Vote Woman

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in the very conservative small town where I was born and attended school. This added a second layer to the moral imperative I felt as a calling to teach.

I recall to this day sitting in a first-year college English class and suddenly feeling out of place. There was something, or some things, I simply didn’t get.

Later I would have a word for my deficit—provincialism—and by the time I chose to be a high school English teacher, I felt compelled to provide my students with a worldview I had been denied.

Literature was a magical vehicle for that mission, and one recurring aspect of two works I taught nearly every year resonate heavily with me now.

In Advanced Placement Literature, we read and discussed Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Both works are solidly in the white male canon—works buoyed by New Criticism’s premium placed on craft—but both also have an important topic in common—examinations of abortion that address the experience without ever naming it directly.

The dark comedy of the Bundren’s pilgrimage to bury the matriarch, Addie, includes Dewey Dell, a teen, seeking an abortion as a subplot of Faulkner’s experimental classic. Hemingway’s short story is heralded as a narrative tour de force that depends on “[t]he American and the girl”  negotiating the girl’s abortion without either ever uttering the word:

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

” I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

High school students in rural South Carolina struggled with recognizing the situation, abortion, because the works’ purposeful omission of the word, but they also came to the texts with extremely narrow associations with abortion.

Teens in general have weak historical understanding of humankind, but with abortion they were often very skeptical when I shared that humans have wrestled with if and when abortion is justifiable for millennia—offering specifically a brief passage from Aristotle as proof.

My students assumed the abortion debate was as recent as Roe v. Wade (for them, in the 1980s and 1990s), but also believed it to be a narrow religious debate, virtually all of them primarily indoctrinated in a pro-life ideology by their family and church.

All the while, several young women in the school each year sought abortions as just another reality of being young and developing into sexual adults. Lived morality often had little relationship with professed morality in the Deep South.

Later, when we read and discussed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we expanded those discussions into confrontations of Orwellian language—”pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “anti-abortion”—and the role of reproductive rights in the autonomy and humanity of women.

Pro-Life Is Anti-Woman: Vote Woman

As state’s across the U.S. lay the foundation for overturning Roe v. Wade by passing what essentially constitute abortion bans, I am more compelled than ever that electing progressive women to office is one of the most important commitments a free people can embrace.

This is linked, I think, to those discussions many years ago with my students about the hollowness and deception in the phrase “pro-life” as code for anti-abortion and anti-woman.

The problem with criminalizing abortion is that it does not reduce the amount of abortions, but does increase health dangers and deaths for women. For those proclaiming pro-life, then, the avenues to that commitment include legal and safe abortion combined with access to healthcare and prenatal care.

But there is an even more insidious problem beneath the pro-life movement driving bans on abortion, and wishes to overturn Roe v. Wade: Wealthy white women will always have access to safe abortions as well as health and prenatal care.

Always.

Banning abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade, will almost entirely affect negatively the health and lives of poor women, disproportionately black and brown women across the U.S.

Abortion bans are not about preserving life, but about controlling women—and more specifically about controlling some women, those deemed Other by wealthy and white men often aided by white women.

Vote Woman

Across my social media, I have adopted a new image:

vote woman

This slogan—vote woman—is intended to send a variety of messages: it is a plea to women, a plea about women, and a plea for women.

I am careful here, because of the Alabama legislation and my own awareness of Atwood’s warning about complicit women, not to be advocating for a simplistic elect women:

Image

But I am convinced that electing women who prioritize the rights and humanity of women is where our political allegiances must lie if we value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all humans.

Reproductive rights and healthcare are not separate issues from women’s rights, from basic human rights.

Assaults on the rights of women are not simply assaults on women; they are an assault on humanity.

Vote woman.


Recommended

Key Facts on Abortion

The Myth of Abortion as Black Genocide: Reclaiming our Reproductive Cycle

Roe v Wade and the New Jane Crow: Reproductive Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Just Facts

Can We Have a Conversation About Abortion Bans and the South?

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses to describe abortion bans

URGENT: Media Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

Media Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

By Katie Kelly and P.L. Thomas

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

Several news articlesvideosreports on new state legislation, and commentaries across mainstream media have built a false narrative about a Reading Crisis. That story includes several key elements: Teachers do not know, and thus do not practice, the science of reading because teacher education has failed them.

Not only have the mainstream media offered only one narrative, but also, for example, the Education Writers Association chose one of the most prominent misleading articles for a Public Service, small staff award: Emily Hanford’s “Hard Words.”

In 2019, the Reading Wars have begun anew but with different language: Phonics advocates have simplified “the science of reading” to “all students need systematic phonics,” for example. And this round has resulted in dramatic changes in state reading policies.

As literacy educators and scholars, however, we contend that these messages are misrepresenting the Reading Crisis and the science of reading — both of which are far more complicated than being presented by much of the media, dyslexia advocates, and political leaders.

Those Who Ignore History: A Look Back at Reading Crises

The newest misdiagnosed Reading Crisis begs for a truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

For example, the November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review(National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece, What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium, prompted by the high rate of illiteracy among men drafted into WWII.

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time, including Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE). Represented by assembled experts on literacy, this Reading Crisis foreshadows these debates are misguided and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

While we recommend reading the symposium responses in full, let’s focus on LaBrant: “Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of ‘new methods,’ ‘progressive schools,’ or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book” (p. 240).

However, LaBrant discredits that blame because the recruits identified as illiterate or semi-literate “…are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]” (pp. 240–241).

Next, in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim, noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language. Further, the reading score plummet correlated with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and reduced educational funding.

Throughout much of the 20th century, reading instruction in practice remained skills-based, perpetuating a simple view of reading. That criticism of whole language, however, prompted a call for more scientific approaches to teaching reading, which meant mandated scripted instruction with an emphasis on phonics instruction. This was also driven by the high stakes accountability era of No Child Left Behind.

Contrasting thoughtful literacy, scripted reading programs narrow curriculum focusing on skills instruction and test preparation through teacher-directed learning (Kozol, 2005; Lipman, 2004). In this context, students serve as vessels with teachers depositing knowledge. This back-to-basics model of instruction encourages replication and regurgitation of information with little emphasis on comprehension instruction, critical thinking, and rich discussion of text (Comber & Nichols, 2004Durkin, 1981Leland, Harste, & Huber, 2005Shannon, 2007Taberski, 2011).

Being a good word caller does not equate to being a good reader, but can produce a false-positive on narrow types of reading tests. This unbalanced approach to teaching literacy is not only problematic, but also dangerous.

Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again

Despite the value of a more student-centered curriculum that fosters critical thinking, some advocate for a return to skills-based systematic phonics instruction, framed as the “science of reading,” and claim another Reading Crisis. With a new push for phonics as a single pathway to literacy, the role of the meaning making process in reading will again be neglected.

In her seminal study, Delores Durkin found an overemphasis on testing comprehension rather than teaching comprehension. Reading is a complex cognitive process mediated by social and cultural practices requiring instruction and interaction with text and others to construct meaning. Therefore, we must shift our view of literacy beyond decoding to include constructing meaning and reading texts critically by expanding instructional practices and the ways we assess reading.

The so-called science of reading is, in fact, balanced literacy, which includes a focus on multiple components of literacy including phonics, comprehension, and writing: “A balanced approach will privilege authentic texts and tasks, a heavy emphasis on writing, literature, response, and comprehension, but it will also call for an ambitious program of explicit instruction for phonics, word identification, comprehension, spelling, and writing” (Pearson, 2004, p. 243).

While phonics is an essential component of reading instruction in the primary grades, “it should be noted that phonics is one element of a comprehensive literacy program that must also include practice in comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, writing, and thinking” (ILA, 2018).

No Crisis, But We Are Failing Our Students

Crisis rhetoric misreads not only how we currently teach and historically have taught reading, but also misrepresents the causes of low student achievement in reading while perpetuating some of the worst possible policies and legislation such as grade retention based on high-stakes testing.

This Reading Crisis ignores that focusing on narrow standards and high-stakes testing combined with the de-professionalization of teaching and under-funding education has resulted in overcrowded classrooms where teachers and students conform to mechanical reading programs privileging the wealthy and overemphasize test scores.

As teacher educators, we can attest that regardless of what we teach about reading and literacy, most teachers feel pressured to implement programs and raise test scores.

Rather than blaming students and teachers for the opportunity gap entrenched in formal schooling, consider the achievement debt due to inequitable funding, poor healthcare, and a lack of political courage. With increasingly diverse student populations, we have a responsibility to address this debt by serving all students through culturally relevant teaching practices.

We must, then, disrupt the misguided narrative of crisis that disguises the sociocultural historical and political factors that influence reading instruction as a disease that simply needs a vaccination in the form of systematic phonics.

Katie Kelly is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University. A former elementary teacher and literacy coach, Katie teaches courses in literacy methods and assessment at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is the coauthor of Reading to Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Speak Freely, Think Deeply, and Take Action (Heinemann). Follow her work at bookbuzz.blog and @ktkelly14.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University), taught high school English for 18 years in South Carolina before moving to teacher education and teaching first-year writing. He is author of Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP). Follow his work at https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ and @plthomasEdD.

School Rankings as Racist, Classist Propaganda

On 20 May 2019, the Charleston Post and Courier offered this: Here’s what it takes for a SC school to be the No. 1 public high school in the US. And here is what is newsworthy:

The news was out before the sound of the school announcement system crackled through the halls: Academic Magnet High, long regarded as the top-performing high school in South Carolina, had climbed to No. 1 in a national ranking of public high schools.

Just three days later, The State (Columbia, SC) reported: Richland 1’s elite elementary school is also its whitest and least impoverished. This coverage explains:

Like all parents, Sara McBride just wanted her son to get the best possible education.

That’s why she tried to get her son into Richland 1’s highest-ranked school: Brockman Elementary. A school where class sizes are small and teachers’ advanced degrees and experience nets them a higher average salary.

The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index; for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment).

SC as a state ranks in the bottom ten of high-poverty states (about an 18% poverty rate) and has a relatively high percentage of black citizens (28%) as well as about 5-6% Hispanic/Latinx.

Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served. Race, socioeconomic status, first language, and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.

High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.

Therefore, these rankings and labels such as “elite” are gross misrepresentations of school quality.

Imagine if we had some hospitals that admitted only well patients and then ranked those against the hospitals serving curably sick patients as well as hospitals only admitting the terminally ill.

Can you guess how they would rank if we used health of the patients as the data for ranking?

This is more than just a problem of semantics, but to be blunt, these schools are not elite; they are selective—one overtly (AMHS) and one indirectly (BE).

These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform that would serve students in SC much more directly.

First, public schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.

Second, schools almost never change the burdens of those communities. In fact, formal schooling has structures that tend to perpetuate and even intensify the inequities of high-poverty and racial minority communities—inequitable discipline policies, tracking, inequitable teacher assignment, inability to attract and retain experienced and certified teachers.

Magnet (AMHS) and choice (BE) mechanisms work to increase inequity because affluent and privileged students are over-served while poor students, racial minorities, ELL, and special needs students are systematically excluded through direct and invisible structures (choice, for example, often requires parents who can provide transportation and the time needed for transportation).

Conversely, poor students and racial minorities are over-identified as having special needs while also being under-identified in other sorting structures such as gifted and talented.

In-school inequities also include that wealthy and white student are more often served by experienced and certified teachers while sitting in classes with lower student/teacher ratios (typically correlated with being in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tracks). High-poverty students and racial minority students experience just the opposite—inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers and high student/teacher ratios as well as more remedial and test-prep courses.

Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.

The real news in the two articles above is that SC has a long history of political malfeasance—a lack of political will—and a compliant media that simply refuse to label racism and classism for what they are.

A Meditation on Stringing Words Together: The National’s “Roman Holiday”

I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing

“I Am Easy to Find,” The National

For those of us who love words and fall deeply in love with authors and pop music performers, few things are as exciting as new works. I listened for the first time to The National’s I Am Easy to Find on the release day during a long drive.

The first song, “You Had Your Soul with You,” had already been released so my rush happened on the second song, “Quiet Light,” when I felt the urge to cry before the lyrics even began.

And by the seventh song, the titular “I Am Easy to Find,” I could hold back no longer, crying steadily as I drove. There is something uniquely powerful about the combination of beautiful music and beautiful words strung together in a way that make your heart ache.

The National I Am Easy to Find
The National

As an English teacher for about two decades during the first half of my career, I was always searching for an effective way to teach poetry well. Students tended not to like poetry but also had very narrow and mistaken associations with poetry—poetry rhymes, for example, and being overly concerned with what poems mean.

It probably seems trite, but I did find that investigating poetry—asking, what makes poetry, poetry?—combined with starting with pop music song lyrics helped allay student antagonism toward what I consider a beautiful and powerful form of human expression.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I grounded my poetry unit in the music of R.E.M. Although I now mainly teach education and writing courses, I continue to think as an English teacher—especially in terms of applying reading like a writer to text such as song lyrics to inform how we read and write well.

Especially with the rise of close reading, driven by the mostly now defunct Common Core, many formal lessons focusing on analyzing text remains trapped in false notions that meaning is restricted to the parameters of the text, words strung together on the page.

“I’m your hospital, I’m your silver cross,” opens The National’s “Roman Holiday,” preparing the listener for how to unpack these metaphors, but also confronting the arguments of close reading that meaning is a mechanical process bound to text only.

In the opening verse as well, “Patti wasn’t lonely, Robert wasn’t lost” establishes the factual basis of the song, explained by the primary lyricist, Matt Berninger:

I am a huge fan of that book [Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids], but I was actually looking at Judy Linn’s book of Patti Smith photos. A lot of the imagery in it is of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe when they were really young, just hanging out in their apartment: dressing up, taking pictures of each other, looking cool. It’s such a beautiful portrait of pals, such a romance. And then there’s also a line I took from Patti Smith’s Instagram, a comment she sent to somebody who had just lost someone to suicide: “Please think the best of him.” I found it incredibly moving. I was just obsessed with her kindness and her wisdom in the face of so many sad things.

Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and co-lyricist on The National lyrics for several of the recent albums, adds how being a lyricist is similar to poetry in an interview:

You have a background in poetry and as a writer and editor. How is lyric writing similar or different than what you’ve done in the past?

I think I probably like the same thing about poems and song lyrics. When I read poems or listen to a song I love, I get very hung up on certain lines, especially lines I both don’t and do understand. I love that. But it’s not that impressive. It’s like being attracted to sequins. I don’t really understand story or plot well, but I love a way of finding that compressed or cock-eyed way of saying the thing, so that you can kind of re-hear the thing, or so that you can hear the feeling of thought on its way.

Any kind of language on the way to an idea, I tend to like. It’s mysterious enough to me that I stay interested. I also love songs where the singer is rambling on and almost doesn’t seem to hear what the song is doing. Or when a vocal melody slides around in order to make a point. I also sometimes feel like with song-making, there are all these bags of fireworks laying around, so many ways in a song with a singer and against the backdrop of all the musical ideas, so many ways to try to make an impression.

As a foundational text to investigate poetry—genre, mode, form—”Roman Holiday” is a powerful experience for students. Typically, using pop music, I ask students to listen to the song once without any lyrics; I then do a second listening with the lyric before the students.

Without context, “Roman Holiday” may be read a number of valid ways, focusing on unpacking the technique (metaphor, rhyme/half-rhyme, sound devices, imagery, motifs) in a traditional process (think New Criticism and close reading).

The half-rhymes are engaging (cross/lost, rains/shame, him/museum) and sounds help give the lyrics cohesion (please/police). But analyzing “Roman Holiday” decontextualized ultimately fails the song and the reading; better is to place the song in a text set including:

Technique and craft of the lyrics and the entire song are effective and powerful, but they are vehicles for the much larger discourse between a variety of texts and modes of expression, including photography, memoir, and social media.

If close reading guides coming to understand “Roman Holiday,” we are having an incomplete experience. This song depends on history, controversy, and two influential artists, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

How Smith, specifically, has resonated as an artist and thinker while Mapplethorpe died much younger builds along with Smith’s response to suicide (“Please, think the best of him”) to something both grounded in these two lives and the greater and more complex human condition.

While reading and interpreting text remains concepts misunderstood and misrepresented in the media and by the public, this sort of rich and complex unpacking of “Roman Holiday” speaks to how NCTE defines reading:

Reading is a complex and purposeful sociocultural, cognitive, and linguistic process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning with text. Each of these types of knowledge impacts the sense that readers construct through print. Readers easily comprehend text with familiar language but are less successful at comprehending text with unfamiliar language. Readers easily comprehend text on familiar topics but are less successful at comprehending texts on unfamiliar topics. At the same time, the interpretations readers construct with texts as well as the types of texts they read are influenced by their life experiences.

Without a knowledge of the topic of this song (Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship), a close reading misses a great deal. Yes, there is really compelling craft here, but there is also history and deep emotion.

Pop songs, like poetry, lend them selves to re-listening/rereading. Meaning grows, even blossoms with each experience because we are always a different person each time we re-listen/reread.

The meaning of any text is never fixed, never simply trapped in the stringing together of words.

For me, “There are police in the museum/She said please” stays with me after hearing the song; the use of “police/please” haunts me.

I am uncertain I can articulate why, but it certainly has meaning—and that meaning is more than intellect, enriched by emotion.


See Also

Florence Welch on Sobriety, Embracing Loneliness and Loving Patti Smith

Florence + The Machine – Patricia

Banned in the U.S.A.: The Right’s Assault on Other Women

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to,” retells Offred in Part II, Chapter 6, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (p. 33).

IMG_9292
From the graphic novel adaptation.

Readers have just been introduced to public executions in Gilead: “Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall” (p. 31). On this day,

The men [hangin from…hooks] wear white coats …. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. … They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or — more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen — by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible. (pp. 32-33)

handmaids-tale-spread
From the graphic novel adaptation.

Atwood’s speculative theocracy is heavily grounded in a perverse worshipping of some women as possible vessels of childbirth since the birthrates of whites were in steep decline due to environmental toxins.

With a conservative shift in the Supreme Court in the United States under Trump, Georgia and Alabama have passed extreme anti-abortion laws, openly admitting they are designed to overturn Roe v. Wade—to make abortion once again illegal in the country.

Several aspects of these moves to deny women autonomy over their bodies are obscured by Orwellian language (“heartbeat legislation”) and rhetorical bows to protecting life. First, in countries where abortion is legal and safe, abortion rates are often lower than in countries banning abortion, but there are strong correlations also between legal abortion and overall health, safety, and autonomy of women.

In short, access to legal and safe abortion is a subset of overall healthcare for women.

Second, and this may be one of the more troubling realities of moves to ban abortion, these bans on abortion and the possible criminalizing of women and medical professionals (see the novel excerpts above) are never going to be realities for the wives, daughters, and mistresses of the wealthy white men passing the laws.

Throughout history in the U.S., as with all laws, wealthy women will always have access to abortions as well as overall healthcare for themselves and their children.

The current move to ban abortion in the U.S. is about other women—those women marginalized by their social class and race.

These laws may also criminalize miscarriages and birth control; they are designed to strike fear into the medical field and other women.

These first moves serve the same purpose as the Wall:

It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (p. 32)

Aunt Lydia’s reassurance—”It will become ordinary”—echoes a chilling tenet from Albert Camus’s The Stranger expressed by Meursault in prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of Atwood’s novel is about retelling the story of Offred’s life before and during Gilead—about how easily human dignity and human agency can be erased, slowly like a lobster in a boiling pot of water, or like a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises when Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly'” (p. 141).

In Trumplandia, as rightwing politicians pass anti-abortion laws, assaults on other women, we are now in the gradually.

Will this become ordinary—suddenly?

The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

What do the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), A Nation at Risk (1983), and the seminal “word gap” study by Hart and Risley (1992/1995) have in common?

First, each of these has become a recurring citation in mainstream media when addressing reading (NRP), school accountability (A Nation at Risk), and literacy (“word gap”).

Next, and quite troubling to those of us in education and literacy, all of these have been debunked.

A wide array of scholars have called into question Hart and Risley’s methods, conclusions, and assumptions. Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton have unmasked A Nation at Risk as a false political crisis. And NRP panelist Joanne Yatvin as well as Stephen Krashen have significantly refuted the validity of the NRP report and process.

Recently, the reading wars have been rebooted across mainstream media; concurrent with that has been a rash of new reading legislation in several states.

In both cases, a common phrase is “the science of reading,” a thin veil for renewed emphasis on systematic phonics—in part driven by advocates for children with dyslexia.

News articles across Education Week, NPR, PBS, and other outlets have praised this so-called need for the science of reading while almost uniformly referring to the NRP as the primary research base for that “science.”

One journalist, Emily Hanford, who won an EWA award for her “science of reading” article, discounted my charged the NRP had been debunked with “One member expressing a minority view does not equal ‘debunked.'”

Here, I want to note that I have discovered many people react strongly to the term “debunk,” seemingly because they interpret its meaning simplistically; however, note the nuance of the term:

debunk

In the case of the NRP report, I contend it has been debunked because, specifically, a member of the committee who protested that the panel included no genuine teacher of reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following ways:

FALSE: The National Reading Panel was a diverse and balanced group of reading experts.

TRUE: Congress asked for a balanced panel, but that’s not what it got….

FALSE: The panel carried out a comprehensive analysis of the entire field of reading research.

TRUE: Only a small fraction of the field was considered, and only a few hundred studies were actually analyzed….

FALSE: The panel determined that there are five essentials of reading instruction.

TRUE: Although the NRP reported positive results for five of the six instructional strategies it investigated, it never claimed that these five were the essential components of reading….

FALSE: The panel endorsed only explicit, systematic instruction. [a]

TRUE: Only in the phonics subgroup report is “explicit, systematic” instruction called essential….

FALSE: The panel identified certain comprehensive commercial reading programs as being research-based, and concluded that teachers need one of these programs, or a comparable program, to teach children effectively.

TRUE: No comprehensive reading programs were investigated by the panel. The panel had nothing to say about whether teachers need a commercial program or can develop their own….

FALSE: The panel identified phonics as the most important component of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel made no such determination….

FALSE: The panel found that phonics should be taught to all students throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no evidence to justify teaching phonics to normally progressing readers past 1st grade….

FALSE: The panel’s findings repudiate whole language as an approach to teaching reading.

TRUE: The panel did not investigate whole language as a topic and did not draw any conclusions about it as an approach to teaching reading….

ALSE: The panel found research evidence indicating how teachers should be trained to teach reading. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no such evidence….

I stand fast that even though Yatvin technically is a minority opinion, she has the greatest expertise of the panel and her clarifications have proven accurate.

Yatvin’s skeptical first-hand account has also been reinforced by Elaine M. Garan’s critique of the phonics report. Anyone citing the NRP must keep in mind Garan’s (2001) conclusion:

If Teaching Children to Read were a typical research study, published in an education journal and destined to be read only by other researchers, then I could simply end my analysis by saying that the panel’s own words have established that the research base in its report on phonics is so flawed that the results do not even matter. However, as we have seen, this study has clout. It has a public relations machine behind it that has already promulgated the results throughout a very wide, very public arena as representing unbiased scientific “truth.” (p. 506)

Almost 20 years ago, Garan had the same cocnerns as Yatvin, both of which have come disturbingly true:

The conclusions of this study as reported in the Summary have generated headlines not only in education publications, such as Education Week and Reading Today, but also in such newspapers as USA Today, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Indianapolis Star. It is, perhaps, too late to mitigate the effects of this widely distributed, widely publicized project. However, I can hope that this analysis will provide a tool for others who will want to delve more deeply into the findings of the NRP report before accepting or rejecting it on the basis of the philosophical hot topics that the research addresses. If our instructional methods are to be dictated by research, then shouldn’t that research be sound? (p. 506)

Now, we should be answering that question with a definitive “yes” even as that resists the misguided call of the “science of reading.”

But there is more reason to reject the NRP report as sacrosanct guidance for how to teach reading; it was at the center of the politically corrupt Reading First scandal that exposed relationships between government officials and Open Court textbooks.

It is not mere speculation that there is a problematic relationship between phonics advocacy and for-profit organizations serving education.

The short version about the fact of the NRP being debunked is that it was a politically skewed panel from the beginning, and then its process was also deeply flawed, manipulating what research was considered in order to favor a systematic phonics message that wasn’t supported by the actual science of reading available then, and now.

To reference the NRP report as credible is to overstate its value, to misrepresent not only the report but the field of teaching reading.

Yet, journalists with no expertise in literacy and no background in the history of reading or teaching reading are falling prey to alluring language, “the science of reading,” and fulfilling the warnings offered by Yatvin and Garan nearly two decades ago.


[a] Note that in the current media coverage of “the science of reading,” this is exactly how references to the NRP are being misused.

45s

My dad drank Crown Royal and collected the purple bags the bottles came in. My dad and mom both smoked, mom preferring Kool brand with the green logo.

This was the 1960s, but with my parents it was the sort of 1960s left over from the 1950s. Not the hippie era yet; that was my mom’s sisters and brother, living then in Asheville among race riots.

We lived until about 1967 or 1968 in a rental house just outside of Enoree, South Carolina, near Kilgore and just south of Woodruff—what would become my hometown once we moved to another rental house near all the schools before our permanent home my parents built by 1971 at the golf course just north of Woodruff.

The Enoree house had a barn as a garage and sat across the street from Lefty’s, a beer joint that shuttered up on Sundays so men could watch 8mm stag films projected on a hanging sheet. My dad went some times.

This was the home where our family dog, a collie named Sonny, was hit and killed by a car, and my dad had to bury it somewhere in nearby woods while the rest of us sat in the house and cried.

This was the home where on rare snow days we had violent and relentless snowball fights.

This was the home where we had tea fights, an open invitation for anyone to toss a cup of tea in a family member’s face starting the tea fight that often ended with my dad bringing the hose in the house to end the tiny war.

This was the home where we played olly olly oxen free, dividing as we often did during card games—me with mom and my sister with dad—to toss a ball over the house for the other team to catch

And this was the home where my mom and dad shagged and slow danced to 45s, my dad drinking Crown Royal, and mom and dad both smoking.

My dad was a stereotypical macho working-class white man reared in the 1950s. But when they danced he was completely unself-conscious as he moved gracefully and with flair, singing along with some of his favorite songs—almost all Motown.

“I don’t like you, but I love you,” Dad would sing, his hand in mom’s as he spun her around the wood floors of that home with sliding glass doors looking out into the backyard.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” came on while I was sitting at a local taphouse recently, and as often happens now when I hear one of those songs played on 45s during my childhood, my mom and dad dancing in their sock feet on a hardwood floor flooded over me.

They were a kind of beautiful, my dad thin and wearing a crew cut and mom a bit more than early Mary Tyler Moore. I liked seeing them sway, hand in hand, and that, I think, was my first lesson in being in love, of being truly and deeply intimate.

In college, my parents had to hide their marriage and romance so my dad would say “You tickle me, nut” for “I love you.” I think watching my parents dance was also a code for “I love you.”

We were never an affectionate family. My parents showed love with things and money—very 1950s American. They worked hard to have stuff, so their children could have stuff.

The American way.

And I loved those 45s of my childhood. That may have been the first trigger of my urge to collect, the 45s and all the different colored labels just about the time I started collecting Hot Wheels die-cast cars and years before I would become a full-fledged collector, amassing 7000 Marvel comic books throughout the 1970s.

All those beautiful scratchy songs over cheap record players. The Temptations, The Supremes, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Drifters.

And Marvin Gaye. God, I still can barely move when I hear Marvin Gaye.

But my parents dancing and my dad singing to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” have a deeply special place somewhere in my being. Those lyrics were so my dad—and so confusing for a child of five or six.

I have an argument with a friend about dancing. I think dancing is very intimate, something for couples, while the friend just doesn’t see it that way.

The last few times I heard one of the songs my parents danced to I began to realize that my parents taught me, showed me a very intimate thing that I will take to my grave.

My parents in their 20s dancing in sock feet on hardwood floors to 45s that my sister and I would change for them.

My dad drinking Crown Royal, and my mom and dad smoking, twirling and intertwined as young marrieds in love.

And I saw something like that again after my mom’s stroke, after my dad died sitting beside her in a care facility.

Mom had a photocopy framed picture of dad from then, black and white with dad in his crew cut. And she wanted it near, but cried and called for “Daddy” after he died and in those last months before she died too.

Mom lost the ability to speak and write just before she lost Dad, but I think she may have become lost as I do some times in memories of them dancing to those 45s back in the Enoree days that they worked so hard to leave behind for their own house.

There at the end I watched her and I knew my dad’s voice singing “You really got a hold on me” was more than a song.

Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

“School days were eagerly anticipated by Francie,” a central character in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p. 143). The novel often is a powerful fictional account of poverty among white working class people at the turn of the twentieth century.

But Francie Nolan is also a girl who loves books, libraries, and an idealized view of what formal schooling will be. Yet, “[b]efore school, there had to be vaccination,” the narrator explains. “That was the law”:

When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was  a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. … Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. (pp. 143-144)

Left alone by their working mother, Francie and her brother, Neeley, must go for their vaccinations, prodded only by a neighbor who rouses them from playing in the dirt and mud. Francie suffers through not only the shot itself, but also the doctor’s insensitive and classist criticism: “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm nurse'” (p. 146).

Despite the trauma of the vaccinations and the class-shaming by the doctor, “Francie expected great things from school” (p. 151). However, “Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days” (p. 153).

That “brutalizing” included:

The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcizing their own fearful backgrounds. (p. 153)

A decade past a century since this novel, and I must acknowledge there is a disturbing series of patterns that remain, including the anti-vaccination movement as well as a significant portion of parents who find public schools unresponsive to the needs of specific populations of students.

Since I am currently reading Smith’s novel, I was drawn to some comparisons when I encountered, once again, the media’s misguided fascination with the “science of reading”: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy from PBS News Hour.

I cannot help asking if mainstream media would ever run this story: What anti-vaccination parents are teaching doctors about disease.

And then, while the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading has been spreading for a few years now, Education Week once again piles onto the bandwagon driven by parents advocating for their children with dyslexia: Stephen Sawchuk’s Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War and College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading.

Sawchuk’s piece recycles both misinformation about dyslexia (1 in 10 children are diagnosed, according to Dyslexia International, but many sources suggest the exact percentage ranges from 5% to 17%) and resorts once again to citing the National Reading Panel as a credible report on reading (it has been thoroughly debunked). In fact, intensive, systematic phonics for all students has also been discredited.

Yet as Andrew Davis acknowledges: “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

As I examined and unpacked concerning school choice, we must resist idealizing parental choice, even in regard to those parents’ children. The anti-vaccination movement occurring now is grounded in both those parents wanting what is best (in their view) for their children’s health and a garbled misunderstanding of vaccinations driven by one deeply flawed study that makes those parents believe they have science on their side:

Lacking the scientific background, in an attempt to protect their children, parents contemplating the risk of vaccine are vulnerable to omission biases by which they are more likely to take the risk of inaction than the risk of action….

The anti-vaccine movement appears to be part of a larger trend of discontent and distrust in the established preeminence of scientific evidence over impressions and opinions. A corollary to the discontent is the democratization of health-related decision making, by which stakeholders have an increasingly stronger voice over experts, as well as the dethroning of the Expert. While democratization of health care decision making is cheered by liberals and conservatives alike, its benefits are still to be proven. Decisions in the area of disease prevention require knowledge of the medical field involved and an understanding of statistics, in the absence of which no amount of communication skills and efforts would do any good.

This, I think, is a powerful harbinger of how the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading is being perpetuated by rhetoric (“the science of reading”) and zeal among parents who seek to democratize the teaching of reading, and as a result, the expertise of literacy educators is erased and replaced by parent will and political caveat.

Here are some essential facts being ignored by the avalanche of zeal among mostly parents of children with dyslexia:

  • No student, regardless of special needs such as dyslexia, should be mis-served by our public education system. Parents of children advocating for best practices in the service of their children must be heard, and public schools must respond, attended to, however, by special needs educators and scholars, not the policy demands of the parents or political leaders. “My child must be served” is different than “This is how you will serve my child.”
  • Reading needs of the general population of students must not be held hostage to the needs of unique subsets of students—especially when the zeal of a few is allowed to overwhelm the expertise of educators and literacy scholars.
  • Historically, reading instruction has been a victim of false crisis rhetoric, and current calls for “the science of reading” is yet another round of phonic-only propaganda that cannot serve students well.
  • The research base on reading instruction (the actual science of reading) has never rejected phonics instruction (including whole language and balanced literacy), but each student needs varying degrees of direct phonics instruction, only enough so that the student begins reading and develops as a reader through holistic experiences such as reading by choice and being read to.
  • There has never been a time in the history of formal education in the U.S. that some have not claimed we have a reading crisis. Never. That crisis rhetoric has always been misguided and driven by those with some ulterior agenda or no expertise in literacy.
  • Most of the ways that formal schooling now fails students in terms of reading instruction can be connected to the accountability movement—focusing on ever-changing standards and high-stakes testing as well as imposing prescriptive reading programs onto teachers and students.

Parental zeal in the anti-vaccination movement has spurred measles outbreaks, proving that parental zeal must not be allowed to trump medical expertise.

Parental zeal for public schools properly serving students with dyslexia must not be allowed to drive reading policy for all children; this is just as unwarranted even as the consequences may not be so easily exposed.


 

Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Using the evocative, lyrical poetry of P. L. Thomas (b. 1961), this work for unaccompanied choir aptly describes the ebb and flow of relationships. The text suggests devotion and togetherness, demonstrated in close harmonies between the voices. I’ve repeatedly been captivated by this poet’s ability to encompass such a variety of experiences and emotions in such direct language. This setting intends to capture the cyclical, circular movement of crashing waves, rippling tides, and stoic, measured moons.

Performed by the CCHS Treble Choir and Kaskaskia College Concert Choir, conducted by Mr. Eric Chrostoski, St. John’s UCC, Breese, IL, March 18, 2019.

tide & moon (2013)
P. L Thomas

i am your tide
& you are my moon

you pull the rhythm of me
& guide me through darkness

i am faithful in my motion
ceaseless as an elliptical orbit

we are water reflecting sky
incomplete each without the other

i will carry your water dear
if you will again swim in my sea