Unlearning to Write

In my foundations of education course, we discussed the role of evidence and research in education, highlighting the problem with experimental/quasi-experimental research and its use in the so-called real world of day-to-day teaching. I always use medicine as an analogy—such as the recently development of the Covid-19 vaccine.

What I hope to accomplish is to offer students a more nuanced understanding of evidence and research. I stress that based on my nearly 40 years of teaching, gold-standard research matters, but it rarely matters in teaching (versus medicine) the way that many people think.

Teaching and learning, I explain, are extremely complicated.

In the article we examined, Seven ‘great’ teaching methods not backed up by evidence, one of the “popular” teaching practices Higgins and Coe claim there is “no evidence for” is discovery learning.

As someone who has spent four decades grounded in discovery learning and using workshop structures when teaching literacy, specifically writing, I find such claims to be condescending and off-base because they are overly simplistic.

In the listing of educational practices there is “no evidence for,” I ask students to consider how research in education often defines “works” or “doesn’t work” (test scores, for example), and I also invite them to consider the limitations of isolating any teaching or learning practice in order to examine causality (common in quantitative experiments).

Higgins and Coe make one fatal mistake in their claim about discovery learning by setting up a false dichotomy between discovery learning and direct instruction (a mistake made by many progressive educators who discount direct instruction).

Instead, I offered to my students, of arguing whether or not direct instruction or discovery learning work alone, I have found that the two do work in conjunction if paired effectively. Over my first five or so years of teaching, I discovered that a great deal of direct instruction was often wasted when students were tasked with authentic performances of learning (such as writing essays).

Placed in difficult and/or new tasks, students often revert to their known (see more on this below) regardless of the teacher’s direct instruction and, more importantly, regardless of that known being relevant or not to the task assigned.

I adjusted my teaching, then, by offering less up-front and shifting my direct instruction after students had produced an artifact of learning (again, such as an essay) that gave them context for that instruction.

This new process (for me) fit perfectly into my workshop approach to teaching writing since it gave even more significance to requiring and allowing students to revise their essays after I provided feedback (both in the form of comments on their individual essays and mini-lessons/direct instruction to the entire class).

Along with my foundations class this spring, I am teaching first-year writing and upper-level writing/research. These two writing-intensive courses have different goals (first-year writing is broader and more transitional and introductory while the upper-level course is specifically focused on disciplinary/academic writing in the social sciences [education]), but offer the sort of teaching/learning problem noted above; in other words, for students to write well in college, they must unlearn to write first (cast off that comforting known).

The Known/Misconception: The Research Paper

In the upper-level writing/research course, I have students read two main texts, one on navigating educational research and the other addressing rethinking how to write as a scholar. The three main writing assignments are scaffolded so that they build and inform each other, moving from annotated bibliographies to a cited scholarly essay and then to a public commentary.

I want to focus on the problems students and I face with the cited essay; here is the assignment and the support material I provide:


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

Checklist for Creating Bibliographies and References List Using APA

Sample APA Bibliographies

References Sample

Sample APA 7e with comments

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

What happens fits exactly into the dynamic I discovered in those early and challenging years of teaching; students faced with a new and difficult task revert to their known and mostly ignore my instruction and even the assignment.

The essay students are tasked with writing is an analysis of media coverage of an educational topic. In order to analyze the quality and accuracy of that media coverage, students do very short literature reviews (the first main section of the essay) of their chosen topic.

While I focus my first-year writing essays on giving students a great deal of choice, in the upper-level course, we confront that writing in academia is often highly structured, a bit more “artificial” and scripted than so-called real-world writing of essays. I, therefore, offer (see above) some guidelines for subheads and sections. I also emphasize that the essay is primarily about building to an analysis of media coverage and identifying the relationship between the media claims and what research shows on the topic (in other words, I stress that the essay is 2/3 about the media).

After doing their library research and submitting their annotated bibliographies (on 8-10 peer-reviewed articles) as well as submitting their working references lists for the cited essay, guess what these students turn in for their cited essay (despite the assignment and detailed support material I provide)?

A high school research paper on their educational topic—which I specifically and repeatedly tell them not to do—and not an analysis of media coverage of that topic.

But that is their known.

Researcher Howard Gardner, often associated with multiple intelligences (another popular idea in education that researchers enjoying saying there is “no evidence for”) made a huge impact on my teaching when I read about the need to consider three aspects of students when teaching: their known, unknown, and misconceptions.

Teaching should build on the known, provide the unknown (direct instruction), and confront the misconceptions. As Gardner notes, misconceptions are incredibly robust, and as I have discovered, misconceptions sit inside the known for students who have no context for distinguishing between the two.

What’s wrong with the high school research paper? It creates for students a number of bad habits that they must unlearn in order to write well and credibly in college. Here are some of those bad habits to unlearn:

  • Known/misconception: Students understand the “research paper” to be a distinct (and special) kind of essay. Instead, they need to recognize that doing scholarly research and using citation are common expectations for almost all different types of disciplinary writing (essay conventions that vary widely among different fields).
  • Known/misconception: Students understand MLA style formatting to be universal, and not disciplinary based. Instead, as above, students need to apply the style and format appropriate to the discipline; for example, we write differently and cite differently in education as a social science than scholars who use MLA in literary analysis.
  • Known/misconception: Students understand their “job” as a student is to write about research in ways that prove they did research. As a result, students writing research papers (inauthentic forms) dutifully cover one source at a time until they have worked through their sources; this is writing about your sources, and not your topic. Instead, as I implore my students often, students need to use their research and sources to support their own original discussion by writing about their topic and not their research (see more about this here).
  • Known/misconception: Students understand a script/template for the “essay” and write clunky introductions and conclusions while struggling to develop beyond three body paragraphs. Instead, students need a much more organic and authentic perception of the essay form, again in the context of disciplinary conventions. Despite this course using a main text encouraging students to incorporate scholarly personal narrative (recommended as their opening), many students wrote their known, the clunky introduction with empty overstatements.

After responding to the essays, I returned to the essay prompt and the support materials I provided. I walked through the direct instruction addressing much of the above while asking students to look at their essays and my feedback as I taught. Students then began in class revising.

Student after student asked sincere questions that highlighted the difficulty they faced trying to move beyond the known/misconception (unlearning) in order to write the essay assigned.

Synthesizing research (instead of quoting or paraphrasing one source at a time; see here) continues to overwhelm them since they want to write about their sources, for example:

According to The Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, anything more than twenty work hours a week can result in problematic grades or psychological well-being (Fuller, Lawrence, Harrison, Eyanson, & Griffin, 2019). 

Most of the sources used tended to use the definition of disparity provided by the institute of medicine (Cook, et al.,2012; Williams & Wyatt, 2015; Wang, et al., 2013).

Many articles and papers done on these topics jointly don’t go far enough when splitting up classes to paint an accurate picture of disparities faced by different persons at various levels of class with varying races (Braveman, et al. 2010).

If we think carefully about this known, we can see that students are avoiding themselves and being specific (writing out of fear of mistakes rather than producing their own claims and original writing). This type of writing is performing as a student, not writing as a scholar or academic.

Learning to write, then, is in part unlearning to write.

Developing and growing as a writer is a daunting task, and it also exposes the problem with oversimplifying complex tasks for students (the five-paragraph essay and research paper do not serve students well).

Students as writers and scholars have much yet to discover; they will have much better success if teachers are there to offer direct and expert instruction as they become bogged down in the known that are in fact misconceptions.

Citation and Credibility: Three Lessons

In my three courses this fall, students are now all working on scholarly essays that incorporate high-quality sources (focusing on peer-reviewed journal articles). Since the work lies primarily in the field of education, students are using APA style guides.

Often when teaching students citation, we focus our lessons on (the drudgery of) formatting and idiosyncratic citation structures (APA’s annoying lowercase/upper case peculiarities, for example, in bibliographies) as well as the challenges of finding and evaluating a reasonable amount of valid sources to support the claims of the essay.

Students often struggle with evaluating sources for bias, and honestly, they are not well equipped to recognize flawed or ideologically skewed reports that appear to be in credible journals and are themselves well cited.

Part of the problem has been well documented by Gerald Bracey; citing Paul Krugman, Bracey confronts the rise of think tanks that promote their agendas through the veneer of scholars and scholarly reports. Then, Bracey notes, “[t]he media don’t help much. By convention, they present, at best, ‘balanced’ articles, not critical investigative pieces” (p. xvi). This is what I have labeled “both sides” journalism.

While scholarly writing and citation can often slip into a circus of minutia, one lesson needing greater care is helping students (and anyone making a research-based claim) recognize that their credibility and authority is built on the validity and quality of the sources they incorporate.

Here, I want to present three lessons illuminating that dynamic—all pulled from current issues.

Lesson One: The “Science of Reading”

One of the best examples of the problems with ideological think tank reports and media coverage occurred (again) at Education Week, a major publication covering education that has abandoned “critical investigative pieces” for simply reporting (crossing the Big Foot line) and “‘balanced’ articles.”

Ideological think tanks, as Bracey warned, are well organized and very aggressive, systematically alerting media and providing press releases so detailed that journalists have to do little work (except, of course, evaluating the credibility of the report to begin with).

Media routinely cover that think tanks release reports, and journalists have argued it isn’t their job to determine if those reports are valid or not.

For example, Education Week is so invested in the “science of reading” narrative and movement, that they eagerly present reports from NCTQ because their reports reinforce that narrative—even though, NCTQ itself has been repeatedly criticized for not meeting even the basic guidelines for scientific research.

Sarah Schwartz ignores that NCTQ is not a credible source for making claims about teacher training in reading. But with just a brief Google search, anyone can find that NCTQ has had numerous reports reviewed, finding a disturbing patterns: “Although NCTQ reports have been critiqued for their limited use of research and highly questionable research methodology, this report employs the same approaches as earlier NCTQ reports,” explain Stillman and Schultz in one of the most recent reviews (also concurrent to the report cited in EdWeek).

Students, like journalists, are often not expert in the topics they are addressing, and well-formatted reports can seem credible, but often fail the basic expectations of peer-review (NCTQ releases their reports without peer review and receive media coverage while the discrediting reviews tend to receive no media coverage).

The lesson here for students (and journalists) is that any claim is only as good as the sources used to support that claim.

If the “science of reading” is a valid narrative (and, in fact, it isn’t), citing sources that fail the basic test of being scientific certainly erodes if not discredits the initial claim.

Lesson Two: Gun Violence/Control

Since school shootings are a subset of the larger pattern of mass shootings unique to the U.S., I have been researching gun violence and school safety for many years. These topics have robust research bases that tend to contradict public and media assumptions about both.

I had just recently covered school shootings and safety with my educational foundations course when the highly publicized mass shootings near Atlanta, GA and in Boulder, CO erupted. So I returned to research on gun violence in two classes, having some students challenge what I was sharing. Those comments tend to echo typical pro-gun talking points and the common, but weak, arguments supporting gun ownership found in mainstream media.

Here’s the essential problem with research on school safety and gun violence/control: Gun advocates are ideologically driven and use compelling but false arguments to promote their gun agenda.

In other words, standard arguments for school safety (armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, active shooter drills, etc.) and access to and ownership of guns (Second Amendment) are dramatically different than findings in existing research. Making this dynamic worse is that gun advocates have powerful organizations such as the NRA and even high-profile scholars offering discredited but popular arguments and research.

For example, John Lott is an economist and author of a high-profile pro-gun book; he also publishes research on gun violence that in many ways looks to students, the public, and the media like high-quality research.

Again, simply reporting on Lott’s research or citing that research in academic writing proves to be misguided since his work has been widely discredited once reviewed (see above).

The lesson here for students is that not all published scholarship is credible, and, possibly even more importantly, students need to seek out a body of research, never relying on only one study or the work of one scholar.

Lott is discredited but his work is also a distinct outlier; academic and scholarly writing loses credibility when relying on cherry picking (outlier research) in order to support a claim.

Lesson Three: Identity Politics

Another aspect of academic and scholarly writing grounded in sources is the importance of terminology—using disciplinary or technical terms in valid and accurate ways.

Recently, Barbara Smith took Megan McCain to task for McCain’s misuse of “identity politics”:

As one of three Black women who coined “identity politics,” Smith offers an incredibly important lesson for students because her Twitter thread offers credible sources for her claim, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective and What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics, the latter of which leads us to the seminal text itself, Combahee River Collective Statement.

The lesson for students here is the need to clarify terms in valid ways, including finding the primary source for scholarly language.

In some frustrating ways, citation formats and structures are both tedious and powerful aspects of building a student’s or scholar’s credibility. But a far more important task for students in terms of establishing their credibility is finding bodies of evidence that are verified by the field itself, most often peer reviewed and sitting within the bounds of many similar studies.

Since the space for scholarship and evidence continues to expand, students need to be better equipped for the difficult task of determining when sources are valid and when they are mere ideological distraction.

Unfortunately, as I show above, we have ample evidence around us daily of the great divide among research, the media, and the public—a divide often manipulated by powerful organizations with ideological agendas.

Being an American, Christian, or Both: A Fundamental Problem of “Can” v. “Should”

March is a harbinger of spring.

March 2021 has also been an harbinger for some sort of return to normal after a year of living through a pandemic in the U.S. and across the world.

Mid-March now may force us to reconsider what we have wished for since the return to normal in U.S. includes two mass shootings in a week—8 murdered around Atlanta, GA followed by a mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, CO leaving 10 dead.

Mass shootings are so normal in the U.S. that they very much define what it means to be “American,” what it means to be a “Christian Nation,” routinely and darkly emphasized after every bloody event: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

After the Atlanta shooting and the predictable debates about racism, hate crimes, and gun control, one meme proclaimed “You can’t be a Christian if” by detailing the contradictions between racism and Christian values.

The problem with this claim is that many people in the U.S. do in fact identify as Christian while also actively expressing racism or passively ignoring and allowing racism (see the history of the KKK and Southern Baptists).

The Boulder shooting prompted a similar refrain; “You can’t be pro life and be pro gun,” some posted.

Again, of course you can since the people who identify as “pro life” (a stance that is actually anti-abortion and pro forced birth) are often the exact same people who are pro gun rights.

And here is a fundamental problem in the U.S. that is often lost behind the partisan and angry debates over guns as well as reproductive rights.

Anti-abortion and pro-gun advocates are typically joined, not by ethics or logic, but by fundamentalism—a simplistic and black-and-white approach to issues grounded in authoritarianism.

Trying to unpack or refute this ideological marriage through logic, then, is doomed to failure.

Fundamentalism demands that beliefs remain simple: All life matters, and gun ownership is essential for individual freedom.

That simplicity need not be internally consistent or even consistent from issue to issue. Pro-life advocates do not extend that slogan to plants or animals, and often support the death penalty; thus, their embracing guns as fundamental to individual freedom is not illogical within their fundamentalism.

“All life” and “all guns” are fundamentalism at its core—both in the lack of logic and lack of ethical consistency between the two.

Anti-abortion advocates and pro-gun defenders fetishize the fetus and guns; it then is the fundamentalism that becomes the problem since it necessarily lifts the fundamental truths above everything or anything else.

As fundamentalists, anti-abortion and pro-gun advocates are not motivated at all, ironically, by policies and practices that would actually protect life or improve living. All that matters are the black-and-white causes that have become ends unto themselves.

Banning abortion, for example, doesn’t decrease abortions or unwanted pregnancies; but that ban does erode women’s health and even the lives and living of unborn fetuses.

Those facts are far too complex for fundamentalists, and thus, this never serves as a compelling argument to change their minds. No legal abortions becomes the singular goal regardless of the impact of that law on lives or living.

The same holds for gun regulation. Logic fails against the singular belief that gun ownership of any or all guns is essential for individual freedom.

Guns do not serve as protection (home invasions are incredibly rare, and people are quite bad at using guns, even trained police officers); good guys with guns rarely save the day (a policeman, good guy with a gun, died in the Boulder shooting); and the U.S. is unique in the world for mass shootings although all countries have citizens with mental illness, have access to violent pop culture, and have all types of racism, homophobia, and sexism present in the U.S.

Mass shootings in the U.S. are very clearly most strongly connected to the amount and types of guns available and the ease of access to those guns, especially in terms of the types of guns available (such as the AR-15). Countries that have addressed these situations with policies have greatly reduced and eradicated mass shootings.

But in the U.S., gun fundamentalism prevents a reasonable discussion of gun control.

Like the too often reposted The Onion articles on mass shootings, the ugly truth is that you can be an American, a Christian, or both and act in ways that completely contradict the ideal of either.

We are left with the often fruitless task of arguing that people shouldn’t live contradictions to aspirational ideals (the American Dream, Christian love).

Fundamentalism corrupts entirely everything it touches because fundamentalism becomes its own purpose, self-righteous blinders that shield too many in the U.S. from the bodies piling up around them.

The Woody Allen Problem Is Our Problem

I should have never read E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, but I did.

My doctoral dissertation was a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant so much of my scholarly work while in that program was focused on biography, specifically guided by feminism as a lens because I was a man writing a woman’s life.

During the mid-1990s, I read dozens of biographies, often on writers I loved. One notable reading was Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings by Richard Kennedy (who had edited one of my favorite collections of poems by cummings).

My doctoral program was a relatively late-in-life awakening for me, intellectually and personally, so this biography was one of my first experiences with coming to grips with trying to separate the artist from their art.

The more I found out about cummings, the less I felt compelled to cling to his poetry; in many ways, the person he was contrasted too significantly from the ideologies his poetry seemed to represent.

Biographies of Kurt Vonnegut, however, while exposing the many warts and flaws in Vonnegut, have never presented such a vast contradiction that I still wrestle with about cummings.

It’s my fault, then, that I found myself in Chapter 12 of Cheever’s really well done biography, titled “‘I think I am falling in love with you.'”

The chapter is about Nancy Thayer, the daughter of cummings who was raised not knowing he was her father. In the summer of 1946, there is a reunion between cummings and Nancy. Followed by cummings painting a portrait of Nancy in 1948—where the story becomes disturbing:

Nancy was almost 30 years old, and with some distress she realized that she was obsessed with, falling in love with, the charming fifty-four-year-old man who was painting her portrait. (p. 157)

E. E. Cummings: A Life

I couldn’t help thinking about this awful real-life scene—when cummings had to tell Nancy he was her father once she confessed her falling in love—filled with negligent parenthood, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the specter of incest while watching the four-part series Allen v. Farrow (HBO).

This mini-series has rekindled a horrible and complex story of power, art/artist, and white male privilege, including giving much greater space to Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow than had been allowed throughout the first two decades (before Dylan spoke again and openly about her charges starting about 2014).

While the series seeks to present new and more nuanced details and examinations of Allen’s abuse of Dylan and his controversial relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, there has also been the expected re-energizing of those supporting and defending Allen, including a number of high-profile women actresses in Hollywood.

To say that the documentary is damning for Allen is an understatement, but the series also proves that there is much to be concerned about in terms of the American public and the moral character of our country (if such a thing exists).

The Allen/Dylan abuse is related to but not entirely the same as the Allen/Soon-Yi relationship; both have elements of very disturbing behavior by Allen, but they simply are not the same thing, except for the common element of Allen.

That connection, however, is put into a really ugly relief in the series because viewers are allowed to see and hear Allen with the children (including Soon-Yi as a child) and Mia as well as in taped phone calls with Mia. The duplicity and intimidation are aspects of Allen mostly absent in the hero-worshipping portrayals he has managed in pop culture and fashioned through his on-screen personas.

Mia Farrow remains afraid of Allen, and she physically expresses an incredible weight of guilt for having brought Allen into her family. Dylan finds herself shaking uncontrollably even as she sits holding hands with her husband (who seems to be a wonderful and loving person in her life) while discussing the lingering impact of the abuse on her life.

I am not sure how anyone watches this and remains an apologist for Allen. Much of the documentary is difficult to watch without crying, without taking breaks.

We are left with uncertainty about this detail or that; we also likely recognize that very few adults in this mess are completely sinners or completely saints. Like the awkward and disturbing moment for cummings and Nancy, this is a story of dysfunction as it intersects celebrity and power.

The series briefly walks viewers through the recent list of men appropriately snared in the #MeToo movement—Weinstein, Cosby, etc. But the light now again shining brightly on Allen must make us pause at how many more men live with almost no consequences while abusing and assaulting women.

Allen’s “woman scorned” and “parental alienation” defense is directly identified in the series as a successful strategy now used in divorces by men who gain custody of their children and then often abuse again.

And here is the real issue for anyone still unsure about the specifics of the Allen v. Farrow controversy and its impact on Dylan: The undeniable fact of all this is that women and children remain ignored in the U.S.

False sexual harassment and sexual assault claims are incredibly rare; the problem is that most sexual assault is never reported (see here); note that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Allen was not charged. Dylan and Mia Farrow represent the silencing and ignoring of women’s and children’s voices especially against the power of men’s voices.

Lorraine Ali offers a chilling point at the end of her recent piece about the criticism she has received for reviewing the series positively: “Perhaps these Allen diehards are upset because ‘Allen v. Farrow’ finally exposes the other side of the story, and they’re used to a world where women were simply told to shut up.”

We remain too often offended that a woman or child has the audacity to confront the audacity of men.

The Crumbling Facade of “No Excuses” and Educational Racism

Sarah Karp offers a long overdue and somewhat surprising opening lede for WBEZ Chicago, home to a number of charter school chains:

Chicago’s largest charter school network sent a letter to alumni this week admitting that its past discipline and promotion policies were racist and apologizing for them. The apology is notable not just as an acknowledgment of misguided policies, but as a repudiation of the “no-excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools during the 2000s.

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

“No excuses” ideologies and practices have been a foundational staple of charter schools disproportionately serving Black students, Hispanic students, and poor students well back into the 1990s but blossoming in the 2000s since both political parties jumped on the charter school bandwagon. By the late 2000s, mainstream media and the Obama administration were all-in on charter schools as “miracles.”

There were always two problems with the charter school mania and propaganda—data never supported the “miracle” claims (see my “Miracle School Myth” chapter), and worse of all, “no excuses” ideology has always been racist, shifting the blame and gaze onto students and teachers in order to ignore systemic inequity and racism.

“No excuses” schools always began with the assumption that Black, Hispanic, and poor students are fundamentally “broken” and must be “fixed”—an ugly and racist version of deficit thinking.

Almost a decade ago, I spoke at the University of Arkansas after the publication of my book on poverty and education; in that work and talk, I directly challenged “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains as harmful and, yes, racist.

In the wake of that talk, I was discounted and mis-characterized in Education Next, along with an equally unfair swipe at another KIPP critic, Jim Horn: “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart.”

Neither Horn nor I hold those views, and our criticisms were firmly and clearly grounded in arguing that “no excuses” is essentially racist and classist.

As I have documented, when I contacted the article authors about the false narrative they created around Horn and me, Maranto both admitted the framing was unfair and claimed the article would be updated; it never was.

The Noble charter chain mea culpa is likely too little, too late, but it is a serious crack in the facade perpetuated by “no excuses” advocates over the last two decades, included so-called “scholars” at the Department of Educational Reform (University of Arkansas) where Maranto works.

Many years ago, in fact, after dozens of blog posts and talks, I co-edited a volume refuting “no excuses” and proposing social context reform instead.

Jim Horn has an excellent volume confronting and dismantling the many problems with KIPP charter schools, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching.

Our work, along with many other scholars and educators committed to equity and anti-racism, has been ignored and often directly attacked, primarily because we dare to name racism as “racism.”

While I am not suggesting that Noble’s confession trumps our scholarship and work that has spanned multiple decades, I do want anyone concerned about education, education reform, and educational equity to step away from assumptions and see clearly how harmful “no excuses” ideologies and practices have been for students and their teachers.

“No excuses” ultimately fails for many reasons—being trapped in “blame the victim” approaches that normalize an unspoken white and affluent standard against which marginalized populations of students are judged, and harmed.

“No excuses” has been compelling because in the U.S. we are prone to seeing all problems as individual and not systemic. But it has also been compelling because education reform has always been tragically drawn to silver-bullet solutions and the shiny mirages seen as “miracles.”

Let me stress here that currently “no excuses” has quite a number of equally racist and flawed practices entrenched all across K-12 schooling: “grit,” growth mindset, word gap, Teach for America, grade retention, and the poverty workshops of Ruby Payne.

K-12 education in the U.S. is mostly a reflection of the communities schools serve; our schools tend to house and perpetuate our social inequities, but schools do very little to overcome racism, sexism, classism, etc.

Education reform has for nearly four decades refused to acknowledge systemic inequity, choosing instead to punish students, teachers, and schools. The many policies and fads of education reform over those decades have been themselves racist and classist, ultimately doing more harm than good to students, teachers, and education.

Karp includes an important realization by Jennifer Reid Davis, chief equity officer for Noble:

“It’s important to own it,” she said. “I think you have to say it, I think you have to be honest. Part of what it truly means to be anti-racist is to be honest about the circumstances in which you are in and or created.”

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

The list is quite long still of those who need “to own it” and allow confronting racism to be the first step to ending racism in our schools and our society.

Poetry of Pain, Poetry of Hope

When I posted my newest poem yesterday, we weathered winter (silence & shouting), I realized this is my first poem of 2021. It is unusual since it is mostly a poem of hope, a poem uniquely set in the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I looked back, I also realized that the last poem of 2020 was about my aunt’s suicide, a human throat (ineffable), a poem of pain anchored to the frailties of being human—although this poem too cannot avoid the ghost of the pandemic lingering there.

My newest poem feels out of character for me, a person prone to cynicism and a general negative outlook on life paraded as a “realistic” view. The poem is also unusual because most of my poetry comes in bursts; first there are entire sections that come to me whole (often in sleep or near sleep) and then several hours of tinkering and shaping the poem that is calling to me to bring it forth.

I ended 2020 in the paradox of writing about the ineffable, a suicide of a family member who filled me with contradictory and confusing emotions. So starting 2021 with some hope feels both odd and perfect as I sit in South Carolina where spring is teasing us with warm weather and pollen.

we weathered winter (silence & shouting) is a spring poem, and I could have written something like it even before a pandemic. But the poem did not come in a burst; it came over many weeks and quite unexpectedly:

we weathered winter once again
the sun slipping away later & later
daylight & hope expanding

this winter like all winters
was unlike any winter before
unlike any winter ahead

The opening section above did come in a burst, which I typed out on a Word document many weeks ago. It sat on my screen since then, was eventually closed out, and then almost nearly forgotten.

A couple nights ago, I had what I consider sort of a poem vision that accompanies words, specifically “everything ascending into the trees.” In my slumber brain, I was writing a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, and I was jumbling literally all people climbing into trees with some nondescript memory of watching a nature show about monkeys scurrying into the trees when avoiding predators. I also was thinking about the Crakers from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

When I woke up, I began playing with that kernel and eventually the second section appeared:

i imagine late at night
you do not understand
the silence & shouting

everything ascending
into the trees
completely quiet & afraid

But this could not have developed if I had not remembered the “winter” section abandoned weeks ago. I opened the file, thought about the need for section dividers, and plopped in the section section, drafting and playing with the original ascending idea as well as the “do not understand” part that also came to me during the night.

What developed was a poem with three-line stanzas, with two each per section. What I began to imagine, though, was how this ambiguous ascending scene matched the winter/end to the pandemic idea of the first section.

The silence/shouting contrast along with the sense of fear in ascending to escape something, to feel safe, needed something to combine the impressions. That is when I began to think about two beings huddled together, a conflating of two beings huddled together in a tree and two beings cuddling in sleep; and thus the third and last section:

how we huddle here
like lovers entwined asleep
hoping with spring

maybe there will be drums
maybe there will be horns
maybe there will be singing

One of the many things we have lost due to the pandemic is music concerts so my message of hope—imagining us all sitting in trees, afraid of Covid-19 and hoping for a return to something closer to normal (not a tree life)—about the possibility of returning to large crowds at a concert (drums, horns, singing).

The sound motif—silence, shouting, music—works, I think, to create the sort of tension that comes from the change of seasons. In the case of winter to spring, that tension is the feeling of hope resting against a nagging fear that spring somehow may not come after all.

My initial joy over the first section—the “W” alliteration of the first line I dearly love—were mostly affections of language, although I thought the idea of pandemic winter being more different, just as every winter is different, was clever enough and engaging. But there was no poem there.

The missing elements were about breathing a story into the “we” and also allowing those characters to develop even as I left much of the context ambiguous and even not directly spoken.

What is the job of poetry? I have been wondering. My poetry of pain next to my poetry of hope.

I understand that poetry is essentially concrete—images, characters, plot, setting; poetry is about the physical world doing stuff. But I also know that poetry is about what is not stated, what is not specifically identified.

My poem of pain ends with a sort of brutal specificity that attached itself to my own experience of discovering the cold details of the suicide. My poem of hope is suggestive, elusive, and in the most basic sense, hopeful.

Hope became symbolized by attending a concert, The National. Something I have done before so something I can reconstruct and imagine. During the writing of the poem, I had “I’ll Still Destroy You” on replay in my brain, although mostly different lines than what I chose to preface the poem: “Put your heels against the wall/I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” cycling over and over in my mind’s ear.

2021 is now racing by, and with spring, many of us in the U.S. are overwhelmed with hope for more than the usual joy associated with longer daylight and warmer weather.

What if the vaccinations allow us to return to something we have missed—gathering close together to sing along and sway to the drums, the horns, and the singing?

I am hopeful because it is too painful not to hope.

Fact Checking “Cancel Culture”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

If we can take seriously the high-quality source, the actor who plays Mr. Bean, it appears we should be fearful of a future where there is no freedom of speech because “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” claims Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, this is but one of many alarm bells about the scourge of “cancel culture.”

It would be easy to smile at Atkinson’s goofy face and brush this off—except there are dire consequences to this manufactured crisis. Take for just one example the language being used to propose legislation in my home state of South Carolina.

“Pushing back against what they called America’s ‘woke mob,’ a group of GOP lawmakers want to protect South Carolina historic monuments and markers and penalize any community or elected official that removes them,” writes Adam Benson for the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC).

Later in the article, Benson quotes Republicans advancing this legislation:

“In South Carolina, our heritage roots run real deep, and they’ve got to be protected from the small number of people that could cancel out our monuments and pull them down,” Taylor said, who is sponsoring the bills with state Reps. Steven Long, R-Inman, and Lin Bennett, R-Charleston.

“In today’s day and age where the woke mob is coming after our monuments from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to South Carolina’s heritage, this is all inclusive,” Long said of the proposed state certification of plaques.

Proposals would punish removing monuments: ‘Time to stand up and defend the history of SC’

Conservatives in the U.S. have taken over the “cancel culture” label and used it to create a false narrative about liberals (“woke mob”) having the disproportionate power to unfairly punish conservatives, to end free speech, and as these Republicans argue, to erase history.

Recent “cancel culture” controversies that represent that false narrative include Dr. Seuss’s estate ending the publication of six of his books, changes to Mr. Potato Head, and the firing of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian.

While all of these have been framed as “cancel culture,” they aren’t all the same. Dr. Seuss wasn’t canceled (most of his books remain in print, and this was an estate decision), but like the renaming of Mr. Potato Head, these are market decisions, not some government mandate driven by “woke culture.”

Carano’s firing isn’t even that unusual in Hollywood; consider Kevin Spacey. Was he canceled? Or are there simply consequences for people’s words and actions—even, some times, when you are rich and famous?

To dissect the false narrative around “cancel culture” by conservatives, let’s return to the Dr. Seuss fake news cycle. Consider these Tweets from Michael Hobbes:

The pattern: Falsely claim “cancel culture,” point fingers only at the liberal mob, and ignore what is really happening (market forces versus actual canceling legislation proposed from conservatives).

Also conservatives shouting “cancel culture” tend to have a weak grasp on the past along with being highly selective in their outrage.

John Warner offers an excellent comparison between his own experiences as an author and the the Dr. Seuss controversy:

Was Warner’s liberal parody of conservative W. Bush canceled? The nefarious workings of the liberal mob? Or was this the free market doing its work?

But consider a much more substantial situation—the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I do not recall any conservatives crying “cancel culture” when Kaepernick was essentially banned from the NFL by mostly conservative billionaire owners because of Kaepernick’s liberal politics. And I don’t recall those players standing during the national anthem having any consequences for their ostensibly conservative political actions (standing during the anthem).

I do recall conservatives wringing their hands over Tim Tebow’s short-lived NFL career since Tebow is a darling of conservatives and also conveniently used his NFL platform to express his conservative religious politics.

“Cancel culture” as a terminology of any social value has been erased, ironically, by conservatives who have co-opted the language to perpetuate lies about the left as a distraction from their own penchant for canceling.

The partisan political nature of the shift to “cancel culture” being the mantra of conservatives has some very serious consequences in the U.S. since it misrepresents free speech and also blurs the line between valid accountability and the so-called mob mentality in pop culture.

Conservatives have repeatedly misrepresented the free market as a free speech issue, which is essentially about the role of government in what people are allowed to express.

The decisions made by Dr. Seuss’s estate, Republicans losing Twitter followers, and Carano being fired (see also, Spacey)—these are all the workings of the free market, not mandates of government. If Republicans want to start a conversation about the silencing impact of capitalism, then I think many of us on the left would be thrilled, but they seem oblivious to how their own ideology works.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of conservatives capitalizing on “cancel culture” is that it has distorted a needed conversation on fairness since free speech isn’t license; even when what we say and do is not mandated by either the government or the market, “free” in free speech doesn’t mean we are free of the consequences.

So which is unfair here—that Woody Allen has never suffered any real consequences for his behavior or that Louis CK had his comedy career briefly stalled due to his serial sexual harassment?

Maybe there are petty dynamics on Instagram in which mob mentalities evolve and people are unfairly “canceled,” but what is currently passing as “cancel culture” is a bald-faced lie with political/ideological intentions.

The history of people being closeted in the U.S. as well as the current reality of closeted people is a narrative about the precariousness of being outside the norms of this country—norms that are decidedly conservative and thus to be outside those is necessarily liberal.

Unfair consequences in the U.S. remain mostly for people on the left; conservative Americans are themselves fretting about losing their status of privilege, and their cries of “cancel culture” are ugly projections since it is they who wish to erase the realities that have always existed but have too often been forced behind lock and key.

When millionaire white men wag their fingers about “cancel culture” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, we must be more than skeptical that they are being sincere about freedom of speech since they are embodying that they, in fact, haven’t been canceled at all.

Letter to the Editor: Tennessee Poised to Fail Students

In response to Third grade retention law causing suburban superintendents angst, I submitted the following letter to the editor (published HERE):

While it is increasingly popular across the US to pass third-grade retention laws as part of larger reading policies, often under the guise of the “science of reading,” there are decades of research showing that grade retention is extremely harmful to children, especially minoritized students and students living in poverty.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the largest organization of English teachers in the US, “oppose[s] legislation mandating that children, in any grade level, who do not meet criteria in reading be retained” and “oppose[s] the use of high-stakes test performance in reading as the criterion for student retention.”

As well, the National Education Policy Center (Boulder, CO) has issued a policy brief warning that states “[s]hould not adopt ‘ends justify the means’ policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term that have longer-term harms (for example, third-grade retention policies).” Further, states “[s]hould not prescribe a narrow definition of ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ that elevates one part of the research base while ignoring contradictory high-quality research.”

Tennessee must not fall prey to trendy political gimmicks that harm children and do not address the needs of those children learning to read.

Correcting Course on Correctness in English/ELA

My granddaughter is six, in the first grade, and currently in the throes of learning to read—as commanded by formal schooling. Recently, she has shown some of those typical bursts of improvement I have witnessed in learning by young children; those moments give meaning to the word “marvelous.”

In an effort to inject some joy into my granddaughter’s reading journey, I have given her some comic books (a medium that was central to my own journey to being a voracious reader and writer). I was concerned that the text and format of a comic book would be beyond her, but she loves to make her own books, which are heavily picture-oriented to tell stories, so I thought even if she couldn’t read comic books, they would be very appealing to her own hobby.

But what surprised me was when she picked up a graphic novel of Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, she immediately began reading quite well—until she hit very commonly used wording and words that aren’t served well by structured phonics; she stumbled over “gonna” and “wanna,” but was really thrown by “MJ” as the way characters refer to Mary Jane Watson.

Having been taught formally how to read in an environment grounded in correctness, my granddaughter stumbles over the far more prevalent language usage in the real world.

This tension is represented well by the fate of the pronoun “they” (and its forms); “they” for centuries has served in the real-world of speaking English as a gender-neutral singular pronoun even as so-called standard English has persisted in tossing that usage into the “incorrect” bin (although this nonsense is finally losing momentum in formal formats).

For more than a century, the field of English/ELA has resisted real-world language usage and awareness and preferred training children in language acquisition through systems of correctness (phonics rules and grammar rules). Teaching that is grounded in rules and correctness appears to be easier because that approach contributes to control and simplistic forms of assessment and grading, but approaching language through correctness is a dis-service to children and language.

Even though there are increasingly important calls for de-emphasizing correctness in English/ELA, such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)’s call for Black linguistic justice, those of us who teach reading, literature, or writing face an incredibly complex paradox—the challenge of fostering in students a healthy and valid view of language while also raising their awareness of the politics of language (that dialects such as so-called standard English, for example, do carry political weight in the real world even though it shouldn’t).

Boland and Queen address the tyranny of correctness in the real world in their Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. Here they investigate why “readers judged strangers harshly simply because of writing errors”—themselves using language of “correctness” (“errors”).

Every semester when I once again address issues surround formatting (citation styles, submitting assignments), I must confront the tyranny of correctness in terms of not wanting to perpetuate the unhealthy culture of correctness while also wanting my students to be aware of the power of correctness so that they have power over their language use instead of being victims of the “error hunt.”

Here, then, are some of the ever-evolving ways I am trying to navigate the tensions in teaching language against the tyranny of correctness:

  • De-grade correctness and formatting related to language. Removing grades and punishment allows a teacher still to address language use and shifts the focus to editing and away from correcting.
  • Change the language we use about language. I avoid “correct/incorrect,” “right/wrong,” and any reference to “fixing” or “correcting” when I mean “revising” or “editing.”
  • Use minimum expectations that move issues of correctness and formatting outside the more substantive elements of language usage. I often have students submit early drafts to address formatting (such as the working references list for a cited essay) well before submitting the essay for my feedback.
  • Examine all dialects and forms of language as powerful and complex language while also interrogating the politics of dialects, including that “standard English” exists and why it exists. Student awareness about the growing debate to de-center standard English is the least we can do in English/ELA on the path to actually de-centering it.
  • Foster a culture of purposefulness instead of a culture of rules. When we examine, for example, the arcane formatting guidelines involved in formal citation, I try to emphasize not that this or that format is “right,” but that formal writing needs to exhibit purposefulness by the writer as part of their credibility and authority. A submitted essay with two or three fonts and font sizes appears careless, for example, and diminishes the reader’s trust in the purposefulness of the writer.
  • Shift all explorations of language to discovery instead of complying with correctness. This, as I noted about my ploy with my granddaughter, is about the joy and wonder of language usage. Once we set aside corrupted and debasing beliefs about “good” or “bad” language (especially that one dialect is more or less rich than another), we allow students to engage with all language in healthy and complex ways.

I became a reader and writer vey heavily influenced by collecting and reading comic books, where the text is not simply formatted on the page and where artwork provides a substantial percentage of the textual meaning. My granddaughter has been zipping through reading aloud from children’s books or her homework worksheets (often designed to match the culture of correctness). But comic books and even signage have proven that correctness falters in the real world.

For far too long English/ELA classes and teachers have been associated with a hostility toward language (and students) because of a culture of correctness; our fields have also been too often disengaged with the real world, where WandaVision is more compelling than Shakespeare.

If we love language and our students, we must correct course on correctness in English/ELA.

Understanding the “Science of Reading” Movement and Its Consequences: A Reader

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, TBD. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384


In this article, we contend that in media stories on the science or reading, journalists have relied on strategic metaphorical framing to present reading education as a public crisis with a narrow and settled solution. Drawing on data from a critical metaphor analysis of 37 media stories, we demonstrate how frames used in recent media reporting have intensified the reading wars, promoting conflict and hampering conversation among stakeholders and across research paradigms and methodologies. The media have asserted a direct connection between basic research and instructional practice that, without sufficient translational research that attends to a variety of instructional contexts and student populations, may perpetuate inequities. We end with an example of collaboration and a challenge to reframe reading education in ways that center collaboration and conversation rather than conflict.

Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2021, January 22). The science of reading provides little or no support for the widespread claim that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction: A response to Buckingham. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/f5qyu


It is widely claimed that the science of reading supports the conclusion that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction. Bowers (2020) challenged this conclusion after reviewing all the main evidence, and Buckingham (2020a) provided a detailed response where she argues that the evidence does indeed support systematic phonics and criticizes an alternative form of instruction called “Structured Word Inquiry” or (SWI). Here we show that every substantive criticism Buckingham makes is factually incorrect or reflects a fundamental mischaracterization. There is nothing in her article that challenges the conclusions that Bowers (2020) draws regarding systematic phonics, and nothing that challenges the claims we have made in the past regarding SWI. This should not be used to support whole language or balanced literacy, but it should motivate researchers to consider alternative methods that are well motivated on theoretical grounds, such as SWI.

Bowers and Bowers (2021)

Caught in the Crosshairs: Emerging Bilinguals and the Reading Wars (NEPC)

After a relatively quiet phase, the “reading wars” reignited in 2018 in the wake of a flurry of news media coverage sparked by a public radio documentary that argued that students across America were receiving inadequate phonics instruction. More than a dozen states—including Florida, Texas and North Carolina—rushed to react, passing laws requiring pre-service and current teachers to place a greater emphasis on phonics.

Now researchers who study Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students are raising questions about the potential impact of these efforts on such students, including emerging bilinguals. …

Continue reading HERE

See Also

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading” (NEPC)

The Critical Story of the “Science of Reading” and Why Its Narrow Plotline Is Putting Our Children and Schools at Risk

Perspective | Is there really a ‘science of reading’ that tells us exactly how to teach kids to read?