Category Archives: NCTE History

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.

What Challenges Might We Embrace, and How?

This guest post is from James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa. 

These are challenging times for teachers of reading, writing, and the arts of language—but then we’ve faced challenging times throughout our 105 year history. I’ve always prized NCTE for its unity in diversity.

Doug Hesse, in a November 12, 2016, post in NCTE’s Teaching and Learning Forum

My first NCTE Convention occurred in 1968 in Milwaukee, the year that both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was a buttoned down, formal affair (at least the general and business sessions were) but not without intimations, perhaps prescient moments, that alluded to what was going on in the world outside those walls. Beyond the Convention, and only two years after the Dartmouth Conference, we saw the reappearance of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration and publication of James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse plus the Squire & Applebee report High School English Instruction Today.

Most significant to me in that moment, as a third-year high school teacher and new department chair, was a preconvention (in those years, Convention started on Thanksgiving Day) study group who explored emerging high school English elective programs. I met Jim Squire, Ed Farrell, and colleagues from several states with whom I would share subsequent Conventions (our network) for years. I returned to Missouri and led our department in creating our own version of an elective program, characterized and introduced by one senior member as “English Needed a Miniskirt.”

We vaguely realized that our early devotion to learner choice would be difficult to sustain, would need to become increasingly nuanced in our classes—not just of them—and even then, in part a response to leverage toward behavioral objectives, was more political than we knew.

Similarly, apart from convention sessions I attended faithfully (my novice sense of responsibility compounded by limited understanding of the convention genre), serendipitous acquisition of a ticket from Ed Farrell sent me to the Marquette University campus one evening for an advance screening of Charley and bonus audience interaction with the star of the film, Cliff Robertson. A déjà vu moment during his Q&A was special; more important was the film’s attention to mental handicaps, not addressed by federal legislation for another seven years. Of course, I thought of my experiences as professional, not political . . .

In 1969, thanks again to the perks provided a department chair, I enjoyed the NCTE Convention in Washington, DC. My preconvention study group in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, offered first-hand exposure to early American literature’s backgrounds—lectures in the morning and tours on our own in the afternoons. Late Wednesday we bused to DC for a quite different NCTE Convention, a “Dreams and Realities” theme, where James Moffett’s address, “Coming on Center,” would rock many of us—the first time, I suspect, I heard a teacher-leader use the phrase military industrial complex!

Immersion in the revolutionary origins and ideals of our country hardly prepared me for Jim’s speech, so compatible with demonstrations by Council members seeking an NCTE resolution against the Vietnam War. NCTE President William Jenkins, who had publicly questioned NCTE becoming a direct political agent in the issue, presided at the business meetings, one of which had to be rescheduled and went into the early morning hours.

New to his role as Executive Secretary (of a Council divided but less diverse than it would become), Bob Hogan struggled to balance consideration for those who abhorred the idea of NCTE taking an overt political position with respectful treatment of those who adamantly, even aggressively expressed opposition to the war and who saw their professional organization as an appropriate agent for change. Ultimately, those assembled passed a resolution in which “the Council officially expresses its abhorrence of the Viet Nam War and its desire to see this divisive conflict ended.”

We were equally unprepared—even by our time at Colonial Williamsburg, though the threads were there—for a powerful CEE luncheon address by Alex Haley. Introduced as a writer for Playboy and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “currently working on another book . . .” Haley told the story of his research, of looking for ancestors in property records, and of his journey to Africa, from which he had just returned, to successfully locate his family and tribe.

A silent, awestruck audience followed his tracing through oral history of a few syllables in a native language and at the end gave the most spontaneous and sustained standing ovation of which I have ever been a part. I still ponder what would have occurred if Roots had been published under Haley’s working title, Before This Anger.

I have not thought of NCTE as apolitical since 1969, and in 1970 at the convention in Atlanta, Jenkins said, “NCTE is involved in politics by its very existence.” (Hook, 238) Then (as now?) the question was how and to what extent the Council should purposefully act.

In 1970, President Jim Miller, commenting on continuing confrontations, said they had “jolted organizations out of their smug complacencies and comfortable lethargies,” (Hook, 238) and Council activist Darwin Turner contended, “We must make our voices heard for love and justice, peace and reason.” (Hook, 238)

In the 1970s and since, NCTE has invested in resistance to censorship and of national scapegoating, even then, blaming teachers for educational decline, and of calls for a return to basics. Later, NCTE worked for professional standards, not constraints imposed by business and government.

Recent events pose a need to interpret newly divided constituencies both in and beyond our Council in order to reach students from all families, who are many and diverse.

To navigate this new era we need to engage—what are our common aspirations and how might we resolve differences?

These are the questions we should ask as we look to turn the page.

Hook, J. N. (1979). A long way together. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

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.

Teaching Resistance in Unjust Times

This post is written by NCTE Historian Jonna Perillo. 

jonnaperrilloLike many of you, I took pleasure in reading the many reports that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had risen in sales by 10,000 percent in the weeks following the election. If there was any good news to be found, knowing that many more Americans were reading Orwell’s critique of “newspeak” and authoritarian rule was it.

As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I wondered how many of those readers were teachers. 1984 has long been canonical high school reading, but even short novels often have been sacrificed in the expediency game of standardized curricula and testing. My not so secret hope is that English teachers are going off the rails, assigning Orwell’s work as a necessary act of resistance against both political “doublethink” and a mindless approach to teaching.

It would mark an important change if so. I have heard from many teachers over the last several months—some I know, many I don’t—that they strive to be apolitical in their work. They see how some of texts they teach respond to world events, but some teachers try not to entertain explicitly political conversations even so. This wasn’t always the way.

During both world wars, teachers were required to politicize their work. In a 1942 document entitled “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) outlined the ways in which English instruction should work as a tool of resistance against the enemy and a means to promote a sense of national unity.

Some of this work was ideological and restrictive. Teachers were expected to assign “patriotic literature” that “proclaimed” and “interpreted” (but did not critique or examine the limitations of) democratic life. Yet they were also expected to be more inclusive and to teach works that recognized “the rights and contributions of minorities in this country . . . and those loyal aliens who may be under suspicion at the moment because of descent from enemy nations.”[1] Textbook adoptions and district curricular plans indicate that this happened less often than it should have, but NCTE’s goal for diversity was important nevertheless.

Recently, I have heard many stories of young students who have asked their teachers why the president hates them. In communities across the nation, students suddenly feel under attack. To this, what do we say? What is the role of the English teacher in unjust times?

We live in a different historical moment from that of the mid-twentieth century, one in which politics in the classroom feels both more complex and riskier. But as the skyrocketing sales of 1984 might indicate, more and more, many find avoiding politics an untenable position to hold.

Reading another classic by Orwell, his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” offers humanities teachers a compelling tool for change. In it, Orwell dissects how language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” “Bad hombres” is not just a juvenile phrase; its linguistic carelessness captures the laziness of the totalizing and inaccurate assumptions it describes.

Orwell shows that language is often used in a “curiously dishonest way” to produce “a reduced state of consciousness . . . [and] political conformity.” Say the phrase “alternative facts” often enough, he would argue, and people just might believe such a thing could exist. Readers and listeners must always be on guard for flat metaphors and empty, recycled phrases that are purposely devoid of meaning. All discourage real thought.

In contrast, Orwell positions the language-conscious writer as a “rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’” Ours is an especially important time for students to read a rich tradition of rebellious writing in this country—fiction and nonfiction—and to see how both the ideas and the expression of those ideas differ from the status quo.

Orwell implicitly challenges the kind of easy, patriotic sentiment that was central to the politicization of teaching during World War II. But it also reminds of us why NCTE’s push toward inclusion, at a time concurrent with Jim Crow laws and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, was a meaningful statement of resistance. What might such meaningful statements look like now? And to whom should our students be addressing them?

I suspect the return to 1984 is a sign of Americans’ search for a resistance handbook. Teachers, especially, have needed such a thing for a long time. If our current political climate is useful for anything, it might compel us to consider just how much has been lost in a laser focus on standardization that has asked teachers to conform to expedient, simplistic ideas about language, reading, and writing.

No student should feel like their president hates them. But all students should feel like their teachers are their allies. The most important way we can do this is to enable our students to become more adept and aware thinkers and people. Teaching English is all the more meaningful a pursuit in these unjust times.

[1] National Council of Teachers of English Planning Commission, “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” box 1, record series 15/73/803, NCTE Archives, Urbana, IL.

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.

What to Teach, How to Teach It, and Whose Voice Counts

This post is written by member Leila Christenbury who is the keynote speaker  for the Secondary Section Luncheon at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.

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As I wrote in a previous blog, my invitation to speak to the Secondary Section at the upcoming NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta is indeed an honor. On the other hand, what could I say that could be helpful, important, or even significant when today there are so many competing concerns about education and teaching English?

One thing that strikes me is the centrality of the Secondary Section to all that NCTE does and even to the origins of the organization itself. When NCTE’s founders established the organization in 1911, it was secondary concerns—specifically an imposed and mandatory reading list for high school students—that energized the group to form an organization and, ultimately, to resist dictates on any number of issues, mandatory reading lists among them. Over the decades, that kind of activism has not dimmed. Three of the issues, old and new, that the NCTE Secondary Section has tackled include:

  • Use of media in secondary classrooms: We are not the first generation to grapple with the appeal of media that moves quickly and offers more than we are able to do within our four walls packed with 30 some desks and bodies in real-time attendance. How to harness media and use it well in the classroom has been a serious concern for NCTE Secondary Section members over the decades. That concern focused on newspapers and radio in the 1930s and 1940s; on television in the 1960s and 1970s; on computers in the 1980s; and now on social media, smartphones, and tablets. Students reading comic books in class concerned Secondary Section members in decades past, which may seem quaint today until we consider that incorporating the graphic novel into our classrooms is still controversial in some schools. The Secondary Section has provided leadership for decades as teachers adapt and use media in their classrooms.
  • High-stakes testing in secondary schools: Massive testing of secondary students, especially through the use of the ACT and SAT, emerged as an issue in the 1960s and has morphed, some 60 years later, into a testing culture that has resulted in the most tested generation of high school students. These students are measured by their school districts, their states, and, for those who have adopted the Common Core State Standards, by a national norm. The Secondary Section has been instrumental in tracking this testing and critiquing its use and overuse.
  • Representative materials in secondary classrooms: Innovative and cutting-edge textbook series and use of alternative materials in English classrooms emerged as educational issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the drumbeat for multicultural materials was similarly strong. Today, Secondary Section members continue to work to open the literature canon more widely and to showcase voices from all segments of society, including underrepresented, immigrant, and second language students.

So when I talk with the Secondary Section at the upcoming Convention, part of my focus will be what the group has successfully spearheaded in the past and, in the spirit of our new NCTE slogan (to be showcased at the Convention), what we can do in the present and future. Certainly, one thing I learned as NCTE historian was that the fights in which we are currently engaged are not new ones. This observation is not meant to dismiss or devalue the difficulty of what we face or the strength of our adversaries in 2016, people who do not work in schools and for whom education is often just another tool to reinforce economic disparity and cultural anemia. But if we are tempted to look to the past to see an era of golden tranquility, a serenity to which we no longer have access, we need to resist that urge. Public education at the secondary level has been under siege and a battleground from the mid-1910s to today—what to teach, how to teach it, and whose voice counts the most are the three pillars of this ongoing conflict. Today we face state standards and national ones; we face teacher independence vs. scripted and aggressively paced instruction; we continue to beat at the door obstructing the central importance of the voice of the local—classroom teachers, parents, and even, crucially, students themselves. What to teach, how to teach it, and whose voice counts the most rang as burning issues in 1911 and ring now, in 2016.

The NCTE Secondary Section has certainly not won all of these battles nor established itself as the only voice of guidance and reason. Through our collective work, however, we continue to represent secondary teachers, secondary students, and the English profession itself. It is important work, and ongoing, and will once again flourish when we gather in November in Atlanta.

Leila Christenbury is Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She is the recipient of NCTE’s Distinguished Service Award, a past president of NCTE, and a former editor of English Journal.

Native Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

The following post is the third in a series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

ExploringNCTEhistory“Indian people need to be doers, rather than objects to which things are done,” Rough Rock Demonstration School Director Dillon Platero proclaimed in 1970.[1] One of the longest lasting of the 1960s experiments in community control, Rough Rock, a Navajo-operated school in Chinle, Arizona, sought to combine local control of the school with a curriculum that served its population educationally, politically, and psychically. Students at Rough Rock studied (and continue to study today) in English and in Navajo, and they learned Navajo art and science traditions in addition to the standard curriculum. Through a deep, cross-disciplinary immersion in their own culture and history taught largely by Navajo teachers, Rough Rock students could better understand their people’s intellectual traditions and ideas and, by contrast, those of others, as well.

The Demonstration School (called thus because it demonstrated what Native schools could look like and accomplish) marked a break from the federalized public schools that otherwise dotted Indian reservations. Since the early 1900s, both boarding and on-reservation schools had sought to “kill the Indian and save the man” with differing levels of explicitness. Often, schools sought to divorce Native children from their home languages, customs, and dress. At Rough Rock, Platero explained, the aim was just the opposite, and “the child’s self-image and feeling of worthy personhood is not shattered so mercilessly, as often happens, when the difference between what is actual life and what it taught in school strikes the child at the age of six.”[2] Rough Rock sought to dismantle historical traditions in Native American schooling, starting with the psychic damage committed on children.

The NCTE archives hold an extensive collection of materials related to language instruction and literature designed for Native American students in the late 1960s and 1970s, including some focused on Rough Rock. In one of the most important of these documents, a report on the school from 1969, four Navajo external evaluators examined the school in its third year, tasked by the Rough Rock school board to determine how well the curriculum was working.

In so doing, the evaluators looked for the three things:

  1. Is the child happy?

  2. Is the child learning?

  3. Is the child interested?

The school received high scores in learning and interest, 83 and 86 percent, respectively. But in happiness, they found, the school truly excelled, with a score of 94 percent.[3] In asking these questions in this order, the evaluators understood what we often forget now—that happiness is both a political and an educational act, a precondition for individual autonomy and growth as well as community health and identification. People learn better when what they learn deepens and stretches their sense of self-worth and place in the world.

By contrast, school reform policies of the last twenty years have diminished the time and activities in which children are often most happy: physical education, recess, and the arts. We have cut into children’s independent reading time with computerized comprehension tests partnered with material incentives and rewards, as if these are ample replacement for the enjoyment of reading. Writing focused on test prep has taken over, and many students possess far less experience in developing real ideas of their own.

Altogether, the areas that have faced the greatest sacrifice in the past decades are school activities in which students feel most autonomous and free.

Each month, news articles appear applauding the quality of education in Finland; no small number of these articles point to the ways in which student happiness is part of education planning there. Yet it is important to remember that we have traditions of education happiness in our nation—traditions that teachers have been able to prioritize and maintain despite the restrictions and challenges that our schools face and that schools serving low-income populations face all the more acutely. We can learn from our own examples and from the unique perspectives that educators like Platero were able to embrace, often because historical circumstances pushed them to do so.

From its early days, Rough Rock demonstrated far more than what an Indian school looks like; it demonstrated what a school that pushes against history and puts students first looks like. It is not too late to pay attention.

[1] Dillon Platero, “The Rough Rock Demonstration School, Navajo Nation, 1970.” The School in the United States: A Documentary History, James W. Fraser (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001): 312–18, 318.

[2] Platero, 314.

[3] John Y. Begay et al., “Navajo Evaluators Look at Rough Rock Demonstration School” (Washington, DC: Office of Economic Opportunity, 1969), 7. National Council of Teachers of English Archives, Record group 15/73/008, box 7.