All posts by Bill Bystricky

Teaching ELA Students Active Citizenship

Students learn through advocacy projectsAdvocacy has many benefits, including educational ones. In his 2005 English Journal article “Walking the Talk: Creating Engaged Citizens in English Class,” high school teacher Fred Barton explained that this is why he leads his ELA students every year through a political advocacy project:

From a strictly academic perspective, advocacy in the classroom has several benefits. It provides opportunities for students to do primary and secondary research; engages them in a process of discovery; and enables them to select, develop, and publish electronic and textual documents for specific audiences in an authentic rhetorical context. This fits almost perfectly with my pedagogical goals as their writing teacher. Because they buy into the project, I am able to focus the students’ attention on elements of style, structure, and impact.

Buy-in is a critical factor in any long-term classroom project, and to inspire that, Barton says it’s vital to start with a topic compelling enough to overcome a feeling of powerlessness common among those who are excluded from voting and are “unused to thinking of themselves as active participants in the democratic process.”

In one case, Barton’s class joined with a racing greyhound rescue group that advocates for ending greyhound racing and acts as an adoption agency for former racing dogs. He found this issue engaged students, as many had pets and could relate to the need for more humane treatment.

The students’ first step was to educate themselves on the issue:

We discussed the animal-human bond and shared stories. Because we were close to a college of veterinary medicine that had done a lot of work in the area of human-animal relations, we were able to have one of the veterinarians come to class and talk about research that has been done on the value of companion animals in human recovery from illness. We also read excerpts from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

Once they gathered information about greyhound racing, they decided where to share that information. They were in Michigan, where dog racing is uncommon. However, they knew of a large population of senior citizens who spent summer in Michigan but winter in Florida, America’s largest racing state. Students put together a PowerPoint presentation specifically geared toward these seniors, encouraging them to take action in Florida. Students also “created a press packet that was mailed to newspaper and television stations in the capital cities of racing states.”

Political activism, of course, always risks a negative reaction. Barton had thought they would be safe in a state without dog racing, but he quickly learned supporters of dog racing could cross state lines as effectively as his students could. When “the breeder’s association found out about us [the association] started bombarding my administrators with emails and phone calls.”

While this backlash was uncomfortable for the adults, it showed the students that they were far from helpless, as they could scare people in power. “As one of my students pointed out, ‘We don’t even know these people and they hate us already. Is that cool or what?’”

In the end, Barton and his school responded by inviting the breeders to come to the class and explain to these students why their concerns about animal welfare were unfounded. The breeders declined.

Read Fred Barton’s entire article “Walking the Talk: Creating Engaged Citizens in English Class.”

Standing Up for Bullied Students

bullying must goBullying is a problem many of our students face even as the best teachers struggle to eliminate it and create a more positive atmosphere where students feel safe and free to focus on learning.

In the March 2013 Voices from the Middle, former middle school teacher Margaret Berg argues that bullying is even worse for students who are queer (“shorthand for the lengthy phrase ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender’”). For example, she says that 24 percent of all students report being victims of cyberbullying, but for queer students that number jumps even higher, to 53 percent. She adds, “When the harassment and assault occur in schools, 62 percent of these students believe school staff will take no action; 34 percent reported that when an incident did occur at school, school staff did indeed do nothing in response.”

While some teachers and administrators overtly support hostility against queer students, many well-meaning teachers, she says, do so inadvertently by promoting traditional views of masculinity and femininity:

A few questions might help clarify biases that exist in our teaching practices. Look at your classroom library. Are there more biographies and stories about sports “heroes” than male dancers and fashion designers? Are athletes who are gay represented in the collection? To answer these questions, teachers could get students involved in an investigation of classroom and school libraries to foster critical literacy skills related to representations and bias in texts. . . . Even a teacher who does not outright bully teens may make professional choices and implement practices whose messages can be read as support for particular identities.

Berg adds that it’s not only queer students who need support against intimidation and harassment:

Any young person who diverges from a local social norm may suffer. For instance, . . . Phoebe Prince, who had just turned 15 when she killed herself, was called an “Irish slut” and “whore” on Twitter and Facebook because she was sexually active with two males who had statutory rape charges brought against them, though those were dropped. When sexually loaded words are thrown around, the language arts teacher is perfectly positioned to examine the meanings.

What can a good-hearted teacher do to help? Besides working to balance the bookshelf, Berg suggests “examining the historical development of derogatory terms that students may be using in the school;” “modeling the interrogation of social institutions, laws, and practices in fiction and fact that marginalize non-normative couples and people who live life on their own;” and “prompting colleagues to consider how their ideas and/or actions may be based in a heteronormative ideology.”

The one thing she says teachers of good will must never do is stand idly by.

The teacher who fails to act now in hopes that a nonconforming teen’s life will improve in adulthood condones the persecution of too many young people with “it gets better.” Transformational teaching makes it better.

She adds:

A more tolerant, dare I say loving, world will only be possible if both teachers and students are diligent in their questioning of the status quo and advocacy for people of all kinds.

Read the complete article “Tolerance to Alliance: Deconstructing Dichotomies to Advocate for All Students.”

Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers

iStock_000007829849_XXXLargeHow well do we prepare new teachers for the profession? This has long been a concern of NCTE. In 1968, our Conference on English Education published Sister M. Philippa Coogan’s paper “The Well-Prepared Student Teacher.” In it, she lays out concerns about teacher training that may be just as relevant today.

While preservice teachers frequently cite student teaching as the most valuable part of their preparation program, Coogan finds shortcomings with the student teaching experience:

[T]hese experiences are really not as fruitful as we would like them to be, and for a variety of reasons. Let me recall to you just a few: a scarcity of outstanding teachers willing to sacrifice their own time and the time of their class to the training of practice teachers; the exigencies of the individual classroom situation, which demand that a particular set of operations be performed at a particular time, regardless of whether or not the student teacher will benefit from the experience; limitation of student teaching to a particular school which may serve an entirely different kind of student than the school to which the young teacher will ultimately be assigned; the impossibility of the supervising teacher’s keeping in close touch with all the teaching situations in which his student teachers are involved; and therefore his inability to guide them adequately in identifying good and desirable teaching experiences.

More valuable might be the methods class. Coogan writes:

The teacher of this course, well aware of the diversity of operations in which his student teachers are engaged or will be engaged, well aware of their urgent need for help, of the complexity of each separate teaching situation, is apt to violate all the principles of pedagogy to which he subscribes in order to give them immediate assistance. He lectures about the ineffectiveness of the lecture method, for instance; he generalizes about the importance of the particularizing or inductive approach; he pontificates about the desirability of learning by discovery.

How can teacher preparation be improved? Coogan offers a few thoughts. She argues teacher preparation should focus more on teaching future teachers about “the learning process rather than the teaching process” because the beginning teacher “is apt to be more concerned with putting on a virtuoso performance than with what actually happens between the ears of his students.” She also writes:

I should like to see most of the [methods] class sessions devoted to controlled observation of widely different teaching situations, different as to the kinds of skill and insight that are being developed, different as to the kinds of students being reached, different as to the kinds of teachers serving as catalysts in the learning situation. Since every member of the class will then have observed the same demonstration, they will be able to explore together the principles of psychology and pedagogy involved, with great economy of time and considerable sharpening of focus.

Read Sr. Coogan’s entire paper “The Well-Prepared Student Teacher.”

The Best Reading Style for Tomorrow’s Voters

Great things grow from readingIn the October 2005 Talking Points, Angela S. Raines offers some thoughts on how the teaching of reading can prepare students for participating in our democracy, if the teacher takes the right approach to reading.

Drawing on the work of Louise Rosenblatt, Raines explains there are two different stances readers can take in their approach to reading material: aesthetic and efferent. Efferent reading is done to gather information. Aesthetic reading is done for pleasure. The aesthetic approach is more personal, as the reader applies her own interpretation, drawing on her own individual background and taste. Efferent reading is a more public act, as the reader is driven to find the teacher’s interpretation of the material more than her own or to find objective information that should mean the same thing to all readers.

In an English class with an aesthetic approach, students are more likely to share their interpretations and responses with one another rather than receive the teacher’s “correct” interpretation. And in a democracy, Raines argues, this is the more valuable approach:

Rosenblatt also emphasized in Literature as Exploration the importance of reading and discussion of texts to participation in democracy by championing “the value of interchange among students as a stimulant to the development of critical and self-critical reading, essential to citizens of a democracy.” It is in this transactional experience that students learn to construct their own meaning of literary texts, and perhaps more important, learn to articulate their own construction. As students participate in discussions of their transactional experiences, they learn to listen to multiple perspectives and make comparisons between their own transaction and others’ transactions. Most assuredly, citizens in a democracy are required to construct knowledge based on multiple perspectives and to make informed choices.

Raines adds:

As educational leaders apply transactional theory and practices at all levels, especially in literature classes, students will be able to create those habits of mind that are required for participation in a democracy. Students want to be critical thinkers, and they want teachers who help them read to fully experience literature as works of art and as sources for insights and connections related to their life experiences. If educators wish to foster students’ critical reading and thinking abilities, then certainly students need to be able to develop, trust, and give voice to their own aesthetic experiences with literature. However, if students are taught that the goal of reading, even for literary texts, is to extract a correct, public meaning (usually one established by the teachers’ guide), they will adopt efferent stances for reading that promote factual rather than thoughtful comprehension, inhibit critical-thinking skills, and limit preparation for enfranchisement in a democracy.

Unfortunately, Raines reminds us, English classes traditionally use an efferent approach to reading. Students are often “given study guides for answering specific literal-level, in-the-text questions about the literary works they [are] required to read.” If students can complete the assignments by reading SparkNotes instead of the actual novel, then they completely miss the aesthetic experience and focus exclusively on the efferent.

How can teachers lead students to approach reading aesthetically? Raines, herself a teacher, shares a few of her own strategies.

First, of course, is to give students a choice in what they read. Raines helps her students find books tailored to their tastes but also encourages them to abandon a book early if it doesn’t engage them and to start another book.

Then comes the next step:

After students selected books, I emphasized to them that they would not take a test on the books they read. I truly wanted students to focus on the aesthetic experience—to enjoy and “live through”—their literary texts. … However, some were still skeptical… They did not believe that I would give them class time, typically 30–45 minutes per day, to read a book of their choice.

When the class does read something together, a teacher can create a more aesthetic experience by having students exchange their views rather than the teacher giving his own views:

Students often feel inadequate about their own construction of meaning and get the impression that teachers are the ultimate authority and that there is just one correct meaning for literary works. However, when given opportunities for literary discussions, students are able to hear their peers’ connections to and interpretations of the text and realize that the connections made by their peers are not the same as those made by teachers. Thus, students realize that construction of meaning is very personal, and that one person’s construction will not be the same as another’s for the same text. In addition, during these literary discussions, students are able to hear multiple perspectives, which sometimes results in lively debates about specific aspects of the text. As a result, students return to the text to defend their perspective, which results in a more powerful comprehension of the text. An added benefit is that students also learn to value each other as contributors to the learning community.

Read more tips in Angela S. Raines’ complete article “Louise Rosenblatt: An Advocate for Nurturing Democratic Participation through Literary Transactions.”

Where Equality and Freedom are School Values

Nova staff and students
Nova staff and students.

Last week’s piece about the Nova Project explored two benefits of democratic societies that also seem to benefit democratic schools like Nova: a better educated population, and a population more enthusiastic about their society’s (their school’s) success.

But there are two more benefits that may be part and parcel with democracy as well: a responsible freedom, and a culture of equality.

Teacher Brian Charest, who left teaching in a traditional high school to teach ELA at Nova, reports that equality is certainly a benefit found here. Traditional high schools, he says, divide students into at least three tiers: advanced, general, and special-needs. But at Nova, where students work with teachers to create the classes they want, where students choose the classes they take and can choose independent study as well, tiers aren’t needed any more than tiers are needed in colleges. Students work enthusiastically and at their own pace.

Students are not ranked or judged with grades, either. All courses at Nova are pass/no pass. But to receive a passing grade in any course, Charest says, students must present a project that demonstrates their mastery of the subject. “In some ways I feel like we’re a more rigorous program academically than some of the traditional schools. . . . You can’t fill out a worksheet and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve demonstrated competency.’ You really have to be able to show clearly that you understood, that you learned something.”

Most public schools struggle with bullying. At Nova, students work to be more sensitive to one another. Students form various committees to help them express their needs. There is a committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students, another for students from racial minorities, and more. Students who have been bullied in other schools, Charest says, are delighted to find Nova a welcoming environment. Every floor of the student-run school, in fact, has three restrooms: one male, one female, and one gender-neutral, so transgender students can know that they, too, belong at this school.

Equality between students and staff is part of Nova’s culture as well. The staff does not dictate what classes students take but supports them in following their own curiosity. This freedom can require some adjustment for youth inured to traditional K–12 schools.

“There is a real process of unlearning that has to happen,” Charest says. “Many students start Nova not quite knowing what to make of it. ‘What do you mean I can pursue my own interests?’ Given the choice to learn what you want, a student is suddenly faced with an often overwhelming number of choices. We work hard to support students through this discomforting, yet ultimately liberating, experience. And, over time, most students begin to embrace the deep learning that happens through inquiry.“

And as students take ownership of their education, their new-found freedom seems quickly joined by a sense of responsibility, leading students to get a stronger education. Principal Mark Perry says that, while he opposes standardized testing, Nova complies with all testing requirements, and he finds the test results satisfying. Nova students score as well in math as do students at traditional high schools that “teach to the test,” and Nova students actually score better in reading and writing.

“I attribute most of this to our liberal arts curriculum that is not driven by Common Core or [various standardized tests],“ says Perry.

And what happens to Nova students after they graduate?

“Students who go to a four-year college report back to us that what they learned [at Nova] about personal time management, making good choices, and their use and understanding of depth of analysis in all subject areas gives them an advantage over other students, [including] many who come from elite or AP programs,” says Perry. “We also have colleges like Mills and other liberal arts schools who directly contact us to recruit because of the success of our graduates at their schools.”

After teaching in more traditional school settings, Charest sees clearly the benefits of a democratic school. He says:

What I don’t understand is why our public officials, including school boards and local school district administrators, aren’t doing more to encourage and support the creation of more schools like Nova. There’s a lot of talk these days by so-called education reformers about the need for more innovation and collaboration in schools, but then these folks turn around and open a charter school that looks almost exactly like the school the charter was meant to replace (i.e. they continue to do school in very traditional ways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every school should look like Nova, but I do think it would be great to give teachers, students, and parents the ability to shape curriculum and decide for themselves what’s worth knowing and doing.



If you missed our interview with Brian Charest last week, read it here.