Category Archives: Inquiry

matthewboedy

Professing While Teaching

This post is written by member Matthew Boedy. 

As is usual in first-year composition, I assigned a research project to my students. In a course I titled The Rhetoric of Higher Education this semester, I proposed to my students that they embark on a research agenda of an issue affecting higher education.

Some of the perennial subjects showed up in student choices: student loan debt, tuition increases, paying student athletes, and “safe spaces.” These were all subjects I put on the syllabus. I listed on the syllabus other issues such as academic freedom, the role of the humanities, and the ways in which colleges have branded themselves. I provided a few readings for each topic, and we spent a week discussing each subject. Many of these sources showed up in the final papers, though many students had other, better sources.

I also strategically scheduled a week on the syllabus for an issue I have been involved in: the fight to prevent allowing guns on college campuses. I deliberately put that issue on the syllabus on the same day I also assigned the first step in the research process, hoping students would claim that issue.

For two years I have written (most recently here) and spoken against bills in our state legislature that would give those age twenty-one and older permission to carry a concealed, permitted weapon on campus, albeit in limited areas. That advocacy has gotten me placed on a conservative “professor watchlist” (I won’t link to it), some indirect pushback from my administration, and not a few insulting online comments.

My syllabus scheme was somewhat successful. About twenty of my sixty students chose “campus carry” as their research project. Why did they? In my class, at my university, and in my state, the overwhelming majority of students (not to mention faculty and staff) are against guns on campus. So I assume that those who chose to write about it did so because they share that opinion. But a few students chose to argue in favor of the idea. In Georgia we have a strong “gun culture” and a state law that allows concealed weapons in most public places, though not college campuses.

Of course, the question of grading comes up. Do those students writing in favor of guns think I am biased? I am never sure. I probably hold those who agree with me to a higher standard, checking more closely their sources and arguments even in the last, rushed days of the semester.

Some might argue that if I am doing my job correctly, it doesn’t matter whether students think I am biased. To these people, the question is whether I can set aside my personal bias to grade fairly, given the assignment and expectations for citations and conclusions.

But this issue is not merely one of personal bias for me. I cannot set aside my conclusion that campus carry is dangerous. And what is fair here? In student assessment, it is not a simple matter of presenting evidence to back up conclusions. It is also a matter of credibility, audience, and ethics.

For example, students in my class who favor campus carry, echoing sources they have read, point out that my school already has guns (we have the usual campus police and we are a military school, though my particular campus does not house military personnel). They transition from this point to champion campus carry by concluding we should not fear guns at all because we don’t fear those other guns. Yet this is a weak argument because it is a non sequitur. The comparison is not apples-to-apples, because military and police weapons are handled by well-trained individuals and securely locked away when not. I discount the paper that makes this argument.

On the other hand, those students who agree with me and who quote my work in their essays sometimes don’t quote me well, and I discount them for that. And here “well” means using my information to make their own claim, not merely summarizing my points.

Overall, in class I seek to give all students the opportunity to practice their thinking and show them ways to do that well. In doing that through the topic of campus carry, I aim to provide national context (each state’s version of this bill is different), historical context (the rise of such bills since 2008), and the importance of stakeholders and audience (I stress to students that I am their reader, not their audience). I hope this experience has taught them that nothing we do in the classroom – especially any type of literacy instruction – is free from politics.

This assignment was a teaching moment for them but also a learning moment for me. I continually have to learn how to be political without, well, being political. The question for me this semester has been how to balance my advocacy and my teaching. And whether “balance” is the right metaphor. I don’t feel I have to mention a claim from “each side” when I bring up the issue.

But I did make sure that the readings I included on the syllabus for the week we spent examining campus carry were about equal in number for each side. While I did not fact-check every claim in the pro-gun sources, I knew many would be rebutted the next class period by readings from those against guns on campus. I also did not disparage the pro-gun sites in general. (I used links from the NRA and groups committed to campus carry in my state. On my side, I used some of my work, the governor’s veto from last year’s version of this bill, a survey from another university conducted by the student government association that showed 70% opposed, and a tweet from REM front man Michael Stipe, who was among a handful of celebrities from Georgia to announce their opposition.)

I made clear my position in class while also suggesting that those on “the other side” were sincere and informed, to be taken seriously. Yet not every claim made in this debate is accurate and ethical. A question for my students is who to believe on this issue. There are many voices and I am one, but I am a voice with built-in credibility and authority. And so with great power comes great responsibility. In that vein, I invited two state legislators into my class – two gun rights advocates who not only voted for the bill but who also represent my students and me.

I decided before the legislators came that I would not interrupt or speak in opposition during their time in my class. I did not want the class to become a debating ground between me and them; this was for the students. I thought any dissension from me would create unneeded discomfort. I wanted to show some civility and give the legislators room to make their case. I did not fear they would convince students, as I knew my side also had compelling arguments. And the legislators used many different types of appeals to convince the class – mainly invention strategies we had talked about in class during this semester. It was helpful for students to see effective rhetoric at work.

During the Q&A period after the presentation, one student asked about the lack of training required to get a concealed weapons permit in our state. The legislators encouraged any permit holder to get training. Another student questioned why there was a need for guns after a law passed last year allowing Tasers and stun guns on campus. The legislators suggested those devices would not help those physically weaker.

Then the legislators argued that there was a massive crime increase on some campuses in our state. I stayed quiet, knowing these stats were misleading. But the next class day I felt compelled to provide needed context to the statistics the legislators cited. I praised parts of what the legislators said (they effectively used enthymemes and had a credible personal history with guns, for example). Then I pointed out what the FBI says about crime stats: using one number in a narrow way as they did is not prudent. Then I pointed to contradictory numbers put out by the same university the legislators quoted. Then I showed students how some universities in the same state report crimes that happened in places they can’t verify, i.e., off campus.

Finally I asked my students how we decide which numbers to use. One student responded that we use the ones that best fit our case. I cried a pox on both our houses, because many people in this debate do this. So I asked, in a larger context, how do we frame statistics? Students provided few answers within some awkward silence – perhaps the first time they had ever been asked to grapple seriously with the question.

I ended the conversation talking about the connection between facts and who presents them, how pathos appeals are intertwined with statistics, and how our literacy practices are fraught with complexities. Then I told students that I can’t and won’t tell them what to write. I can only put them in situations where they try out rhetorical strategies I have taught and so create credibility for themselves as writers. This is illuminating a path to learning, not necessarily a teaching of composition. This point is worth making in a political climate in which so many think we professors (especially in the humanities) bar or demean certain student opinions. It is also worth advocating for the asking of important questions. And the silent struggle to understand.

Dr. Matthew Boedy is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric of Composition at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, Ga. He teaches sections of First Year Composition and advanced professional writing courses. 

jeffreywilhelmreading

Promoting the Pleasures of Reading: Why It Matters to Kids and to Country

This post is written by member Jeffrey Wilhelm. 

Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them was this past year’s winner of the NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education.

The research findings that we report in Reading Unbound have profound implications for us as teachers, for our students, and for democracy.

 In our book, we argue that pleasure reading is a civil rights issue. Why? Because fine-grained longitudinal studies (e.g., the British Cohort study: Sullivan & Brown, 2013; and John Guthrie’s analysis of PISA data, 2004, among many others) demonstrate that pleasure reading in youth is the most explanatory factor in both cognitive progress and social mobility over time.

Pleasure reading is more powerful than parents’ educational attainment or socioeconomic status. This means that pleasure reading is THE way to address social inequalities in terms of actualizing our students’ full potential and overcoming barriers to satisfying and successful lives.

We think that our data explain why pleasure reading leads to cognitive growth and social mobility.

 The major takeaway for teachers is to focus on pleasure in our teaching. Pleasure has many forms: play pleasure/immersive pleasure, when you get lost in a book—this is a prerequisite pleasure and we can foster it in various ways, such as teaching with an inquiry approach, using drama and visualization strategies, etc.; work pleasure, where you get a functional and immediately applicable tool for doing something in your life; inner work pleasure, where you imaginatively rehearse for your life and consider what kind of person you want to be; intellectual pleasure, where you figure out what things mean and how texts were constructed to convey meanings and effects; and social pleasure, in which you relate to authors, characters, other readers, and yourself by staking your own identity. Kids (like all other human beings!) do what they find pleasurable. You get good at what you do and then outgrow yourself by developing new related interests and capacities.

wilhelmgraphicchart

Play pleasure develops the capacity to engage and immerse oneself, to visualize meanings and relate to characters. It is the desire to love and be loved. Work pleasure is the love of getting something functional done. Work pleasure is about the love of application and visible signs of accomplishment. Readers engaging in this pleasure cultivate transfer of strategies and insights to life. Inner work pleasure involves imaginatively rehearsing what kind of person one wants to be. As our informant Helen asserted: “It’s not really learning about yourself, it’s learning about what you could be . . . .” and “Characters are ways of thinking really . . . They are ways of being you can try on.”

Inner work is the love of transformation—of connecting to something greater, of striving to become something more. When our informants engaged in this pleasure, they expressed and developed a growth mindset and a sense of personal and social possibility.

Intellectual pleasure is pursued for the joy of figuring things out; it develops the capacity to see connections and solve problems. Our informants developed resilience, grit, and proactivity through the exercise of this pleasure. Erik Erikson argued that staking one’s identity is the primary task of early to late adolescence and that this is achieved through evolving interests and competence.

Social pleasure involves this human developmental project because it involves relating to authors, characters, other readers, and the self in ways that stake identity. Social pleasure is the love of connection—to the self, others, community, and to doing significant work together. This pleasure develops social imagination: the capacity to experience the world from other perspectives; to learn from and appreciate others distant from us in time, space, and experience; and the willingness to relate, reciprocate, attend to, and help others different from ourselves. In other words, it promotes cognitive progress, wisdom, wholeness, and the democratic project. In fact, all of the pleasures were found to do this.

Our data clearly establish that students gravitate to the kinds of books they need to navigate their current life challenges, and that many ancillary benefits accrue in the realms of cognition, psychology, emotional development, and socialness. So much so that we developed the mantra: Kids read what they need!

This finding led us to be more trusting of kids’ choices and to ask them about why they chose to read what they did, and eventually to championing these choices. We likewise found that each of the marginalized genres we studied (romance, horror, vampire, fantasy, and dystopia) provided specific benefits and helped students navigate different individual developmental challenges.

Our data also establish that young people are doing sophisticated intellectual work in their pleasure reading, much of it just the kind of work that the Common Core and other next generation standards call for. So making pleasure more central to our practice is not in conflict with working to achieve standards. Standards and all the other significant goals described here can be achieved if teachers value interpretive complexity as much as they do textual complexity, if they create inquiry contexts that reward entering a story world and doing psychological and social work in addition to more traditional academic goals, and if they provide opportunities for choice and meaningful conversation.

Given the benefits of each pleasure, we are convinced that pleasure reading is not only a civil right, it is a social necessity of democracy.

That is why we urge you to promote pleasure reading in your classroom and school, and it is why our book is filled with practical ideas for how to do so while promoting each of the five pleasures. It is monumental work—and it is work we must undertake with the greatest urgency—particularly at this moment in history.

Works Cited

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Guthrie, J. T., Schafer, W. D., & Huang, C. W. (2001). Benefits of opportunity to read and balanced instruction on the NAEP. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 145-162.

Kirsch, I., de Jong, J., LaFontaine, D., McQueen, J., Mendelovits, J., & Monseur, C. (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries: Results from PISA 2000. Paris, France: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved May 29, 2015 from http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690904.pdf

Sullivan, A. & Brown, M. (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Wilhelm, J. and Smith, M.W. (2014). Reading Unbound: Why kids need to read what they want and why we should let them. New York: Scholastic.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of English Education at Boise State University who teaches and co-teaches middle and high school classes each year.  He is the author or co-author of 37 books about literacy teaching, the winner of the NCTE Promising Research Award, and two-time recipient of the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education

juliafranks

Save Reading, Save the Country

This post is written by member Julia Franks. 

One of my students, a high school senior on his way to Georgia Tech, told me he loved to read as a child and then, as a teenager, began to hate it. He blamed school, and the way his teachers “overanalyzed” literature. (Just to remind you: it’s not unusual for a class to read Hamlet, a four-hour play, and then spend thirty hours talking and writing about it.) Other disaffected readers blame schools’ “terrible books,” including one Stanford graduate who recalls the exact book that made him hate fiction—forever: A Tale of Two Cities.

Some give up sooner. Some have intuited that it’s not the actual reading of Dickens that matters to their grades, but rather familiarity with Dickens’s major themes. And it’s so very tempting to get that information online rather than spending twelve hours reading a book and then constructing your own meaning from it.

We know that non-readers don’t develop the same mental muscles, but there are other reasons why reading isn’t just for the nerds of the world. Our republic provides free education to its citizenry because an informed and intelligent electorate is a public good. Part of getting educated is experiencing other people’s stories. I’m not a Christian, but I identified strongly with the Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Likewise, I aspired to Pi Patel’s transcendent view of suffering in Life of Pi and was moved by Mark Beaver’s conflicted adolescent feelings about Jesus in Suburban Gospel. Because of those books, I have some tiny understanding of the very many ways there are of being a Christian. I could draw similar parallels about being a combat soldier or about being Muslim. By immersing myself in someone else’s story, I’m inhabiting his or her life a little. I’m practicing a different vantage point.

One night last summer, below a dingy Atlanta underpass, a police car pulled in front of mine and stopped, the blue lights flashing into the tunnel. An officer sprang from the car and ran forward into the blackness. Then: sounds of wrestling, moaning, a large soft mass being slammed against the car, the voice of the officer saying, “Stop moving.” He said it four times, each time sounding more as if he were begging. Moments later a tall wiry man sprinted toward my car, blood pouring from a head wound, his eyes dazed with either terror or drugs. The police officer, who was stockier and younger, tackled him, and they both slammed onto the pavement, not five feet from where I sat. The officer wrested the other man’s arms behind him and closed the handcuffs. Then he met my eye for a long moment, his gaze full of uncertainty. He looked Filipino. The man in the cuffs was White.

At first, I tried to square this incident with one of our national narratives, trying to shape my own experience to fit a story I’d already heard. Was it the brutality story? The resisting-arrest story? Racism? Which one was the bad guy?

But, life is not an action movie or a video game where good guys fight evil. There are many other stories out there. And if you’re a reader, you remember Malcolm X’s accounts of police profiling in The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the brutality in American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. But here’s the thing: sitting right there in your brain next to those stories are also Edward Conlon’s accounts of NYPD responding to the events of September 11 and Trudy Nan Boyce’s novels of a female officer navigating complicated relationships in the neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta. If you’re a reader, you have a lot more practice holding all those conflicting stories in your imagination at one time. And perhaps you’re more prepared to see nuance.

Recent data show that readers are also better at controlling their own stories, which is an integral part of constructing identity and has given rise to an entire field called bibliotherapy. Think about it. Stories are the way we make meaning. Take any personal crisis you’ve ever weathered, even something as prosaic as a break-up. When it was all over, you built a narrative around it: “First he did this, then I did that.” Cause, effect, cause, effect. You needed that narrative in order to feel as if you understood what had happened—in order to move on.

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

In my own classroom, I wanted a change, so one spring I offered my AP students a choice. They could read the books on the syllabus, or they could set up reading groups and read twice as many books selected from a list of some 300 great titles. We voted. Forty-nine students out of forty-nine chose to read twice as many books. And—surprise!—they chose door-stoppers they’d long wanted to read (Lord of the Rings! The Fountainhead!) and alternated them with shorter reads (The Road, The Bell Jar, Me Before You). By May, every kid in the class, with one exception, had read twice as many pages as I’d originally planned, and many had read four or five times as  much.

At the end of the year, my seniors’ grades on the national exam were exactly on par with the other AP students in the school. Research data on choice reading, particularly those from linguist Stephen D. Krashen, support this anecdotal evidence.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the classics or the communal reading experience. But kids who have personal reading habits are far more likely to broaden their tastes than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to be reading ten years after graduation.

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

’Tis a far, far better thing they do.

Julia Franks is a former teacher and an award-winning novelist (Over the Plain Houses from Hub City Press). She now runs a Web application that helps schools track independent reading from grade to grade (loosecanon.com). 

Note: Did you find this post interesting? You may like to read this post by Hannah Sislo whose college project focused on ways teachers could include reading choice in the classroom.

jonnaperillofakenews

Real Teaching in a Time of Fake News

This post is written by NCTE historian Jonna Perillo. 

You may have noticed the attention that fake news is receiving in the English classroom. A 2016 Stanford study revealed that today’s K–12 students, while digitally literate in many senses, lack the ability to distinguish fake news from real, instead trusting whatever source confirms their existing beliefs. Motivated by classroom experiences that echo the Stanford findings, educators are rethinking many of the traditional methods and mantras of teaching students to evaluate news sources and developing more sophisticated means of teaching media literacy and the evaluation skills that will benefit students in many aspects of their lives in and outside of school.

Fake or misleading news is nothing new. Nor is teachers’ advocacy around the issue. In the midst of World War II, NCTE took on Reader’s Digest for what some journalists and teachers saw as the magazine’s unspoken rightward bent. The stakes were high: the magazine’s circulation jumped from 4 to 9 million during the war.  In addition, it sold millions of copies of its school edition to classrooms across the nation.

Critics of the Digest, including teacher and NCTE member Samuel Beckhoff, reproached the journal for republishing conservative news sources far more often than liberal ones, including a high percentage of articles that were anti-New Deal, anti-labor, and anti-United Nations.[1] The NCTE Committee on Newspapers and Magazines was charged with investigating the Digest further.  It seconded many of Beckhoff’s findings, but the NCTE Executive Committee overrode its report in November 1944, in part because the magazine by that time had responded to the organization’s criticisms.  In the months since the investigation began, the school edition changed to include a more balanced selection of articles and a more complete list of further recommended readings. The Digest had become a better resource for “an education program which aim[ed] to develop fair-mindedness and straight thinking on controversial questions.”[2]

What the Executive Committee did not address was what made the Digest so attractive to many teachers and problematic to others: its abridging and republishing of primary news sources.  It assembled a wider collection of readings than any other news publication in the pre-Internet age, but it also offered, in Beckhoff’s terms, “precooked and predigested” news that allowed readers to “relax into a comfortable groove.”[3] This may have been the experience millions of Americans were looking for in their recreational reading, but it could present a challenge to teachers trying to form more alert and thoughtful students.

The story of NCTE and Reader’s Digest anticipated what teachers struggle with today: students who read only partial versions of stories or events without fully realizing it, who forget to question what is left out of any account, and who approach their sources with unearned trust rather than a critical eye. NCTE’s strategy then was to change the source; today we look to change the reader.

The good news is that studies have shown that teachers who invest time working on media literacy with their students produce readers who are 26% more likely to be able to discern fake news from real. Sources that end in .edu or .gov always can be trusted, right? Wrong. Teachers are working on ever more specific ways of thinking about how information gets reported and circulated, how evidence gets used or exploited, and how Internet search engines organize news stories in ways that can mislead passive readers. If the percentage of students who gain from these lessons is still lower than many of us would like, the quality of instruction teachers have developed around the issue is to be applauded, adopted, and further adapted.

As in the 1940s, there is a need for broader NCTE action against fake news.  NCTE has already begun to advertise teachers’ best work in this area.  It can be additionally helpful in connecting teachers to the resources news organizations are producing. But NCTE must also stand as a collective voice and advocate for media literacy. Most academic standards address media literacy, but often in ways that are too cursory for the challenge at hand. Too often teachers limit instruction in evaluating sources to a single research assignment rather than a regular practice, something that is unlikely to make an impact. Teachers must have the room, resources, and, perhaps most important, preparation to address fake news in the English classroom, and NCTE is well-suited to argue why this is and how to get there.

At a time when the curriculum is narrowing, arguing for more is no small achievement, even if we understand that the end result will yield better readers and writers. But if a political and media culture in which seemingly anything goes has shown us anything, it is that we must argue for more instruction in media literacy with conviction all the same.

[1] Samuel Beckhoff, “The Rainbow,” English Journal 32.6 (June 1943), 325–330.

[2] Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, November 1944, p. 293, Series 15/70/001, National Council of Teachers of English Archives.  Other documents related to the Reader’s Digest debate can be found on the NCTE archives webpage: https://archives.library.illinois.edu/ncte/about/december.php#1944.

[3] Beckhoff, 325.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

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