Category Archives: NCTE History

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.


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.

Teaching, Feminism, and School Rule

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

“Women are destined to rule the schools of every city,” Chicago school superintendent Ella Flagg Young declared in 1909. Better qualified than many men, she contended, women were “no longer satisfied to do the greatest part of the work and yet be denied leadership.”[1] To Young, the nation’s only female superintendent, school reform was one of the nation’s most important feminist projects.

She would have been bitterly disappointed if she were able to survey the education landscape six and a half decades later, during the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Female superintendents were still virtually unheard of. While 84% of elementary school teachers were women, 81% of elementary school principals were men.  In high schools, 46% of teachers were women; over 98% of principals were men.[2] Women were underrepresented in administration for the same reason they were overrepresented in elementary classrooms: they were considered nurturing and “soft,” while men could discipline children and colleagues alike.

Women teachers in the 1970s, like other groups of working women, fought for maternity leave, equal pay, and access to administrative channels from which they had historically been shut out.  But to change any of the inequities of the job, they needed to address a professional culture that rewarded a minority of men.

With this mind, NCTE’s Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession met in the fall of 1971 to draft recommendations for producing “positive change” for women teachers. The guidelines advanced a platform of self-reflection and personal narrative that paralleled the composition theories NCTE members were adopting in their classrooms.  They recommended an educative approach to sexism, one that focused on “awareness” and teachers’ “own unexamined assumptions,” and urged women teachers to “involve their colleagues and administrators in self-evaluations of their attitudes towards women.” Men needed to change, the committee argued, but so did women, who required encouragement “to participate actively in all professional meetings” and “to answer the questions men ask.”[3]

In the committee’s identification of “culture” as the enemy, it embraced a less radical and policy-focused version of feminism than what was being exercised outside of the schoolhouse, one that assumed that the penalties women teachers faced resided as much in their own limited professional self-perceptions as in institutional structures.  But this view also coupled personal accountability (in women and men) with professional partnership (between women and men) in ways that correctly read how healthy academic institutions should work.

Today teaching remains a feminized profession: 76% of all public school teachers are women.  But in the forty years since the committee issued its guidelines, women have risen up through the administrative ranks. Nearly 52% of principals now are women.  Even with a continued gender disparity between elementary and high school leadership, the difference marks a significant change that, along with changes in maternity leave and pay structures, reflects the realization of many 1970s feminist teachers’ goals.

Yet, as Kate Rousmaniere argues in The Principal’s Office, differences in school administration are due less to the culture within individual schools and more to wide changes in the profession.  Simply put, as the principalship became less attractive beginning in the 1980s—more focused on mandate regulation and management than instructional leadership—fewer men were interested in the job.[4]  Women have broken through a cycle Young described in which leadership was treated as “the inherited right of man alone,” but women’s own inheritance is a mixed bag.[5]

In many ways, today’s teaching environment is far less liberatory than that of the 1970s; women may have earned access, but they have lost intellectual autonomy.

Given that women continue to occupy the majority of positions in schools, advancing the profession—improving the job and the quality of education offered to students—will remain women’s work.  NCTE members are in a particularly strong position to continue to develop new sets of guidelines that address teacher and student disenfranchisement and highlight teacher leadership in our classrooms, schools, and nation.  The Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession was right to see that attitudes toward ordinary teachers matter and that partnership in schools is key to reform.  This is as good a time as any to be reminded of what 1970s teachers already knew.

[1] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” Western Journal of Education 14 (1909): 515–516.

[2] Tyack, David, and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 18201980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 183.

[3] NCTE Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession, Guidelines for Confronting Attitudes that Penalize Women (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1971).

[4] Kate Rousmaniere, The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2014).

[5] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” 516.

A Legacy of Pride for May

The following post is by NCTE Vice President Jocelyn Chadwick and is part of a series she is writing about NCTE’s Legacy of Pride

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am interested in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” Maya Angelou

“We read, we travel, we become.” Derek Walcott

In its early years, NCTE was an organization of more than 150,000 members in the United States and Canada. As our organization of teachers has moved forward, we have continued to grow in vision and perspective, in recognition and embrace of what de Beauvoir, Lorde, and Gillian describe as difference. The month of May heralds the presence, uniqueness, and contributions of Asian Pacific Americans, Jewish Americans, and Haitian Americans—all of who contribute to the voice and presence of NCTE in the 21st century.

Wanting to know more about this organization I have loved, supported, and on which I have depended for so many years, I feel like an archeologist: I am drilling, digging, gingerly reviewing documents, uncovering gems I never knew existed. This month allows us to excavate so much about NCTE in its early days and view who we are today—thanks to J. N. Hook’s, Erika Lindemann’s, and Leila Christenbury’s research.

With my archeological quest in focus, I found a unique partnership between NCTE and the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice) with an aim of “seeking out Americans whose native language was not English.” This initiative was an extension of the Council’s commitment to Blacks at the time (1942–52). The scope was writ large: to engage in conversations with textbook publishers and authors of “juvenile fiction”; to amplify an already extant NCTE initiative, We Build Together; and to have a dedicated section in both English Journal and Elementary English to foment conversation and interests about books across cultures. A forerunner of a book blog today, these “pre-blog” sections were intentionally designed to be “chatty,” thereby creating ongoing spirited collegial conversations: a blending of individual uniquenesses and similarities, discovered through what we love—books! This cross-cultural and all-inclusive effort resulted in other initiatives for students, too. For example, an award focused on celebrating students’ academic accomplishments, named the NCTE Achievement Award, had representation of students from many cultures: Asian Americans, African Americans, White Americans, and Hispanic Americans. This award yet exists and has grown, even beyond the borders of the United States into Canada and American Schools Abroad.

While some organizations focus solely on leadership or special groups, our organization is committed to focusing on all of our members—who they are as teachers:

David BloomeDavid Michael Bloome, for example, was, and still is in spirit, an amazing middle school teacher and is now the EHE Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State and codirector of the Columbus Area Writing Project. Passionate, dedicated, in 2008 David was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame.

Roxanne HenkinRoxanne Henkin, another passionate teacher and also a professor at UTSA in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, directs the San Antonio Writing Project (SAWP), which works with South African teachers in the Limpopo Writing Project.

Stuart ChingStuart Ching, associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount and past chair of the Asian/Asian American Caucus at NCTE, focuses on the importance of children’s cultural memory. His research and practice are built around sharing and crossing cultures for greater personal and social understanding.

Jennifer Sano-FranchiniMembers like Jennifer Sano-Franchini, associate professor of Professional and Technical Writing in the Department of English at Virginia Tech, illustrate the membership’s diversity in expertise. Jennifer’s research and passion melds her penchant and expertise in rhetoric with her ability and interest in architecture, digital humanities, and Asian American studies. Jennifer recently was awarded the 2015 XCaliber Award from her university. The provost presents this distinguished award to faculty who produce “exceptional, high-caliber work.”

Victor VillanuevaLike Jennifer and Stuart, Victor Villanueva, Regents Professor and Director of the Writing Program at Washington State University, explores how his own cultural heritage blends with American culture within a rhetorical context. This a focus of his highly regarded and widely read book Bootstraps, which shares his experiences and theories of identity and focus and aspiration.

We are fortunate to have many members of NCTE who are different from other members; we are the better and stronger for it. A huge THANK YOU to Sheridan Blau, Gail Y. Okawa, Yetta Goodman, Paul Kei Matsuda, Ken Goodman, Deborah Appleman, Akiko Morimoto, Kyoko Sato, and Beverly Chin, to cite a very few. And though we cannot list all names of our members representing this month’s groups, please know, we appreciate each and every one of you. Because of all of you—your uniqueness and your willingness to share—“there is beauty and there is strength” in our NCTE.

Legacy of Pride: Women and NCTE

Reflections from NCTE Vice President
Jocelyn A. Chadwick

I have long wondered why we have “months” to recognize specific groups or moments. Of course, these months are designed as celebratory, acknowledging accomplishment and, simply, being. For NCTE’s Legacy of Pride, we, too, are celebrating and recognizing our members. Because this is Women’s History Month and a month celebrating Irish Americans, we are exploring ways in which women, some of whom are Irish, have had a long history within this organization as influential presences and powerful voices. They have worked tirelessly and passionately. Sometimes considered outspoken or assertive—some would even say aggressive—in their passionate pursuits in our profession, the women of NCTE remain an integral part of who and what this organization is—not for itself, but for ELA teachers around the country, PreK through graduate school.

Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE Executive Director - one of the many women who are part of NCTE's legacy of pride.
Emily Kirkpatrick

NCTE’s significant women include so many that we could not even begin to list them all here, but we can say to each and every woman in our organization, including our new executive director, Emily Kirkpatrick, thank you.

Thank you to each of you for your tireless focus and expertise, your unyielding sense of ethics and voice, your negotiatory ability to hear and encourage many voices, and your intrepid energy.

We embrace Other and construct our own meaning; member Jacqueline Jones Royster asserted,

Jacqueline Jones Royster - one of the many women who are part of NCTE's legacy of pride.
Jacqueline Jones Royster

“While [W. E. B.] DuBois’s focus was on African American men and the social order more generally, the message is no less meaningful for a full range of individuals in academe (African American scholars included) who have faced the pulls and tares of being both scholar and Other—racialized, gendered, acculturated beings amid discourses where dominant social and political forces are privileged to ignore and disregard us and our work with the same type of amused contempt and pity articulated by DuBois in 1903” (Calling Cards: Theory and Practice in the Study of Race, Gender, and Culture).

March is also a month for reading—a core concern of NCTE and our nation’s concern. NCTE is committed to striving for lifelong literacy for all students. NCTE’s women have had plenty to say about the importance of reading over the decades. Harkening back to sentiments expressed by Marion Sheridan, reading and ELA form a critical component of students’ lives:

Marion Sheridan - one of the many women who are part of NCTE's legacy of pride.
Marion Sheridan

[English] is a powerful subject, far more than drills or skills. It is a means of communication seldom if ever mastered; a means of stimulating emotion, of effecting success or failure, with the sorrow that failure brings. . . . a means of sharpening perceptions and understandings. . . . A democracy depends upon the use of words, upon the ability to understand and to discuss questions of freedom, liberty, labor; upon the ability to trace the course of thought and to detect specious argument. . . . Literature is a storehouse of the experiences of mankind [sic]. . . . Its peace and serenity may give balance and a sense of normalcy, and fortitude, when total war dominates the situation (1942).

As a final kudo to those who came before many of us, a thank you to the women who began and carried the conversation 45 years ago through the Women’s Committee. The first documentation of the Women’s Committee appears in the 1972 Annual Report, where Janet Emig wrote:

Janet Emig - one of the many women who are part of NCTE's legacy of pride.
Janet Emig

“As chairperson of the NCTE Committee on Women (short title) established at the 1971 Las Vegas convention, I have spent the year trying to form a committee that accurately represents not only women in the four-year colleges and universities but also the range of women who teach the language arts and English in the elementary and secondary schools and in the two-year colleges. I have sought diversity in age, race, geography, academic level, and nature of academic responsibility (because of the nature of professional sexism, women administrators are the most difficult to find: we have on the committee one of the very few women principals in the New York City system)”

(Alleen Pace Nilsen, “On the Twentieth Anniversary of the Founding of NCTE’s Women’s Committee.” WILLA Journal 1 (Fall 1992): 9-11.)

Women, Irish Americans, reading—NCTE encompasses all three right now in classrooms, on campuses every day, every month, every year. Thank you. Continue to amaze. Continue to inspire. And most assuredly, continue to insert your determined selves.