Gun Violence, Mass and School Shootings: A Reader May 2022

Another school shooting and another mass killing with an AR-15:

Another horrifying example of American exceptionalism created by the GOP and NRA:


For a meditative moment in the face of inexcusable negligence and another round of children slaughtered while sitting in school, I offer:

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes


Below is a reader addressing gun violence and school safety.

TL;DR: School safety is a subset of community safety. Active shooter drills, police on campus, security cameras, armed teachers/staff, and metal detectors do not make schools safer and often cause harm. U.S. access to guns and abundance of guns cause gun violence, mass shootings, and school shootings. People suffering mental illness experience more violence, but do not cause more violence.

Reader:


Addendum: Original Poetry

the world

accidental monuments to their shame

mirrors (we are monsters)

NYT Blasts Calkins with “Science of Reading” propaganda

Just 10 days after the New York Times ran a factually misleading piece on a dyslexia program championed by Mayor Eric Adams, Dana Goldstein amplified the “science of reading” attack on Lucy Calkins and the Units of Study reading program.

Margaret Thornton (Princeton) offered on Twitter the essential problem with this mainstream media coverage:

Goldstein’s uncritical use of “science of reading” propaganda fits into a pattern of mainstream media, particularly the work of Emily Hanford, that weaponizes “science” while trafficking in anecdote and grand misrepresentations. Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors explain:

Hanford critiqued approaches named as balanced literacy and whole language without citing any evidence around these claims. She continued with anecdotes on how a focus on the SOR has improved student performance, but there is not a single citation of evidence in support of this claim. … It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting Science That Silences: Amplifying Equity, Agency, and Design Research in Literacy Teacher Preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255-S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

The NYT’s article on Calkins has several significant problems. First, since the bar in journalism for citing evidence is much lower than in academia, the piece itself oversimplifies and misrepresents complex and important issues about reading and teaching reading, often with no citation or by cherry-picking (and misrepresenting) a single link to evidence.

Next, the fundamental problem with the article is the continued uncritical acceptance by mainstream media of the “science of reading” movement and marketing. This last point, the marketing aspect of the “science of reading,” must not be ignored since phonics-heavy programs are committed to taking market share away from current popular reading programs such as those by Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell.

And finally, the framing of the article fails to recognize, as Thornton does (as well as Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors), that both Calkins’s programs and the “science of reading” deserve critical interrogations against research and best practice.

Goldstein’s lede begins in misrepresentation and without citation: “For decades, Lucy Calkins has determined how millions of children learn to read. An education professor, she has been a pre-eminent leader of ‘balanced literacy,’ a loosely defined teaching philosophy.”

“Balanced literacy” (BL) is not “loosely defined,” and even so, that definition is quite accessible and important to this discussion:

A balanced approach to literacy development is a decision-making approach through which the teach makes thoughtful choices each day about the best way to help each child become a better reader and writer. A balanced approach is not constrained by or reactive to a particular philosophy. It is responsive to new issues while maintaining what research has already shown to be effective. It is an approach that requires and frees a teacher to be a reflective decision maker and to fine tune and modify what he or she is doing each day in order to meet the needs of the child.

Spiegel, D. (1998). Silver bullets, babies, and bath water: Literature response groups in a balanced literacy program. The Reading Teacher, 52(2), 114-124. www.jstor.org/stable/20202025

That definition, in fact, directly contradicts the “science of reading” propaganda that phonics is rejected by BL advocates and programs. Goldstein reports without context: “But in recent years, parents and educators who champion the ‘science of reading’ have fiercely criticized Professor Calkins and other supporters of balanced literacy.”

Yes, there are critics of BL, but more often than not, those critics are simply misinformed and that criticism is misguided.

However, the false representation of BL is matched only by the skewed misrepresentation of teaching phonics: “They cite a half-century of research that shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

This link, a rare citation, refers readers to the National Reading Panel (NRP), which raises two problems. The NRP was widely discredited (see Garan) when it was released as a cornerstone of NCLB, and since that release, the findings of the NRP have been repeatedly misrepresented (See Yatvin).

The NRP found that systematic phonics was effective in grade 1 only, and that effectiveness was linked to pronunciation, and not comprehension (see Stephens).

Since the inception of “science of reading” movement, the persistent misrepresentation of systematic phonics for all students (and students with dyslexia [see ILA, 2016 and Johnston and Scanlon, 2021) is discredited by a number of studies:

  • 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
  • Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. https://doi.org/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x
  • 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
  • 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 Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

The last study, in fact, examines the systematic phonics mandate begun in 2006 throughout England (synthetic phonics); Wyse and Bradbury concluded:

Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful….

In addition to the importance of contextualised reading teaching as an evidence-based orientation to the teaching of reading we hypothesise the following pedagogical features that are likely to be effective. Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics teaching with children younger than this is not likely to be effective. A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy. Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective. Insistence on particular schemes/ basals, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal. Well-trained classroom assistants, working in collaboration with their class teachers, could be a very important contribution to children’s reading development.

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 Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

The most recent research, then, on national mandates for systematic phonics instruction concludes the need for “balance,” and pedagogical practices that strongly match Spiegel’s original definition for BL.

One other claim lacking any link to evidence focuses on the narrow view of “science” being promoted by the “science of reading” movement: “With brain science steadily adding to that evidence, there is a sense — at least for many in the education establishment — that the debate over early reading instruction may be ebbing. Phonics is ascendant.”

Several problems exist with invoking “brain science,” as explained by Yaden, Reinking, and Smagorinsky

[W]e specifically address four limitations that we believe raise questions about the assumptions underlying, and thus conclusions reached, when the SOR is limited to the nature side of the binary and the experimental methods that typically accompany that view: (1) too heavy a reliance on a narrow conception of science claimed to be authoritative and monolithic, (2) too little accounting for environmental factors that complicate the idea that the brain functions identically across the whole of the human population, (3) an exclusive view that experimental designs and replicability are the gold standard of scientific research when other approaches have generated many useful insights, and (4) dismissal of all other conceptions of reading as unscientific and, therefore, of marginal value in generating knowledge about reading and how to teach it.

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

This article misreads Calkins/Units of Study and the “science of reading,” and thus, readers do not get the central message: This shift by Calkins is a market response to state legislation banning the adoption of Units of Study; this shift is not a concession that the “science of reading” is right.

Further, the result of this extended critique of Calkins and Units of Study is that the reasonable and needed challenges to this or any reading program is reduced to a propaganda vehicle for the “science of reading.”

As I have examined before, the problem with Calkins’s Units of Study and BL is how the program is implemented. Many teachers find the prescriptive and silver-bullet approaches to any program or ideology as de-professionalizing and harmful to students.

Too often, teachers are being held accountable for implementing the program, covering the standards, and preparing students for (awful) high-stakes tests.

If we need a reading revolution, and we do, the blunt solution is that we must stop teaching programs, stop teaching reading ideologies, and stop teaching reading to children.

Instead, let’s teach children to read, and to learn.

As some prominent authors of a reading program lamented recently, hit pieces on reading programs, grandstanding about the “science of reading,” and passing prescriptive and misguided reading legislation is all about the adults trying to one-up each other—and not about the students.


See Also

How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED]

Media and Political Misreading of Reading (Again): NYC Edition

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

Don’t Buy It: The Marketing Scam of MSM and the “Science of Reading”

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Academic Writing: Process, Practice, and Humility

Recently, I accepted a scholarly writing assignment, a policy brief for a university-based think tank. As I approach submitting the initial draft for peer-review and then revision before publishing, the experience has helped me continue to think about ways in which teaching students to write present challenges for both teachers and students.

My writing assignment matches well the scholarly cited essay assignment in my upper-level writing/research course—a course where students tend to struggle with breaking free of reductive research paper approaches to writing.

In my first-year writing (FYW) seminar, I have very broad goals for students. I see FYW as transitional and foundational. The writing assignments are designed to help students confront and move beyond the assumptions and approaches they have acquired in K-12 coursework (transitional) and then begin to establish an awareness of writing that will serve them well in academic settings and beyond (foundational).

The FYW seminar allows me to practice my beliefs about writing and teaching writing—such as providing students with a great deal of choice in writing topics and form (we directly reject the five-paragraph essay and challenge template approaches to writing and the writing process).

But in the upper-level writing/research course, both the students and I must navigate the realities of scholarly writing, including the narrow parameters of academic citation and structured/prescriptive writing templates. I explain to my students that often academic writing follows templates that are rigid and even clunky, but scholarly journals and other publications allow very little deviation from those requirements.

The upper-level course also asks students to better understand that citation style sheets are guidelines for more than citation, such as tone, sentence and paragraph formation, and integrating sources (we specifically examine the stylistic difference between MLA, what they are often familiar with, and APA).

These are undergraduate students, and much of what I ask them to consider and produce is another type of transitional and foundational—transitioning from writing like a student to writing like an academic/scholar and foundational for scholarly writing in graduate school or the so-called real world.

I accepted the policy brief assignment near the end of my spring upper-level writing/research course so I was able to share with the students the assignment as a sort of justification for their cited essay assignment. The policy brief project includes the following elements that I include in the course:

  • The policy brief has a detailed content outline, six defined sections.
  • The executive summary and policy brief have strict word count requirements (including a direct warning that exceeding the word count would result in the manuscript being returned).
  • Guidelines address tone, word choice, and structure/organization.
  • The think tank uses a modified citation stylesheet (based on APA but using endnotes).

As an experienced writer and academic, the narrowness of the assignment and genre (policy brief) was stressful—likely in similar ways that are stressful for my students in the upper-level course—because it is writing unlike what I tend to do. Also, the requirement for using endnotes is a citation approach I have rarely used.

This last point, about using endnotes, is the primary lesson I now have for my students.

I completed a full draft well ahead of deadline, but that drafting had been plagued by my concern for the word count. I was well over both the executive summary and full policy brief requirements. So when I sent in my initial full draft, I had worked for days cutting and tightening—nearly to exhaustion because I was trying to fit a great deal into what appeared to be a nearly impossible word count.

When that draft was returned to me, I was immediately confused since the feedback noted I was way under word count—and thus, much of the feedback stressed a need for adding and explaining more fully. I also received very valuable feedback about organization (editorial feedback is incredibly useful for academic writing since that feedback typically has the context of the writing assignment more clearly than the author of the piece).

What happened?

Well, despite my constant warnings to my students about knowing the features of Word, I fell pray to ignorance since I wasn’t aware my Word default word count included the endnotes. Once I adjusted that, my draft was, yep, well under word count.

Although I don’t recommend making such mistakes as part of the writing process, this was part of the process for me, and while it was embarrassing and frustrating, my next round of drafting was much improved because I had feedback and a greater awareness of my writing purpose and the assignment template.

But another experience with the writing process also struck me as something important to bring to the classroom. Over a few days, I began revising my first full draft, greatly expanding my literature review. As a result, I reviewed that research again, finding more and better ways to integrate that evidence.

Part way through revising and expanding the literature review, I took a break to do a gravel ride. While cycling, I continued to work on the policy brief in my head, and had so many writing epiphanies that I paused during the ride, typed out those ideas in Notes, and emailed myself the brainstorming:

  • Teacher/teacher ed in lit review
  • Move MS to analysis
  • Cover UK research in BL section of lit review
  • Frame analysis with bullet list of SoR claims in intro

While cycling, I realized at least one important gap in the lit review and made some key decisions about organization.

While I had left the draft a bit drained, once I returned from the gravel ride, and showered, I was energized to quickly note the changes in my draft (I moved sections and added brief placeholders, all in red text, to guide my further revision).

Regardless of how often I explain this to students, I cannot emphasize enough that the writing process is quite messy, rambling and recursive. Students, I think, are very uncomfortable with that messiness and struggle to see all drafting as tentative (likely because writing in school is often graded).

While I have a new and “completed” full draft, I still do not see the project as finished. I will have editorial and peer-review feedback, and the final text will be copyedited and formatted.

I have done a tremendous amount of work, and the writing project is still in an early phase.

My writing process included making a mistake with word count, significantly rethinking the next draft while doing a gravel bicycle ride, using red text in my draft to guide revision, and emailing notes and drafts to myself.

Like my students, I struggled with writing within a template, navigating an unfamiliar stylesheet and endnote format, and fully understanding a type of writing I have little experience with. A significant amount of my time has been spent reviewing my sources, seeking out more sources, and copyediting the endnotes several times.

Academic writing is almost equally invigorating and mind-numbingly tedious.

A final point about how my real-world experience with academic writing can inform teaching students academic writing is the recognition that students are often trying to navigate both an unfamiliar writing assignment and coming to understand a complex topic and the research related to that topic.

I am working on a topic I have examined for years, and most of my evidence was already compiled and organized (and examined) in my blog and two editions of a book.

For students to be successful in an upper-level course requiring them to confront both new ways to write and cite as well as new content and evidence, we must provide the most supportive contexts possible.

I require and allow a great deal of drafting, provide class time for drafting and conferences, do not grade writing assignments, and repeatedly stress that the essay is a process (that all writing is tentative).

None the less, students have been trained to be finishers and to focus on a grade; both are not conducive to academic writing, or writing of any kind.

Once this project is completed, I have some excellent artifacts to bring to the classroom, but most of all, I have a heavy dose of humility that always serves teachers of writing well.

Media and Political Misreading of Reading (Again): NYC Edition

NYC Mayor Eric Adams is proving to be an unreliable source on just about anything he mentions. Adams seems more interested in crying false “crisis” for political gain than doing the hard work of political leadership.

First, crime:

With context and data, Adams’s claim is more than “a very strange thing”; it is simply false, political fearmongering:

Next, reading and dyslexia:

Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday the details of a plan to turn around a literacy crisis in New York City and, in particular, to serve thousands of children in public schools who may have dyslexia, an issue deeply personal to the mayor, who has said his own undiagnosed dyslexia hurt his academic career.

Mayor Adams Unveils Program to Address Dyslexia in N.Y.C. Schools

Unfortunately, neither Adams nor the NYT will receive the sort of public correcting for the nonsense in this article, but Lola Fadulu’s coverage of Adams’s dyslexia program is just as much political fearmongering as Adams’s misrepresentation of crime.

In fact, media, parents, and political leaders have been following a similar and misleading playbook for several years now—one that Fadulu and Adams demonstrate so perfectly it could read as parody:

Currently, there is a well-organized and active contingent of concerned parents and educators (and others) who argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties, affecting approximately 20% of the population, and that there is a widely accepted treatment for such difficulties: an instructional approach relying almost exclusively on intensive phonics instruction. Proponents argue that it is based on “settled science,” which they refer to as “the science of reading” (SOR). The approach is based on a narrow view of science and a restricted range of research focused on word learning and, more recently, neurobiology, but pays little attention to aspects of literacy like comprehension and writing or dimensions of classroom learning and teacher preparation.

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

That misleading playbook includes the following:

  • “School officials plan to screen nearly all students for dyslexia.” Universal screening for dyslexia is a crisis response to a false crisis. Johnston and Scanlon explain: “Good first instruction and early intervention for children with a slow start in the word reading aspect of literacy reduces the likelihood they will encounter serious difficulty. Thus, early screening with assessments that can inform instruction is important. Screening for dyslexia, particularly with instructionally irrelevant assessments, offers no additional advantage [emphasis added].”
  • “School leaders are requiring school principals to pivot to a phonics-based literacy curriculum, which literacy experts say is the most effective way to teach reading to most children.” Systematic phonics for all students, and specifically for students identified with dyslexia, is an old and false solution for students struggling with reading, per Johnston and Scanlon: “Evidence does not justify the use of a heavy and near-exclusive focus on phonics instruction, either in regular classrooms or for children experiencing difficulty learning to read (including those classified as dyslexic [emphasis in original].”
  • “New York is facing a literacy crisis: Fewer than half of all third to eighth graders and just 36 percent of Black and Latino students were proficient on the state reading exams administered in 2019, the most recent year for which there is data.” The NYT helped fuel the newest round of “reading crisis” in the U.S. with an over-reaction to 2019 NAEP reading scores, but the cold hard truth is that marginalized students have never been equitably served in NYC schools or anywhere in the U.S. as any point in history. (See how the reading crisis around NAEP is misrepresented HERE.)
  • “It is difficult to say how many children have dyslexia in the city because the department hasn’t been able to systematically identify them, said Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. But she noted that national figures estimate that one in five children have dyslexia.” Dyslexia advocacy and political responses to dyslexia are misrepresenting dyslexia by overstating how common dyslexia is (some credible experts suggest dyslexia isn’t even a credible label for reading, in fact), and are ignoring that no common definition for dyslexia exists. “Definitions of dyslexia vary widely, and none offer a clear foundation—biological, cognitive, behavioral, or academic—for determining whether an individual experiencing difficulty with developing word reading skill should be classified as dyslexic,” Johnston and Scanlon conclude.
  • “Naomi Peña said she has four children with dyslexia, and is one of several parents who helped launch the Literacy Academy Collective, an advocacy group.” Parental advocacy groups addressing dyslexia have had direct impact on reading and dyslexia policy across the U.S.; however, that impact has overwhelmingly prompted misguided legislation and policy. Writing about similar political responses to dyslexia in Tennessee, Allington raises a key concern: “What I find most disturbing about the recent Tennessee dyslexia law is the absence of any input from the Literacy Association of Tennessee (LAT) as well as the absence of members of the Dyslexia Advisory Council drawn from the membership of LAT.”
  • “The additional support includes more intensive instruction steeped in the Orton-Gillingham approach, which teaches reading with more hands-on methods that break down words into smaller, more digestible parts.” While the larger push for systematic phonics instruction for all students is misguided, advocates for dyslexia often focus on Orton-Gillingham specifically. Yet, as the International Literacy Association (ILA) shows: “As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty (Mathes et al., 2005). For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003).”
  • “Under the new plan, school officials will require principals, who can choose their curriculums, shift toward a reading program that is based in reading science. Many currently use one developed by Lucy Calkins, an academic at Teachers College, Columbia University, that has repeatedly come under fire.” The dyslexia movement is part of a larger “science of reading” movement that overemphasizes the role of systematic phonics but also attacks popular reading programs across the U.S. See How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED] for a thorough examination of the flaws with misusing the term “science.” See also A Response to EdReports’ Assessment of Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Writing and Phonics.

Media and political leaders as well as parent advocates are trapped in a false belief about reading and dyslexia—paralleling the public misunderstanding about crime rates.

Do students struggling to read, especially marginalized students, deserve to be better served in our schools? Absolutely, whether they are diagnosed with dyslexia or not.

But NYC’s plan is political fearmongering, not good policy or practice.

Political leaders would be well served to heed Johnston and Scanlon’s guidelines, including these:

Although there are likely heritable dimensions to reading and language difficulties, there is no way to translate them into implications for instructional practice….

Legislation (and district policies) aligned with the SOR perspectives on dyslexia will necessarily require tradeoffs in the allocation of resources for teacher development and among children having literacy learning difficulties. These tradeoffs have the potential to privilege students experiencing some types of literacy learning difficulties while limiting instructional resources for and attention available to students whose literacy difficulties are not due (exclusively) to word reading difficulties.

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Recommended

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

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

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.

Resignation

NOTE: Below is a real letter of resignation, specific details redacted in order to protect the teacher. The teacher was early career, and this represents the state of the field of teaching in SC and across the US.


[Principal],

Please accept this document as notification of my resignation, effective June 6, 2022.

While I have appreciated my tenure as a teacher in [district], I feel it’s in my best interests and also my moral responsibility to reject any further offers of employment from [district]. I have been disappointed by several of my interactions with administration, both in [school] and at the district office. I pride myself in advocating for the teaching profession and for the needs of teachers, because I understand the essential democratic importance of education. It has been difficult to feel alone in that work of advocacy, and worse to have to justify myself, and I feel compelled to move into a profession that is better positioned to hear the concerns of its professionals and react meaningfully.

I was especially and painfully disappointed by [district]’s reaction to the fearmongering of South Carolina’s governor over the presence of Black and queer narratives in our libraries and curricula. [District]’s response, to call the texts “pornography” and then to remove them from all choice spaces, was wrong. Not only was it a breach of trust between the district and already vulnerable teachers, and not only did it add a significant amount to the (already impossible) teacher workload, but it will effectively end reading all but canonized texts, as those are the only texts that it is likely three teachers would have read and can approve per the new district guidelines for selection of texts. The district’s choices will serve primarily to keep students from reading and certainly to keep students from reading texts that they would enjoy; the policies the district has created are antithetical to our supposed goals of creating life-long, enthusiastic readers.

I also know that much of the concern over texts driving the changes in [district] is cloaked in a veneer of concern about “obscenities.” I think it’s important to challenge that concern and call it out for what it is: bigotry. No one is concerned about the suggestive material in Shakespeare, or Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck. We seem to be deeply concerned, however, when the authors are a part of or are speaking to a marginalized community. Providing texts that acknowledge the realities of our students along all axes of identity is best practice, but we are only allowed, effectively, to provide best practice opportunities for students whose identities fit an Evangelical agenda. Where is this concern when we force Black students to read racial slurs in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Great Gatsby? We do not censor these books because we recognize that while they contain sensitive and disturbing material, they have something of value to offer our students. We seem incapable of seeing that same value in works who empathize with marginalized people, and insistent on reading that empathy as an attack on traditional values.

[District]’s selective censorship is a failure to support significant portions of our community who already experience systemic inequities; we compound the damage already done to our marginalized students by not allowing them to see themselves in books, which then further erodes the trust that our communities place in us to make every child in our care feel seen and understood. I would ask anyone in the district who is in a position to advocate for teachers at the state level to read the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) position on censorship of texts. NCTE has multiple position statements affirming students’ right to read, and have expressly condemned the very types of censorship policies [district] is now implementing, as has every other national professional organization for teachers.

When teachers challenged this censorship and the removal of a district-approved book list in a faculty meeting and pointed out that most of the works students read in class contain “obscenities,” the response, that “Shakespeare was okay because most students don’t understand the language” deeply disturbed me, because my job, of course, is to help students understand the language. Our job as teachers and English teachers specifically is to clarify; to give students the ability to see more clearly and critically the world around them. When a minority of the community screams loudly enough that they do not want students to see, do not want students to learn, do not want students to have access to reality, entertaining their concerns and appeasing them is not harmless; it does violence to students whose humanity is now being denied, to teachers and staff members whose identities are among the disparaged, and to every student who loses an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Even worse, we are not just removing these texts from the spaces where students can engage and receive support from a professional in critical conversation (the classroom) but we are removing them from all spaces, even choice spaces such as the library. Students deserve to see themselves in the texts around them, and to have their identities treated with care and seriousness, not as problems to be ignored or wished away.

As a final note on [districts]’s political censorship: many of the texts that have been challenged are taught in courses that are meant to replace college level courses, such as Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses. Teachers have an obligation to provide the same level of complexity and rigor in their classrooms that those students would receive if they were in college, as the course is for college credit. The idea that students from our district will receive expurgated versions of collegiate education to appease a small subset of parents and community members should anger everyone, because all of us have to live in and with the ramifications of a community where the citizens are losing access to quality education.

The current climate of teaching in [district] is a microcosm of the state of our profession in South Carolina, and it has made my job, especially over the last two years, infinitely more challenging and stressful. The work of teaching is vital, and I sincerely hope that the administration of [district] is willing to do better in the work of advocating to protect the professional integrity of their employees than they have shown themselves willing to do previously. In particular, the wave of bills and policies currently under review at the state level, such as the affirmation of our existing no promo homo laws and the new parental trigger laws, will succeed only in creating a climate of fear and censorship in the classroom and in moving the authority of education out of the hands of educators and into the hands of parents. These bills are an existential threat to public education. Because the viability of our democracy is contingent upon having informed and educated citizens, it is not hyperbole to say that these bills are an existential threat to democracy. Students have a right to receive a quality education regardless of, and often in spite of, their parent’s beliefs. Our students deserve better than what [district] and the State of South Carolina are currently willing to provide for them. Teachers also deserve better. Teachers, however, have the choice to leave the profession. A critical examination of the expectations we place on and the miracles we expect of teachers is in order. I will continue to watch this examination with hope and idealism, but I can no longer do it from anywhere but the gallery seats.

Sincerely,

[Teacher]


See Also

Lehre Ist Tot

Mother’s Day 2022

There are sayings about power that seem true.

Power corrupts.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But, I think, these are mere shiny rhetoric because the truth is much uglier.

Power reveals who a person truly is.

Most power in the U.S. remains in the hands of men, white men. And we routinely hear male politicians invoke the “I have a mother” or “I have a daughter” to justify the truly horrible things they do to the detriment of women and girls.

Yes, we have mothers. But that doesn’t guarantee anything, any more than having power guarantees that having that privilege means the power will be used in the service of those without power.

For all her very human flaws, my mother was wonderful to me. Far from perfect, often wonderful, formative, of course, and ever-present in my being, even (or maybe especially since) after she died.

I am not stooping to the petty and dishonest “since I have a mother” argument, but I cannot in good conscience do anything other than advocate for complete body autonomy, complete human dignity and freedom for all women and girls in part because of the life my mother lived—especially her early life in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

And then my life with her in the 1960s and 1970s as I grew up—watching her daily live the reduced life of women, even as she enjoyed the privileges of being white and having the advantages that came with being working class in the South.

As elected officials—often white men and then occasionally joined by white women working anti-woman adjacent—continue to dismantle the autonomy and freedom of women in a country that shamelessly claims to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” I am emboldened by the weight of my own mother sitting there in the knots of my being that I daily try to ease.

She did give me life and she also passed on our shared anxieties—the racing mind, the never-ending “what if” thinking, the erosion of our bodies because our minds simply will not leave us be.

Motherhood is not the defining feature of womanhood.

Motherhood is the defining feature of motherhood.

Dishonoring womanhood is spitting in the face of all that defines womanhood, including motherhood.

Power reveals who people truly are.

In the U.S. in 2022, that truth should shame us all.


the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)

my mother has returned to where she began

wisteria (like a photograph)

Clothespin Bucket

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

2022: On Fear and Anxiety

“This one’s like your mother’s arms when she was young and sunburned in the ’80s/ It lasts forever”

“I’ll Still Destroy You,” The National

My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?


Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.


Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?


Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?


Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

National Days of Teaching Truth: May 2022

See a listing of 31 texts for May HERE (add in comments any text you will be teaching and a date; I will add to the sheet)

May 1: “Help me”

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

May 2

“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

National Days of Teaching Truth to Power

May 3

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

May 4

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

Recommended

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

May 5

Karl Marx: ten things to read if you want to understand him

Karl Marx (b. 5 May 1818)

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 6

The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde

May 7

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Maia Kobabe

What to Do When Your Kid Is Reading a Book That Makes You Uncomfortable

May 8

Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin

May 9

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone

May 10

Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, Neil Gaiman

May 11

Vision: The Complete Collection

A Vision of Being Human: “Am I normal?”

May 12

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” 1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

George Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008)

May 13

“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay

May 14

Maus, Art Spiegelman

May 15

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

May 16

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich (b. 16 May 1929)

May 17

“A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin

Time Magazine (James Baldwin, 17 May 1963)

May 18

Malcolm X press conference on deadly police raid in Los Angeles (footage excerpt, 1962)

May 19

A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (b. 19 May 1930)

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, later Malik el-Shabazz; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)

Caribbean Matters: On Malcolm X’s birthday, remember that his mother’s Caribbean roots shaped him

May 20

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

May 21

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks

White Lies, Black Incarceration, and the Promise of Reading in Prison

May 22

“We Real Cool,” Gwendolyn Brooks

May 23

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller (b. 23 May 1810)

May 24

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument, Caroline Randall Williams

May 25

Statement to the Court, Eugene V. Debs

Kurt Vonnegut letter on censorship

May 26

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

May 27

All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson

May 28

The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

May 29

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

May 30

“Incident,” Countee Cullen (b. 30 May 1903)

Banning the N-word on campus ain’t the answer — it censors Black professors like me, Vershawn Ashanti Young

May 31

“I Sing the Body Electric,” Walt Whitman (b. 31 May 1819)