To “Be” or Not To “Be”: Moving Beyond Correctness and Stigmatized Language

ESPN radio has recently shaken up their on-air personalities across the daily schedule, notably replacing the morning slot held for many years by Mike & Mike (and a recent fractured version after Mike Greenberg left) with a clear signal toward diversity— as reported by Andrew Marchand:

And now, look who is moving into the predominantly white sports-radio neighborhood beginning Monday. It’s Keyshawn, Jay Williams & Zubin Mehenti….

How will it be different?

“First of all, we are three minorities,” Keyshawn said. “That is No. 1. There haven’t been three minorities that I know of on a morning national sports show.”

One of the traditional areas where radio and television in the U.S. has had a strict lack of diversity is the use of language; talking heads—even late-night talk show hosts—practice something of a radio voice (lacking distinct regional pronunciations) and so-called “standard English.”

While listening to the new and more diverse morning radio show on ESPN, I heard Keyshawn Johnson say about a river they were discussing that people “be jet-skiing” in it. The trio’s reactions made it clear this waterway was not safe for recreation.

Since it is early in my first-year writing seminars, I am still helping students re-orient their attitudes and assumptions about reading, writing, and language. A foundational re-orientation for my courses is moving away from seeing language use as “correct” or “incorrect” (as well as rejecting terms such as “standard English” and “non-standard dialect”) and cautioning students not to stigmatize language use as some distinct flag for intelligence or moral/ethical character.

Johnson’s use of “be” to capture a continuous “presentism” of an action along with the omission of “to be” verbs (“Keyshawn home all day”) are often markers for what some call “Black English” (I was taught about Black English through the work of Dillard in the 1970s, but “Ebonics” and “AAVE” have also been used to designate this language usage pattern).

Few people are likely to recognize that ESPN’s new line up is more than racial or cultural diversity; Johnson embodies the importance of language use diversity as well—and he also embodies my cautions to students about “correctness” and stigmatizing language.

While there are people who may have flinched and drawn unfair and racist conclusions about Johnson’s verb usage, I suspect that there will be no professional consequences for Johnson’s language usage.

As I noted to my class, everyone listening knew the meaning of Johnson’s usage, and thus, the primary value of language—clear and precise communication—was completely achieved.

Writing from France in 1979, James Baldwin explained: “The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language.”

A few paragraphs later, Baldwin elaborated, focusing on French:

What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity. So that, for example, thought it is not taught in the schools (and this has the potential of becoming a political issue) the south of France still clings to its ancient and musical Provençal, which resists being described as a “dialect.” And much of the tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales, is due to the Basque and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed. This determination also feeds the flames in Ireland for many indignities the Irish have been forced to undergo at English hands is the English contempt for their language.

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.

In her work to move teachers of English away from “correctness” and the “error hunt,” Connie Weaver has highlighted Baldwin’s point about language usage being about power and that some forms of language usage have social, economic, and political consequences (often grounded in inequity such as racism, classism, etc.).

Often the use of “status marking” in language usage is accompanied by an uncritical acceptance of “standard English” and the inherent context that some language usage (“She is home”) is more complete and “better” than other language usage (“She home”) (see Pullum).

And language usage as status marking (some threat of observable consequences) is used to justify teaching students about code switching instead of stigmatizing any form of language usage.

The code switching argument has stood for many years as a progressive way to teach language that avoids “correctness” and appears to avoid stigma (which it doesn’t).

Again, Baldwin’s key point—”People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate”—is simply side-stepped when we teach disenfranchised and marginalized young people to code switch because that approach allows us to avoid discussing the larger issues of power and inequity that govern the status marking.

Johnson’s use of “be” comes in a time of high social unrest over race, but also intersects with another harsh reality about language and teaching language: Language use is always in a state of flux, and the loose conventions that structure different groups of language usage are tenuous at best.

“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate,” Baldwin acknowledges. Language change, then, is also about power, not necessarily who has power but the dormant or repressed power of marginalized humans (children and teens manufacturing slang to build a linguistic wall between them and adults or racial minorities reshaping and reappropriating language as defiance and to claim power denied).

Although language can be racist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc., language also can shift toward equity. For example, many publications have now embraced “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Although some people are pulling out their hair in protest, that usage of “they” is centuries old in the English language because it fills a need left vacant in so-called “standard English.”

This door opened to “they” as singular and gender-neutral is in part about diversity, of course, and we can imagine that some racialized usages of language will walk through a similar door.

Language change is often very slow; it seems to happen organically, and then those with power eventually and some times reluctantly acknowledge a thing that has existed for decades or even centuries.

If this were a case for communication and standardization in the name of that communication, we may find the reluctance more compelling.

But Baldwin’s 1979 confrontation of Black English remains true in 2020 when the world and our language usages are all tinted by racism.

Because all teaching is political, and the very best teaching is activism, re-orienting students’ understanding of language does not have to be slow or organic, as demonstrated by The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC):

We DEMAND that:

  1. teachers stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm, which reflects White Mainstream English!
  2. teachers stop teaching Black students to code-switch! Instead, we must teach Black students about anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy!
  3. political discussions and praxis center Black Language as teacher-researcher activism for classrooms and communities!
  4. teachers develop and teach Black Linguistic Consciousness that works to decolonize the mind (and/or) language, unlearn white supremacy, and unravel anti-Black linguistic racism!
  5. Black dispositions are centered in the research and teaching of Black Language!

In K-16 formal education, language usage still falls on a continuum from correctness/standard English at one end and encouraging code switching at the other; the radical dismantling of language usage as status marking is rare, but some evidence exists that culturally we are ready for it.

This demand by CCCC is not simply about equity and authentic diversity, however, because the 5 demands are more linguistically sound than traditional approaches to framing language usage as “correct” or “wrong.”

Once again, Baldwin remains painfully true as he ends his essay:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Those of us who teach language usage have a moral obligation to refuse the norm of “correctness” and to dismantle the stigmatizing of language usage. Otherwise we are abdicating our own agency in the service of inequity and at the expense of our students.

The Politics of Teaching: #BlackLivesMatter Edition

On a social media group for educators, a teacher asked for clarification about the legal grounds for an administrator requesting that the teacher remove #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ+ support posters from their room.

The responses were illuminating since they tended to drift toward larger and different concerns about ideology and of course the standard claim that teachers should “not be political.”

This was a discussion among teachers in South Carolina, where I taught public high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s; I also attended SC public schools from 1967 until 1979.

Not to be simplistic, but my experience teaching in SC, and my subsequent two decades working with public schools and teachers, has shown that what is technically legal isn’t as important and how administration—supported by community standards—views what is “allowed” or “banned.”

Therefore, at the root of this teacher’s dilemma is the fundamental problem with the term “political” and how teaching and education are framed as “not political” (or more clearly, how teaching and education should not be “political”).

Public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate community, state, and national norms, what we often call “culture.” Rarely, in fact, are public schools mechanisms for confronting, rejecting, or reforming traditional assumptions and behaviors.

As I noted above, during my public school teaching career from 1984 until 2002, my principals allowed prayer over the intercom each morning despite coerced and organized prayer being prohibited in the 1960s (NOTE: Prayer by individual choice has always been and remains allowed and protected in public schools; forced or coerced prayer was prohibited, not individual prayer by choice).

Because of state law and community standards as well, students were required to stand during the morning Pledge of Allegiance (and some teachers required students to participate, speaking the words with hand over the heart).

In that situation, teachers monitoring students in order to make them comply with the Pledge was never seen as “political,” even though not monitoring by teachers and students not participating often were seen as political acts.

Recall the controversy in the NFL over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem; Kaepernick was always framed as injecting politics into sports, but the NFL playing the Anthem was never confronted as what it most certainly is—a political statement.

If we return to the teacher’s dilemma about having #BLM and LGBTQ+ posters in their room, we must confront two important aspects.

First, we must begin to educate everyone about the term “political,” especially as that contrasts with the term “partisan.”

In situations with a hierarchy of authority—such as teachers interacting with students—those with authority (teachers) must remain neutral in terms of “partisan” advocacy. In other words, teachers must refrain from making partisan endorsements in the classroom, never advocating for a specific political party or candidate.

However, every act a teacher does or does not do is a political act since “politics” is the negotiation of power in any human interaction. Teachers are sending political messages when they are agents of any rules or laws.

Complying with rules, laws, or social norms are often seen as “not political” when in fact they are just as political (endorsement) as when people reject or break with rules, laws, or social norms.

Again, while a teacher is being compelled not to display support for #BLM and LGBTQ+, those teachers who have no social justice messaging in their classrooms are equally political; silence and taking a so-call neutral pose are the politics of compliance, rendered “not political” or invisible because of the support of authority (not because they are in fact “not political”).

As I have examined before, demanding that anyone conform to not being political is a political demand. Administrators in public schools requiring teachers to monitor student participation in the Pledge is political; administrators requesting teachers remove social justice messaging from the classroom is political.

Let’s be clear that all of these circumstances are political, and therefore, the reason that teacher is being asked to remove the social justice messaging is clearly not to render the classroom and school “not political,” but to insure that the teacher, students, and classroom conform to the politics supported by the administration, community, and state.

To teach is to be political, and instead of pretending there are options (preferred options) for being “not political” in classrooms and schools, teachers and administrators must be more intentional and open about the moral and ethical implications of education—that schooling is continually sending political messages, some endorsed by authority and some discouraged or silenced by authority.

Howard Zinn’s dictum that we cannot be neutral on a moving train is apt for being a teacher; silence, absence, and compliance send messages of support for the conditions that currently exist.

Removing #BLM and LGBTQ+ messaging as well as not having that messaging in class suggests that the current state of the country is equitable or that the inequity is acceptable (to those with power at least).

We teachers and all educators are political agents in everything we do; our task is not to be “not political” but to be intentional and ethical/moral in the politics of our roles as educators and our stewardship of authority over children and young adults.

I regret the dilemma faced by the teacher being asked to remove social justice messaging from their room; I recognize that solving that tension by determining what the legal basis is for removing or keeping those messages is tenuous, likely to fall on either side based on who is making the interpretation.

But I also must stress that, as Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” laws or rules can be unjust, and thus, breaking the law or rule can often be the moral/ethical way to behave:

[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Regardless of what the teacher is required to do with the social justice messages in the classroom, we cannot pretend that having those messages visible is political but removing them is not political.

All teaching is political and that means our work as educators is moral and ethical work each time we chose to do or not do something in the context of rules, laws, and expectations.

Pandemic Pedagogy: The New Normal?

The evening before the first day of school for students, a high school teacher opened their district email to discover that the schedule for International Baccalaureate (IB) students had changed.

Again.

That new schedule is also layered onto the tentative district-wide pandemic schedule that has four color-coded waves of students, divided by last names, who attend one day a week Monday through Thursday with all students remote on Fridays.

This teacher was distraught. To tears and hopelessness.

This teacher has already expressed what I am hearing and reading across the U.S.: Teaching has become unmanageable, and the current teacher shortage is about to take an even greater hit with even more teachers leaving the profession.

To demonstrate that the last-minute changes and the complex system mixing face-to-face (F2F) with remote teaching are, in fact, nearly impossible, this teacher created a mind-numbingly elaborate chart and shared it with the principal.

This is the new normal for K-12 teachers in the U.S. An already nearly impossible profession has been made even more bureaucratic and dehumanizing by the sheer weight of managing all the moving parts.

As a college professor—a teaching profession dramatically less stressful and complex than K-12 teaching (which I did for 18 years)—I have also resorted to color-coding my rosters in an effort to manage that I now have first-year students and seniors on campus and in class (except for those choosing remote learning all semester) as well as sophomores and juniors who are remote until September 14.

On any day, also, students may be remote due to health concerns or quarantine.

My class sessions are a mix of F2F students (no more than 12) and students joining class remotely by zoom, their tiny images in blocks on the computer screen and projected on the drop-down screen at the front of the class.

I am trying to teach and make some sort of contact with both groups; the masked F2F students are disorienting, and the tiny images of students on the screen give a whole new meaning to “remote.”

After the first few days of class, I am also realizing that discussion-based and student-centered teaching are essentially impossible. Our masks make talking and hearing a struggle as we are remaining 6 feet apart, and in order to maintain the social distancing requirements, I cannot ask students to form small groups and interact.

Like many K-12 teachers as school resumes this fall, I must admit that for the first time in 37 years of teaching, I find my work as a teacher something I dread.

And I mean the actual classroom teaching, not just all the other aspects of being a teacher that have always, frankly, been mind-numbing (grading, standards and testing, meetings, etc.).

For K-12 and higher education teachers and professors, we must survive the current pandemic pedagogy (many of the conditions are the only options we have even as they are not good options for teaching and learning), but we must also begin to imagine what the new normal will be on the other side of all this.

When I moved to higher education 19 years ago, one of the first things I witnessed was my university debating a change to the academic calendar, the weekly course schedule, and the curriculum (the general education requirements). This university had a long history of a three-session academic year (students taking three 4-credit courses in fall and spring along with two 4-credit courses in the middle winter session), and students attended all classes five days a week (similar to high school).

This debate took months, but one of the most hotly contested issues was moving from five days a week to the traditional MWF and TTh scheduling found at most colleges.

Many faculty seemed very committed to seat time, acknowledging a belief that learning was essentially grounded in face-to-face instruction. I found that reasoning flawed then, and supported the change.

However, the debate did highlight that the structures we choose for schooling profoundly impacts how we teach and how (and if) students learn.

The pandemic, on the other hand, has foisted upon educators at all levels changes that have not been debated and are often unwanted.

I had to teach my graduate summer course online (with no input on the decision) and have been forced to put all my courses on the university’s course management program that I have always avoided for ideological and pedagogical reasons.

Most educators have essentially no choice except to participate in remote programs (such as zoom) that raise significant questions about personal data and instructional practices.

As I have discussed about moving to remote teaching last spring, there are elements of pandemic pedagogy that match well my practices in so-called normal circumstances, notably individualized instruction grounded in feedback on student artifacts of learning (such as essays).

Ending a well-established course with pandemic pedagogy is quite different than beginning one that way.

I cannot accept that the Covid-19 pandemic will be on balance a positive moment for education—or humanity. The pandemic’s cost to human life and health far outweigh the value of education.

But that ship has sailed; we cannot undo the shift that the pandemic has forced on teaching as a profession, on learning, and on being a human.

It seems certain that what comes next will not be a return to that former normal. It seems certain that we should not want to return to that normal.

However, we should begin the transition to the new normal, and we must do that intentionally.

To accomplish a bit of alchemy, then, we must embrace the pause the pandemic has afforded us in order to reimagine the following:

  • The role of F2F instruction (seat time) and whole-group class sessions.
  • The consequences of inequity grounded in race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc., for teaching and learning.
  • The roles of teacher and student in the teaching/learning dynamic.
  • The purposes and forms of assessment and grades.
  • The spaces (real and virtual) for teaching and learning.
  • The funding for and costs of schooling.
  • The professional autonomy of teachers and professors.
  • The academic calendar.
  • The value and problems associated with technology.
  • The significance of privacy and personal agency for teachers/professors and students.

With almost four decades of experience teaching and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, I must emphasize that these have always been the issues we should have been critically unpacking and reimagining.

The universe has given us a terrible pause in normal, but the pandemic has not taken away our possibilities to create a new normal that will be a better realization of the ideals we often express about the importance of education.

As I have often argued, education in the U.S. is not a failure; however, we have mostly failed the promise of education.

Ideally, I want to sit in the same room with my students and see their uncovered faces. I want to watch and listen as they construct their own meaning and knowledge for themselves.

I do very much miss some of the pre-pandemic world of teaching and learning that was only five or six months ago.

But I am also waiting on a sense of hope for what comes next, a new normal post-pandemic; as Maggie Smith imagines, “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

Critical Literacy, Not Nonsense Literacy

At 59 with almost 40 years experience as an educator (focusing on literacy) and writer, I remain someone who struggles with spelling.

And when I come across an unfamiliar word, I ask around until I find someone who can pronounce it aloud for me; I have never really tried to “sound it out”—even though I have intuited a huge amount of letter/sound patterns in the English language.

Also, as a Southerner, my common pronunciation of many words doesn’t quite align with the so-called “proper” pronunciation of many words; I can make one-syllable words two syllables, and choke two-syllable words into one.

“Hell” is one of my better versions of the former.

More like “hey-uhl.”

None the less, I am a highly literate person with a reading and writing background that outpaces most people in sheer volume significantly. I also love language and the history of the English language.

After fumbling my way earnestly through a decade or more of teaching high school English and honing my craft as a writer, I discovered critical pedagogy and critical literacy in my 30s during my doctoral program. That “discovery” was simply a recognition of an ideology and practice I had already been attempting to grasp daily as a teacher, but finding this philosophy already existed was deeply liberating—and crucial for my own practice as an educator of literacy.

I have a very firm appreciation for and understanding of the holistic nature of literacy, but I also am an ardent advocate for critical literacy as the ultimate goal of reading and writing instruction.

My commitments to holistic and critical literacy have resulted in a career-long battle with advocates of isolated and intensive grammar and phonics instruction (what I frame as grammar/phonics as the goal of instruction, not as authentic components of broader literacy goals such as critical literacy).

For a couple years now, I have been confronting the most recent Reading War, often labeled as the “science of reading,” which is another veneer for advocates of systematic intensive phonics for all students.

The general public, likely, isn’t aware that “phonics” isn’t a monolithic instructional practice or concept; within the field of phonics, there is debate (such as synthetic approach versus analytic phonics).

The systematic intensive phonics being advocated for all students by proponents of the “science of reading” includes a focus on teaching students to decode nonsense words (such as the assessment DIBELS).

The embracing of teaching and assessing nonsense words is a central concern for me as a holistic and critical literacy teacher.

Consider this from Nicola Yelland:

Advocates of the phonics screening tests claim that they are fun. In fact, for fluent readers, it can destroy their recognition as competent readers. In one school example, a boy who came to school reading, and who continued to flourish as a fluent reader, scored 2/40! Since the test includes nonsense words in the quest to focus on decoding (he read “elt” as “let,” “sarps” as “rasp,” and “chab” as “cab,” to foreground a few). What he seemed to be doing was re-arranging the letters or sounds and reconstructing them into recognizable words that he knew made sense. Meanwhile, another child whom the teacher regarded as not being a fluent reader was able to sound out the nonsense words as well as regular words and achieve a score of 16/40, all without knowing their meaning. Thus, the raw scores from the test of each child give us no information about them as readers and how they can make meaning from text; they simply show how they decode words out of context.

Adoniou (2018) has pointed out that while the phonics screening test scores are increasing in the United Kingdom where it was introduced in 2011, with children improving in their ability to read words like “kigh” and “queep,” reading comprehension scores have not improved. So, the claims of success of teaching with the phonics approach would seem to be premature. She also notes that the assertion that the test has given teachers more data with which to support children struggling with reading is false. There is no evidence that test results data was any better than the teachers’ professional judgements. Some of the synthetic phonics “kits” include 80 hours of lessons for 20 weeks in small groups of no more than four children. This requires high-level resourcing for systems, and while research revealed improved skills in phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge, as that is what the 80 hours was designed for, there were “no better outcomes on reading whole passages of text” (Quach et al., 2019, p. 8).

Here is the crux of the ultimate failure of the “science of reading” movement; it embraces nonsense literacy, claiming it is a necessary step on the journey toward comprehension for all students.

That is, at best, a tenuous claim, but it does expose the anaemic view of literacy and incomplete goals of the “science of reading” movement, which fails to reach for (or even acknowledge) critical literacy for all students and seeks to justify spending precious time on nonsense with children—time that could and should be better spent in rich and authentic literacy experiences.

As Yelland’s example above shows, nonsense is a distraction from sense-making in reading; however, nonsense makes for very manageable (and profitable) “phonics instruction.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated, but let me be clear, for children learning to read, we must choose critical literacy over nonsense literacy.

GUEST POST: We Must Maintain a Suitable System of Free Public Schools, Chris Goering

NOTE: This open letter confronts the opening of public schools in Arkansas, but this message can and should resonate throughout the U.S. All public schools in Arkansas are being forced to open physically on August 24th by the governor, despite some of the worst infection rates in the country thus far. — PLT

We Must Maintain a Suitable System of Free Public Schools

Dear Governor Hutchinson,

I have enjoyed hearing you speak about how your teachers impacted your choice to take leadership in our state and how your own education has been an important emphasis in your governorship. I would like to ask that you revisit memories of teachers who impacted you. Think of the attributes of amazing teachers you’ve known. Are they selfless, encouraging, motivational, tough? Now, remember the very best teacher you ever had and think of the qualities that made them stand out. Imagine that very teacher called you, like Martha Sandven called me on Wednesday, bawling, angry, frustrated, and scared, and told you, ashamedly, that she was leaving the classroom. You see, I prepare teachers in Arkansas, and Martha is one of the best anywhere.

If your ideal teacher called you to say she was leaving the students she loved, the toughest kids, the neediest kids—the ones who desperately need her undying passion for their learning—she was walking away from a department leadership position and her colleagues who thrive under her mentorship, and turning in the keys to her legendary classroom because of something her Governor said about required face-to-face instruction beginning August 24th, what would you do? Ms. Martha actually apologized as she told me she could not mentor a pre-service teacher or teach junior high or lead her Governor’s Arts Award-winning after school program this year because her mother and niece, who both rely heavily on her, are high risk. If she teaches in person, she couldn’t help them. She was crying. I was crying. Here I am. Here we are.

What the Ms. Marthas of Arkansas need from you right now is the true grit of leadership in trying times. The Ms. Marthas need you to follow the science and keep schools closed on Monday. Ms. Martha and her students should not be subjected to an experiment where we group people together in the middle of a pandemic by opening our schools face-to-face. Look at Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas to see how reopening is going, and note the rising cases forcing quarantines and closures. Teachers, staff, students, and the people at home who love them are going to get sick and die; it’s unfortunately that simple. What is most unforgivable is that the way the pandemic impacts certain communities–including those here in Arkansas–translates to an increased death toll among teachers, staff, and students from minority populations. Please sir, this cannot be allowed to happen on your watch. Given your directives that school must be open five days/week, I wonder who will bear the brunt of the responsibility for those deaths this move most certainly will cause?

Let’s also look to the time beyond where we are; we’ll celebrate when we can return safely to school in person by working to get infection rates in the state below 5%, ensuring each school has adequate PPE, providing equitable, rapid testing, and streamlining effective contact tracing capabilities. That is the real work we must do. We need to focus every conversation we have on equity and allocating large swaths of the education budget on the most vulnerable students in our state who will endure the most suffering at the hands of this pandemic, economically, physically, educationally, and emotionally. We need to imagine smaller class sizes for all students and increase the number of counselors and paraprofessionals available in our public schools. We will have to free our teachers and schools from the constraints and loss of instructional times caused by standardized testing and re-allocate the millions spent on those tests to making schools safer and more responsive. We must give the teachers the authority and support to do what is best for each individual child. This is what school needs to look like, and we have a chance right now to reinvent it. Redesigned schools will require an investment that is truly focused on equity and how to create the best public education system in the country. Arkansans have it within us to do exactly that, especially when we listen to educators.

It’s my honor to get to work with another outstanding class of future teachers this summer and fall. This year’s group is exceptional, investing their funds, minds, and hearts in the teaching profession despite the uncertainty in what the immediate future holds. I’ve challenged this group to be the future Ms. Marthas of the world. We will need the best teachers this state has seen because our students and our communities will look to our educators as we reinvent how to best prepare children for a successful future while we fight and claw our way back from COVID.

Part of what makes our state great is Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution: “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

If we send our children, staff, or teachers off to die in the schools this fall, I don’t believe anyone could make the argument that what we’ve done meets the definition of “suitable.” If the best teachers leave the classrooms or state in droves or caskets, suitable will become impossible. There are no easy answers and no answers where people won’t be hurt by your decisions. While I appreciate that, I as a public school parent, advocate for teachers, and lifelong educator urge you to act on behalf of the safety of our state in these unprecedented times. Please, before needless deaths and long term illnesses, move the state’s school to start fully online.

Chris Goering

Fayetteville, AR

The Problems with “Show Me the Research” in Teaching Reading

I was born in 1961 and entered first grade in 1967, already able to read independently and play sophisticated card and board games.

My mother had taped index cards with words identifying objects all around our house. She had attended one year of junior college, but had no training in how to teach.

None the less, from the first day of school, I excelled in literacy, scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests. My learning to read has two important elements; I was of the generation taught by the Dick and Jane basal readers (whole-word focus over discrete phonics), and my learning to read overlapped with one of the most aggressive reading crisis moments in the U.S., spurred by Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, first published in 1955.

To whom and what should we attribute my high-achieving literacy skills? How could research tease out any causal inferences about my reading achievement? I was certainly not a Johnny who couldn’t read even as I had almost no direct phonics instruction, and I am sure the basal readers and my teachers’ instructional methods had only minimal impact on my literacy development (other than that I loved Ms. Landford, my first grade teacher, and wanted desperately to please her).

Many years later, I was a high school English teacher in the rural high school I had attended. One year, a wonderful student whose mother was also an English teacher in the school scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SAT.

People throughout the school and town often congratulated me and praised my role in her perfect score. For many, that student’s success was proof I was an outstanding teacher of English.

Frankly, I had almost nothing to do with that score; but her excellent literacy development—like my own—had hundreds if not thousands of causal elements leading to her scoring that 800.

Both of these examples, I think, help highlight the problem of proximity and time in making causal claims about who and what contribute to student learning and growth.

Real world teaching and learning are incredibly messy and always cumulative; any student’s measurable achievement has a mind-numbingly complex history behind that achievement that is not fairly attributed to any singular cause.

Now let me offer another complication.

Many years ago, I began confronting the poverty workbook and claims of Ruby Payne. When scholars on poverty and race began to challenge Payne (much of that in Teachers College Record), those challenges often exposed that Payne’s claims about poverty were almost entirely stereotypes and not supported by the research base on social class and race.

In other words, scholars were essentially saying that Payne needed to “show the research.” So she did—and exposed her own misunderstanding about that request.

Payne’s workshops and program became popular when No Child Left Behind injected federal money into schools in order to close the achievement gap. Payne, then, was being hired not necessarily to provide schools with credible expertise on social class and race (which Payne lacks in her training), but to raise test scores.

Payne’s rebuttal to the criticism was providing data suggesting that her workshops did raise test scores for the vulnerable populations associated with the achievement gap (although I am not suggesting that the data she provided did prove such).

This wrinkle to “show me the research” is incredibly important since it draws attention to exactly what we are looking for in that research; Payne’s critics were raising one issue about evidence, and Payne countered with evidence of a completely different kind.

More than six decades after the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis (which is indistinguishable from the reading crisis in the 1940s before and the whole language “plummet” in the 1990s after), the U.S. is mired in another round of the Reading War, driven by advocacy for the “science of reading.”

The “science of reading” movement rehashes the stale Flesch argument that student reading is in crisis because of a failure to teach systematic intensive phonics to all students.

This round, however, emphasizes “science” and has embraced both a simple view of reading and a narrow view of “science” (evidence).

Advocates for the “science of reading” beat the “science” drum and often demand that anyone challenging their advocacy “show me the research”—while disregarding the problems I have detailed above.

“Show me the research” in this case is limited to the so-called gold standard of research, quantitative empirical research with controls and findings that are generalizable.

In virtually all fields, especially medicine, that gold standard is sacred for good reason.

However, this view of “science” and research is deeply flawed in education, for the problems I outline above.

Direct phonics instruction is easy to isolate and research in order to fulfill the mandate that only some research counts in reading research; this is also the way the National Reading Panel greatly skewed the work of the panel, excluding decades of research that did not meet the threshold of “gold standard.”

“Show me the research” seems on the surface to be a reasonable and even essential starting point when debating how to teach students to read. Yet, it isn’t.

First, demanding research on whole language or balanced literacy effectiveness misunderstands what these two terms represent. Whole language (WL) and balanced literacy (BL) are philosophies of literacy; they are not programs or even instructional practices.

To suggest we can separate in some blunt and clear way phonics from WL or BL is as misguided as Payne’s response to her critics. WL and BL as guides for instructional practices would include a wide variety of phonics instruction (including direct phonics instruction).

When researchers do try to make that distinction, we find that there is often little or no differences in outcomes (see Bowers, 2020), or as with Payne, the “better” approach isn’t proving what we really are seeking or any difference dissipates over time (See Krashen, 2006; Krashen, 2004).

Ultimately, the “show me the research” demand about the teaching of reading is a problem because the “science of reading” movement has embraced not just simple views of reading and research, but simplistic views.

Reading comprehension and critical literacy are not a simple formula, and learning to read is a complex and even haphazard process that occurs over many years (if not our entire lives) and depends on a wide assortment of interworking elements such as decoding, content and life knowledge, comprehension, and critical awareness.

While gold standard research seeks to isolate instructional methods, that sort of data has limited use in the real-world, where students are not static beings (and may be outliers) and are not able to control for poverty, racism, and sexism in their lives (all factors that likely have far more influence on their achievement than reading instruction, reading programs, or reading philosophies).

The work of Lou LaBrant reveals that we have had for a century a wealth of research and evidence on what can work to teach students to read.

The problem with “show me the research” about teaching reading is not a lack of research, but a fundamental failure to understand human behavior, especially how one comes to be an eager and independent reader.

Reading is not simple; just because you can reduce it to an algebra equation doesn’t mean you should.

The balanced literacy movement sought to give some philosophical structure to the recognition that learning to read is complex and haphazard. Additionally, balanced literacy was an effort to forefront the professional autonomy of the teacher.

To be blunt, balance literacy (like whole language) has never been implemented with those goals intact. The accountability movement has dominated the teaching of reading with a formula that is somehow absent in the current debate: standards + high-stakes testing = reading programs – teacher autonomy.

To be blunt again, more teachers are being compelled to teach reading in ways that seek to raise test scores (recall the Payne problem from above) and not to foster eager and independent critical readers.

The “science of reading” movement is making and perpetuating the Payne mistake in education.

“Show me the research” in this case is a misdirection and further evidence that many people are not willing to acknowledge the complexity of reading, the complexity of human behavior, or the professional autonomy of teachers.

I became a highly literate person with no direct phonics instruction. That’s a neat little story about my life, but it doesn’t prove a damn thing about anyone else.

This round of the Reading War is weaponizing the term “science” in ways that are guaranteed to distract us yet again from the complicated and politically unpopular work of addressing inequity in the lives and schooling of children.

That evidence is clear and disappointing.


Recommended

Phoney Phonics: How Decoding Came to Rule and Reading Lost Meaning

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Download a PDF here

Thomas, P.L. (2020). How to end the Reading War and serve the literacy needs of all students: A primer for parents, policy makers, and people who careCharlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Recent Research Refuting “Science of Reading” Claims

Dyslexia

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107–128. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

Science

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119– S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

Balanced Literacy and Whole Language

Semingson, P., & Kerns, W. (2021). Where is the evidence? Looking back to Jeanne Chall and enduring debates about the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S157– S169. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.405

 “Simple” View of Reading

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25– S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

State-Level Reading Policy

Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policymakers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

Intensive Systematic Phonics

Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10, e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

At War with Myself

There is a refrain I say to myself, something I likely have never admitted to anyone: “I hate my body.”

I say this to myself quite often and without the gravity the word “hate” should imply because this simply is a fact of my existence.

A good friend texted recently, sharing very dark morning thoughts and ending with #upliftingthoughts. I wasn’t being flippant but empathetic when I replied: “Well … uh … yep … done that, do that … it is called existentialism.”

Discovering and working through existential philosophy and literature throughout my undergraduate years and into the first decade or so of my career as a teacher was incredibly important for me.

Liberating.

As I followed up with my friend, I explained that existentialism, in my opinion, gets a bad rap as a negative philosophy—confused with nihilism (in the same way “communism” is conflated with “totalitarianism” in the U.S.). My reading of existentialism, I explained, was that humans had to acknowledge that our passions are our sufferings in order to move past that fact of human existence so that we were free to live, even enjoy the fatalism of human existence (we live, we die, and everything else continues—or as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes”).

Human pain and suffering, and nearly daily angst experienced by being human (aware), are not things to be dreaded or to be overcome, avoided; those are fruitless folly.

I was drawn, in fact, to Albert Camus’s existentialism (mostly the literary strand). Not to be too simplistic, but Camus suggested humans must contemplate their ability to take their own lives, suicide, in order to reject that power, and live.

Camus also matter-of-factly said that Sisyphus’s rock was his Thing and we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy - Illustration - Albert Camus Quote Framed Art Print

I must confess that my daily refrain of “I hate my body” is grounded in a very simple fact: I cannot recall a single day of my life absent some sort of physical pain and discomfort.

In brief moments of painlessness, in fact, maybe brought on by medication for example, I am nearly unable to recognize painlessness as anything other than the absence of pain (the norm) and then am gripped by the realization that the pain will return—almost to the point of my feeling relief when the pain does return.

In my high school soccer-coach days, I had a ninth grader sit out of practice because he was in pain from practice “starting back all of a sudden” (he seemed to have no concept of off-season training); his older brother turned to him and said, “If I didn’t practice or play when I was in pain, I would never practice or play.”

I didn’t have to say anything, but nodded at the older brother.

It is no accident or surprise that I adopted as my lifelong athletic hobby recreational and competitive cycling, a sport that is grounded in pain and suffering.

To be a cyclist is to hurt; to be an elite cyclist is to hurt more than other cyclists.

I have more than once noted that a very hard cycling event was just pain.

And that is part of what my refrain to myself is all about; “I hate my body” is no complaint to myself or the Universe, but a statement of fact like “It’s just pain.”

I do imagine there are people without chronic pain, people who enjoy their physical selves, basking in pleasure as the default experience with their corporeal manifestation.

How I envy those people, maybe even loathe them.

I was quite old, nearly forty, before I discovered that I am a clinically anxious person, probably also on the autism spectrum; regardless, I am hyperaware of everything.

Every. Thing.

My senses are on high alert 24 hours a days, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

I may have normal experiences with pain (I doubt that) but I certainly am deeply and continually aware of those aches. Anxiety and pain are also symbiotic; regardless of which came first, they are cyclic and perpetuate each other relentlessly.

While some people dream of becoming wealthy or famous, I fantasize about relaxing and being painless in a way that doesn’t include anticipating the return of pain.

Pleasure as a default instead of the occasional “absence of pain.”

At 59, I am in a real dilemma because growing older is somewhat naturally a descent into chronic pain. Ironically, my cycling avocation has guaranteed as much since I spent many years cycling 8,000-10,000 miles a year, many of those miles exceeding efforts that I should not have been forcing my (hated) body to accomplish.

That is my war with myself. My body’s chronic pain in combat with my brain that will not pause, that wallows in endless “what if” thinking (resulting in my lifelong hypochondria as well).

When my friend and I were commiserating about dark thoughts, and I was being too academic and explaining existentialism, I also noted that existentialism allowed me to recognize that I am not drawn to some promise of a peaceful afterlife (the carrot of most organized religions) that can come if I deny the flesh during the one life before me.

Pain is exhausting and demoralizing, but it is the only thing I really know.

When I am prompted to say to myself “I hate my body,” I actually smile a little to myself, take a deep breath, do the best with whatever is before me, and just carry on.

It is my Thing, you must imagine me happy.

Why Dorothy Counts?

“I must admit this is a strange book,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr. explains in the “Introduction” to Begin Again, explaining:

It isn’t biography, although there are moments when it feels biographical; it is not literary criticism, although I read Baldwin’s nonfiction writings closely; and it is not straightforward history, even though the book, like Baldwin, is obsessed with history. Instead, Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times. (p. xviii)

One such “something meaningful” is quite large: “A moral reckoning is upon us, and we have to decide, once and for all, whether or not we will truly be a multiracial democracy” (p. xix).

Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Begin Again, Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Addressing that large scope for the book, Glaude navigates James Baldwin witnessing and confronting “the lie“:

The lie is more properly several sets of lies with a single purpose. If what I have called the “value gap” is the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, then the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained. These are the narrative assumptions that support the everyday order of American life, which means we breathe them like air. We count them as truths. We absorb them into our character. (p. 7; see Chapter One excerpt for a full explication of “the lie”)

But as Glaude notes about his own transition form Ralph Ellison to Baldwin—”Baldwin was too personal. In contrast, Ellison remained hidden behind his elegant words and powerful insight” (p. xxiv)—another “something meaningful” is as small as an individual person, a jumbled intersection with Baldwin, Dorothy Counts:

This picture signaled an end to segregation. Why has so little ...
Photograph: Douglas Martin/AP

Chapter Two, “Witness,” opens with the harrowing story or Dorothy “Dot” Counts, a Black teenager carrying the weight of integrating Harding High School in Charlotte, NC, in 1957.

“Dot walked a racist gauntlet to enter Harding High School,” Glaude details. “She made the walk for just three more days before deciding never to return” (p. 30).

The racist anger launched repeatedly at a fifteen-year-old young woman personifies the lie, but that indelible image of Dot Counts became a twisted mythology for Baldwin (even as he fumbled details and the facts of history):

[I]n No Name in the Street, [Baldwin] would start at the beginning, with the image of her amid the hatred on her first day, and use the famous photo [above] of Dorothy to justify his own decision to join the fray….

Looking back, after the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the photo with all of its pathos, anguish, and pride represented for Baldwin in 1972 the demand to bear witness to what was happening in 1957 and to what had transpired since, which led to his [mistaken] recollection of it in No Name in the Street. Dot’s eyes captured the trauma of that journey. Baldwin sought to narrate what happened on the eve of a social movement that would attempt to transform the country, and to testify to that odd combination of trauma and grit, which he now knew so well, seen in a fifteen-year-old black girl’s courage that spurred him, so he believed, to leap into the fire. (p. 43)

So, why Dorothy Counts?

Glaude weaves a motif of trauma through this work, and certainly there is trauma linking Baldwin and Counts, the latter more often than not ignored by white America: “It has never been America’s way to confront the trauma directly, largely because the lie does not allow for it” (p. 46). The result, Glaude notes, is “historical gaslighting.”

That did not happen, or That did not happen that way, or That is only the past, not who we [Americans] are today—so it goes.

While Baldwin’s mythology of Counts and his charge to bear witness are a narrative of the South, it certainly has become a prescient story about all of America, especially those supporting Trump:

The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world. Lie that the black people around hum were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was Christian. For Baldwin, the accumulation of lies suffocated the white southerner. (p. 49)

That was then; this is now:

We are told every day not to believe what we see happening all around us or what we feel in the marrow of our bones. We are told, for example, that Trumpism is exceptional, a unique threat to our democracy. thus view that Trump, and Trump alone, stresses the fabric of the country lets us off the hook. It feeds into the lie that Baldwin spent the majority of his life trying to convince us to confront. It attempts to explain away as isolated events what today’s cellphone footage exposes as part of our everyday experience. Exceptionalizing Trump deforms our attention…. Trump represents a reassertion of the belief that America is, and always will be, a white nation. (p. 54)

Read Glaude’s exceptional work grounded in Baldwin and you will soon learn that there is no question why Dorothy Counts.


Dorothy Counts-Scoggins Still Fighting

This picture signaled an end to segregation. Why has so little changed?

From Observer archives (2007): Dorothy Counts at Harding High, a story of pride, prejudice

Where Are They Now?: Dorothy Counts