English Journal, Vol. 104, No. 2, November 2014
Poem: the kindness school (beyond the archeology of white people, pt. 2)
A Moment in NCTE History – NCTE Annual Convention
Washington DC, 2014
Paul Thomas, Council Historian
Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting, 2014 Annual Convention
The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”
In late November of 2003, I sat on the floor in a crowded luncheon just a few feet and slightly behind Adrienne Rich, speaking and reading her poetry at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held that year in San Francisco. Appropriately, Rich was reading from her then-upcoming collection, The School among the Ruins, and talking about teaching, teachers, and education. I was struck by many things that day, but one of Rich’s most enduring messages from her Arts of the Possible confronts our choices about education in the U.S.:
Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (162)
If anything, history is a tapestry of choices—the story of human commitments, choices that shape us. Universal public education in the U.S. is such a tapestry of choices, choices about the possible as well as the possible ignored.
Writing in the November 1985 English Journal, novelist Walter Dean Myers reflected on his journey to loving literature:
I would read a library book under my desk with the assigned text on the desk itself. It happened that I had no library book one day, but I had discovered a store which sold used paperbacks for ten cents a piece. The cover of the book I had selected featured a young woman, sword in hand, blouse carelessly pulled down from her shoulder, standing before a billowing mainsail….
Now, I’d like to think that I read today because I enjoy the finer things in literature. I’m sure that’s the case. I remember, years later, icebound on a cargo ship on Baffin Bay, I actually experienced Coleridge’s “wondrous cold” and the “dismal sheen” of Arctic fog. But sometimes…sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t reading for at least a few years, at just the right time in my life, in hopes that I would find another really juicy line the likes of “he silently padded over her.” (93-94)
And then in 2014, the year he passed away on July 1 just a month and one day before James Baldwin would have turned 90, Myers returned to why he loved literature, why he wrote in“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”:
But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….
But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….
Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.
And thus, Myers in the January 2005 English Journal explained: “As a writer I especially want to reach the uninspired reader. I believe it is vital for the country and important for social order, and I relish my shared experiences with inner-city youths” (37).
Like Myers, Rich wrote in 2004 about Baldwin in her “The Baldwin Stamp.” Rich had encountered Baldwin’s work when she was 19, and then met him personally in 1980, explaining, “I did not need to introduce myself to Baldwin nor raise my hand in a question. His work was what I needed” (51). Later, Rich adds,
Baldwin was a moralist, a role which many writer today are apparently uncomfortable, since morality has become hostage of various fundamentalisms, or Hollywood/TV “good guys and “bad guys,” or relegated to the critical trash heap of “post-” discards. But there was no self-righteous or simplistic moral scenario for him. (52)
In the U.S. where our streets and schools are increasingly hostile to young black males—the threat of being shot and killed by the exact police meant to protect them or destined to be suspended, expelled, or failed by the exact schools meant to teach them—we teachers of English, among all teachers, have become hostage to yet another era of accountability, standards, and tests that keep us from our central calling—one identified by Rich and Myers, one voiced by Baldwin at the Non Violent Action Committee Los Angeles (December 18, 1964): “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.”
With each passing moment, we are contributing to the ever-growing tapestry of history, too often adding the possible ignored. Instead, let’s create the possible; let’s offer our students those mirrors for their quests for their own identities.
In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (97). The possible, then, resides in the words of Rich, Myers, and Baldwin and the faces of our students who come to our classes seeking themselves.
LaBrant, Lou. “Language Teaching in a Changing World.” The Elementary English Review 20.3 (1943, March): 93–97. Print.
Myers, Walter Dean. “How I Came to Love English Literature.” English Journal (1985, November): 93-94. Print.
Myers, Walter Dean. “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The New York Times (2014, March 15). Web.
Myers, Walter Dean. “Writing for the Uninspired Reader.” English Journal 94.3 (2005, January): 36-38. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
English Journal, a flagship publication from NCTE, is currently under the outstanding editorship of Julie and David Gorlewski—who have followed the stellar work of the previous editor, Ken Lindblom.
I want to urge special attention to the current issue: English Journal, Vol. 103, No. 2, November 2013—Choices and Voices: Teaching English in a Democratic Society.
As well, I must highlight some of the articles:
Children Giving Clues, Susan Ohanian
Abstract: Frustrated with the restrictive nature of the Common Core Standards, the author calls on teachers to resist a system that denies them and their students access to what teaching and learning should be about.
Access to Books and Time to Read versus the Common Core State Standards and Tests, Stephen Krashen
Abstract: The author argues that access to books and time to read play a vital role in literacy development and explains why standardized tests are detrimental to students’ literacy development.
Evaluating the Democratic Merit of Young Adult Literature: Lessons from Two Versions of Wes Moore’s Memoir, Amanda Haertling Thein, Mark A. Sulzer, and Renita Schmidt
Abstract: The authors compare a memoir intended for adults with another on the same subject meant for a teen readership and argue that didactic YA literature grounded in a developmental stage model of adolescence is undemocratic.
Speaking Truth to Power: Our American Future: Creating Critical Citizens in a Democratic Nation, Amanda Pepper
Abstract: This column seeks to explore the experiences and possibilities that arise when educators speak Truth to power.
For my January 15, 2014, CALL for my English Journal column, Speaking Truth to Power, I am seeking a column that combines the column focus with the special issue, with guest editors Alan Brown and Chris Crowe and focusing on the theme “A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom.”
Please contact me with a query or draft that combines these elements as detailed below.
Editor: P. L. Thomas
“If education cannot do everything, there is something fundamental that it can do. In other words, if education is not the key to social transformation, neither is it simply meant to reproduce the dominant ideology. . . . The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated. . . . We are speaking of that invisible power of alienating domestication, which attains a degree of extraordinary efficiency in what I have been calling the bureaucratizing of the mind” (110–11). (Freire, 1998, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage)
This column seeks to explore the experiences and possibilities that arise when educators speak Truth to power. It is also intended to be an avenue for teachers to speak Truth to power through teacher narratives about the “the bureaucratizing of the mind,” about best practice in critical literacy against scripted and tested literacy, and about creating classrooms that invite students to discover, embrace, and develop their own voices and empowerment.
Submit an electronic Word file attached to your email to the column editor, P. L. Thomas, email@example.com.
A Whole New Ballgame: Sports and Culture in the English Classroom
Deadline: January 15, 2014
Publication Date: September 2014
Guest Editors: Alan Brown and Chris Crowe
Love sports or hate them, it’s hard to deny their prominence in American society and their popularity with 21st-century adolescents. Interscholastic athletics in particular can play a significant role in the overall culture of a school and have a substantial impact on students’ daily lives. Despite this influence, the topic of sports in society is often absent from the professional conversations of English teachers, an exclusion that could prove to be a missed opportunity. This issue will examine the possibilities for both utilizing and critiquing the culture of sports as a means of increasing student engagement and promoting student learning in the English classroom. Within this context, we seek manuscripts that explore the intersection of literacy, sport, culture, and society, and we encourage column submissions devoted to this same theme.
A number of important questions guide this issue: What connections or disconnections exist between the perceived physical nature of athletics and the mental nature of academics? What real-world associations have you made between sports and the English curriculum? How can sports-related texts (e.g., young adult literature, canonical literature, graphic novels, poetry, nonfiction, magazines, newspapers) be integrated into the academic culture of an English class? How have you promoted the teaching of 21st-century skills through the use of sports-related media, film, and technology? What possibilities exist for interdisciplinary (e.g., historical, political, scientific, social) connections to sports across content areas? How have you engaged students in critical dialogue about our societal emphasis on sports? How can we extend the definition of sport to be more inclusive for students of diverse cultures, races, genders, ethnicities, and abilities? How can an examination of sports culture open the door to discussions of other cultures that exist in school and society?
I met Ken Lindblom at a national convention, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) meeting in San Francisco 2003, if I recall correctly.
My relationship with NCTE has been complex because the people and opportunities NCTE has brought to me have been many and wonderful, but the organization itself has often failed what I believe are key commitments.
Nonetheless, I have served as a column editor under Ken’s brilliant tenure as editor of English Journal. His work has been stellar, and I am honored to have been a very small part of this work.
My last piece for this column, Adventures with Text and Beyond, pulls together my argument about the need to recognize and celebrate a wider context for what counts as text. But it also acknowledges the work of Adam Bessie, Dan Archer, and the spectacular graphic scholarship of Nick Sousanis.
For all his support and inspiring work, I want to thank Ken for being the sort of colleague every scholar should experience. I also want to thank Adam, Dan, and Nick for their brilliant work—work that pushes me to seek out the heights they have attained.
Finally, I want to thank Julie and David Gorlewski, incoming editors at EJ because, like Ken, they have become supportive friends/colleagues who have allowed me to remain a column editor at EJ—Speaking Truth to Power.
It is because of this community of educators, scholars, and artists that I hold onto my hope that some day we fulfill the promises of universal public education and democracy for which these good friends work each day.