Tag Archives: national council of teachers of english

Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance

“It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”
James Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back”

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I had a standing commitment shared with my students: I taught with my door open.

This may not sound that radical, but I want to offer two points of context: (i) I taught with a colleague who always kept the door locked (and advocated that all other teachers do that also to create a barrier for drop-in visits by administrators), and (ii) I taught in ways not supported by my school as well as allowing student behavior explicitly punishable by school rules (eating and drinking in class, for example).

This context of my years as an English teacher came back to me during my session at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English. At the end of the session, including Sean Connors (University of Arkansas) and Nita Schmidt (University of Iowa), the audience discussion turned to a tradition in teaching that likely is doing us great harm: teaching with our doors shut as an act of resistance (since we use the shut doors to implement practices counter to mandates).

Let me offer two moments from the history of teaching English before making a call for teaching with our doors open as acts of resistance.

Around 1931-1932, English educator (and 1954 NCTE president) Lou LaBrant taught while working on her doctorate at Northwestern University. In her unpublished memoir housed with her papers at the Museum of Education (University of South Carolina), LaBrant recalled a powerful—and disturbing—situation she encountered with her roommate, a Spanish teacher at her school.

Since the school had a prescriptive curriculum (including required books, etc.) and a standard assessment system based on that curriculum, LaBrant and her roommate fabricated an entire year’s lesson plans to conform to the mandates, but then implemented what LaBrant called progressive practices throughout the year (LaBrant did not require the books provided, allowing choice in reading and writing instead, for example).

In one respect, LaBrant and her roommate represent the all-too-common “shut your door and teach the way you believe.” But the disturbing aspect is that LaBrant’s students scored exceptionally high at the end of the year on the mandated assessment, prompting the administration to highlight how well LaBrant implement the requirements—and thus attributing the students’ success to the prescribed curriculum LaBrant did not implement.

Now let’s jump forward about 40 years to what Stephen Krashen calls Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92.

Krashen and Regie Routman have both detailed how problematic “shut your door and teach” can be when we consider literacy policy.

While many blamed whole language as a policy commitment in California for the literacy test score drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Krashen explains:

Did teachers change their ways in California? Nobody really knows. There have been no empirical studies comparing methodology in language arts teaching before and after the 1987 committee met. (p. 749)

Routman is more direct:

So while the California framework…recommended the teaching of skills in context (as opposed to isolation), in actuality, the teacher training to empower all teachers to do this successfully was insufficient. In addition, the framework was widely misinterpreted. (p. 19)

At best, then, we can say about whole language implementation in California: (i) we have no firm data on if it was practiced, (ii) few teachers were adequately trained to implement whole language, and (iii) evidence suggests whole language was misunderstood often. Ultimately, California failed whole language, but whole language did not fail California—in part, because so many teachers shut their doors and teach.

This highlights a central tension around teacher agency and professionalism within a culture that demands teachers to be not political, not activists: Implementing mandates is not the work of professionals, notably when teachers and the research base for a field are excluded from how the policies are created within a partisan political arena (that teachers are deterred from entering as professionals).

My solution, then, is that teachers must begin to embrace and embody their professional selves by teaching with the doors open, especially when our practices reject flawed policy and mandates. Additionally, we must make transparent more credible artifacts of students learning, and not simply rely on the high-stakes testing data also used to de-professionalize teachers.

Teaching with our doors open creates agency where the system has denied it; teaching with our doors open offers direct alternatives to the practices we reject, to practices not supported by the evidence of our field; and teaching with our doors open models for our students how professionals behave.

While there is understandable refuge in teaching with our doors closed—historical and current forces that have worked to deny teachers their voices, their professionalism—it will only be through teaching with our doors open that we can both serve our students well and create a lever to reclaim our profession.

See Also

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession


#NCTE14 MOH: The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

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.

Works Cited

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.

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

Several years before I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, Jeanne Gerlach and Virginia Monseau published Missing Chapters: Ten Pioneering Women in NCTE and English Education for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 1991).

Their important volume included a chapter on LaBrant by England and West, but the project also produced a recorded interview of LaBrant when she was 100, a gold mine for my biographical work.

Jeanne and I became good friends because of our love of English teaching, history, and the people who have created that history. But one of our frequent conversations was about a claim by LaBrant in the interview: LaBrant was adamant that during her life that spanned the 1880s into the 1990s she had never once experienced sexism.

LaBrant, Jeanne and I agreed, was so determined and assertive as a person that this claim was both a perfect example of who LaBrant was and completely unbelievable.

So when I read Charles Blow’s Op-Ed on Clarence Thomas denying racism—in the 1960s and today—I thought of LaBrant.

Thomas’s assertion about racism reminds me of LaBrant’s about sexism, but it also strikes a cord about the pervasive responses I receive to much of my public writing about race, class, and poverty.

Two comments recur: (1) Why does it always have to be about race?, and (2) I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think the problem is class, not race.

The first comment tends to prompt me to want to say, Why is it never about race? But I suspect people who offer that first response are unlikely to listen to anything.

Thus, it is the second response where I believe raising a few questions has the potential for helping people who deny racism today see that they have a serious evidence problem.

Let me start by returning to Blow’s central thesis when responding to Thomas:

One thing that I will submit, however, is that the emphasis must shift from discussions of interpersonal racism — which I would argue are waning as they become more socially unacceptable — to systemic and institutional biases, which remain stubbornly infused throughout the culture.

Interpersonal incidents of racism are easy to identify and condemn, particularly as their prevalence dwindles. We do hear too much about these at the expense of discussions about the systemic and institutional biases that are harder to see — it’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem — and that rarely have individual authors. This bias is obscured by anecdote but quite visible in the data sets.

The evidence, I acknowledge, supports Blow’s assertion that “interpersonal racism” is “waning” but that “systemic and institutional” racism remains powerful and must be confronted.

My caveat to waning interpersonal racism is that overt racism certainly suffers much greater public scorn than in the fairly recent past, but as the Richard Sherman “thug” incident (and the Michael Dunn shooting of Jordan Davis prompted by “thug music”) shows, racism on the interpersonal level still persists beneath more socially accepted codes.

Systemic and institutional racism, however, poses a greater evidence problem for racism deniers.

For those who insist that racism no longer exists, even at the systemic or institutional level, I have a series of questions that must be answered:

  1. Please read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Why are African Americans arrested and incarcerated for drug use at rates much higher than whites, even though African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates? Why do police target African American neighborhoods for drug sweeps, and not college dorms?
  2. Please examine the prison incarceration data by race. White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but per 100,000 people in each racial group, 2207 African Americans to 380 whites (nearly an inverse proportion of 6 to 1) constitute that prison population (2010 data). Since there are also more whites in poverty than African Americans (about 2 to 1, 2011-2012 data), what accounts for the inequity of these numbers by race? If incarceration is a function of class and not race, the prison population should be about 2 whites to 1 African American.
  3. Please examine data on discipline rates, access to courses and teachers, and retention rates in U.S. schools; for example, “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.” Why such inequity by race in schools, inequities that foreshadow the incarceration inequities?

Are issues related to race different in 2014 when compared to the 1960s? Yes, in many ways, some of the more overt aspects of blatant racism have been confronted—although the consequences of that development have also masked racism—and racism no longer finds refuge in statutes.

To answer the questions above is to confront the evidence and then to offer answers that I suspect racism deniers simply do not want to admit—despite the inevitable conclusion that racism remains a powerful marker for inequitable consequences throughout society and within institutions.

Blow ends his Op-Ed with: “Simplistic discussions about race — both those that are history-blind and those that give insufficient weight to personal choices — do nothing to advance understanding. They obscure it.”

To that I add, denying racism does not end it, but that denial obscures it as well.

Saying something doesn’t exist will not make that true; it is a sort of word magic that reinforces the unacknowledged status quo.

The evidence shows systemic and institutional racism persists and is powerful. To end racism, we must first name it.


The Good, Racist People, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Leonard Pitts Jr.: How ‘thug’ has become a ‘safe’ racial slur

The Bias Against Black Bodies, Charles Blow

See Also

Race Inequality in America by Graph, from Crime Sentencing to Income

Safe Spaces for Teachers’ Professional Voices in a Public Sphere

It is a bittersweet irony that words are mostly inadequate to express my appreciation to be nominated for and then recognized with the National Council of Teachers of English 2013 George Orwell Award—”established in 1975 and given by the NCTE Public Language Award Committee, recognizes writers who have made outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse.”

I am first humbled to be added to the powerful list of previous winners. I also fear I pale in comparison, but having been included, I now take on the obligation of fulfilling this recognition that my work does belong here.

So let me highlight briefly that the 2013 Orwell Award directly recognizes my blogging, identifying Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence.

As both public intellectual work and a part of New Media, my blogging is fraught with minefields in the context of my life as a university professor  and scholar as well as my status as a teacher, identifying myself always as someone who spent 18 years teaching in a rural public high school in South Carolina.

Public intellectual work and blogging remain marginalized ways of being for academics and scholars, while they both are risky ventures for public school teachers.

I am cautiously optimistic that NCTE’s Orwell Award this year is about much more than me—it is about the New Media of blogging and about the importance of professional voices in public spheres.

And thus we have two obligations before us as educators, scholars, and academics:

  1. We must work diligently to create safe spaces for all teachers’ voices in public spheres. Currently, safe spaces exist for tenured professors (my status), but such is not the case for public school teachers and their students; as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
  2. And once those safe spaces are created, teachers must bring our individual and collective professional voices to the public sphere.

Because, as Orwell cautioned, public discourse is dominated by partisan political voices and “[p]olitical language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Professional teachers’ voices in the public sphere must, as NCTE suggests “[contribute] to honesty and clarity in public language” as a form of resistance to the continued failure of partisan political discourse, especially as that partisan political discourse impacts our public school, our public teachers, and our public school students.

Thank You, Ken Lindblom (and Others)

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.