What’s the Rush?

By Karen Uehling

Karen UehlingA high school student visiting my campus last spring mentioned that she will be bringing in a large amount of college credits from high school, possibly entering with close to an associate’s degree. Her parents were obviously proud of their hard-working daughter who they believed had saved them a great deal of money in college costs by taking concurrent enrollment classes. The student talked about how she had gotten “her basics out of the way.” It seems Idaho students are encouraged to enter college with as many credits as possible. I was surprised to discover all this, and I wonder how such students will do in upper-division courses at a university.

What is the impetus for this credit stampede? For one thing, Idaho is searching for quick fixes for its underpaid workforce who cannot or do not go on to college. This has led to national advisory groups, state task force reports and recommendations, local advertising campaigns, and more. Like many states, Idaho embraced Complete College America (CCA), and, in 2012, the Idaho State Board of Education endorsed “Complete College Idaho.” CCA, an educational organization, calls itself a “national nonprofit,” but to me it feels corporate in some ways, with its slick, professional website and well-scripted presentations. Linda Adler-Kassner describes movements like CCA as “larger, more powerful, and better funded than any writing teachers, or even any group of writing teachers, will ever be” (136); that description resonates with me. A key element of the Complete College Idaho plan, one still strongly supported by our governor in 2017, is the “ambitious goal that 60% of Idahoans ages 25-34 will have a degree or certificate by 2020” (AKA “60X20”). One element of 60X20 is the “go on” rate in Idaho, which refers to the number of students who continue to college directly after high school. Darlene Dyer, of Wood River High School in Hailey, ID, notes that “for three consecutive years the go-on rate has been slipping”: 2013, 54%; 2014, 52%; 2015, 46%.

In 2016, the legislature passed a resolution of support for 60X20, describing it as “a stretch goal”; however, the resolution carried no additional funding, even though, as a state lawmaker noted, “Idaho is still spending less on higher education than it did in 2009” (Corbin). And in 2017, the governor convened a 36-member higher education task force to support 60X20. According to task force co-chair Bob Lokken, “There is no way we are going to get [to the 60% goal] by 2020. . . . If we could immediately increase by 50 percent the number of people who are getting degrees every year out of all of our two- and four-year institutions, we would have to run at that rate for almost a decade to get to the 60 percent goal” (Roberts).

The 60X20 goal affects first-year writing in that so-called “remedial” writing courses were reconceived as co-requisite courses rather than non-credit, pre-composition level classes, adapted from the acceleration model of the Community College of Baltimore County (ALP). In addition to college acceleration, 60X20 hinges on alternative ways to rack up college credits, including AP courses, CLEP, and other testing mechanisms, and concurrent enrollment with a vengeance. High school students are encouraged to graduate as quickly as possible through challenge exams of high school courses and financial incentives: beginning in fall 2016, all 7th -12th-graders began receiving $4,125 to spend on extra high school classes, exams that speed high school graduation, exams that may carry college credit, and concurrent enrollment college classes (“Advanced Opportunities” brochure). And, not only is there money for concurrent enrollment classes, the classes cost less than regular college attendance: for instance, a teacher at Renaissance High School in Meridian, Idaho, stated that students “can take a class for $195 versus $600 or $700 for the same class on campus” (Beach).  Linda Clark, 60X20 task force co-chair, has stated that “Idaho has a unique opportunity. With a State Board that focuses both on K-12 and higher education, Idaho can capitalize on dual credit courses and other initiatives to encourage high school graduates to stay in school” (Richert). It seems extensive concurrent enrollment and related efforts are subverting the role of community colleges or the first two years of four-year colleges.

Secondary students can also qualify for a college scholarship for early high school graduation: $1500 per year skipped (brochure).  And students can attempt many college credits: “The Dual Credit for Early Completers program allows students who have completed all their state-required high school graduation requirements early (with the exception of the senior project and the senior math requirement) to take up to 36 college or professional technical credits of dual credit courses, 12 Advanced Placement exams, or 12 College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams paid for by the state” (“Task Force for Improving Education”).

In their book, Composition in the Age of Austerity, Tony Scott and Nancy Welch point out that projects like Complete College America (and its state affiliates, like Complete College Idaho) use “metrics like speed to degree of completion, loan default rates, and post-graduate earnings” (4). These ideas favor “quantification while ignoring or denying the qualitative,” assessment based on “scalable curriculums,” and scholarship . . . that cedes composition teaching to the realm of market algorithms and efficiency imperatives  . . . ” (8). This quantification of education is a form of speed up.

I have several concerns with speed up, especially concurrent enrollment. How can a high school teacher, no matter how skilled, take on the role of a college professor? Imagine a small, isolated mountain town where, as I learned a few years ago, there may be only one secondary English teacher who teaches all English, 7-12, oversees the school newspaper and yearbook, directs the plays, and serves as school librarian. She knows all the kids and the kids know her. She has lived in the community for some time, and she and her husband have bought a house, had children, and therefore she also knows the parents and other adults in the town. There is pressure on her to conform to community values and not rock the boat or challenge basic town mores. How can this person offer a college course for these students? Perhaps, in this case, prepared high school students could register for an online college course that at least would have a more diverse group of students in the class and would be taught by a college instructor—but how many high school students are ready for online courses? Many college students are not.

Another problem with speed up is the assumption that one time of life is primarily preparation for the next. If high school is preparation for college, then junior high is preparation for high school, and elementary for junior high; also college is preparation for grad school, and grad school, for a post doc perhaps, and a post doc for a career that probably has stages. So, philosophical question: when are we there? When do we live and enjoy the now? Obviously, I have exaggerated this, but taken to an extreme, education becomes just something to get through, not to be savored. I have met a high school teacher who believed that if even one student needed a review class in college then that meant the teacher had failed. Such teachers beg for a definition or a plan for what “college ready” means or requires them to do, implying that if only college instructors would tell them, they could make all students college ready. These teachers do not live in the present. I would ask secondary teachers, “What constitutes great secondary teaching?” Doing great teaching at the course level is the key, not rushing to prepare for the next level.

In short, high school is for high school and college is for college. I just don’t see how speeding life up helps. Potential students talk about getting all their “basics” done before they come to college, as though first-year writing and other first-year classes are mere impediments to real learning. What is “basic” in life? What are the educational “basics”? Security is basic. Trust is basic. Working toward goals is basic. Reading is challenging work, and engaging in conversation with a writer through the page is basic; that is, thinking is basic. These are basic qualities of an educated person, basic for a life.

Another concern I have is that minimum “adjunct” status is used as the norm for qualifying secondary teachers to teach concurrent enrollment classes. At Boise State University where I teach that means “a master’s degree in the subject area of the course” (Mongeau). There is also a professional organization for accrediting adjunct status for high school teachers in all subjects: the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP).  I wonder what accrediting bodies in each discipline would say about this accrediting body. In addition, there are recent incentives for secondary teachers to attain adjunct college status, including programs at Purdue and in Montana and Wyoming (Mobley). And high school teachers teaching dual enrollment are paid well below what even exploited contingent faculty earn: At my institution, high school concurrent enrollment teachers receive “an average stipend of about $800 a year for their extra time spent doing administrative tasks and attending the required professional development” (Mongeau). Contingent faculty are paid over $3,000 for a three-credit course (over $1,000 a credit hour), and beginning full-time lecturers earn $39,400 per year with benefits (Heil).

The problem of motivating students to attend college, is, in my view, intimately related to wages and the health of the economy; in 2016, Idaho was one of five states “with the highest percentages of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage” (“Minimum Wage Workers in Idaho”). Many students see little value in higher education, especially in a low wage state. In a 2016 survey study, University of Idaho researchers focused on graduating seniors with follow-up four months later. One key finding: “One-third of respondents were not fully convinced that more education would help them financially. Idaho’s average wage per job is among the lowest in the nation. Over time, the average wage gap between Idaho and the rest of the nation is increasing” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life After”). A respondent stated: “Life is hard. I am going right into work but without scholarships or any form of transportation I’m stuck in the rut of my life working to survive, saving lil’ by lil’ hoping to get an education and reach my dreams” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life Choices”).  A couple years ago, reporter Daniel Walters, in a fascinating newspaper piece, offered comprehensive reporting on why Idaho students do not go to college, noting Idaho’s isolated geography, attitude of self-reliance, dwindling number of good paying jobs even with technical skills, and low national ratings of public schools.

In an interview with the 60X20 task force co-chairs Linda Clark and Lokken, three key points emerged: “Idaho needs to do a better job of matching degrees to workforce needs. Many Idahoans still don’t see the value in getting an education beyond high school. A statewide information campaign may be necessary to drive home the importance of post-secondary education” (Roberts).

All of this begs the question of what a quality education is—at any level. We need to focus on great secondary English teaching and great first-year college writing and how both buttress a serious education.

Sources

Adler-Kassner, Linda. “The Companies We Keep Or the Companies We Would Like to Try to Keep: Strategies and Tactics in Challenging Times.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 36, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 119-140.

Advanced Opportunities BrochureIdaho State Department of Education. Accessed 25 July 2017.

ALP: Accelerated Learning Program. The Community College of Baltimore County. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Beach, Holly. “An AA Degree and Head Start on College.” Idaho-Press Tribune. 10 May 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Complete College America.“About.”. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Complete College Idaho Plan.. Accessed 25 July 2017.|

Corbin, Clark. “House Debates Bible-in-School Bill; Vote Slated for Thursday.” Idaho Education News. 16 March 2016.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Dyer, Darlene. “Go-On Issues for Idaho.” NCTE Policy Report: Idaho, 30 Nov. 2016. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Heil, Mark. “FY ’18 Change in Employee Compensation.” Received by Karen Uehling, 8 June 2017.

Hensheid, Jean, and Cathleen McHugh. “Life After High School.” Idaho at a Glance. vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2016. University of Idaho, McClure Center for Public Policy Research.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

—. “Life Choices of High School Seniors.” Idaho at a Glance, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2017. University of Idaho, McClure Center for Public Policy Research. Accessed 25 July 2017.
 “Idaho Dual Credit Program – Idaho State Board of Education” [brochure, PDF]. Accessed 25 July 2017.

“Minimum Wage Workers in Idaho – 2016.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 16 June 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Mobley, Kimberly. “Overcoming the Shortage of Qualified Instructors to Teach Concurrent Enrollment Classes.” National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. 17 Dec. 2014. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Mongeau, Lillian. “Students Get Education Money to Manage Themselves.” US News and World Report, The Hechinger Report. 6 April 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). [website]. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Richert, Kevin. “Otter Announces Higher Education Task Force.” Idaho Education News. 6 Jan. 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Roberts, Bill. “How Will Idaho Get More Workers With Degrees? Higher Ed Task Force Begins Search for Answers.” Idaho Statesman. 9 April 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Scott, Tony, and Nancy Welch. “Introduction.” Composition in the Age of Austerity, edited by Scott and Welch, Univ. Press of CO, 2016, pp. 3-17, DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c000.

 “Task Force for Improving Education.” Idaho Office of the State Board of Education. Final report. 6 Sept. 2013. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Walters, Daniel. “Why Idaho Kids Don’t Go to College and What That Means to the Gem State.” Boise Weekly. 11 Mar. 2015. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Karen Uehling is Professor of English at Boise State University, where she has taught since 1981. A founding Chair of the Council on Basic Writing (CBW) and frequent CCCC presenter, she has published histories of CBW and basic writing at her institution and articles on adult learners, teaching, and writing. She serves as the NCTE Higher Education Policy Analyst for Idaho and posts reports for the Policy Analysis Initiative.

Place Conscious Activism

By Cathie English

Cathie EnglishI never considered myself an activist teacher. My past understanding of an activist teacher resembled something from the 1960s akin to the anti-war and civil rights movements. To me, an activist teacher was someone who protested at political rallies or government offices and encouraged her students to do so. However, once I became familiar with the concept of place-conscious education, I began enacting community literacy that asks students to consider the culture, environment or economic issues of their community. It was then that activism became as natural as breathing. I finally understood that being an activist teacher is about student activism, that is, how did I go about asking my students to engage in “real life” issues in their specific locale. What specific instructional choices did I make as an educator to raise awareness in my students?

Those choices were made because of deep convictions or concerns about my community and a shift to a standardized curriculum. It then became second nature for me, each academic year, to consider how I might engage my students with members of the community and leave the four walls of Room 104 where I taught for 21 years in Aurora, Nebraska. My first attempt at a place-conscious unit was simply to have my students create digital stories that asked them to tell their stories of who they were in their locale, small town Nebraska. It wasn’t activism, quite yet, but through the digital stories, I learned that many students hailed from even smaller towns subsumed by our rural consolidated district. These students weren’t from Aurora city proper; they were from Stockham, Phillips, and Marquette, all villages that once had schools.

It was this trend in rural Nebraska that initiated my inquiry into the issue of rural migration. All around me, small school districts were consolidating and small towns began to lose the schools at the center of their communities. In the fall of 2000, when I returned to my own hometown, Silver Creek, population 480, I drove the main street across Highway 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, past the Catholic Church, and as I turned to look at the high school building, I gasped. There, where the building had been for 90 years, was newly planted grass. The three-story brick building built in 1910 was gone forever.

In Aurora, like Silver Creek, agriculture was the dominant work of the community. However, with the onset of agribusiness and the loss of most small farms in the 1980s, the nature of work that employed citizens of Aurora and surrounding areas had been changing for several decades and my students could expect more changes on the horizon. Prior to the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Jeffersonian ideal of the 80 acres of land to sustain a family was in a consistent decline. Many families left the farm, migrating to city centers. In the 1980s, farm prices were so low, that most of the remaining family farms disappeared, replaced by millionaire farmers establishing agribusinesses through purchases of thousands of acres and the use of advanced mechanization. Often, these were non-resident land owners with no connection to the locale and its culture, history or ecology.

With that in mind, my students and I focused upon an inquiry into the nature of work and how it had changed through creating work ethnographies. I asked them to write their own work histories and interview their grandparents and parents to record their work histories. Once we collected the work histories, we studied how work had changed in the community over a span of approximately fifty years. I had asked them an everyday problem, asking how the community was transforming because the nature of work had changed and would continue to evolve, affecting their future careers.

My students achieved a goal of producing citizen narratives contextualized within the community. We preserved the past through collecting stories about our work, but in the process of interviewing, listening, writing and examining data, we learned a great deal about citizenship. Even though some of my students would not remain in their small town, I wanted to instill in them that wherever they might go and live, they should learn about their locale and become engaged citizens of their communities.

The final community literacy project I conducted as a secondary teacher was an inquiry into poverty and hunger in Hamilton County, Nebraska. This project was inspired by a colleague who taught history, when she asked me, “What can we do to help the Food Pantry because they are low on food donations?” I posed this question to my English IV students and they took it up by first defining poverty and hunger and explored data for Hamilton County, Nebraska, and several major cities in the USA. Students formulated their own questions to ask before field trips to the Food Pantry and the hospital auxiliary thrift store. They asked questions of representatives of the ministerial association, the backpack program, and Habitat for Humanity. The result of their inquiry produced informational flyers and videos advocating for support of the non-profit organizations that assist citizens who are experiencing hunger or poverty.

In 2013, I left the secondary classroom and began my career at Missouri State University; one of the main reasons I chose this university is its public affairs mission. The public affairs mission has three pillars: ethical leadership, cultural competence, and community engagement. The goals of community engagement are for students to recognize the importance of contributing their knowledge and experiences to their own community and the broader society as well as the importance of scientific principles in the generation of sound public policy. Faculty are encouraged at every turn to include service learning into their courses’ curriculum. For me, this meant nurturing and guiding future and current teachers of language arts into awareness of place-conscious education principles and their focus upon community literacy through student activism.

In courses focused upon place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership, students in English education have heard community leaders speak about teacher agency and advocacy, (including a former state senator/teacher), community literacy projects, and issues of social justice. Over the past four years, teachers in surrounding communities have learned about resources available to them in Springfield by attending field trips to the Springfield Art Museum, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, the History Museum on the Square and Rare Breed Youth Outreach Center, that offers an array of services starting with the Street Outreach Program with the goal of getting at-risk and homeless youth into their Outreach Center to build a positive relationship and provide basic needs. As a teacher of teacher, my most important goal is transfer—helping these teachers conceptualize and then enact place conscious education in their own classrooms and communities. Often, future and current teachers are focused upon English/language arts content, that is, the business of teaching the literature canon and limited genres of writing to meet the mandated statewide standards and subsequent assessments. The act of enacting a place conscious curriculum is activist. If we care about issues of equity and diversity and justice in our classrooms, place consciousness is a means to differentiate instruction in powerful ways beyond a standard curriculum. One key of this pedagogy of place is that it can and does meet many of the national and statewide standards and contextualizes them in experiential ways as students work with citizens in their communities.

Southwest Missouri teachers have developed their own community literacy projects emerging from their study in these courses. Through the Springfield Art Museum, teachers have learned about the Place Works grant program and have applied and received funding to bring their students to the museum to view the art and write in response to it. A middle school teacher secured funds for a field trip to an outdoor space where students wrote poetry and later performed it in public. A high school ELA teacher worked with her class to create a community online literary magazine. She gave over the reins of her classroom to her students who became responsible for all the important decisions for their magazine. Students made decisions about whose work was published, how the web page was designed, how they marketed the magazine, who they consulted with, how they communicated with rejected authors, and how they publically launched the magazine. Another high school teacher won a Rural School and Community Trust Global Fellowship to explore Holocaust sites in Europe and brought back into her classroom the artifacts and photography collected, integrating a new Holocaust curriculum into her classroom. This past year another ELA middle school teacher’s students conducted oral history interviews with their parents or grandparents’ about their experience with school and how school culture had changed over the years. Another teacher explored the possibility of teaching a novel centered on a local murder case. Finally, a recent graduate of our English education program has his students writing about the literacy of work, e.g. “What kinds of literacy does a waiter need to know? A sales clerk? A cook?” The work or projects these teachers produced are the outcome of a required inquiry into place conscious and community literacy theory and practice. Through research, these teachers looked to their own communities’ and students’ needs to fully conceptualize what it meant to be a place-conscious professional.

As I prepare future teachers and work with practicing teachers, I emphasize this importance of community literacy and engaged citizenship. Toni Hass and Paul Nachtigal of the Rural School and Community Trust continue to influence my work with their concept of the “five senses” we must instill in people to live well: a sense of place, or living well ecologically; a sense of civic involvement, or living well politically; a sense of worth, or living well economically; a sense of connection, or living well spiritually; and a sense of belonging, or living well in community. They write, “Community is how we together create a story about our place.” Christian Wessier and Sidney Dobrin write that as educators “we have a responsibility to invent a locally based, pedagogical ethic informed and inspired by an awareness of the need to think and act sustainably.”  It’s essential for me to continue to consider the public good and ask myself, “What am I doing to contribute to the general welfare of people in my community? What is our wealth in common in Springfield, Missouri and surrounding communities? Is it not our most impressionable citizens, our young people?” For my students, future and current teachers of English/language arts, to enact their own student activism within their communities, they must be conscious of their place. Without inquiry into their place, how will they know this “res publica” or public thing? Before they lead their own students to make meaning about a place, they must first construct their own framework of the public good and what it means to be an engaged citizen. In a place conscious context, this framework might look different in each community where my students teach (or where pre-service teachers may teach in the future).  Each community will require a specific kind of activism. As activist teachers and scholars, we need to provide rhetorical spaces for our students so they can speak with community members and believe their voices matter. We must offer our students authentic inquiry, authentic writing, and authentic audiences. We must offer them a chance to join with other “real” voices to tell the stories of our community.

Cathie English began her teaching career in Iowa after graduating from Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska with a Bachelor of Arts in Language Arts. She taught secondary English in Aurora, Nebraska for 21 years where she also directed plays and coached speech. She holds an MA in English and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Missouri State University and co-director of the Ozarks Writing Project in Springfield, Missouri where she teaches English education methods courses and graduate courses emphasizing place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership. She is the recent recipient of the Missouri State University Board of Governors Faculty Excellence in Public Affairs Award. She is married to Jerry and has two children, John (and daughter-in-law, Amanda) and Anna, and four grandchildren, Joey, Rory, Benji and Lucy.

 

Composing in a Time of Violence: A Workshop & 2 Poems

By Eli Goldblatt

Eli in Maine_2For many years I have been concerned about how humans live with ambient violence. In some neighborhoods, violence regularly flares up on the streets or in classrooms or homes while in others violence is largely invisible or the artifact of TV, film, or YouTube viewing.   My early childhood was spent on US Army posts, where violence was distilled and represented by the commonplace presence of government guns and vehicles, what I call the “military sinew” of American culture.

Last year, Tom Fox asked me to do a workshop we titled “Teaching Writing in a Time of Mass Violence” for the National Writing Project conference.  We were concerned that teachers in many types of schools were dealing with students who had encountered images of war and terror and needed to sift through what they were seeing through writing.  I have since presented some version of this workshop in other settings.  After an appropriate warning about “triggering,” I start with a series of slides that suggest or indicate that violence or oppression, intimidation or senseless cruelty has been done or is about to happen in a public place.  I don’t show graphic details or gruesome scenes that may simply shock or provoke viewers. I ask people to free associate with each picture as it is briefly shown.  Once I show about 13-14 slides, I ask participants to go back through their words and choose, in each response to individual slides, 4-5 words that they think are memorable or particularly resonant for both sound and sense.  “Making sense” is less a priority than “making manifest”: the images are present for us, but their meaning may not emerge for a long time.  Then I ask people to assemble a poem of at least 8-10 lines, using the packets of words they generated, trying to keep the slide responses each as a unit but shuffling or shifting the units as they see fit.  The addition of articles or prepositions is allowed, but generally I discourage adding substantive new words.  I ask small groups of 5-8 participants to share poems, and then they choose 1-2 to share with the whole group.  This activity generates excellent discussion about teaching in an inclusive and supportive way that also allows for the range of possible responses—keeping in mind the possibility of “triggering” that can certainly be an issue for some students.

I include in this post 2 poems that reflect my own response to ambient violence.  Both were written independent of any workshop, but my ideas for the workshop in part come from my practice as a poet.

Salt in the Wound

Armored cars beyond the closed airport roll over

cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &

cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &

outside my kitchen a hidden bird hazards two quick

notes in dance beat & a twirl. Hummingbird drinks at the

feeder & next door the mom sets off with her kids to school

too late, too late. Time falls like this rain, & I remember

no opinion holds sway among wet lobed leaves of angel’s

trumpet.  Comfort to think there’s no plan; a mother can’t

 

intercede for her son painted above a church nave, within

a fiery lake or God’s bright triangle. In truth, neither frog

nor hawk stands a chance against a thresher, & no riot could

stop machines from gathering the harvest. Sometimes

everyone’s a real estate broker.  Don’t talk such nonsense,

little creeper with your cruel verbs, cramped handwriting,

preference for lists: beets & cherries, grilled pineapple,

smoked mozzarella, tomato slices topped with fresh basil

& kosher salt.  Soldiers love their MRAP transport,

high carriage & hardened steel underbelly

protecting riders from IEDs buried in the road.

 

Even before you wept

Even before you wept, you ate a meal

& sipped a blue-green solution that needed

neither heat nor light to turn rasping & impious,

elemental priorities sorted into enemy camps.

Foot soldiers sat by bonfires, cavalry bivouacked

beside their armored carriers. Birds sang in

the pre-dawn calm & anybody lucky enough to

remain asleep dreamed earthquakes splintered

pressure-treated lumber, rain filling streams

already clogged with anodyne silt, the weathered

statue at the top of a forested hill began to topple

& then fall headfirst into the ravine that had

been no more than a slender crevice between

two boulders just the night before.  I can smell

an acrid stew, hear protesters coming along

the ridge. Each holds a sign representing

the ache & candor you swallow in the

morning while the cats cry to be fed.

 

 

Being Present in Tumultuous Times: Mindfulness Work in and out of the Classroom

By Daniel Boster

Dan BosterLike most of the English teachers I’ve talked to in my career, I went into the profession because I believed in the power of the written word, the ways literature and writing could inspire me.  I loved reading from a young age, grew to like writing as I realized how powerful it could be, and eventually found my way as a literature and writing teacher. Over the past twenty years, I’ve experienced a great deal of joy and a real sense of accomplishment from teaching, and I hope that my students have had the same sense while working with me. I’ve learned a lot and have had a really good time on many, many days of my career. I’ve received compliments from students, former students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. I love teaching and many, many things that go with it.

But, of course, there has also been frustration and stress, emotional turmoil, and many late nights. As almost any English teacher would tell you, it is exhausting; the workload—planning, reading and grading papers, responsibilities to the school and to family, the feelings of never being “caught up”—can be overwhelming. With a certain brand of dark humor reserved for empty hallways on Friday afternoons, English teachers speak of dreading the weekend and then start loading up sets of student papers into their bags to simply give them a ride around town knowing that there will not be enough time to get to them, that they may very well go neglected. I often think of Frank McCourt’s description of “the life of the high school English teacher” in Teacher Man and, especially, his experience carrying home student papers in a “fake brown leather bag” that “sat in a corner by the kitchen, never far from sight or mind, an animal, a dog waiting for attention” (187-188). Every English teacher I know has this bag sitting in the corner of their cars, their kitchens, their home offices, their minds.

Now, having stayed at one school for more than fifteen years—unusual for teachers today—I find myself in a leadership position. As department chair, I have worked with my colleagues on all kinds of projects. In recent years, due to relatively poor performance on state assessments, we, as a department, have spent a lot of time and energy on preparing teaching ideas to help students improve their performance, especially on the state writing assessment. On one hand, I’m proud of the improvement in our students’ scores but I am also somewhat concerned, even ashamed, by some of the teaching we’ve done to lead to this improvement. I wonder sometimes if we’ve fallen into the trap of teaching “formulas” and of privileging this type of writing over the types of writing that we know and feel are actually more important and relevant to students after high school. I was often responsible for promoting the implementation of ideas in classrooms that I wasn’t always quite sure about, that I didn’t have time to consider fully. My fellow English teachers and I would be asked to write standardized test preparation materials at the last minute or be forced to teach to the test in our classes. In retrospect, some of what we prepared, while sometimes even effective in raising scores, didn’t seem all that all authentic or very likely to be all that rewarding for our students. In short, I often felt, and feel, conflicted and guilty about some of the things that are a part of my job.

During all of this time working with the teachers in my department and school, I have worked closely with colleagues outside of my school and my district. Much of this work has been done with the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) and the National Writing Project (NWP), and the teachers who make up these networks of dedicated professionals have inspired me to think about and rethink how I do my work as a literacy teacher. One of the core values of both NeWP and NWP is the idea that teachers should be active in their professional development through working with and conversing with other teachers. This principle appeals to me a great deal and has inspired me to be in continuing conversation with teachers in my district, in my community, and throughout the country.

In these conversations, I learned that many writing teachers struggle with what to teach students and how to teach students. The teaching of writing has always been incredibly complicated, and I don’t even think it’s possible for one teacher to fully grasp all of the complexities. It has been further complicated by the the accountability agenda that demands student “proficiency” on certain writing skills during their time in K-12 educational settings, and these skills are often different from what they need in college and in the workplace. But, as I’ve talked to writing teachers all over the country, I learned a great deal from my colleagues, and, even, developed some methods for coping with these demands. However, I continued to hear the frustrations about the time-consuming, emotionally demanding, even draining, nature of the work. Added to this was another recurring strain that ran through a lot of these conversations. Despite all this work, students “still can’t write.” We are working ourselves to exhaustion, and many teachers will say things like, “It doesn’t even seem to make any difference.” While I don’t necessarily agree with all of these sentiments—I’ve seen students grow dramatically as  writers–there was no denying that business leaders complain to the colleges that students can’t write. Colleges complain about high school teachers not preparing students for writing in college. High school teachers blame middle school teachers. And so on. I also work with a lot of high school and college students who, indeed, struggle with their writing a great deal. All of this, inevitably, can lead to a supreme sense of frustration, burnout. I feared the desire to quit would be next. It was this context that led me to focus on mindfulness practice in my own teaching life and eventually to writing a grant to bring local English and writing teachers together to explore ways to come to grips with the lived reality of our profession and try to restore some humanity and authenticity to what we do in our classrooms.

During my research, eight Omaha area teachers–full-time college instructors, high school teachers, and a middle school teacher–met regularly with a meditation teacher from Omaha’s Mindfulness Outreach Initiative. We explored many connections between mindfulness and teaching, and, at the end of our time together, I wrote a dissertation exploring how mindfulness practice and our conversations affected teachers’ perceptions of their work and how they taught writing in their classrooms. We worked to develop a set of pedagogical practices that embodied mindfulness and which, we believed, would be better for students.

However, things got even better after I finished up the Ph.D. Rather than searching for a tenure track position and fleeing high school teaching for the halls of academia, I decided to stay in the K-12 setting and in Omaha. I wanted to use what I had learned during this process and actually bring it to my own classroom. Furthermore, after the necessary post-graduation break, I wanted to work with Johnathan Woodside of the Mindfulness Outreach Initiative to make a permanent intellectual home for teachers interested in meditation and mindfulness and how these ideas intersect with teaching in general and teaching writing specifically. As I had discovered earlier, many teachers long for ways to think and talk about teaching that simply aren’t provided by the professional development structures of their institutions. Our group would be free-flowing, collaboratively directed, and, rather than aim for specific “data” or “goals,” we’d be reading, writing, and having conversations that seemed, to us, more likely to help us in working with our students.

Beginning in February of 2017, we started meeting one time each month for about two hours. Meeting at MOI’s retreat house in Omaha, after brewing some tea, and following a pre-determined agenda, often subject to wandering conversations, we explore our thoughts about mindfulness and teaching. We’ve read poems from the UC San Diego Health Center for Mindfulness, essays about mindfulness and meditation from sources such as Daily Zen and Lion’s Roar and articles about mindfulness in the classroom like this one from The Atlantic. One especially fruitful conversation arose from reading an excerpt from Mary Rose O’Reilly’s Radical Presence about “listening like a cow.” Starting with our June meeting, we plan to begin sharing writing that we are doing and developing mindful ways to responding to one another’s work. The hope is that what we learn in this process can be applied to our work with students.

Our work in this group is a simple and subtle way to be teachers, scholars, and activists in our field. We are not proclaiming that our work will have immediate or dramatic effects on public education in our country. We are not looking to commodify or codify any certain approach to writing, teaching, or teaching writing. We are looking for ways to be more mindful about ourselves and our work. While there is a lot to worry about in our day-to-day teaching lives (large class sizes, frazzled colleagues and administrators, students with troubling emotional needs) and the larger education profession (dwindling funding, a public sometimes hostile to teachers, Betsy DeVos), we are attempting to cultivate mindfulness as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  We know that our students need us to stay in the moment, to see them rather than a conglomeration of memories of students past. Despite the storm around us in our communities and the country, we need to find spaces to pay attention, to listen, to explore ideas authentically and with open minds.

We hope our group evolves into a “sangha” as  Thich Nhat Hanh describes one: “a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.” Our practice of the “dharma” here may not necessarily be strictly focused on the Buddhist teachings, but rather connected to the idea of getting to the essential, the elemental parts about teaching while surrounded by an awful lot of noise. We come to see our monthly meeting as a true community where we can discuss ideas about teaching that will make a difference to our students, that allow us to feel connected to our work as teachers even when it’s really tough. For us, it’s this type of active pursuit of understanding that will keep us getting up and going to school each day.

Daniel Boster currently serves as instructional coach and English teacher at Ralston High School in Omaha, Nebraska. He has his B.A. in English from the University of Texas, his M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, where his doctoral work focused on mindfulness and writing pedagogy. In addition, he is the editor of the Rogue Faculty Press 2012 publication What Teaching Means, a collection of creative nonfiction written by educators from all over the country.

Deciding Who and What Counts

By Emily Suh

Emily Suh photo SuhLet me begin with a confession: I have not taken an “English” class since my junior year of high school.  It was a literature class; we read Cold Mountain and The Things They Carried.  I think that I qualified for my current position on a technicality: I have a Master’s in English—as a Second Language.  Perhaps the Higher Learning Commission overlooked the full name of my degree.  I have been teaching developmental English for five years (first in three-course sequences of stand-alone reading and writing, later as a two-course accelerated, integrated model), but I wonder sometimes if my lack of an English degree makes me something of an outsider in my department and in my field.

I transitioned into my position as a developmental English faculty from my previous role as an adult ESL instructor because I thought it would allow me to better serve my students: adult immigrant, emergent multilingual students in beginning and intermediate levels of ESL with college aspirations.  Some had previous college experiences and degrees in countries no longer safe for my students or their families.  Others had limited formal educational experiences in the U.S. and abroad.  All of them recognized the lengthy and at times arduous academic task ahead of them.  Our multilingual, multi-level English as a Second Language class was grant funded through the Toyota Family Literacy Program, which emphasizes parents’ English language acquisition as an important factor in facilitating their children’s academic success.  As a result, the program focused on basic English language instruction, and parents who progressed beyond the partnering community college’s ESL level 4 were encouraged to enroll in non-grant funded classes at the college.

In the community college, my students joined the masses of adult immigrants throughout the U.S. who enroll in adult ESL classes.  Unlike the K-12 ELL support (if such programming can be generalized) a child receives through public schooling, adults who want to learn English and pursue their education almost universally must do so at their own expense through lengthy course sequences which have also been criticized for their sometimes equally lengthy waitlists, lack of academic focus, and disengagement from the rest of the community college (Crandall & Sheppard, 2004; Harklau, 2000; Tucker, 2006).  While frustrating, the adult ESL sequence is often lengthy out of necessity.  An adult learner who has native language literacy but no prior English instruction may require 500-1,000 hours of quality English instruction to reach a basic level of satisfying needs, surviving on the job and participating in limited English language interactions (Mainstream English Language Teaching Project, 1985), yet such a learner is still considered functionally illiterate (Tucker, 2006).  Furthermore, students presumably need much more than 1,000 hours to reach the proficiency necessary to enroll in college.

In spite these well-documented obstacles, some students do manage to successfully transition into college-level coursework, often times at the community college.  Community colleges attract a larger number of immigrant students than four-year institutions (Teranishi, Suarez-Orozco, & Suarez-Orozco, 2011), and first generation immigrants are more likely than Generation 1.5 or second generation immigrants to attend the community college (Hagy & Staniec, 2002).  My current college is seeing a growing number of these immigrant students who came to the U.S. as adults and are now entering the developmental English sequence.

In the world of adult ESL teaching and research, this population is simply referred to as the students.  But that label does not suffice when they enter developmental education.  The few researchers who have studied this group lack consensus on how to distinguish them from other multilingual students.  This group of adult immigrant multilingual learners has been referred to as “late-entry” and “less-skilled nontraditional” immigrant students (Casner-Lotto, 2011, p. 224), “foreign high schooled immigrant students” (Conway, 2010), “Adult Basic Education English learners” (Csepelyi, 2012), “adult ESL students” (ibid), and “mature English Language Learner (ELL) Student[s]” (Almon, 2015).  The lack of common terminology for this student group suggests their peripheral place within both the literature and institutions of higher learning, and I find these labels ranging from lacking to offensive.

These learners are no longer in language acquisition courses (whether an institution labels said courses English as a Second Language, English Language Learner or English Language Acquisition is beside the point).  Neither are they international students (a label which calls to mind highly educated and otherwise highly privileged individuals who have come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of receiving an education and with the intention to return to their country of origin).  The fields of TESOL and Comp/Rhet have become highly familiar with Generation 1.5 students (Rumbaut & Ima, 1988), but this group of students to which I refer is not Generation 1.5: they are Generation 1.  Further, they are not just students but “learners,” as in Knowles’ (1968) theory of andragogy describing adult learners who draw from a variety of previous experiences in learning which extends beyond the academic institution.  I, therefore, refer to this subset of the developmental population as “Generation 1 learners” (Suh, 2016), and I argue that their experiences as adult learners (i.e., non-traditional students) and multilinguals (i.e., English language learners with previous language learning experience) shape their preparation for and experiences in college classes in ways unique from Generation 1.5 students who were educated at least partially in the U.S. K-12 system and who subsequently have access to academic, cultural and social capital which is not necessarily available to their Generation 1 learner counterparts.

At the same time that Generation 1 learners may require additional instruction in the expectations for a U.S. (college) classroom or the cultural context knowledge which is often assumed in the readings, videos and discussions of the developmental English classroom, Generation 1 learners often bring valuable metalanguage for discussing learning—particularly language learning—processes, and because of their previous life and educational experiences, these learners also often can contribute greatly to student-led discussions of perseverance and other affective skills necessary for college success.

For the past five years, I have pushed for a co-requisite model pairing an adult ESL course and developmental English course.  Based loosely off of the CCBC’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), I envisioned the paired ESL course as providing structured support in the areas of reading, writing and U.S. academic expectations (i.e., citation conventions, participation norms, computer literacy, etc.) for the multilingual students enrolled in a section of the developmental English course with native English speaking peers.  For the past five years, my administration has told me that I need “data” to prove the college’s multiple current support programs are insufficient.

But deciding who and what counts as data is not a clear-cut task, and it is made more difficult by the fact that the college, like many other institutions, does not track students’ first language background.  Instructors’ anecdotal evidence of struggling multilingual students who are underprepared for the language demands of the developmental English classroom abound, but these can be (and have been) dismissed, often in ways which make the instructor hesitant to voice similar concerns for fear of being labelled “lazy” or “unwilling to work with diverse students.”  Through my practicum with the Kellogg Institute, I tracked the number of students who self-identified as “Non-First Language English” on the Compass test for the 2014 calendar year.  It was a labor-intensive task which involved individually searching for each student’s record to note whether the student had registered and passed/failed/withdrew from the classes.  But my findings were not specific to Generation 1 learners since the Compass data did not include age or high school information.  Certainly, I could have cross-checked the age of each of these students with their files to determine their age, but even this would not have told me whether the students were truly Generation 1 learners—they might have been U.S. high school graduates who took a break before coming to college.  Moreover, the task seemed pointless: an exercise in futile “data collection” by which the administration actually meant quantitative data of unspecified quality and quantity.

How many struggling students does it take to merit institutional change?

Recognizing the shortcomings of my meager quantitative efforts, I supplemented my numbers with interviews of 14 students preparing to enroll in developmental English classes and who had increased their test scores through our college’s Transitions Lab (an advising/testing/welcome center of sorts for students who wish to improve their test scores before beginning course work).  I had hoped that the qualitative data of my mixed methods study, delivered to the administration in March of 2015) would speak in ways my own voice could not.  As I have not yet heard back from anyone about my Kellogg Practicum (a brief summary of which was later published in the Journal of Developmental Education), I suspect that neither it nor the 340+ pages of my dissertation on the transition experience of six of these learners were the type of data that counts.

How then to serve a group of students whose existence the administration refuses to acknowledge because they will not collect their own data nor accept available data?

Our college’s move to a Chabot-inspired accelerated and Integrated Reading/Writing model leaves even less time for language acquisition, as we, like Chabot, have embraced the notion that “an active reading style is … more effective in helping students grasp ideas and meaning than ‘word by word reading’” (Chabot College).  While I do not doubt the veracity of this statement in principle, I do question its underlying assumption that all of our students are at a level in which “word by word reading” is no longer necessary for processing the basic meaning of the text.  For emergent multilingual students whose previous academic English reading experiences consisted largely of short passages (often accompanied by reading comprehension questions), reading an entire book-length text which assumes the reader possesses the vocabulary to understand the words and shares enough of the writer’s cultural background to understand the meaning is a daunting task.

It is not my position that such students should return to adult ESL.  However, I believe that it is negligent for developmental educators to not provide linguistically and culturally accessible material, or at the very least, the necessary scaffolding to assist learners as they transition to college and such reading and writing experiences through developmental education.

One of my students, a young Iraqi woman who has been in the U.S. less than six months asked me a few weeks ago why we do not have vocabulary tests and more grammar quizzes in class.  I began giving her the party line, listing the Student Learning Outcomes and Course Outcomes, and then I stopped.  The class is a minority majority class.  The class’ sole monolingual student has her own challenges with processing language and received an Individualized Education Plan throughout her K-12 experience.  That day, the students and I decided that additional work on vocabulary and intensive practice on verb tense agreement within our own writing fit the course objectives of “Improv[ing] reading skills” and “Practice developing effective sentences.”

Hear me out; I am not advocating that we turn beginning level developmental English courses into drill-and-kill remediation, but I am suggesting that attention to issues of language acquisition (and cultural academic expectations) have a rightful place in the developmental English classroom, and that developmental English teaching methods could be improved for many, if not all students, by attention to language acquisition theory and methods for teaching multilingual students.  For example, teaching grammar within the context of students’ own writing is the standard practice in many ESL programs today (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011), and it is a concept similarly embraced by Chabot and other developmental English programs.

Perhaps resulting from my own questionable English pedigree, I often feel a sense of pressure to forego conversations about grammar or verb conjugations in order to focus on the critical thinking, reading and writing skills which I believe are emphasized above work focused on form, yet in spite of my reservations, I keep returning to the basics of reading and writing.  While I am not certain that our attention to what many would consider to be lower order concerns will prepare my students for the daily activities in their next English class, I believe that our work will prepare them for success there.

Behind my closed classroom door, we talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  Behind my closed classroom door, we spend entire class periods unpacking an academic abstract’s new vocabulary words.  Behind my closed classroom door, we decode and attend to the lower order concerns that my students claim the greatest interest in.  I hope that my work and my students’ comments in course evaluations will eventually allow us to open the door and bridge the well-documented silos of adult ESL and developmental education at institutions beyond my own (Baynham & Simpson, 2010; Crandall & Sheppard, 2004).  Today I received the first sign that the administration is beginning to agree with my students’ decisions about who and what counts.  I was told that I will be allowed to teach a pilot of the co-requisite class I have proposed.  I am hopeful for the collaborations and open doors of the future.

Emily Suh is the co-chair of the Cultural Diversity Committee and Special Interest Networks Coordinator for the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE).  When not engaged in thinking, writing and working towards social justice, Emily raises her children and chickens; she used to have four of each.

References

Almon, C. (2015). College persistence and engagement in light of a mature English language learner (ELL) student’s voice. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(5), 461-472.

Baynham, M., & Simpson, J. (2010). Onwards and upwards: Space, placement, and liminality in adult ESOL classes. TESOL Quarterly, 44(3), 420-440.

Casner-Lotto, J. (2011). Increasing opportunities for immigrant students: Community college strategies for success. Valhalla, NY: Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.

Conway, K. M. (2010). Educational aspirations in an urban community college: Differences between immigrants and native student groups. Community College Review, 37(3), 209-242.

Crandall, J., & Sheppard, K. (2004). Adult ESL and the Community College. CAAL Community College Series Working Paper 7.  New York, NY: Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Csepelyi, T. (2012). Transition to community college: The journey of adult basic education English language learners from non-credit to credit programs.  (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest.

Hagy, A., & Staniec, J. F. O. (2002). Immigrant status, race, and institutional choice in higher education. Economics of Education Review, 21, 381-392.

Harklau, L. (2000). From the ‘good kids’ to the ‘worst’: Representations of English language learners across educational settings. TESOL Quarterly, 34(1), 35-67.

Mainstream English Language Training Project. (1985). Competency-based mainstream English language training resource package. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Nassaji, H., & Fotos, S. (2011). Teaching grammar in second language classrooms: Integrating form-focused instruction in communicative context. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rumbaut, R. G., & Ima, K. (1988). The adaptation of Southeast Asian refugee youth: A comparative study. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press.

Suh, E. (2016). Language minority student transitions. Journal of Developmental Education, 40(1), 26-28.

Teranishi, R., Suarez-Orozco, C., & Suarez-Orozco, M. (2011). “Immigrants in community colleges.” The Future of Children 21(1). 153-169.

Tucker, J. T. (2006). The ESL logjam: Waiting times for adult ESL classes and the impact on English learners. Los Angeles, CA: National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

 

 

 

 

From the Outside: Inside/Outside Strategy and Professional Advocacy

Seth_KahnBy Seth Kahn

This happens at every annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, the professional organization for teachers of college-level writing).

A conversation breaks out during the Q&A at a panel, or in a workshop, or at the yearly Business Meeting (or why not say all three?) that eventually gets snagged on this question:

Why can’t we get the public to understand and support what we do?

It troubles me to hear so many people who study persuasion for a living underthink the public (Hint: “The public” isn’t an actual group of actual people that anyone can address, y’all!) so much, especially given the quantity/quality of scholarship theorizing the concept. And I’m concerned that people who are otherwise very grounded and realistic about the possibilities for institutional and political change put so much faith in finding the magic words that will cure public misunderstanding of our profession.

Not to put too fine a point on it–we’ve said the magic words, thousands of times, to millions of people, in print and in person and on social media. Our best representatives, two of whom (Howard Tinberg and Linda Adler-Kassner) have already published here, have been arguing from our professional knowledge about writing instruction for years. Just telling the truth isn’t working. Understandably that’s a source of much frustration.

As a longtime activist/organizer, I’d like to offer a somewhat different (but not incompatible) idea–that Linda Adler-Kassner points towards in her recent post here, when she argues “building alliances” as a necessary step in developing successful advocacy. She describes a five-point process that can help us change what we all agree is a frustrating–even threatening– professional situation: Identifying Principles; Building Alliances; Framing; Focusing on Issues; and Working with Facts, Evidence, and Data. The Venn Diagram of Adler-Kassner and Kahn overlaps quite a bit. We fully agree that we need to think carefully about how we frame and talk about issues. Bless her for understanding that we can’t convince everyone of anything, and need to reach who we can. We very much agree that reaching out to like-minded people is crucial to any kind of success.

As clearly as I can say it, I don’t see our approaches as mutually exclusive but instead as an example of Inside/Outside Strategy (IOS). For IOS to work, the insiders and outsiders have to coordinate and be willing to accept very different premises, but there’s no reason why that can’t be true here. If we take Adler-Kassner’s proposal as a pretty quintessential Inside project (exemplified by her willingness/ability to take on national leadership positions in professional organizations) and what I’ll describe below as Outside (based on my lack of interest in a formal leader in pretty much any context), it becomes clear how we might line our approaches up–or at least helps to clarify what we need to know so that we can. One clarification is the focus-point of our models: for Adler-Kassner, it’s principles and values–the kinds of concepts without which alliances don’t have grounding to build from.

From the Outside, organizing and mobilizing are the center of the project. At the risk of sounding like I’m just trading metaphors, the heart of what I’m advocating moves away from alliances and towards networks (a la Hardt and Negri’s Empire) as expressions of collective power. Networks are complex and decentered; there’s no identifiable central leadership for opponents to aim for, which makes them much more difficult to squelch. Whereas alliances are expressions of shared interests, at least in my experience those shared interests become boundaries beyond which concerted efforts won’t go. Networks, on the other hand, afford (if not require) negotiations among different/competing interests–not demanding consensus, but demanding responsiveness to and coordination among differences. And, more importantly, locating processes for responding to those demands at the heart of their existence.

A recent and recognizable example of this kind of network is Occupy, which worked so hard to maintain its decentralized and anti-hierarchical structure that its members refused to name leaders, or spokespeople (see “The Kairos of Authorship in Activist Rhetoric,” a chapter I co-authored with Kevin Mahoney in Amy Robillard and Ron Fortune’s Authorship Contested). The encampments governed themselves via daily (and sometimes more frequent) “general assemblies.” At meetings where sufficient amplification wasn’t available, members would “amplify” speakers via the “mic check” (or “Human Microphone”), creating a literally nameless/faceless poly-voice. There were encampments in cities all over the United States in addition to the first at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, with little effort among them to coordinate beyond sharing resources and information. To be sure, these tactics have their problems and their critics. All I want is to envision a network in terms that are simple enough to work with.

The approach I’m describing brings several specific strengths to our advocacy. Most important, it’s more responsive to local conditions and variations than even the most flexible centrally-determined positions. It has to be, since nobody is charged with (or authorized to) establish principles from which everything else flows. More positively, it enables members at specific locations to articulate their own principles and to articulate shared principles in very specific ways. It doesn’t demand unanimity or consensus that centralized efforts do. When it works well, this approach creates a level of trust that people are working in concert, or at least not working directly against the efforts of others.

Here, I need to highlight another concept that feels obvious to me, but isn’t. For networks to function well, everybody in them needs to have clarity of purpose (another term, like audience, that rhetoric scholars seem queasy talking about very precisely). We want to convince “the public” of…what, exactly? And more importantly, towards what end? “Making things better” is awfully vague. “Stopping un(der)informed people from making bad decisions” is better, but not yet precise enough; if it were, we’d have done it.

A concrete example:

If you’re on Facebook or the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l), you probably saw conversations in late April about John Maguire’s blog at the Washington Post (I won’t link to it because I don’t want to send him any more clicks) in which he castigates “writing instructors” for our failure to teach students to write tidily–an old song. Colleagues insisted that “we” have to “do something” about “this,” rehearsed arguments, plotted out strategies for approaching the WaPo editor who posted the blog entry to talk about how we might offer correctives–all worthwhile thinking by great people. But where it kept running aground, and the question I keep asking is about purpose. If professionals agree that his arguments are wrong, what purpose does it serve to demonstrate his incorrectness? More directly–if I concede everything about a post in which somebody proves him wrong, what happens as a result? What do they accomplish by winning?

In the answers to these kinds of questions, the differences between the Inside and Outside approaches come into focus. For Insiders, purposes and audiences wait (if not chronologically, at least conceptually) until we have clear principles and evidence to argue from–in other words, unless we have something to say, the rest of it is kind of a non-starter (for the record, I know I’m oversimplifying this a bit). For me, the message (in substance, that is) emerges from organizing networks; the process of reaching out and orchestrating relationships with others–students, other faculty, managers/administrators, staff and other workers on our campuses, workers and employers in our cities/towns/regions, and so on–determines what we can say.

For example, in October 2016, my faculty union APSCUF (Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) struck for the first time. In the three or four months of  run-up to the actual walk-out, faculty all across our state system seemed concerned that we were “losing the PR battle” in local/regional newspapers. And we were: the Reading Eagle, and the Allentown Morning Call, and the Erie Times-News weren’t very kind to the union’s positions or preparations. The segment of the membership that was so upset about this wanted our PR people to respond to articles much more aggressively, correcting factual errors, disputing talking points issued by our State System’s spokesperson, debating in comment sections on stories, and so on. We didn’t do that. Instead, our leadership realized that the audience we needed was much more specific: our students, their friends, and their families/support systems. We were able to reach that audience directly via social media (that the State System never really touched or understood); students could interact directly with union members and leadership; we were able to organize with the activists among the student bodies on all fourteen of our campuses using technology we all use all the time already anyway. And it worked.

This ethos underlies my approach to pretty much everything, which is why I find it so frustrating when smart and politically astute colleagues struggle to articulate responses to arguments we all know are misinformed. We can’t solve the problems created by misinformed arguments simply by making better arguments because the arguments our best thinkers and spokespeople already make should be good enough–if that were the litmus test. Of course we should develop better arguments, to articulate whatever we can in terms of agreement about what our research offers, to establish agreement about principles that underlie our commitments to writing, language, pedagogy, and labor, to do more and better research. That, as I see it, is what Insiders are always working towards.

What the Outsider cadre brings to the effort might best be explained by Lee Artz in his essay “Speaking Truth to Power: Observations from Experience,” in which he argues that the speak truth to power trope is limited because it assumes a rational world we simply don’t live in. Instead, Artz contends, we have to speak power, and we do that by engaging in acts of solidarity. If you’re wondering how I’d apply that idea to the problem of the Washington Post, you should be. As I asked why people thought responding to Maguire at the Post website was going to accomplish anything, I kept getting responses that didn’t really answer the question–because all the answers kept making the same assumption: if we argue the right things, the truth will win. Never was there any sense that we might speak power. And that we might do this in any number of ways, most of which aren’t at all the kinds of angry-activist-dirty-hippie kinds of solidarity many people associate with being activists. That is, I’m not suggesting we picket the Washington Post office building until Valerie Strauss resigns, or March for Composition (although the signage is fun to imagine).

I am suggesting (as one example) that we use pieces like Maguire’s with which we disagree to catalyze efforts locally to convince colleagues that the ideas are bad–and having access to so many cliche talking points in his text and the comments helps us prepare for those conversations. Or if your local culture is one where pushing his piece out would create a mob of agreement before you could say anything back, then get out in front of it by starting the conversation about style and correctness from another opening point. Or, hope that nobody notices it and keep talking about issues that matter more. Or:

 

  • Use it in class. Talk with students about it. Listen to what they tell you about how it resonates with (or violates) their expectations for what they’re supposed to be learning. In teacher-prep courses, talk about the expectations it represents, how those are sourced or taken for granted, how they cut against the research and knowledge we’ve done, … all kinds of directions such a conversation could go.
  • Let the piece open–or broaden–conversations about labor issues (you had to see it coming). Under what circumstances would somebody willingly teach a curriculum based on Maguire’s book? From my perspective: lacking knowledge of the field or training in Writing Studies or rhetoric; lacking the job security to contest it; needing to simplify the expectations and demands of a program to make it easier to manage and assess; another list that could go on and on, but all sharing in common that they have nothing to do with what we know about quality writing instruction. Or read Sara Webb-Sunderhaus’ essay on involving adjunct faculty in curriculum reform, and imagine how that narrative might incorporate this text into the work she did with her group.
  • Ask your internship coordinator (or somebody in your Placement Office) to send the piece out to their contacts for feedback/reactions, taking that opportunity to engage in dialogue with employers about their needs, how they articulate those needs, how responsive any curriculum/pedagogy can be to their demands…. Again, lots of places that conversation might go.

I could keep doing this all day (and by the time anybody else reads this probably will have). What I want to highlight about these ideas is that none of them depends on “proving Maguire wrong,” or convincing any individual publication or editor that they shouldn’t have given him the space to publish the piece (or owe us the space to respond). That’s not to say I think those responses are wrong or bad. I just don’t think they’re sufficient on their own.

Seth Kahn is a Professor of English at West Chester University, where he teaches courses in writing and activist rhetoric, and serves his faculty union, APSCUF, as Chair of the local Mobilization Committee. He recently co-edited the collection Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity and has also co-edited the collection Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement. He is also currently serving as Co-Chair of the CWPA Labor Committee.

My Dog Still Loves Me

By Galen LeonhardyGalen_Leonhardy

My dog still loves me. You might think that an odd way to start off an essay on the greater glories of being a teacher-scholar-activist. The fact is, there have been days, months, even years… when the only person who really looked forward to seeing me was my dog, Wendell Berry, a black and tan beagle with a big heart. Seriously, challenging status quo ideologies in and out of the classroom has caused students to feel uncomfortable, colleagues to stop talking to me, community members to send hate mail, and administrators to question my sanity while subjecting me to a Kafkaesque kangaroo court.

Where I work, there are folks who hate democracy, detest critical inquiry, demonstrate contempt for research-based teaching strategies. The stakes can get fairly high: in 2015, administrators found me guilty of being a perceived threat and of engaging in a harassing technique of rude and obnoxious behavior directed towards authority… for reasons that could not be revealed. I was then sentenced to reeducation in the form of psychotherapy for an undisclosed behavior pattern to achieve undefined outcomes. I had been questioning administrative violations of state dual credit laws and writing narratives about my Kafkaesque experiences. My union leadership refused to take on the administration. Wendell was the only buddy happy with me… my only source of solace.

Naaa (to use a Nez Perce tonal pattern), that’s not true. My former teachers talked me through the ordeal. Bill, Victor, Dana… they mentored me, consoled me, made me laugh, helped me look at myself, to critique my actions, to believe in myself as they believed in me. Those three pushed me back into the ring to take and give some more. And I did have a few supportive colleagues. And there was my mom who, oxygen tank and all, told me she and her partner, Jodean, would personally travel from Idaho to Illinois to visit those who had found me guilty without meeting the burden of proof and give them all an earful. And there was my online community, the members of the WPA list, who listened, critiqued, encouraged, and invited me to publish, to write, to describe the horrid experiences, to tell the truth. All of these people reminded me why I do the things I do—fairness, justice, equality, liberty, inclusion… Love.

The good news is that, if it were possible for my administrators, my colleagues, the students, and community members to have gotten me fired, they would have. I’m lucky. I’m a tenured, fulltime professor at a public community college. I am what authoritarians fear, a well-protected, albeit small-time or, to be less harsh on myself, community-based public intellectual. Labor laws and some aspects of Constitutional law protect me, allow me to write, to contribute to the civic discourse of my community, to organize, to engage in labor-related, workplace-focused communications. I am an activist.

I am grateful for the reality that I had plenty of support and that I am part of a history of people who have spoken, are speaking, and who will be speaking truth to power. People in human resources and those they represent cannot just fire me for how I teach and what I write because others before me sacrificed much to gain the protections I and other academics enjoy.

Ultimately, it’s worth it. Years, a couple of decades really, of doing my best and the gentle guidance of Serendipity (freak chance happenings) have allowed me to facilitate or take part in actions that brought about changes at the college where I work and in the community where I live, changes that ceased the effects of racism (linguistic prejudice) as perpetuated though the horrendous outcomes of a departmental exit examination, changes that made our administrators recognize the necessity of dual credit laws, changes that include the voters’ removal of a board president who disciplined a colleague for his role as student newspaper advisor, changes to the way minority and non-minority students perceive the benefits of striving intendedly for ethno-linguistic versatility and the subsequent inclusive possibilities such a perspective facilitates.

Striving to maintain scholarly awareness has left my house in a scattering of partially finished editions of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, and JAC. I wake up in the early morning to read The Chronical of Higher Education’s daily briefings.

Unfortunately, the majority of my departmental colleagues do not read and cannot or will not carry on conversations about composition theory, assessment theory, pedagogy, or rhetoric.  There are a number of them who are simply the epitome of academic anti-intellectualism.  The level of ostracization and scapegoating from those folks has been horrid—for example, the chair of the department banging on the walls of my classroom while students sang a traditional Nez Perce Song and then calling the singing “caterwauling.”

There are a few colleagues with whom I share mutual respect. With the help of those collegial collaborators, written research, and experts from the WPA list, I managed to construct classroom-based assessments that showed disparate consequences in our departmental exit examination and a four-year study that helped me figure out that simply making eight-week courses places where students read and write could increase enrollee retention and success for minority students in my basic writing courses to between 87.50 percent in the fall of 2013 to 92.86 percent in the fall of 2016 (last semester), which was up from 53% in the fall of 2012 (the year prior to initiating my study) and above overall developmental success rates at the school, which were 72.53% (fall 2012), 70.48 percent (fall 2013), 63.97 percent (fall 2014), and 64.94 percent (Fall 2015). No, I cannot prove that the students gain increased versatility, but I can prove that the students complete the assignments and complete various revision strategies as a part of every assignment.

That is, my classroom assessments show there is a correlation between increasing levels of student success in my eight-week courses, which were all placed in the first half of a sixteen-week semester, and the pedagogical strategy of using class time for the completion of course assignments. I can’t prove causation, but I can say that the more I keep my mouth shut and facilitate process-oriented, formative assessment strategies, the more likely it is that minority students, specifically, and all students, generally, will engage in process-oriented learning, complete coursework, and then pass my writing courses.

And that brings me to my concluding remarks and to the concept of working with administrators. Not all of my administrators have been fearful authoritarians mired in obfuscation, fabrication, and retaliation—hallmarks of authoritarianism. Goodness knows, there are administrators at my small college who facilitate what teachers are doing. It would be great to spend an entire essay writing about those few administrators. But I am worried about endangering them.

In my context, retaliation is part of the authoritarian paradigm. Because I noted in my brief biography where I teach, this essay will soon be within the authoritarian gaze of upper-level administrators. Our “marketing” department employs web-creeping software. Every time I write an essay, “marketing” soon locates the source.  Not long thereafter, a warning is sent to our administrators. “Marketing” never notifies me that the administration has been warned, nor does “marketing” ever call to congratulate me. Because “marketing” creeps my pages and my publications, the administrators at my college know I’m published before I know I’m published. In some cases, that’s a good thing. (Thank goodness for those administrators who express respect for what I do and work to facilitate my efforts.) In other cases… well… let’s just say, as teacher-scholar-activist, it’s good to know that, at the least, my dog will always love me.

Galen Leonhardy’s work as a critical theorist, composition teacher, and essayist focuses on educational experiences, abuses of academic administrative authority, writing assessment, and on issues of race and class. He has contributed to four co-authored book and two self-authored.  Among others, his work has been published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, Truthout, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is currently a professor of English at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois, where he endeavors to contribute as a public intellectual, support the Catholic Worker Movement, and make time to volunteer with the QC Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.  He most enjoys spending time with his daughters, Sarah and Hallie, and with his wife, Lea.

 

 

Taking What We Know To Make A Difference

by Linda Adler-Kassner Linda Adler-Kassner

Like many other readers of this blog, I’m a writing teacher. I’m also a writing researcher, a writing program administrator, and (right now) a dean of undergraduate education, a position I think of as “administrator beyond writing.” I’m also the current chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the world’s largest organization of postsecondary writing faculty. (If you’re not a CCCC member, consider joining!)

As the chair of CCCC, I have the privilege of hearing from and working with writing teachers from across the country and around the world. Most of the time, what I hear is remarkable. Incredible curricular innovations, spectacularly creative work by faculty and students, super-human efforts to engage writing and writers in all matter of ways. I’ve heard about writing within, beyond, and around classes; writing in communities; writers producing beautiful, moving, inspiring, insightful work in all matter of ways. Sometimes, too, I hear about the challenges that writing teachers, program directors, writing center folks, and writing students face. These can include (but aren’t limited to) large classes, huge teaching loads, appalling salaries, problematic assessment processes that produce detrimental consequences for students and faculty, inadequate facilities. They can include practices that reflect implicit (or explicit) bias against different kinds of people and/or language practices, pervasive senses of stereotype threat. Because we work with language – and language is closely tied to identity and culture – what we do and the folks with whom we do those things matter.

The question for me, then, is what we can do about all of this. I’ll phrase it differently: How can we take what we know about writers, writing, and writing instruction – and use that knowledge to make a difference? To me, this question is at the core of our work as teacher-scholar-activists. The Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), along with our ‘parent’ organization, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), have spent a lot of time thinking about this question of late, and I want to highlight some of what we’ve done recently for other teacher-scholar-activists. Much of what I’m outlining here is described more fully on a site called Everyday Advocacy, which I highly recommend (and which was developed by my friend and colleague Cathy Fleischer, along with Jenna Fournel, NCTE’s Communications Director).

We know that difference-making needs to proceed strategically. By this, I mean that it needs to happen through a process that involves 5 parts. These were highlighted as part of the Taking Action Workshops at the 2016 CCCC convention, and you can find materials from those workshops here.

Identifying principles

First, we need to identify our principles. This means figuring out what we believe, what are our foundations, and what we know extending from those foundations. I’ve found the work of Marshall Ganz really helpful for this stage of the work. He refers to this as telling our “story of self.”

From this story, we can identify our passions and commitments. My story of self, for instance, has to do with being labeled a “bad student” – low grades, poor test scores – and feeling like a bad student (without the scare quotes) because of those labels. Years later, these experiences were among the reasons I chose to study what I do: How is literacy defined in different places, by whom, and with what values and ideologies attached? How is literacy assessed? What are consequences for learners (people like me, whose literacy practices led us to be labeled “bad”)?

Building alliances

Once we’ve identified our passions and commitments, we need to find out who else is invested in these and build alliances with them. I want to be clear here that this doesn’t mean finding people we agree with instantly. Especially in these tricky and troublesome times, if we seek to build connections only with those who share our views, we’re going to be in trouble. Instead, we need to learn about the interests and values of those who are invested in the same things that we are and try to make connections where we can with those others – without sacrificing our core values and principles, but with a willingness to engage from those to encounter new possibilities we perhaps hadn’t thought about previously. In a talk I gave at the CCCC’s annual convention in March 2017, I referred to a few examples of this kind of alliance building. I also should note that this kind of connecting might not always be possible.

Sometimes, individuals and organizations do have principles and values diametrically opposed to our own. That’s a reality of our times. But sometimes, it’s possible to bridge what we believe to be initial gaps. I know that we’ve all encountered instances like this, but I want to point to one I read about recently: a profile of a (student) leader on my campus , Oscar Uriel Escobar. One of the portions of this profile I most appreciated was the description of how Escobar reached out to the leaders of the College Republicans to engage in reasoned discussion with them. That’s a fantastic illustration of learning about others’ principles and values. (I’ll point out, too, that this profile was written by another UCSB student, Andrew McMaster, as part of his work in the Writing Program’s Writing and Civic Engagement minor.)

Framing

When we engage in this kind of story-changing advocacy, we also need to consider the frames that surround the issues that we want to work on – whether they’re the ones at the core of our personal principles, or those that we’re going to approach with allies. The Everyday Advocacy site provides resources to help with this; the Frameworks Institute  (also referenced by Everyday Advocacy) does, as well. Learning to identify frames and how to present what we want, not what we don’t want, is critical for taking action.

Focusing on issues

Another important part of this work is to keep our efforts focused on issues we can address, at the level or location where we can address them. Sure, I would like to be able to change everyone’s perceptions of writing and writers, nationally (or even internationally). But unfortunately, I can’t do that. What I can do, though, is work on this issue on my campus: in the writing program where I work, and in my own classroom. And I can do it in the work that I do every day.

For instance:

  • We can do this in the classroom. When we work with students to study writing – to analyze expectations of “good writing” in different locations and contexts (home lives, community sites, disciplines on campus, and so on), to consider how those definitions are associated with different cultures and identities, and to consider the implications, we’re helping students become agents of their own literacies. This can change their own stances toward literacy practices (like writing and reading) – a change in perception. Note that this doesn’t imply a particular political position (i.e., “liberal” or “conservative,” party affiliation or otherwise). Instead, it just means working with students to become more powerful, articulate advocates for their own literacies through a more robust framework for understanding literacy practices.
  • We can do it in our writing programs. We might decide that we want to take a look at the structure of the writing curriculum – at assignments, placement mechanisms, or other features or our programs. Assessments, for instance, send messages about what writing is. Some multiple choice tests, for instance, are what I think of as exceptionally reductive, sending the message that writing is about using the right “grammar” (i.e., syntax and punctuation). Others, like 2-hour timed writing samples, suggest that writing is something that is to be achieved in a short time, and should take the form of a conventional school-based formula (“compare/contrast”, “argument”, and so on). The scoring guides used for assessments also send messages about what is valued and not. Studying these, possibly changing them, can make a powerful difference about a program’s belief in equitable writing instruction and assessment. (My colleague Asao Inoue has written about this in his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment, which is available as a free download from the WAC Clearinghouse.
  • We can do it in our institutions, too. For instance, Alex Arreguin and his colleagues at Mesa Community College are working with Guided Pathways for Success, a framework that could undermine much of what we believe about learning and literacy instructions, in terrific ways. They’re drawing on threshold concepts of writing studies and The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing to work with colleagues across their institution. (There’s also a new collection on how others have used the Framework as well.)

Working with facts, evidence, and data

Of course, this also requires evidence, data, and facts (and not “alternate facts,” as one representative of the current administration suggested as the basis for some of their actions). When it comes to issues related to writers, writing, writing instruction, and so on, there are a number available. TYCA , CCCC , and NCTE have a number of position statements that address issues associated with working conditions, hiring, effective pedagogy, online instruction, dual-credit dual enrollment and other issues of policy, and more. These statements also include useful recommendations on things like class size, language practices – for instance students’ right to their own language and Ebonics training and research, online writing instruction policies and pedagogies, and more.

The National Census on Writing can also provide comparative data that often is helpful in making arguments about issues related to writing instruction.

Through all of this, when we focus on what we want, not what we don’t want, we can make our voices heard.

Making a difference!

Most important to remember through all of this work, though, is that no matter who we are, no matter what our status or position, we can make a difference. The keys are to work systematically and strategically. When we:

  • Work from our principles
  • Build alliances
  • Frame messages
  • Keep our focus on achievable issues
  • Work from evidence
  • Identify what we want, not what we don’t want

We can make a difference… small steps, but really important ones!

Linda Adler-Kassner is Professor of Writing Studies and co-interim Dean of Undergraduate Education. Her research focuses broadly on how literacy is defined, taught, and assessed by different groups (i.e., faculty, students, community members, employers), and the implications of definitions and actions for learners and learning. Most recently, this focus has led her to investigations of relationships between writing (and other forms of composed knowledge) and knowledge-making in specific sites like classrooms and workplaces. These investigations, in turn, become part of efforts associated with faculty development and literacy policy and advocacy. Adler-Kassner is author, co-author, or co-editor of nine books. The most recent, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (with Elizabeth Wardle), was given the “Outstanding Contribution to the Discipline” award by the Council of Writing Program Administrators in 2016. Other books include Reframing Writing Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning (with Peggy O’Neill) and The Activist WPA, which was awarded the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Best Book Award in 2010. She also has written many articles and book chapters on writing program administration, pedagogy, assessment, and public policy and writing instruction. Adler-Kassner is a past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and currently Associate Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).

 

Putting “The Public” Back into Public Education

by Howard Tinberghoward-tinberg

From the outset, let me say that I have no illusions as to the extent to which public support of education remains tenuous. Having taught for nearly three decades at a public community college in Massachusetts, I have seen first-hand the  effects of dwindling public support for higher education: exponential growth in the hiring of contingent faculty, escalating fees to make up for budget shortfalls, establishment of endowments and private moneys to pay for capital investment, creation of partnerships with the for-profit sector to build capacity, extension of dual-credit enrollment as enrollment outreach, and continued reliance on online courses to pad enrollments. All these developments are occurring against a backdrop of increasing calls for accountability—yet another reflection of strapped budgets, as every dollar needs to be carefully accounted for.

The recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos, a proponent of Charter schools and so-called “school choice,” spelled out clearly the challenge before us.  Indeed, DeVos is intent on extending her ideologically-driven critique to higher education:  witness her claim made that professors too often teach students “what to think.” In a trenchant reply,  Rosemary Feal, outgoing Executive Director has observed, faculty do not teach students “what to think” but rather “how to think.”  The distinction is critical.

Yet, amidst all this gloom, there is good news to report about public education. Take the confirmation of DeVos, for example. Yes: she was finally confirmed (bailed out by VP Mike Pence in a historic move to tip the balance) but I, for one, was heartened by Senators’ hard and thoughtful push back against her testimony. How often have we heard a discussion in the Senate or Congress that referenced the difference between the “growth” model of assessment and the “proficiency” model—the difference, that is between measuring how much a particular student has learned and the one-size-fits-all standard measuring student proficiency?  When Senator Al Franken (D Minnesota) pressed DeVos on her view of the matter, he brought into public discourse another critical distinction. Is it fair, he was asking, to measure all students, whose abilities and backgrounds vary, by a single, arbitrary standard alone? Or should we not see each student as an individual and tailor our assessments to that individual student? Should we not, he asserts, employ multiple measures of assessment? Shouldn’t assessment be used to improve student learning rather than provide, as Franken notes, an end-of-semester “autopsy”? How refreshing it was to hear a sitting Senator validate best classroom practice.

I’m heartened by other, recent events, too. In Massachusetts, voters rejected an initiative to lift the cap on charter schools, recognizing that charter schools siphon away funding from established public schools.  For those who claimed that charter schools are themselves “public” supporters of the “No on 2” question rightly pointed out that charter schools are under no obligation to accept all students. In what sense can they be considered “public” schools?

Despite competing against a growing number of charter schools, which drain community coffers and which are by no means obligated to accept all students,  Massachusetts schools continue to excel in the battle to provide equitable teaching opportunities across socio-economic lines,

I’m also cheered by a recent study conducted by Stanford University, Brown University, University of California and Berkeley, and the US Dept. of Treasure on the impact of higher education on students’ social mobility. Focusing on the earning power of students born in the 1980’s after their college experience, researchers were not surprised by this finding: that graduates of elite, private institutions earn more than three-quarters of American students—no surprise there, although students from lower-income households fare as well their more affluent counter-parts. But truly encouraging was the impact of institutions of public higher education on students’ social mobility.  James Kvaal, former White House Deputy Director of Domestic Policy, reports:

In fact, for every student who moves from the bottom to the top after attend an Ivy League or similar university more than 80 students achieve the same feat at community colleges or public universities.

I am not an advocate of judging colleges by a reductive and simplistic “Mobility Score Card,” a project which Kvaal supports, nor do I side with his call to reform developmental education without the funds to provide adequate academic support. I nonetheless support Kvaal’s call for continued public investment in Pell Grants and in maintaining college’s affordability for all students no matter the age or socio- economic bracket.

Other, positive developments would include the proposal by the governor of New York to make college “tuition free”  at state institutions for students whose family incomes are below $125,000 a year. I also note the recent call by the governor of Rhode Island to make two-years of college “free,” whether the community college or the state-sponsored four-year institutions.   Of course, college is never “free,” per se but requires public investment in institutions of higher learning so as to maintain access, fortify retention, and ensure that curricular offerings are academically sound.

Such gains will have little traction unless those of us who work in public education continue to be engaged in the project of producing good citizens.   I have written elsewhere of a trend among educators to disengage from the classroom—a decision driven by cynicism and a sense of powerlessness.   While those promoting privatization of public education have made significant inroads in the past decade, the “loss of the public” is by no means inevitable.   As a literacy educator, I will continue to promote in students a thoughtful and measured approach to the information afforded by old and new media. And I will continue to model for my students an earnest engagement with public issues.

Howard Tinberg is Professor of English at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass. He is former Chair of CCCC and the former editor of TETYC. He was the recipient of 2004 CASE/Carnegie US Community College Professor of the Year.

 

The Path of Most Resistance

By Danielle Helzer

danielle-helzer
Photo by Nate Helzer 

 

I started my career teaching high school English to freshmen in a rural Midwestern town. When I was hired, the curriculum consisted of a few essays and a handful of short stories and poems to be selected from the textbook. The “major” reading options were Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, A Christmas Carol, and The Pearl.

There was no honors or basic track in this school, so all 9th graders took English 9. This meant in one class, I had students reading at a post-high school level working alongside students reading at a first-grade level. Students whose families had farmed in this area for a hundred years sat next to students whose parents were undocumented immigrants. I had the most affluent students in the same class as homeless students. We were a diverse group, and our curriculum did not reflect this.

Luckily for my students, I caught the activism-bug during my first summer of graduate school. I was surrounded by teachers who gave their students permission to engage in the world around them and to question; they moved outside the canon and even worked within the canon to challenge their students. There was a contagious spirit of activism, and I wanted to take this into my own classroom.

I returned that fall armed with ideas and lessons that would go above and beyond the standards and encourage a kind of critical thinking and engagement which the current curriculum didn’t allow. My new, revised curriculum was starting to represent my students. The biggest change in the curriculum would be a quarter-long unit built around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I planned for my students to research issues that impacted their communities and then apply Dr. King’s four steps for non-violent direct action to do something about the issue they researched. Together, my students and I would plan a project night open to the community to inform the audience of their respective social issues.

This unit was a significant revision to the curriculum requiring students to participate in a project night outside school hours, so prior to the implementation, I showed my administrator the Dr. King text, explained my rationale, and reviewed my unit plan that aligned with every state Language Arts standard. I naively assumed he would be on board with the unit that was flanked with an historical text normally reserved for seniors.

“Sure. You can do the unit, but you’ll need to send a permission slip home.”

I blinked a few times and wondered if he was joking.

“A permission slip?” I questioned and blinked a few times, my mouth hanging open.

“You’ll need to send home a permission slip because you want to teach a piece written by a black man. I don’t have any problem with this, but people around here may not want their child to read it. And you’ll probably have to rethink the word ‘activism’–that word might freak some people out. You can try the project night, but you won’t get even half of your students to show up for it.”

More blinking. This black man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–a man who helped change history, a man who has a FEDERAL HOLIDAY named after him, a man who kids grow up learning about–even in our mostly white, rural, midwestern town.

Even though I found the request to be ridiculous, I sent a letter to parents/guardians explaining the unit and its final outcomes; I gave them the opportunity to opt their child out to complete an alternate unit. Not one parent/guardian opted his/her child out of the unit. This happened to be the only unit in the entire English 9 curriculum that had a 100% completion rate. The local newspaper came to interview my students and ran a story on their projects. The news station from a town 45-minutes away came to film my classes who were later featured on the evening news.

And their projects? They were damn good. There were the two girls who investigated a rare form of cancer and then put on a soup supper at their church to raise over $800 for a woman in their community who was diagnosed with this disease. One duo explored the link between fitness and overall health; for their project, they organized a 5k race (complete with police support, waivers, donated post-race snacks and prizes, and over 30 participants). The two donated all the funds to the town’s fitness center to help fund their planned expansion. Another pair of students learned that many teen drivers don’t understand basic car-care, which can cause safety issues. So, they partnered with a local dealership/body shop to provide a free car-care clinic where staff taught kids how to change a car’s oil, change a tire, etc. A senior repeating English 9 who was living on his own and raising a child, researched the impact of skate parks on small communities. He spent a few hours each week cleaning up our local skate park, documenting the before and after with pictures and interviews with local skaters. This was learning that mattered to students.

These 80 freshmen students who lamented that adults didn’t take them seriously, who feared failure during their projects, wanted to prove to their town that they were capable of good things, and their town rallied around them. People showed up to the students’ project night and genuinely showed interest in their projects. Townspeople encouraged my young activists to keep doing good work. They sent cards thanking my students and wrote letters to the editor commending their investment in our community.

Despite the results, there was resistance to the unit beyond even my administrator’s first hint of skepticism. A fellow English teacher took to social media to complain that the unit was not rigorous and wasn’t teaching kids English. During the unit, I led a training session for our staff on how to use Google Docs in the classroom. When I explained how my students and I were using it to complete our projects, a teacher interrupted me, rolled his eyes and yelled sarcastically from the back of the room, “We can’t all be over achievers like you…” While the unit was incredible for my students, it did nothing to enhance relationships with my colleagues.

I may have had permission from my administrators to do this unit, but I did not have their support–none of them showed up to the project night the first year.

Teachers who are embracing some form of activism or civic involvement will surely meet hesitation or even flat out resistance. But John Dewey wrote, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.” I’d be lying if I said the resistance I faced from my administrators and colleagues didn’t bother me. As a young teacher, this criticism filled me with self-doubt and made me question every choice I made for the next three years I spent in that district. It would have been easier to maintain status quo. This criticism, though, made me a stronger teacher even beyond my tenure in that district. It encouraged me to avoid jumping on curricular bandwagons, to pursue a habit of inquiry, and to always have an answer for why I did what I did in my classroom.

This unit was so much more than a one and done project for my students. For some, this was the first time they had agency, and they carried this sense of empowerment into other areas of their lives. In a post-unit reflection paper, one student who failed English 9 the previous year, explained that he had never been taken seriously before this project. He mentioned feeling like he could now do so much more, starting with passing his classes. A small group of students from my class later advocated to start a slam poetry team in their school, and a few years later this team from a tiny school won our state’s Louder Than a Bomb competition. Another group of students went on to raise money for a new music room and auditorium renovation. They worked with stakeholders in our community to hold fundraisers, to budget for expenses, to speak about the benefits of music education, and within a few years, they accomplished what they set out to do. This project did more for my students than any essay analyzing theme in The Pearl could have done.

Teachers: the work we do in our classrooms that meets the most resistance is often the most worthwhile, most valuable, most necessary work. Let’s be rabble-rousers. Let’s be the kind of teachers who run headlong into hesitation and resistance, who ignore the sarcastic comments, who embrace the the label “over-achiever” because we know this work is good for our students.

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Danielle Helzer is a writing coach at Central Community College in Grand Island and Hastings, Nebraska. Previously, she spent seven years teaching high school English, co-directed the Nebraska Writing Project, and served as an adjunct in a variety of English and Education departments. She enjoys cooking, listening to NPR, engaging in passionate conversations, and serving in her community alongside her husband and two kids.