The Citation/Plagiarism Trap

An adult more than a decade out of college and working as a staff member in a local public school contacted me about a discouraging experience in an on-line course for a graduate degree.

This person’s story is one I have encountered quite often over almost four decades of teaching at both the high schools and college levels.

This person received a zero on an assignment, identified as plagiarism by the professor. The problem here is that this student was cited for plagiarism on the assignment, yet the citation strategy flagged is identical to a previous assignment that the same professor gave a 95.

MacBook Pro near white open book
Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

As background, this 30-something student has been required in the first classes of their program to cite using APA, but has received no instruction in that citation format (which they had never used as an undergraduate). During the earlier course, I shared with this person some of the materials I provide students when I require and also give direct instruction and support in proper APA format in my courses.

Throughout the first course and including the first assignment in this second course, the student’s citations have not been flagged as incorrect or as plagiarism.

However, the student described for me the section flagged as plagiarism in the more recent assignment: They copied and pasted from the original source, included the in-text parenthetical citation and bibliography in the references, but did not include quote marks.

It is hard to capture in writing the sound of discouragement I witnessed when I informed this student that this was, in fact, plagiarism because quote marks are always required when using the exact words of a source.

The student immediately explained, “But I did the exact same thing on the last paper and made a 95.”

As I have documented in English Journal, students often have to navigate a gauntlet of different and conflicting expectations for citation as well as shifting parameters for plagiarism across course and professors.

Academic and scholarly requirements for proper citations are more than simple attribution (a reasonable expectation that ideas and words drawn from sources can be easily identified and accessed by a reader) because for students and scholars, citation includes requirements linked to formal stylesheets grounded, often, in disciplinary expectations for those attributions (MLA, APA, Chicago Manual, etc.).

Real-world standards for attribution (such as in journalism) and consequences for plagiarism tend to be quite different than what students and scholars must navigate—creating yet another set of conflicting and contradictory messages for students.

This student also received another layer of mixed messages from plagiarism detection software, which failed to be effective since the student was working from misinformation (what the software flagged hadn’t been identified by any professor as plagiarism).

This situation is deeply frustrating for me because it remains far too common for students but highlights the citation/plagiarism trap that is allowed to persist in many classrooms.

The citation/plagiarism trap for students includes the following:

  • A shifting or absent definition of what constitutes proper citation and plagiarism in any course as well as in the program or school that course serves.
  • A weak or nonexistent connection between assigning/requiring citation formats and direct instruction in using and understanding those formats in connection with a detailed definition of proper citation and plagiarism.
  • A transfer of responsibility for plagiarism detection to (mostly) inadequate software and technology.
  • A culture of detection and punishment that supersedes a culture of teaching and learning.
  • Different and ever-changing citation systems (from course to course and discipline to discipline) that seem arcane and arbitrary to novices.
  • A blurred relationship among proper citation, plagiarism, grammar, and mechanics.

When I explained this situation to a friend who teachers high school ELA, that teacher immediately replied, “O, that student knew better,” because it seems reasonable to expect quote marks around the exact words from a source and common knowledge that students shouldn’t copy/paste from sources.

My experience in this context and with dozens of other students, however, is that what seems reasonable to those of us well-versed in citation and stylesheets is often a maze of equally confusing and capricious requirements for students.

I cannot find any way to see this situation as having value for students; it simply doesn’t serve well why we have expectations for scholarly writing or for fostering students into ethical and skilled scholars and thinkers.

At the core of why this trap is harmful to our charge as teachers of writing and scholarship is in the bulleted list above: many courses create a culture of detection and punishment that supersedes a culture of teaching and learning.

Teaching students to write and cite as scholars is not a one-time inoculation that can be accomplished by simply assigning and requiring a citation stylesheet (and giving students a link to Purdue OWL).

Like the good student trap, the citation/plagiarism trap leads to the very worst lessons we can pass on to our students—mixed messages that perpetuate antagonistic relationships and fails to encourage students to become the sort of ethical and thoughtful people we claim to be seeking.

NEW: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)


Barnes and Noble


[excerpt from Introduction]

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: An Overview

The chapters that follow are not intended to document how we should or can teach reading. In fact, there is abundant work that has existed since the early twentieth century to document the many and varied ways we know we should help foster students as readers from the first days of school to the last. As well, this entire book is working well outside being a how-to on teaching reading or a storehouse of research—even as I am advocating that test-driven reading policy and instruction are asking way too little of students and their teachers.

Instead, this is an informative work, focusing on the historical and current Reading War, that builds to a framework for moving beyond that war, and as the subtitle states, serving the literacy needs of all students.

Chapter 1 (A Historical Perspective of the Reading War: 1940s and 1990s Editions) offers a historical overview of crisis responses to reading, focusing on the 1940s (WWII literacy rates of soldiers) and a 1990s report spurred by NAEP. This historical perspective is often missing from media coverage of reading and reading policy debates and decisions made at the federal and state levels.

In Chapter 2 (The Twenty-First Century Reading War: “The Science of Reading,” Dyslexia, and Misguided Reading Policy), I examine the current “science of reading” phenomenon in mainstream media driven by mainstream media, Emily Hanford and Education Week as key examples, but also fueled by dyslexia advocacy, all of which has manifested themselves in education policy such as adopting grade retention based on 3rd-grade test scores and training teachers in the “science of reading.”

Chapter 3 (Misreading Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) addresses key concepts and topics that are misunderstood but central to the media coverage of the recent Reading War, such as the following: The National Reading Panel (NRP), reading programs, balanced literacy (BL), whole language (WL), phonics, scientific research, grade retention, teacher education, and teacher autonomy.

Finally, in Chapter 4 (How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions about Literacy), the following reforms needed to end the Reading war will be explored:

  • Social policy must be implemented to address inequity and the homes, communities, and lives of children; these socioeconomic reforms must be viewed as central to reading policy.
  • The mainstream media must abandon Christopher Columbus and both-sides journalism that addresses education/reading.
  • Reading policy must abandon ineffective and hurtful commitments that include standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, etc.
  • Classroom and school practices must abandon reading programs and silver-bullet approaches to literacy; and teaching must be far more individualized and patient.
  • Evidence-based teaching of reading must expand the meaning of “scientific” and evidence.

In the Conclusion (The Science of Literacy: A 36-Year Journey and Counting), I challenge a narrow view of “science,” especially in terms of education and literacy.

As you read the following chapters, I want you to keep some big-picture concerns in mind: What do we ultimately mean when we talk about teaching children to read? And what does it mean for a student to be able to read?

I want you to consider this story from a high school ELA class discussion on capital punishment. As the teacher led a discussion on the death penalty, a student interjected that Texas currently uses decapitation for the death penalty. The teacher paused, and then suggested that this wasn’t true. The student hurriedly explained it was true, and that he had proof.

The student took out his smartphone, pulling up an article to show the teacher. The article was from The Onion.

Patiently, the teacher informed the student that The Onion is satire, to which the student replied, “No, it isn’t.” Keep in mind that this high school student can pronounce the words in the article; he had read the entire piece.

Are our reading standards, sacred high-stakes tests, and reading programs fostering the sort of students who are critical readers, capable of navigating a complex world better than the student above? Is this Reading War in any way addressing that problem?


Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”

Open Letter: Education Week’s Coverage of the Life, Career, and Death of Ken Goodman

The May 21, 2020 article in Education Week by Stephen Sawchuk fails to honor the remarkable life and career of Ken Goodman on the occasion of his death. Instead, the publication has used this significant loss to the field of literacy as well as the Goodman family and friends for yet another opportunity to perpetuate the misleading narrative about the “science of reading.”

While Ken Goodman spent his life and career dedicated to reading and literacy, leaving behind a legacy of wide-reaching influence through his scholarship and embodying an ethic of kindness and inquiry, the selective use of interviews and incomplete references to research in the EdWeek article construct a distorted and tarnished image of a powerful voice in the field of education.

There is ample room for scholarly debate and disagreement in the complex and still evolving understanding of how children learn to read; however, EdWeek has chosen a solemn moment to continue a single-minded and misguided refrain about the “science of reading”—at the expense of the dignity and respect many know Ken and his family deserve.

Those signed below find the EdWeek coverage both insensitive to Ken and his family, and harmful to the field of literacy and reading.

This is a new low in EdWeek’s role as a high-profile voice in education. By mis-serving Ken and the field of literacy and reading, EdWeek has further eroded the publication’s credibility.


Shira Adler
MFA, Founder & CEO Synergy

Richard Allington
Professor Emeritus
University of Tennessee

Marcia Baxter
Literacy Coach Columbia, SC

Laurey Brevig Almirall, EdD
Third grade teacher, Port Washington School District

Delisa Alsup Ed.S
Reading and Literacy Leadership
Instructional Coach

Bess Altwerger
Professor Emerita
Towson University
Former School Board Member, Howard County, MD

Nancy Bailey, Ph.D.
Education Blogger

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.
Literacy specialist and educational consultant
Past-president National Council of Teachers of English;
Recipient of the CEL Leadership Award

Carrie Birmingham
Associate Professor of Education
Pepperdine University

Susi Bostock, Ed.D.
Elementary Education
Half Hollow Hills School District, NY

Dorey Brandt-Finell, Family Advocate and Educational Specialist
David Finell, Principal (retired)

Lois Bridges Ph.D.

C. Garth Brooks,
British Columbia Literacy Council of the ILA
Executive Director, LEADER Special Interest Group of the ILA

Sally Brown, Ph.D.
Professor of Literacy Education
Reading Program Director
Department of Curriculum, Foundations, and Reading
Georgia Southern University

Charlotte A. Butler, MAELT
P-20 Literacy Coordinator (retired)

Lucy Calkins
Richard Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature at Teachers College, Columbia University
Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

Professor Brian Cambourne, B.A. Litt.B (Hons), Ph.D A.M
Principal Fellow University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Cecilia Candreva, Ed.D.
Retired Elementary Principal
Franklin Square School District, NY

Rose Anne Casement
Professor Emerita
University of Michigan-Flint

Erika Strauss Chavarria
Spanish Teacher, Howard County MD

Linda Christensen
Director, Oregon Writing Project
Lewis & Clark College
Editor, Rethinking Schools
Editor Rethinking School

Ruby Clayton, Teacher
Indianapolis Public Schools

Gerald Coles,
Education Researcher
Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy Legislation & Lies (Heinemann)

Nancy Creech, Ed.D.
Elementary Teacher & Reading Specialist, Retired

Caryl Crowell, M.Ed, Ed.S.
Retired, Tucson Unified School District

Paul Crowley, PhD
Professor Emeritus
Sonoma State University
Rohnert Park, CA

Joan Czapalay,
Teacher, Educator (Nova Scotia, MSVU)
Parent and Grandparent

Diane DeFord
Professor Emerita and Endowed Professor
University of South Carolina

Benjamin Doxtdator
English Teacher, Education Writer

Corydon Doyle, Ph.D.
English Teacher Mount Sinai UFSD
Adjunct Professor Long Island University

Amy J. Dray
Program Officer
Spencer Foundation

Katie Dredger
Associate Professor
James Madison University

Peter Duckett, PhD
Bahrain Bayan
Kingdom of Bahrain

Carole Edelsky, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita
Arizona State University

Eric W. Eye, M.A.
HS ELA teacher

Amy Seely Flint
University of Louisville

Barbara Flores, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita
CSU, San Bernardino

Jennifer Flores
Tucson TAWL

Susan Florio-Ruane Ed.D.
Professor Emerita
College of Education
Michigan State University

Alan Flurkey
Professor, Literacy Studies
Department Chair, Specialized Programs in Education
Hofstra University

Salli Forbes, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita and Reading Recovery Trainer
The University of Northern Iowa

David E. Freeman, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
The University of Texas Río Grande Valley

Yvonne S. Freeman, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita
The University of Texas Río Grande Valley

Peter H. Fries
Professor emeritus
Central Michigan University

Stefanie Fuhr, MEd

Janet S. Gaffney
Professor, University of Auckland
Professor Emerita, University of Illinois

Andrea Garcia, Ph.D.
Literacy Educator, Mexico

Suzanne Gespass

Carol Gilles, Associate Professor of Reading/Language Arts, Emerita
University of Missouri, Columbia

Debra Goodman
Professor, Hofstra University
President, Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

Wendy J Trachtman Goodman, MA ED
36 year veteran classroom teacher

Vera Goodman
Teacher and Reading Expert
Creator of The Making Sense Approach to Reading
Calgary, Alberta

Yetta Goodman, Regents Professor Emerita
University of Arizona, College of Education

Helmuth Leal Guatemalan
professional in tourism and activist in improving the techniques of teaching in Guatemala

Kris Gutierrez, University of California, Berkeley

Xenia Hadjioannou, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Language and Literacy Education
Penn State Harrisburg

Sue Haynes, M.S. ed, M.ed, Literacy Specialist
Author of Creative Mavericks: Beacons of Authentic Learning

Dr. Roxanne Henkin
Professor Emeritus
The University of Texas at San Antonio
Past President
Literacies & Languages for All
Director Emeritus
San Antonio Writing Project

Kathleen A. Hinchman, Professor
School of Education
Syracuse University

Jim Horn, PhD
Professor, Cambridge College

Dr. Mary Howard
Literacy Consultant and Author

Liz Hynes-Musnisky, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor, Department of Critical Reading
Nassau Community College

Ana Christina da Silva Iddings
Professor, Vanderbilt University

Lori Jackson,
Reading Interventionist and Coach

Debra Jacobson

Rosemarie A. Jensen, M.Ed.
UF ProTeach Grad

Bobbi Jentes-Mason, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita
Teacher Education

Nancy J. Johnson, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Western Washington University
Bellingham, WA

Katie Kelly, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Education
Coordinator of Literacy Graduate Program Furman University

Gary Kilarr
Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking

Dorothy F. King

Brian Kissel, Ph.D.

Dr. Dick Koblitz
Adjunct Professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri and Saint Louis University
Literacy Consultant

Alfie Kohn
author and lecturer / Belmont, MA

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

Lorraine Krause
Retired teacher
Peter Krause
Retired Superintendent of Schools

Tasha Laman

Lester Laminack
Children’s Author
Professor Emeritus Western Carolina University

Christine Leland​
Professor Emerita, Indiana University, Indianapolis

Mitzi Lewison
School of Education
Indiana University

Georgia Leyden, MA in Education, Reading and Language
Retired first grade teacher
Retired lecturer, School of Education, Sonoma State University

Calvin A. Luker
Respect ABILITY Law Center
Co-founder, Our Children Left Behind

Elizabeth Lynch, Ed.D.,
retired elementary school teacher, Brentwood UFSD, NY,
former Adjunct Associate Professor, Dowling College, NY,
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Hofstra University

Gina Margiotta, NBCT

Prisca Martens
Ray Martens

Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán
Associate Professor & Program Director Bilingual Bicultural Education,
Teachers College, Columbia University

Stephanie L. McAndrews

Becky McCraw
Goucher Elementary
Cherokee County Schools

J. Cynthia McDermott

Dr. Theresa McGinnis
Associate Professor, Literacy Studies
Hofstra University

Jeff McQuillan
Independent Researcher

Rick Meyer
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
University of New Mexico

Alexandra Miletta
Ed Blogger

Heidi Mills
Distinguished Professor Emerita
University of South Carolina

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
Saint Louis University

Luis Moll
Emeritus Professor, University of Arizona
Reading Hall of Fame

Maureen Arnold Morrissey, M.ED.
37 year veteran teacher

Liz Murray, Ed D.

Michele Myers
Clinical Associate Professor
University of South Carolina

Jennifer Ochoa
8th grade English Teacher

Susan Ohanian
Fellow, National Education Policy Center

Mike Oliver, principal
Zaharis Elementary, Mesa Public Schools
“Zaharis Elementary School is standing on the shoulders of Ken Goodman.”

Richard C. Owen, Publisher
Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.

Celia Oyler
Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

Glennellen Pace, PhD, Associate Professor Emerita
Lewis & Clark College Graduate School of Professional Studies
Portland, OR

Karen V. Packard, Ed.D
Retired teacher educator, Title 1 director, reading/language arts specialist and classroom teacher

Johnna Paraiso, EdD
Rutherford County Schools, ESL/ Adult Literacy Educator
Education Professor, Tennessee State University

Nancy Paterson, PhD
Associate Professor (Retired) Literacy Studies
College of Education, Grand Valley State University
Former Chair Middle Section, NCTE

Patricia Paugh
Associate Professor
University of Massachusetts Boston

P. David Pearson
Evelyn Lois Corey Emeritus Professor of Instructional Science
Graduate School of Education
University of California, Berkeley

Erica Ann Pecorale

Ann Peluso
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction (Retired)
West Hempstead School District, NY

Kathleen O’Brien Ramirez, PhD
Universal Multilingual Literacy

Patricia Reed-Meehan, Ed.D.
Literacy Teacher, NYC Department of Education
Adjunct Professor, EECE Queens College

Louann Reid, PhD
Professor of English Education
Chair Department of English
Colorado State University

Lynne Hebert Remson, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-F
Speech-Language Pathologist
Small Talk Speech and Language Specialists

Victoria J. Risko
Professor Emerita
Vanderbilt University

Laura Roop, Director
Western Pennsylvania Writing Project
University of Pittsburgh

Elisabeth Costa Saliani, Ph.D.
William Floyd UFSD
20 year teacher of Elementary ENL

Lenny Sánchez
Faculty, Language and Literacy Education
co-Director, Bilingualism Matters @ UofSC
co-Editor, Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice

Sherry Sanden, Ph.D., NBCT alum
Interim Associate Director
Associate Professor, Early Childhood Literacy

Ronda Schlumbohm, M.Ed Reading
Grade 2, Salcha Elementary

Renita Schmidt
Associate Professor Emeritus
University of Iowa

Jean Schroeder

David Schultz, EdD, Retired
Long Island University Riverhead
Mattituck-Cutchogue School District

Sara H. Somerall

Louise Sweeney Shaw, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Curriculum and Learning
Southern Connecticut State University

Nancy Rankie Shelton, PhD
Professor, UMBC, Literacy Education

Ira Shor
Professor Emeritus
City University of NY Graduate Center

Marjorie Siegel,
Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

Flory Simon U of A Retired
Co-Director Southern Arizona Writing Project

Yvonne Siu-Runyan, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, The University of Northern Colorado
Past President, National Council Teachers of English
Boulder, CO

Tracy L. Smiles, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Western Oregon University

Melinda Smith, MAEd
Elementary Teacher
Manhasset UFSD, NY

Patricia G Smith Ph.D.,retired
Federation University
Victoria, Australia

Ellen Spitler, PhD
Associate Professor
Metropolitan State University of Denver

Diane Stephens
Professor Emerita
University of South Carolina

Charlotte H. Stocek, Ph.D.

Steven L. Strauss, MD, PhD
Baltimore, Md

Denny Taylor
Distinguished Alumni, Columbia University
Distinguished Scholar, NCRLL
Inducted (2004) Reading Hall of Fame
Founder of Garn Press

Monica Taylor, PhD
Professor, Department of Educational Foundations
Montclair State University

P.L. Thomas, EdD
Professor of Education
Furman University
NCTE’s 2013 George Orwell Award winner

Serena Troiani Ph.D.
Elementary school teacher Port Washington UFSD, NY
Adjunct Assistant Professor Queens College, NY

Dr Jan Turbill FACE
University of Wollongong

Dr. Jesse P. Turner
Central Connecticut State University

Ruth J. Sáez Vega
Universidad de Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Meghan Valerio, M.Ed.
Doctoral Student & Graduate Assistant
Curriculum and Instruction, Emphasis in Literacy
Kent State University

Elisa Waingort
Classroom Teacher
Calgary, Alberta

Judy M. Wallis, Ed.D.
Literacy Author and Consultant
Former Director of Language Arts

Russ Walsh
Adjunct Instructor, Graduate Education
Rider University

Yang Wang
Assistant Professor in Language and Literacy
University of South Carolina

Lois Weiner, Ed.D.
Professor Emerita, NJCU

Steve Wellinski
Associate Professor of Reading Education
Eastern Michigan University

Darlene Westfall, M.ED.
Special Education Teacher

Kathryn F Whitmore, PhD
Professor and Department Chair
Metropolitan State University of Denver
And PROUD student of Dr Kenneth S Goodman

Carolynn E. Wilcox, English Teacher,
Early College of Arvada and Affiliate Professor,
Department of English,
Metropolitan State University of Denver

Jeffery L Williams
Past-President of Reading Recovery Council of North America
K-12 Literacy Coach and Teacher Leader

Joan Wink, Professor Emerita
California State University, Stanislaus

Thomas DeVere Wolsey, EdD
Graduate School of Education
The American University in Cairo


Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”

What Every Parent Should Know about Kenneth S. Goodman

No Need to Catch Up: Teaching without a Deficit Lens

Some jokes work only when spoken aloud, and possibly especially when spoken aloud in certain regions of the country, but this one came to mind recently in the context of the impact of Covid-19 on schooling: “This is the worst use of ‘catch up’ in education since the Reagan administration allowed the condiment to count as a vegetable in school lunches.”

Heinz tomato ketchup bottle in shallow focus photography
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

As I noted in a Twitter thread, a common response to schools closing during the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic is an editorial (The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC) declaring, Use summer to figure out how to catch up SC students; they’ll need it.

“How do schools help students catch up after the Covid-19 closures?” is the wrong question, grounded in a deficit lens for teaching and learning also found in concepts such as remediation and grade-level reading.

Traditional formal schooling functions under several inter-related ideologies, some of which are contradictory (consider assumptions about the bell-shaped curve and IQ v. the standards movement that seeks to have all students achieve above a normal standard).

Deficit ideologies depend on norms, bureaucratized metrics, against which identified populations (in education, grade levels linked to biological age) can be measured; the result is a formula that labels students in relationship to the norm. Many students, therefore, are positioned as deficient, labeled with what they lack.

The hand wringing about students falling behind with schools moving to remote teaching and learning during the spring exposes this deficit lens, but it has always been pervasive since the early twentieth century (at least) in U.S. education.

Consider the branding of federal education over the past couple decades—No Child Left Behind (George W. Bush) and Race to the Top (Barack Obama)—the first posing an image of falling behind (and thus the need for some to catch up) and the latter framing education as a race with necessary winners and losers (who, of course, were behind, need to catch up).

These deficit views of teaching and learning—and of teachers and students—are essential to the main structures of formal schooling, management and efficiency.

While it is a conservative mantra that all-things-government (such as public schools) are doomed to failure because it is government, the fundamental problem with public education is, in fact, bureaucracy (a weakness found in publicly funded institutions and the free market [read Franz Kafka, of Dilbert, and watch Office Space and The Office]).

Attempting to house and teach large numbers of students as efficiently as possible with constrained public funds is a guiding (if not the guiding) mechanism for how we teach students—students as widget monitored by quality control.

My father, Keith, worked in quality control his entire career. But his work involved machined parts, not human beings.

The manufactured “catch up” dilemma is a subset of that widget/quality control paradigm that can create a perception of efficiency but is antithetical to the complexity of human behaviors such as teaching and learning.

We teachers are tasked daily with a given set of students, traditionally arranged by grade levels that loosely conform to biological ages; however, our schools and our classes also vary significantly by out-of-school factors such as the socioeconomic levels of communities and racial as well as gender demographics that schools house but do not cause.

Putting efficiency and management first often ignores and even works against individual student needs and the corrosive impact of inequity that is embodied by individual and groups of students.

Putting 25-35 students in a classroom, building a highly structured and sequential curriculum, evaluating all students against those standards, and compelling teachers to maintain the same instruction and assessment across every grade level can address the priorities of efficiency and management.

But these deficit-based practices accomplish those goals at the expense of large segments of student populations.

It is counter-intuitive to admit that no such coherent and definable thing really exists as third-grade standards since we have spent forty years determined to create and recreate those standards, to test all students against those standards, and to ignore that “all students will” does not and cannot happen—in this system especially that ignores and perpetuates the inequities our students embody through no fault of their own.

Yet, no such thing as third-grade standards exist as we construct them and as we use them to label and manage students.

Eight- and nine-year-old children are biologically and environmentally incredibly diverse, especially in the ways they learn and respond to the world.

Despite our effort to limit or control human autonomy, even children are compelled to be autonomous; they have some limited ability to want to learn, to choose to comply or not with teacher expectations.

Teaching without a deficit lens is an option, however, possibly even within the system we have; although a new system would be much more preferable.

First, teaching can begin with individual students, focusing on the qualities, strengths, and knowledge they bring to any classroom.

Once a teacher knows the make-up of the abilities among any group of students, the teacher can design new and review material and experiences to provide for all students to incorporate their strengths and interests into acquiring new and better learning. Teachers can accomplish these strength-based lessons around whole-class, small-group, and individualized instruction—concessions to efficiency and management that come after putting students strengths and addressing inequity first.

As a final example of the problem of seeing the Covid-19 impact on education as somehow unique (instead of magnifying existing flaws in the system), consider the concerns raised about inequity in administering the SAT and Advanced Placement (A.P.) tests in modified forms for the remote necessities of the pandemic.

Online and modified SAT and A.P. tests have not created some new inequity; they are the mechanisms of inequity that have always existed and helped drive the deficit lens of public schooling.

Standardized testing has always measured inequity, but that testing has also always perpetuated that inequity by labeling many students as deficient as learners while the metric, in fact, mostly measures disparities in social class, gender, and race.

There is an ugly irony to calling for helping students catch up in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The move to remote teaching and learning is one of the few common experiences among our students, who enjoy or suffer the consequences of privilege and disadvantage whether in school or at home despite a pandemic.

In other words, if we remain trapped in deficit language, students are sharing the same “behindness” of having moved to remote course and having reduced instruction.

Ultimately, trying to help students catch up keeps our judgmental gaze on the student, a deficit lens, in fact. The problem with the impact of the pandemic is the same as before Covid-19 changed our world—inequity.

Pathologizing students further because of the pandemic once again allows the systemic inequities in our communities and schools to be ignored, to remain.

Ketchup was never a valid vegetable in public school lunches, and trying to catch up students in the wake of Covid-19 is yet another way to further malnourish our students.

The Training Wheel Fallacy for Teaching Writing

The Swamp Rabbit Trail System is a paved multi-use path running from the city of Greenville, South Carolina to Travelers Rest, to the north. As an avid road cyclist, I venture onto the trail occasionally since it runs near my university and allows a somewhat relaxed ride, free of the threat of car traffic (except for the crossings).

Riding a bicycle is often discussed as if it is a universal experience and a skill once learned, never forgotten. As a serious cyclist for well over thirty years, I can attest that observations along the Swamp Rabbit Trail offer a data set that leads to a different theory.

Riding a bicycle requires two essential skills, pedaling and balancing the bicycle. When I see small children and inexperienced cyclists along Swamp Rabbit, I see an oddly similar struggle—cyclists wildly fighting the steering by swinging the handlebars aggressively and pedaling in ways that are counter to gaining momentum and balance.

A stark sign of a less than competent cyclists is the weaving motion as the cyclist approaches, a dramatic contrast to the rail-steady balance of experienced riders. But the oddest thing I see in beginning and inexperienced cyclists is trying to start off by placing one foot on a pedal with the crank arm down and then frantically lifting the other foot to start the pedaling with the crank arm that is up.

That technique is a recipe for disaster, but when successful, those first pedal strokes are combined with some pretty awful weaving that covers the space two or three experienced cyclists could fit into easily.

Holding your line (riding rail straight) and riding without your hands are some of the first skills needed to be a competitive cyclist. I have taken off or changed a significant amount of clothing during hard group rides while continuing to ride at the back of the pack; on a couple of occasions, I have taken a multi-tool out of my saddle pack and adjusted my front derailleur also while continuing to ride at the back of the pack.

Ride for Safety 2018 GB
Ride for Safety 2018

Pedaling smoothly and maintaining proper weight distribution allow the bicycle to remain in a straight line, the natural momentum of rotating wheels. Another counter-intuitive behavior in road cycling is de-weighting your upper body so that you apply less effort into steering.

Beginners and inexperienced cyclists over-steer and over-pedal.

Here is an interesting problem about how most people learn to ride bicycles—the use of training wheels. Training wheels seek to address those essential skills I noted above by allowing new riders to have balance while learning to pedal.

The problem? Pedaling and balancing in cycling are not discrete, separate skills, but symbiotic skills. Learning to ride a bicycle, also, likely requires a different series of learning those skills since the balance is more valuable than the pedaling (and likely harder, at least we intuit that it is harder).

While training wheels are a traditional way to teach children to ride bicycles, balance bicycles are far superior ways to help children acquire balancing skills until they are old enough to pedal (likely much later than we tend to expect children to ride).

Now, as I have discussed before, let’s be clear that riding a bicycle is not like writing. Pedaling and holding a straight line while riding a bicycle is an acquired skill, but is not nearly as complex as it first appears; yet, writing is a creative process that involves dozens of decisions and interrelated skills and content, and is even more complex than we think as beginners.

However, our misconceptions about the teaching/learning dynamic for beginner cyclists as well as beginner students-as-writers are very similar.

The skills and decision process needed to write well are also not discrete, isolated skills that we simply need to acquire one at a time and then somehow integrate; as Lou LaBrant admonished, we learn to write by writing (not by doing skill and drill)—which is similar to the best way to learn to ride a bicycle, by riding a bicycle (without training wheels, possibly in a grass field at first instead of a sidewalk or parking lot).

Traditional approaches to teaching writing that impose templates (five-paragraph essay) and canned moves (“In this essay, I will…,” “In conclusion…”) are grounded in the same urges as teaching children to ride bicycles by using training wheels; however, these traditional approaches are as misguided and harmful as those training wheels.

Riding in large packs of cyclists requires each rider to demonstrate a high level of cycling authority, again grounded in holding a line and behaving in steady and predictable ways even while in high pressure situations (pace intensity increasing, cornering, contributing to a paceline, sprinting, etc.).

Writing authority, whether as a published writer or as a student or academic, also requires demonstrating high-level skills that are much more than the content of the writing (organization, diction, style, and having control of conventional elements of language use [grammar, mechanics, usage]).

Students are better served as writers-to-be if we always allow them to experiment in authentic and holistic contexts while seeking ways to foster essential or foundational concepts (openings, focus, elaboration, cohesion, paragraphing, closings, etc.). There is ample evidence, however, that templates and canned moves are not helpful and may even be harmful (they don’t encourage students to set them aside).

Many people still rush to buy their children bicycles with training wheels, but balance bicycles are beginning to take hold. The teaching of writing needs to make a similar transition.

Depending on templates and canned moves creates the sort of wobbly writers that remind me of my harrowing experiences trying to navigate down the Swamp Rabbit Trail confronting those teetering cyclists who have been mislead that it’s just like riding a bicycle.


But I don’t have the drugs to sort
I don’t have the drugs to sort it out
Sort it out

“Afraid of Everyone,” The National

For as long as I can remember, I have been at war with my own body. There have been dramatic battles—being diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before I started ninth grade in 1976, my collapse into debilitating panic attacks in October of 1999—but mostly that tension is pervasive, continuous—an anxiety cocktail of somewhat manageable OCD, ADHD, hypochondria, and depression.

The manageable has been orchestrated behind a dedicated stoic front that hides the main feature of anxiety, the relentless mind manufacturing and obsessing on an infinite list of what-ifs.

These self-imposed terrors are fruitless except for the drain and wear on my mind and body. Like the what-ifs on loop in my thoughts, the war with my body seems to insure that my body is always finding ways to let me down, especially a rotating list of chronic pain.

In South Carolina, where I live, we are shifting quicker than many states back toward some sort of normal after a couple of months of sheltering at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has been a paradox for me and my anxiety. Anxiety is mostly wrestling with unfounded threats, being afraid of everything for no rational reason.

Fearing a very real pandemic is rational, but in SC, I have been positioned as irrational for taking Covid-19 seriously since many in the state are following a partisan political playbook filled with YouTube videos and outlandish conspiracy theories.

My social media are filled with fellow South Carolinians, many of whom are conservative (which dominates the state), but the pandemic has made that norm of my relationship with my home town and community nearly impossible to manage.

I have moved from my normal of living an anxious (but masked by stoicism) life to struggling with the rational anxiety caused by the pandemic and now to a new sort of anxiety about efforts to return to some sort of normal existence.

During the shut down, I have greatly missed group cycling and visiting my favorite restaurants, breweries, and tap houses. Losing that normal has been exhausting to my mind and, of course, my body.

As SC has relaxed restrictions, however, watching my downtown begin to re-emerge has led to a new set of fears. First, the town closed off Main Street to allow outdoor seating for local restaurants.

Other than once-a-week trips to the grocery store, I haven’t been in any sort of crowds. People swarmed downtown once outdoor dining was allowed, and these crowds are deeply nerve wracking for me.

A normal rendered abnormal in a matter of a couple of months.

Many people are speculating about a new normal once we all return to daily life with Covid-19. No one really knows what this new normal will be.

But some believe we all will change, that life will inevitably be different.

When I look around while people return to visiting restaurants and stores, I see something different than things being different; most people have slipped right back into the normal they were missing.

As if there is no Covid-19, as if we haven’t sheltered for two months, as if we aren’t reigniting a bigger fire that could possibly rage out of control.

It is spring in the South, beautiful sunshine and warm-to-hot days. We are racing mindlessly into that hope we feel each spring, determined to ignore that this is not like any spring before for any of us.

I am afraid, the same as always, and a new afraid.

I also recognize something unexpected. My conservative home has something in common with me; these recalcitrant South Carolinians are afraid of the unknown, clamoring to regain normal just because it is known, not because it is better or even good.

The paradox of the South is a people willing to risk everything because they are risk-averse, afraid of the unknown.

Anxiety is a sort of paralysis. My current Scylla and Charybdis is either continuing to shelter, resist the reopening, or to slowly wade back into the seemingly comfortable and certainly familiar pool of the life I have desperately missed, even as I frantically treaded those waters simply trying to keep my head above water.

Either way, I will be afraid, the same as always and a new afraid I never imagined in all my fruitless pondering of what-ifs.

Expanding the Writing Process: Drafting Edition

To be a scholar is to be a writer—often a writer seeking publication. Part of my career-long journey to teach writing well, or at least always trying to teach writing better, has been to bring the necessarily reduced experience of writing as a student closer to the authentic experiences of writers in situations, for lack of the better phrase, in the real world.

Recently on Twitter, scholars (notably Tressie McMillan Cottom and Jess Calarco) discussed choices scholars/writers make when working through the revise-and-resubmit phase common in almost all submissions for scholarly publication:

Encouraging and facilitating drafting by students has always been a struggle for me. Some students resist drafting at all (I have students who fear sharing drafts with me until they are “perfect” and many students simply do not have the tools to revise and edit in ways that make the process seem valuable), but I also recognize that an authentic writing process and the many ways we draft are often more complicated than we allow in classrooms.

Two problems at the root of working with students and fostering an effective writing process is, first, helping students who have been taught directly and indirectly to write only one draft from prescriptive prompts and rubrics (an unintended but negative consequence of the Advanced Placement programs and assessments in English, for example), and, second, re-teaching students that have come through a highly regimented writing process sequence (pre-writing, drafting, revising, and publishing).

That second problem often shifts most of the writer’s work to the teacher and leaves students mostly being compliant; however, effective writing pedagogy seeks to provide students support while they navigate an authentic writing process that is anchored in making writer’s decisions along the way.

One way I have tried to foster drafting better is to move away from “the” writing process to “a” writing process, one that students explore and create for themselves by considering the many ways that writers navigate moving from a writing idea to a final piece (often published).

Building a writer’s toolbox is incredibly important for students-as-writers because moving from first draft to final draft is about having purpose and strategies. I encourage and build that toolbox by providing feedback that prompts an action, something specific to do to the draft.

But drafting involves many different aspects of a text to be addressed, aspects that are not necessarily of equal weight in terms of creating meaning for the reader.

I have used these categories for years with students: content and organization (highest level to be addressed), diction and style (the next and important level to be addressed), and grammar, mechanics, and usage (the final level that is essentially editing).

Although students often resist the necessity of several drafts for a single essay, I tend to respond to first and second levels more aggressively in early submissions, stressing that we have no reason to edit a piece that isn’t working to begin with, as LaBrant (1946) argues:

[A teacher] may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing [emphasis added]….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say. (p. 123)

Knowing what aspects of a draft to attack first is incredibly important for students, but as the exchange above by scholars shows, students also need to have a range of options for moving from one draft to the next.

Too often, students have been allowed simply to “fix” the areas marked for them by the teacher. This is probably one of the worst unintended consequences of writer’s workshop.

I constantly have to prompt students to work on their drafts from the comments I have offered, but moving through the entire draft, not just where I have commented.

To expand student drafting options, I have shifted a great deal of my feedback from marking drafts to conferencing. In those conferences we focus on what students should do next.

I offer several options: abandonment (starting the essay over and completely abandoning the first submission), revising/editing the draft I have commented on and that we are conferencing about (still the most common next step), or starting a new Word document and rethinking organization, sentence and paragraph formation, and likely significant aspects of the content (adding or changing sources, changing and/or elaborating on examples, reorganizing the development of that content, etc.).

Final drafts are greatly improved, I find, when students are allowed a wide range of drafting options and given ample support for making writer’s decisions based on their goals for the writing project.

In our conference, I typically start by asking students to say aloud what they were trying to accomplish with their essay; then we discuss if and how the submitted draft accomplishes those goals.

After that framing, we address what moves and strategies students should follow next, keeping that next step manageable and not necessarily exhaustive. I usually ask what are two or three next things to do with this draft while also stressing that the full drafting process for the essay may take three or four (or more) drafts to reach a satisfying final version.

Drafting must be purposeful, goal oriented, and grounded in actionable strategies for the student/writer. But drafting should never be reduced to simply following a set sequence or “fixing” what the student initially submitted regardless of the quality of that submission.

As LaBrant adds:

All writing that is worth putting on paper is creative in that it is made by the writer and is his own product… . Again there may be those who will infer that I am advocating no correction, no emphasis on form. The opposite is really true. The reason for clarity, for approved usage, for attractive form, for organization, lies in the fact that these are means to the communication of something important. (p. 126)

For scholars as writers, that “something important” is often about publishing as part of academic and scholarly careers, and while revise and resubmit can be tedious and frustrating, how to move through several drafts has an authentic purpose that is too often missing in traditional classrooms for students as writers.

That said, we as teachers of writing can foster something much closer to authentic than a lockstep writing process and reducing drafting to “fix what the teacher marks.”

One way to teach writing better is to expand the what and how of drafting for our students, in ways that look more like drafting among writers in that so-called real world.


Unmasking Rational Humanity

Many years ago, just after I moved to higher education, I was having a casual conversation with a colleague in the economics department. He joked that he was socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that he leaned Democrat because it was easier to teach liberals economics than to make Republicans give a shit about humans.

He also made an off-hand comment about people using Consumer Report when making purchases, or similar rational approaches to being consumers. I paused and stated directly to him that virtually no one shops rationally. I recall that he looked at me as if I were from Mars.

I was reminded of this exchange—and my constant frustration at economics as a field is too often grounded in rational consumer assumptions—when a former student posted on social media about economist Daniel Kahneman, notable for contesting that assumption about rational consumers.

But I have also been thinking about assuming humans are rational in the context of calls for everyone wearing face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A good friend on social media posted this recently:


And my first thought was that it is missing the next level—two faces in masks worn below their noses while touching or adjusting the masks every few seconds.

The research on and calls for everyone wearing face masks are making the rational-assumption mistake too often found in economic theory and models, I think; for example:

A shopper during the pandemic in California (The San Diego Union-Tribune).
Ron DeSantis, wearing a mask, stands in front of National Guard members wearing masks
Gov. Ron DeSantis fumbles mask wearing (Slate).

Models for the effectiveness of face masks seem to assume not only rational wearers but also many other idealistic givens that are decontextualized from the very real (and inequitable) world.

Writing in The Guardian, Aaron Thomas offered some of that reality:

On Saturday I thought about the errands I need to run this week, including a trip to the grocery store. I thought I could use one of my old bandannas as a mask. But then my voice of self-protection reminded me that I, a black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandanna covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store. The situation isn’t safe and could lead to unintended attention, and ultimately a life-or-death situation. For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting Covid-19.

Just as shaming people for not conforming to the stay-at-home orders fails to acknowledge the privilege in being able to stay home, shaming people for not wearing masks fails to recognize the potential flaws in wearing masks and unintended consequences, such as the fears expressed by Thomas above.

In ideal contexts, which never exist, the image above of the advantages of mask wearing is powerful and even compelling.

But when I have visited grocery stores or gone on walks, I see a wide assortment of people with and without masks. Those with masks have on, often, home-made or makeshift masks that are likely not providing any protection, and many wear them pulled below their noses or with the sides billowed out.

Many people seek masks that barely obstruct breathing, which is a sign that the mask is ineffective for the very thing it is being worn to do.

And mask wearers are in a constant state of touching and adjusting those masks—touching their faces, groceries, touch screens.

One of the most troubling negative consequences of the move toward all people wearing masks is that wearers take on a false sense of greater safety, and as a result, fail to respect the 6′ social distancing guidelines, decreasing everyone’s safety especially considering the shoddy masks and wearing of those masks.

Credible evidence suggests that basic cloth masks worn properly can reduce spreading a virus if worn by people who are sick (asymptomatic or symptomatic), but high quality masks properly worn is an incredibly high bar needed for masks to protect healthy people from contracting the virus.

The U.S. and the world are now living a huge and deadly experiment, one that is based in the real world, not a computer simulation, where the vast majority of human beings are simply not rational.

Promoting public policy based on the assumption of rational humans is dangerous folly, one of the many ways we have failed in our economic policy in the U.S., but shifting to a recognition that humans are mostly irrational is not a call for fatalism.

Seeking ways to inform people with credible information is a nudge toward rational behavior, if we see that as evidence-based decision making (instead of the “rational” of faux-objective paternalism), and a way grounded in hope.

But on that long and slow journey, we must find ways to exist that acknowledge the irrational human, the person with the mask pulled below their nose standing directly behind you in the check-out line who taps you on the shoulder and points to the shopper in a KKK hood.


Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus

Sounds about White

All Lives Matter

“Karen” is the same as the “N” word

We value diversity but will hire the most qualified candidate

I don’t see color, race

I grew up poor and built this from hard work

Heritage, not hate

Traditional family values

Just follow the law/rules, and you don’t have anything to worry about

Blue Lives Matter

Make America Great Again

To quote Martin Luther King Jr. …

There are a lot of different kinds of diversity

There is only one race, the human race

Build the wall

Breaking Bad

Black-on-black crime

Second Amendment

Open carry

Face masks

Dick Cavett