Category Archives: Inquiry

Can Poetry Help Us To Shape a More Just World?

Can Poetry Help Us To Shape a More Just World?

This is the fourth installment of the NCTE Citizenship Campaign, a blog series sponsored by the NCTE Standing Committee on Citizenship. This month’s theme is using poetry to spark civic engagement. It is written by Duane Davis.

My first instinct as a teacher of English and longtime member of NCTE was to put this month’s theme together through song lyrics.  This would likely have resulted in a deconstruction of the work of Kendrick Lamar, Tupac Shakur, and certainly a mention of Nikki Giovanni’s Poem, “For Tupac.”  I also considered an exploration of poetic justice through the lens of the current political assault on education.

Instead, I decided to ditch both of those ideas and use this space to discuss the work and life of the recently fallen poet, Derek Walcott.  In the proud tradition of “artist on the margins,” Walcott embarked on a journey to create a myth on the level of Beowulf and Virgil, in his epic poem Omeros. I have been fortunate in my life to have English instructors who exposed me to art that challenged my view of the world, my community and myself. In Walcott I found someone who spoke to the ideas that were circulating in my head: global racial formation and its effects on space, language, and identity.  If you don’t know Walcott already, here are some links to explore:

Walcott’s poem is epic and Afro-futuristic and magical realism and intersectional rolled into one.  Ultimately, he reminds us through his work that with art at the center, understanding and acceptance can be the norm and not the outlier. It is not enough to observe and comment on society. You have to enact and activate in order to seek the justice necessary for equity and equality.

As educators, we have to remember that our daily choices, from the greeting at the door (for all levels), to the selection of text, to the type of assessments we give, illuminate our beliefs about the world—who we read, how we interact and what we say.  To that end, I am also including a few links to national poetry organizations that encourage student voice and often through the subject matter explore issues of equality and justice.

While it is not our job to imbue students with our personal ideology, it is our job to give them the tools necessary to critically understand, reflect, respond and evaluate their world and their own ideology.  Poetry is a vehicle for reading and learning the views of others and exploring our own ways of seeing the world.

More Poetry Resources

robertward

Dispelling the Myth That Intelligence = Instant and Easy

This is a guest post by Robert Ward

A startling number of students believe that if you are smart, correct answers and brilliant ideas come quickly and with little exertion. They think intelligence equals “instant and easy.”

Consequently, they also assume that students who pause, ponder, or take pains of any sort must not be brainy. They even equate scholarly labor, multiple attempts, and waiting with weakness and incompetence.

Struggling and Stellar Students Require Growth Mindset

This fixed mindset concerning intelligence is problematic for both low-performing and advanced students because these misconceptions are alternately used to judge others and oneself, and aren’t helpful in either case.  Instead, teachers must cultivate in every student a growth mindset that grants measure and grace to oneself and extends a generosity of spirit to others.

Harsh criticism toward those who struggle academically is not only unkind, it overshadows the tangible benefits of trying, travailing, and tackling any task that is nowhere near easy—and these arduous endeavors vary from person to person and from subject to subject, including the arts and physical education. Because all children will (and should) frequently find themselves in formidable or unfamiliar situations, where the tasks before them are at once complex, worthwhile, and personally meaningful, lessons in the advantages of growth mindset are crucial and transformative.

Intelligence = Attention, Effort, Time, and Thought

Emphasize to every student that acting intelligently usually entails extensive attention, effort, time, and thought. In fact, those who ardently observe, strategically strive, earnestly invest, and carefully contemplate are the same students who not only achieve academically but who thrive emotionally. Most often, innate intelligence had very little to do with it.

As has been noted by Carol Dweck, it is important to also realize that effort alone is not enough. Students must be taught and given praise for using processes and action plans that change the mere act of trying hard into purposeful perseverance that pays off.

Intelligence = Patience, Persistence, and Practice

In one way, instant access to information, media, and “gratification” is doing a disservice to our youth, many of whom do not know what patience is—they just know they do not like it. Sorry, but one cannot always “fast forward to the good part,” especially when a teacher is trying to show students that every bit of a discussion, text, lesson, or film is the good part and a vital piece of the whole!

As far as persistence, too many students liken commitment to folly. Dedicating oneself to something that may or may not materialize for quite some time unfortunately seems a fool’s errand to students transfixed by “instant and easy.”

If practice makes perfect, what does a woeful lack of routine and repetition make? Well informed educators have long progressed beyond drill-and-kill, but students still need to see and embrace the benefits of preparation and purposeful iteration, as well as see how that type of adherence directly serves them, both in the long and short run.

The value of showing students patience, persistence, and practice in action cannot be overstated. All students must witness these positive, productive qualities in real time and over time. They should view firsthand what it takes, as well as how long it sometimes takes, to see results.

Intelligence = Conversation, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Class discussions are fruitful in modeling the distinct advantages of a growth mindset. Often it takes the germ of an idea from one student to spark a more thorough or profound answer from another. In fact, it may take several insights, opinions, and pieces of evidence for an entire class or a small collaborative group to arrive at a complete answer or compelling theory.

Explicitly point out to students that no one has to go it alone or have every answer (and certainly not immediately). Also, provide opportunities to prove that two or more heads in true collaboration are often better than one.

In order for students to become resourceful and independent, first equip them with a wealth of dependable strategies. Then create structured practice—both individual and collaborative—augmented by those trusty systems and scaffolds. This is the basis by which working intelligently replaces merely working hard.

Also, reinforce that help and feedback are always available and that accessing these supports is an ordinary aspect of intelligence. Cultivating the openness to accept and seek out advice and assistance is a hallmark of a growth mindset. Encourage your students to avail themselves of the resources offered so they develop the initiative and drive to advocate for themselves instead of silently waiting for someone to come to them.

Intentional effort, endurance, and assistance can be made familiar, fruitful, and fulfilling when combined with the reliability and reassurance of a growth mindset.

Empower all of your students with these qualities that exemplify true intelligence!

Robert Ward is currently in his twenty-fourth year of teaching English at public middle schools in Los Angeles. He is also a blogger and is the author of three books for teachers and parents. Follow Robert on Twitter @RewardingEdu

march2017englishjournal

Preview of English Journal: Black Textual Expressivities, Guest Edited by David Kirkland

The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of English Journal.

Finding love in a hopeless place. This is an inversion of a post by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who blogged about the November 2016 election that resulted in Donald J. Trump being named president of the United States. The post, titled “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” reveals the deep knowledge that oppression and racism impart, a kind of knowledge that yields erasure, decimates hope, and yet inspires continuous struggle. How can we find love in a hopeless place? How can we seed hope in a national soil saturated in the blood of the oppressed?

We must ask such essential questions before they can ever be answered, but the asking is hard, lonely, uncomfortable yet courageous work. As English teach­ers, we understand that language and text are embod­ied tools that can serve either oppression or freedom. Spoken and written words reflect power and foment resistance, and schools—as political institutions— can proliferate oppression or nurture hope.

Hope, however, is not an innocent concept. As an expectation to those for whom hope in our existing system is irrational, hope is hypocritical. It becomes what Cottom calls “transactional hope,” and she argues that hopelessness is superior to transactional hope:

My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does. Those erasers applied post-mortem confuse us to this, blind us to the defeats that will come and ill prepare us for the reality that most of what we believe in will not come to pass in our lifetimes. A transactional hope is anathema to social progress.

In this issue, guest edited by David E. Kirkland, we seek to continue the struggle for hope. We are honored to share the work of authors who gener­ate and engage with texts that have risen from the soil of bondage and execution. These texts invite us to rethink the myths of meritocracy and inclu­sion. They are written with the blood and bones of people who forged their own ways to read and write, while being prohibited from literacy learn­ing, and for whom school achievement has required rejection of cultural values. In this issue, we aim to raise questions and to listen for questions that are not raised, because often the binding of a text excludes perspectives. We aspire to scrutinize the margins, give voice to the silenced, and read deeply between the lines. We plan to press the “undo” key until erasures are visible on the page and voices of students, families, and ancestors are amplified. And we dig into difficult texts to cultivate hope through language and action, and through the action of lan­guage. Hope grows as we struggle together.

As English teachers who will help students discover and hone the tools of literacy that will ei­ther oppress or empower, we ask that you open your heart to the challenges of this issue, and we hope that you will find love there.

Work Cited

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place.” tressiemc. 27 Nov. 2016. https://tressiemc.com /uncategorized/finding-hope-in-a-loveless-place/

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on literacy and professional dispositions.  Both are former English teachers and members of NCTE, Julie since 2004 and David since 2001.

 

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.