Category Archives: Inquiry

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 the 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.

Thoughts on Thinking

This is a guest post written by Ellen Shubich.

Ellen Shubich

I have been thinking about thinking.

It began when the Buckingham tutor asked my trainee, who had just given a “content class,” what she thought was most important for students to learn. During the exchange, the idea of thinking took the forefront.

We use the words critical thinking a great deal in education and agree that teachers should promote this, but many of us do not delve beyond open-ended questions or “Why did you say that?” We blame the lack of time or the fear of losing pace or the rest of the class’s interest. Yet, perhaps, another explanation exists: We may not know where to go after that initial attempt.

Our failure to dedicate more time to working on thinking intrigued me. And then Huffington Post sent me surfing into David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech. Wallace hooked me with his language, his humor, his ideas, his way of thinking. What did I take from his talk? The idea that we have to pay attention, see and think things from different perspectives, maybe not take things for granted.

I had already decided that the students who learn best are the ones who pay attention. And I know that teachers have to create and set up an environment that promotes learning, the details of which I will omit. I also think that many of us are not very observant. I humbly take the first-place prize. I once had a Doshinkan sensei whose intention was for us learn by observation. He rarely explained anything, even made us sit still for long periods of time, which I assumed was allotted so that we could think about what we observed. I didn’t.

Yet, we teachers spend little time on developing students’ observation skills.

Not just “What do you see in this image?” stuff, things like “What just happened and why?” or “What may have caused this?” or “Why didn’t that work?” or

“What does that mean?” or “How will that affect things?”

And then I discovered the free online book Good Thinking by Erik Palmer, and I realized that I know very little about logic and syllogisms and building arguments and the art of persuasion. I had been talking about critical thinking for a long time without the basic knowledge of what it truly is and how to develop it in my students.

Finally, I watched a Steve Jobs interview on Netflix. Once again, what caught my attention was his thinking, the process, the content, the clear verbalization of the thoughts. He was able to look back, analyze causes of what happened in his life, and work and look forward to where he thought the future of computers would go.

This has been my train of thought as my mind traveled, stopping along the way to consider each new idea. I am convinced that now, more than ever, faced with so much easily available information, propaganda, publicity, and the possible dangers that artificial intelligence presents, students must develop their thinking skills. To reach this objective, teachers must learn how to accomplish this and dedicate more time to the task.

Ellen Schubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren. 

Educating “The Whole Child”: Why Journalism Matters

This is #9 in a bi-montly series by NCTE member Alana Rome.  

Alana Rome

This week, I am participating in a Leadership Associates Program at Montclair University as part of its teacher renewal program. In preparation for our weeklong endeavor, we were asked to read several articles on leadership, civic learning, and democracy within schools. One article that particularly got my attention was “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” by Nel Noddings.

Noddings asks, “What are the proper aims of education? How do public schools serve a democratic society? What does it mean to educate the whole child?” In my notes, I wrote a list of words and phrases I thought answered Noddings’s questions: more than skills, passion, inquiry, lifelong learning, morals and values.

All of these ideal aims for our students and our democratic society can be learned, explored, and nurtured in our schools’ journalism classes.

More Than Skills

Scholastic journalists learn more than skills to assess in the classroom; they build relationships within their communities that they normally would not; they bolster their self-confidence in writing, values, and speaking; they gain a sense and knowledge of the world around them.

Passion

The more students read, think, and write about what’s happening in their own schools, communities, and worlds, the more they cannot help but feel invested in these things. These happenings affect them and their loved ones. They realize quickly that their reporting and journalism can truly affect change because the administration and community is actually listening to them. They also may gain a passion for talking to people, finding the story, getting to the truth, finding unique story angles to call their own, or maybe even writing.

Inquiry

What is really going on here? Do I trust what I’m being told? Whose story do I want to tell? What is the best way to influence or emotionally touch my readers? What matters most to my readers and my community? How can I affect change, make people feel, and make them want to affect change, too? Journalism allows students to not only figure out how to use their reporting to help facilitate change in schools and communities, but it also teaches them to consider their audience and question what they read and its source.

Lifelong Learning

I’d be hard pressed to find people who immerse themselves into the news for a journalism class and never read another article again once that class is over. Once someone gets a taste for knowing what’s going on in the world, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to it afterward. Ideally, students will leave a journalism class with the “news bug,” albeit a healthy, skeptical one.

Morals and Values

Journalists are often called “watchdogs.” They safeguard citizens from the potential misdealings of businesses and government. Journalism instills the idea that truth is the utmost priority in news and telling stories. Representing people in the correct light, respecting someone’s privacy, helping bring to light injustices, being courteous to sources, honoring a deadline, and protecting the identity of sources if needed. All these are taught to student journalists early on, and whether or not they pursue journalism as a career, those morals and values remain with them.

Alana Rome is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting.