Category Archives: Advocacy

The Essential Work of English Language Arts—and ELA Teachers—in Our Democracy

This post is written by member Dana Maloney. 

“We must awaken in order to continue our efforts to build a just, compassionate, and meaningful democracy.”Maxine Greene

danamaloneyThe longer I have taught English Language Arts (ELA)—28 years now—the more I have come to understand that what we do is not trivial or incidental; it is essential.

We can start with two reasons why our work is so important:

  1. Literature is life. When we read imaginative literature—whether prose, poetry or drama—we explore what it means to be alive and to be human. As one of my students remarked years ago, “Literature humanizes us.” We help students understand themselves, others, and the world. We help students crisscross the globe, step into other people’s shoes to see the world through their eyes, and more. Through all of this, we also help students deepen understandings of themselves and of their lives.
  2. We teach the most essential human skills: how to receive information from others and how to transmit information. This is literacy. Through reading and listening, we receive information; through writing and speaking, we transmit information.

Those reasons are so important in the lives of each of our students. However, they are not the only reasons why I think our work is so essential—and why I would posit that it is perhaps the most essential work within the school.

Here is why our work is absolutely essential: What we do in our classrooms protects and perpetuates democracy. John Dewey taught us this long ago, but we need to remind ourselves of this ultimate purpose and context of education.

In ELA classes, we empower students to use their voices and to be able to use the tools of literacy, including digital tools, to contribute to our democracy and to the world. Democracy is a system of government in which people use their literacy skills in order to run a country “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address.

The discourse in our democracy today, continuing even after the inauguration of the new president, illustrates the need for strong literacy skills. I believe that the following ideas help us cultivate strong literacy skills in our students:

  • Critical thinking is the essential filter through which we process information so that we do not simply believe everything we read or hear and so that we think before we speak or write. We encourage thinking when we give students hard questions, when we allow students to craft their own questions, and when we allow them to own the answers. We have to encourage students to ask good, open-ended questions—not leading ones. We have to offer students opportunities to exercise high-level critical thinking.
  • We can also ask students to synthesize across texts—including texts that offer different points of view (as many news sources do today). Our curriculum can reach for the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including synthesis and creation that is informed by the consideration of multiple texts that present opposing information or perspectives.
  • We should not read texts for our students. As teachers, we have to be careful not to own the interpretations of texts. We should not present the text as a mystery for which the teacher has all the answers (e.g., a list of themes and symbols). Instead, we should offer texts to our students and ask students for their engaged readings of them. Of course, we want students to back up their readings with textual evidence and with strong reasoning. Great literature is ambiguous and thus allows for multiple ways of reading. This is one reason why high-merit, classic texts should have a strong place in our classrooms, even as we also embrace student choice in reading selections. Students need to own their questions; we need to create room for students to read texts through their own inquiry lenses.
  • We need to create opportunities for student exchange of readings and ideas via active listening and speaking. We need to require them to listen to each other—and to respond to each other. Discourse is a means through which we strengthen our thinking and our articulation of perspective.

To go one step further, I believe that not only is the discipline of ELA essential to the world today but we ELA teachers are as well.

As ELA teachers, we are in a unique position to help moderate readings of the news and of the world—and we can help cultivate healthy dialogue via spoken and written word. There are many ways in which this might happen, including via school and community events and via social media.

I have started to explore how we can view social media—not just the public forum of Twitter but also the “private” world of Facebook—as a form of digital classroom, with ourselves as moderators of civil discourse or even as discussion leaders (AKA teachers). I believe we can be creative in the ways in which we might do this.

I have been prompted by election and inauguration discourse to attempt to create some impact even in Facebook. This means some risk—moving beyond the easy, friendly discourse that characterized Facebook communication for me before. I am working on a book focused on “reading the text to read the world,” and I have started to transfer some of the content of the book to my Facebook posts.

I will leave off by sharing some of my posts from January 22, 2017. Through these, I also want to share with you some additional thoughts about how we can see the power of our work—and the potential impact all of us can make in our classrooms as well as outside of them:

As a teacher of reading, I would just encourage everyone to read well: Read the whole book, not just one page, and not just the Cliff Notes version. The book here is, of course, the one we are living in today—our world. We have a beautiful democracy which many men and women—including our ancestors—sacrificed their lives to build and to defend. At this moment, many people have their lives on the line for all of us–for our liberty, for justice, for all our rights. Therefore, I encourage everyone to defend our country by seeking the actual truth, not just a limited or false perception of it. Beware of blatant lies. Be aware that lying is an actual strategy, to manipulate people; diversionary tactics are also intentional strategies. Whether you are conservative or liberal, please do not give away our democratic ideals, which include those expressed in the First Amendment—including freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protest. Do not just believe all that you are told—all that you might want to believe. Seek the truth.

In response to this post, I received a comment, which prompted me to write:

Great literature may be fiction, but it is about truth: truth of human experience and more. Moreover, in true literature there are always multiple perspectives offered. Propaganda is one-sided; a true story has many sides, many points of view, and many voices—like democracy. I think we all have to LISTEN to and READ many perspectives to maintain our healthy democracy and to avoid losing it.

After the Facebook friend replied again to me and as we moved closer to agreement, I added:

Another thing I would add is that we have to be careful what we “say” in the social media world—with regard to selecting and sharing information. An English classroom can be a good analogy and training ground for discourse—if we encourage students to speak what they think (after time is given for thoughtful reflection) and if students also respond to each other, to challenge (civilly) each other’s’ statements—and thus to push every person’s separate thinking. We don’t push particular beliefs or interpretations (because literature, like life, is ambiguous), but we encourage thought—not just fast or shallow thought but careful thought that has processed perspectives and that continues to do so. This is also how public schools help nurture democratic citizens who not only tolerate but also embrace diversity of perspectives— not bullying of perspective, not control of truth.

Dana H. Maloney is the chair of the NCTE Achievement Awards in Writing Advisory Committee, the 2012 winner of the CEE James Moffett Award, and an Executive Board member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. She teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey. Her Twitter handle is @danahmaloney.

What Happened in Your State This February?

capitol-building-150x150This past month, twenty policy analysts published reports about what occurred in the following states: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

ESSA Implementation

Louisiana: Clancy Ratliff posted Louisiana Department of Education Publishes Public Feedback on ESSA.

Virginia: In Virginia’s Transition to ESSA, Mabel Khawaja examined ESSA implementation through the lens of both K–12 and higher education.

Vermont: Anne Slonaker shared Vermont’s State Plan in response to ESSA.

Ohio: Robin Holland noted that Ohio’s ESSA Draft Plan (was) Now Available for Comments.

Readers may want to visit ESSA Implementation in the States to see what your state is doing.

Higher Education

Idaho: In 60X20 in Idaho: Update on Complete College Idaho, Karen Uehling noted the formation of a task force by the governor, the governor’s “adult complete” scholarships, and a proposed new community college.

Indiana: Katherine Wills described a dual credit program between a Fort Wayne high school and East Allen University that endeavors to ensure that refugee students have the same opportunities to succeed in college as their non-refugee classmates.

Washington: Amanda Espinosa-Aguilar shared concerns about dual enrollment.

Connecticut: Stephen Ferruci analyzed Proposed Legislation Regarding DREAMERs, Illegal Aliens, and Higher Education in CT with legislators proposing bills reflecting both sides of the debate.

Nebraska: Gretchen Oltman wrote about Governor Ricketts agreeing to cut only $13.3 million from the University of Nebraska’s current budget.

Georgia: Janice Walker shared that Senate Bill 79 would create a gaming commission, and a portion of revenue generated by casinos would be directed toward scholarships.

North Dakota: In Updated North Dakota 2017, Ronda Marman reported the following:

  • The governor cut the North Dakota University System by 20%.
  • A regulation proposing to reduce notice of termination to faculty from one year to 90 days generated a lot of comment.
  • A new workforce report was released.

California:  In his Report on Contingent Faculty in Higher Education, Dan Melzer wrote, “contingent faculty are now the majority of all faculty at U.S. colleges and universities.”

Kentucky: Mary P. Sheridan encouraged faculty and educators in Kentucky to look at the impact of charter schools as Kentucky decides whether to allow them.

Pre-K–12

Idaho: Darlene Dyer reported that the State Board of Education will oversee the evaluation process, and monies are to be allocated to train administrators and supervisors to conduct the evaluations.

Arkansas: Grover Welch shared that the Arkansas Senate Education Committee passed legislation that would exempt records of “security incidents, emergency planning and those that [can] ‘reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety’” from FOIA.

Minnesota: Ezra Hyland posted a number of reports:

New Jersey: Kristen Turner wrote that the New Jersey Board of Education rejected proposed amendments that would give charter schools “the authority to grant provisional and standard certificates.”

Pennsylvania: Aileen Hower shared two articles about the following:

Pre-K–12 and Higher Education

Michigan: Leslie Roberts discusses the debate in Michigan regarding the retention of the Common Core. 

South Dakota: Liza Hazlett posted 2016–2017 Raises for SD Educators Facing Discrepancies and Discord.

Ah, a New Year: Iowa Report

This post is written by NCTE’s Iowa P12 policy analyst James Davis. 

JimDavis200607 Holding Journal - chestIn November and December, education organizations prepared for a daunting 2017; while not prescient, their work was warranted. Iowa’s November elections had substantial implications for pre-K through higher education, especially for teacher retention and recruitment. Legislative targets include dismantling a collective bargaining law in effect since 1975 (health care, contract arbitration, and job-performance grievance procedures are at risk); limiting fiscal responsibility to the public employee retirement system; teacher licensure and credentialing.

Many educators, including those in teacher preparation, see the last-mentioned–an attack on teacher licensure and credentialing–as something that could lead to lower quality staffing (including the possibility of long-term substitutes), and ultimately, to privatization of schools. Budget shortfalls, even with the existence of a robust “rainy day fund,” are the handy rationale. As Iowa and surrounding states face teacher shortages, making the profession less desirable hardly seems a logical strategy.

The same budget rationale affects other matters, including “initiatives once touted as ways to better Iowa schools” (DMR 1/17/17). A controversial third-grade retention law is to take effect in 2018, but the Iowa Department of Education has not requested funding for the intensive summer-reading program alternative specified in the statute. Educators have questioned the efficacy of the approach, which could be pushed back (likely), seriously reconsidered, and perhaps repealed. A second initiative was to replace the Iowa Assessment Program with Smarter Balanced Assessments in the 2017-18 school year. Legislators question availability of funding for the computer-based exams, even as some lawmakers and educators question the way the Smarter Balanced program was selected. Despite alleged commitment to alignment between Iowa Core standards and state assessment, the program seems to be in jeopardy—the Governor has asked the Department to put a hold on implementation, and has requested fewer state budget provisions for a start in fiscal year 2019 than the Department had requested for 2018.

On a less gloomy note, implementation continues for support of teacher leaders and leadership. Social Studies standards are near implementation. Many teachers maintain professional grounding in the presence of an Iowa Core. Good work continues in schools and classrooms, even with the legislature in session!

One change will occur when the current Iowa Governor begins service as the US Ambassador to China. The current Lieutenant Governor will become the first woman Governor in Iowa history. Educators struggle to find reason to believe it will make any difference.

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.

NCTE Citizenship Campaign, February Focus: Black History Month

handsonglobeThe following post was written by members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

February—Black History Month—offers an opportunity to encourage good citizenship when it comes to issues surrounding race while still meeting your content standards. To encourage personal citizenship1, discuss with students how they can be friends with and support peers from backgrounds different from their own. Their everyday interactions with people are a way of being a good citizen.

To help students be participatory citizens, have them look at the history of laws and/or current laws and policies that may be unfair to people of color or of different faiths. When it comes to justice-oriented citizenship, students could be asked to analyze and think critically about the laws and policies they looked at before and come up with a variety of solutions.

Grades K–5

For students at this younger age, we think it’s important to encourage them to maintain friendships with children outside their race or religion. Have class discussions about what it means to be a good friend and why it can be a good thing to have friends who are different from you.

Books to consider: The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson or Across the Alley by Richard Michelson

Grades 6–8

Middle school is an age where friendships can be complicated. It’s a great time to discuss with students how they choose friends. At this age they can start to think critically about whether or not their friend group is diverse and why. In addition to thinking about friendship you can have students conduct a mini research project. They can look through their curriculum and see how many black or nonwhite authors they have read in class, or people they have learned about in history, science, or math. This is a great way to look at your own curriculum and see who is represented and to consider why. Students can continue with the research project from the participatory citizen activity above and discuss and analyze their findings. They can determine whether or not they think there is an issue and write an argumentative paper as to why there is or isn’t. Perhaps if they all think there is an issue, they can come up with ways to fix it.

Book to consider: Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper

Grades 9–12

In high school students are being asked to do more critical thinking and analysis. Consider having your students examine your school’s dress code. Is it fair to people of all races? Genders? Why or why not? Can they write a proposal for a revised dress code if it isn’t? A research project looking at a person of color would be a great project too. You can use a nonfiction anchor text to help students write the paper while still working on reading skills.

Books to consider:

Other Ideas from ReadWriteThink.org

Note

  1. As in our previous post, we draw on the three types of citizens proposed by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne in their article “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy” (American Educational Research Journal, Summer 2004, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 237-269): personally responsible citizens, participatory citizens, and justice-oriented citizens.

 

When Learning Gets Personal, Part 4: The Bigger Picture

This post is written by Bryan Christopher, NCTE’s P12 Policy Analyst from North Carolina.  It is the fourth part of a series about Wildin Acosta, an undocumented student. You can read the first part here, second part here and third part here

bryanchristoper

On Monday, January 23, the remarkable story of Wildin Acosta’s quest to earn a high school diploma quietly ended.

Wildin finished his math exam, said goodbye to a handful of friends and teachers, and walked out of Riverside High School having earned the remaining credits he needed to graduate. The moment occurred 361 days after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested him; 309 days after students, community members, and elected officials helped halt his deportation order; and 165 days after his release from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA.

The moment also occurred three days after Donald Trump became the forty-fifth US president, and it leaves me wondering what lies in store for other immigrant students and their families.

Wildin’s journey—his arrest, six-month stay in prison, return home, and fall semester back at school—is a crash course in the many points at which immigration and education policies intersect. Those intersections will intensify in the weeks to come.

As schools and communities reacted to the executive action to temporarily ban visas, travel, and refugee admission for citizens of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen (before the State Department reversed it), many educators are also waiting anxiously to see what the Trump Administration does with President Obama’s signature immigration reforms.

Obama granted temporary legal status to undocumented migrants via two executive orders: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)  and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Established in 2012, DACA grants temporary stays and work authorization to individuals who

  • arrived in the United States before their sixteenth birthday;
  • continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, and had no lawful status at that time;
  • were currently in school, earned a high school degree, or were honorably discharged from the armed forces or Coast Guard;
  • have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and pose no threat to national security or public safety.

Source: UCIS flier

Two years later, DAPA granted certain parents of children who are US citizens or legal residents three-year stays and work authorizations.

Overturning DACA would affect nearly 800,000 “Dreamers” and affect schools and classrooms more than any wall or visa suspension. On the campaign trail, President Trump promised to end DACA, but he has softened his language since the election. In a January 26 interview with ABC News, he said his administration would release a new policy “over the next period of four weeks.”

As teachers, it is not our place to share our political opinions with students or their families, nor should we advocate for specific changes in policy while representing a public school. It is, however, our job to support our students, regardless of immigration status, and do everything we can to address their basic needs and deliver a sound education.

In an effort to best serve all students, teachers should understand how policy changes could impact their classrooms and look to support students in several ways:

  • Monitor attendance. Follow up appropriately if a student is absent for multiple days and make sure there is counseling and mental health support available for students facing traumatic change within their families and homes.
  • Know the laws. Educate yourself on federal and state immigration policies so that you can share accurate information. US Citizenship and Immigration Services is a good place to start.
  • Find strength in numbers. Reach out to colleagues and civic and community organizations and work together to find ways to support students struggling with changing state and federal policies.
  • Contact elected officials. Make them aware of the effects policies have on education. You see immigration and education policies intersect through your daily interaction with students. Lawmakers do not. Invite them to visit your school to witness the great things your students are doing. Thank them for their time and support!

Wildin’s journey is just one example of how informed community members can advocate for change without breaking federal or state laws. Regardless of the content you teach, be aware of policy changes and support your students as they adjust to a new political landscape.

Bryan Christopher teaches English and Journalism at Riverside High School in Durham, NC. He’s also an NCTE Policy Analyst and Hope Street Teacher Voice Fellow. Email or Follow him @bryanchristo4.