that introducing students to new ways of being in formal education can inhibit learning (my experiences with a de-grading and de-testing classroom).

My call for teaching without students is not satire, but a pretty high bar for any of us, teachers or students.

As a teacher always learning I am encouraged that there will be next semester, more students who I will urge to be different than the students they have been before.


Side Note

I revised this post using the Hemingway Editor.

The Education Reform Follies: The Columbus Syndrome

Several years ago, I had a polite argument with a top-level editor at a major newspaper, an editor who routinely was supportive of including my commentaries on the Op-Ed page.

My submission was a strong critique of the accountability era in education, and it specifically detailed that South Carolina was an early and important adopter of the standards/testing-based policies and practices that now mostly define public education across the U.S.

The argument centered on my outline, noting that SC had accountability legislation in the late 1970s and then standards as well as the BSAP and Exit Exam process being implemented in the early 1980s (when I began teaching as a high school English teacher in 1984).

The editor argued that accountability began way later, in the late 1990s—although I was offering the actual experiences of a classroom teacher who was charged with and held accountable for SC standards and testing from the very first day I entered the classroom in August of 1984.

This is illustrative, I think, of the newest round of education journalism that seems to suggest that the accountability era I have taught under and criticized since the early 1980s is now being declared a failure. Just for a taste of this edujournalism of the day:

One aspect of this so-called shift in political, media, and public attitudes toward education reform based on accountability (standards and high-stakes testing) worth noting is that it exposes a powerful but often ignored truism about any work aimed at equity: good intentions (whether sincere or not) are never enough.

Many, if not most, education journalists have good intentions; much of the public also has good intentions. Pundits and politicians, I think, are often using the veneer of good intentions for political and ideological ends.

None the less, this cannot be stressed enough—good intentions are not enough.

Yet, acknowledging this is not enough either. Let’s consider why good intentions are inadequate.

Edujournalists, politicians, and pundits who hold forth on education are mostly not educators; they have no experience (except as students) or expertise in education.

They suffer, I think, from the Columbus Syndrome—the delusion that because you witness something, you alone have made it come into being and you have through the simple act of witnessing alone the right to evaluate and control that which you have witnessed.

The editor I argued with in the opening believed education reform had only existed in her time of witnessing it as a journalist, and she resisted listening to me, despite my experiences and expertise in the reality of education reform.

This is the essential flaw with education reform since, as I and many others have been documenting for decades, education reform is almost entirely driven by those not in education.

Columbus as the embodiment of colonialism—the erasing of people by an aggressive force—is a harsh version of the missionary zeal, I admit, characterizing education reform and education analysis in the media, among politicians, and throughout the public.

Missionary zeal is just as destructive as colonialism, but missionaries believe in their essential goodness, their essential rightness, and that they are ordained to do to and not with because those to be saved are lesser.

But the Columbus Syndrome and missionary zeal are paternalistic and doomed to fail because they depend on ideology instead of experience and expertise.

Accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing was never the solution in education because that paradigm does not match the essential problems that burden universal public education, problems almost entirely linked to inequity.

And who has been offering credible witnessing to those problems of inequity for well more than a century in the U.S.? Who has been offering alternatives to education reform for at least the past twenty-plus years?

Educators and scholars of education—the exact voices demonized, the exact voices ignored.

Thad Moore’s Post and Courier article linked above acknowledges that accountability reform simply has not worked in South Carolina, but Moore also suggests that throughout the accountability era, alternative reform has been ignored.

Several journalists at and many articles in the Post and Courier continue to beat a steady drum about educational failures and needs, focusing on Charleston, SC—a powerful and disturbing monument to grossly inequitable public education and political negligence.

Charleston is an uncomfortable mosaic of social injustice—the poor and the affluent—and how that is reflected in and too often perpetuated by public institutions such as public schools.

Yet, here in SC and across the U.S., I remain deeply skeptical that we are entering an era when educators and education scholars will, at last, be heard.

My skepticism lies in understanding that our solutions are too complex to be heard, too antithetical to ideologies that remain sacred to the media, the public, and political leadership.

Virtually all failures in the U.S. can be traced to inequity—class privilege and disadvantage, racism, sexism, etc. Public schools and our students are victims of the greater political refusal to address social inequity, and in-school only reform has been a decades-long effort to distract the public from needed social reform.

None the less, there are very clear messages that have been ignored, and reform that would, over time, drag our education system and even our society toward greater equity.

I have made the case, with evidence, dozens and dozens of time. Yet, education reform has resisted and even chosen reform that directly contradicts efforts to create greater equity for children.

Here, however, is a list of where to start, emphasizing the essential understanding that social reform must precede or at least be concurrent to in-school reform while both must seek equity, not accountability:

  • Food security for all children and their families.
  • Universal healthcare with a priority on children.
  • Stable work opportunities that offer robust wages and are divorced from insurance and other so-called “benefits.”
  • Ending the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing.
  • Developing a small-scale assessment system that captures trends but avoids student, teacher, and school labeling and punitive structures.
  • Ending tracking of students.
  • Ending grade retention.
  • Insuring equitable teacher assignments (experience and certification levels) for all students.
  • Decreasing the bureaucracy of teacher certification (standards and accreditation) and increase the academic integrity of education degrees to be comparable with other disciplines.
  • Supporting teacher and school professional autonomy and implement mechanisms for transparency, not accountability.
  • Addressing the inequity of schooling based on race and social class related to funding, class size, technology, facilities, and discipline.
  • Resisting ranking students, teachers, schools, or states.
  • Reimagining testing/assessment and grades.
  • Adopting a culture of patience, and rejecting the on-going culture of crisis.

Columbus did not discover the Americas. Even more disturbing is that this mythology allows us to ignore that Columbus did usher in a very long history of horror for native people.

On a smaller scale, education reform has echoed that process, teaching an unintended lesson that ideology and missionary zeal are dangerous even when intentions are good.


See Also

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

“Minimally Adequate” in SC: Funding and Understanding Public Education

Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

 

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

Each time there is a flurry of comments about grades on social media, I am compelled to advocate for de-grading and de-testing the classroom. Also, each time I make my case, many people offer lukewarm support wrapped in a great deal of skepticism about those practices in real-world classrooms.

My career as an educator has had two nearly equal spans of about two decades each—first as a high school English teacher in a rural public school, and second as a current professor in a selective university where I teach in the education department but also have two first-year writing seminars each fall.

I both learned and practiced over my first decade of teaching the need to de-grade and de-test my classes, notably to support effective writing instruction. So I must stress here that my endorsing de-grading, or at least delaying grading, is grounded in my work as a teacher in a very traditional high school setting where I still had to issue interim reports and quarterly, mid-term, and final grades.

And my entire career, of course, has been working with students who expect grades, students who are often disoriented by and even disturbed by my atypical approaches to grades and assessment.

Virtually all of us who teach, regardless of level or type of school, will have to issue grades at some point. Even as an avid proponent of no grades and no tests, I must assign course grades, and I must fulfill obligations for assessments, such as midterm and final exams.

In our real-world classrooms, then, I am practicing and calling for delaying grades, while also increasing significantly feedback on authentic assessments that require and allow students to revisit their work as a journey to greater understanding and deeper learning.

And, yes, my practices and arguments are primarily grounded in my commitment to literacy instruction, mostly writing, and my educational philosophy, critical pedagogy, as well as my skepticism about knowledge acquisition (I embrace content as a means, not an ends, of teaching).

While I am no fan of compromise, I do have a deeply pragmatic streak; therefore, I try to be very clear that I am not advocating some idealistic set of practices from a rarified teaching situation that isn’t applicable to other educators.

Here I want to outline what real-world practices I have for many years implemented and currently implement that merge well, I think, with my belief in de-grading and de-testing with entrenched and often non-negotiable expectations of teaching.

Establish minimum requirements of participation and artifact production as mandatory for course/class credit. My syllabus and daily schedules clearly state that students must complete assignments and submit all artifacts both throughout the course/class and then as a final portfolio. Those minimum requirements I establish are non-negotiable and students are not allowed to pick and choose which to fulfill. In other words, I do not average grades and I do record an F for any student who fails to complete and submit all of the minimum requirements. (See minimum requirements detailed in my first-year writing syllabus.)

Delay grading of assignments and eliminate high-stakes of grades and rubrics. Once participation is required (for example, students must draft, submit essays, meet for conferences, and submit rewrites) for course/class credit (a final grade), teachers are given more space to offer feedback without grading—thus delaying a grade until students have had opportunities to take risks while practicing new learning. One example from teaching Advanced Placement Literature helps illustrate how even numerical feedback can work in this context. I shared with students A.P. Literature rubrics for previous test writing prompts, and then I did assign practice essay responses the appropriate 9-point scale grade; however, students knew these were recorded but did not factor into their course grade (other than needing to be completed). The 9-scale number was feedback for their understanding of where their work stood and how we could improve for the actual test in the spring. Overwhelmingly, my students participated fully in the practice sessions (they had an authentic goal of doing well on the A.P. test), and noted that other teachers translating these A.P. scale scores to class grades inhibited their work and attitudes about the assignments. I learned in these classes that my rejecting grades and rubrics could be translated into more authentic uses of grades and rubrics as feedback and tools for learning by simply eliminating the stakes with those grades and rubrics.

Invite students into conversations about grades. The best concession I have made to de-grading my classes is to acknowledge that for students grades are a powerful reality. Now I invite students to initiate conferences with me about their current grade in my classes at any point and as often as they need throughout a course. While I give no grades on assignments, even as they revise, I will discuss with students what grade an assignment would deserve, and why, and what their grade status is in a course at any point along the way. The caveat, always, is that we do this in conversation (not by email or in writing) and that we recognize these estimations could change significantly as the course and their revisions progress.

Negotiate grade scales with required grade submissions in your school. My de-grading and de-testing practices have always been complicated by interim reports, midterm and final exam requirements, final grades, and the expectation that grading policies, scales, and calculations be posted on my syllabi. Most of my strategies in these contexts remain grounded in my minimum requirements approach. For interim reports and midterm grades, I submit only S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) based on each student’s current status in relationship to minimum requirements at that point in the course; S is for students who have fully complied and I is for those missing work. I remind students and others that the I will become an F at the end of the course/class if students fail to fulfill the assignments. Midterm and final exams—both required at my university—have become different types of assessment: group and whole-class discussions, presentations, and portfolio assessment. And instead of posting how I calculate and average grades, and what grade scale I use, I include my minimum requirements statement on my syllabus.

I offer the above as no template or even demand, but one example of how I have tried to blend my educational philosophy with real-world expectations and non-negotiables.

I live under no delusion I can transform our formal education system into my ideal where we have no grades and no tests. But I do practice what I believe are more effective versions on these norms by delaying grades and lowering the stakes when students receive both rich and even numerical/grade feedback on assignments while they are exploring new or complex learning.

In short, this is my argument against those who brush away my de-grading and de-testing arguments as not realistic; they are.

But I also must push against those who believe my practices somehow encourage students not to be engaged in their assignments. I have witnessed for almost four decades now that the opposite is, in fact, true.

One reason I began this journey to minimum requirements instead of grading is that I watched students routinely take zeros (not do assignments at all) and still receive course credit. They were playing and manipulating the grade/averaging game of school.

Easily over my career, most of my students have participated fully and punctually with my assignments; overwhelmingly, they have shared that they feel more relaxed and engaged with their assignments without the immediate threat of grades.

While the novelty of my teaching and assessment practices cause some distress for students, traditional grades and the finality of summative assessments are far more harmful to student engagement and learning.

There is no perfect world—neither the world of traditional grading nor the ideal world without grades and tests.

But we can create a better world for our students, one in which they produce work and learn in a supportive environment where our primary role is mentoring through feedback instead of being the dreaded agent of evaluation.

My argument, then, is not for perfect or ideal, but better, better for our teaching, better for our students’ learning.