Category Archives: Reading

The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report, Part II

(Adapted from the book Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.

Prior to my research efforts at the Jackson Police Department,[i]  I had always heard that police could not write, that police reports were worthless documents, and that no one should ever trust what a cop wrote down. It was also well known in my academic and social circles that police reports were not allowed in court because of how poorly they were written (a misnomer). My initial research into police writing revealed similar sentiments. Prosecutors, police chiefs, defense attorneys, and even officers all complained to me about how poorly police reports are written. I heard this anecdotally in casual conversations and in formal interviews with police chiefs, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The mountain of texts dedicated to improving officer report writing skills demonstrates the problems associated with report writing. Names like How to Really Really Write those Boring Police Reports, Plain English for Cops, Painless Police Report Writing, and my favorite, The Best Police Report Writing Book with Samples: Written for Police by Police, This is not an English Lesson, say a lot about how reports are viewed by officers and superiors. Report writing is seen as boring, difficult, convoluted, painful, and overly concerned with grammar. The manuals typical solutions are templates and simplified demands to include the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why of every encounter. They largely avoid the context of police writing as a rhetorical situation fraught with complicated audience needs and multiple, often conflicting, purposes.

It became clear after reviewing police academy materials and sitting in two different report-training sessions that report writing was always discussed from a deficit model. Police cadets were instructed on how to write a coherent paragraph and use the correct word for a specific meaning. They were also instructed on how to organize the report, detailing the events chronologically. However, the majority of the police academy training I researched was spent on ground-fighting tactics, shooting practice, crime-scene investigation, and multiple-choice test preparation. At the police academy in Arkansas, only 8 hours out of 430 were devoted to report writing (Seawright).

When I asked officers, lawyers, supervisors and others what made a police report a “poor report,” the answers varied wildly. Officers seemed to think that poor grammar created poor reports. Supervisors and chiefs complained about a lack of professionalism in reports. Stephen Mathes, the police chief at Jackson Police Department, complained that “basic grammar” just was not present in police reports. He noted,

We are not just taking a raw recruit and trying to teach them law and                                               police tactics but basic grammar in some instances. . . . [I]f a defense attorney                             picked up a report that was poorly written they are automatically going to                                   say, here is a person I can attack. I can attack credibility.

However, the lawyers I spoke with complained that their most serious concern regarding police reports was the amount of information that was often left out. Two hours after my interview with the Jackson police chief, I sat in the office of Chad Rucker, a local defense attorney, who stressed the importance of the police-officer narrative over grammar in report writing. He emphasized, “Only in telling the story can all the details of the case come to light. Grammar does not matter. It could be written phonetically for all I care, just put down everything that happened.”

So in a matter of hours, a police chief told me that grammar really mattered to defense lawyers, and a defense lawyer told me he could not care less about grammar in reports. How was it that the police report genre could elicit such varied and contradicting expectations from its readers?

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

[i] Jackson Police Department is an alias.

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication. 

The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report

(Adapted from the book Genres of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the first of two parts.

Six years into our marriage, my husband came to me to express his desire to quit his job and become a police officer. After the initial surprise of his decision had passed, I supported his career change and watched from the sidelines as he entered the Arkansas Police Academy. Shortly after, I decided to make my own drastic career change and enrolled as a full-time graduate student at the University of Arkansas. While my husband was learning how to interview a suspect, perform a J-turn in his patrol car, and defend himself from a knife attack, I was learning how to question students about their writing processes, perform a discourse analysis, and defend an argument.

On most Friday and Saturday nights you could find me riding shotgun in his patrol car as a “citizen ride-along.”  I became a staple at pre-shift officer briefings and Jackson Police Department charity events and award ceremonies. The more time I spent with officers, watching them perform their jobs, the more I realized how critical the writing that officers produced was in the justice system. I started asking my husband about his writing process, what went into writing a report, and how that report was used by the prosecutor’s office. My initial investigation led to more questions than answers. I soon found myself committed to a research project that spanned seven years, five research sites in three different states, and hundreds of hours observing and interviewing officers, lawyers, judges, and police academy trainers.

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

The book begins on the scene of a domestic disturbance with Officer Lewis (pseudonym) interviewing suspects and witnesses. It then follows his police report as it makes its way to several different readers in the court system. At each stop in the literacy-event chain, the report is critiqued in ways not envisioned by Officer Lewis. The police supervisor needs more information about injuries sustained in the disturbance. The prosecutor is infuriated by witness information left out of the report. The defense attorney questions the lack of explicit consent in the report for the officer to enter and speak to the suspects in the home. Finally, the judge assumes the officer is apathetic and thus forgives his lack of details in the report, including a lack of information on whether or not Miranda rights were read prior to questioning the suspects.

Despite these reader critiques, I suggest that Officer Lewis is not a bad, misguided, or nefarious police officer. Officer Lewis and nearly all police officers are asked to produce objective, rhetorical documents, a request most of us in English studies realize is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. This book seeks to examine the conditions under which officers write reports and the police report genre itself. In addition, it analyzes how power is circulated and distributed to readers through the police report.

When officers are limited by genre constraints and their misinformed notions of reader expectations, it does not merely impact the officer, the department, or even the court.  Police reports that leave out important details or fail to piece together critical evidence impact victims, suspects, their loved ones, and all who work in the system. If we can understand how officers write reports and why they make the choices they do, we can then address issues we find in report writing and create changes in the power dynamics that shape the justice system across the nation.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication. 

Building Bridges between Readers and Authors

This post is written by member Amy Estersohn.

One way to help students connect with books is to engage with the authors who write them. Here are five easy ways for the readers and writers you see every day to learn more about the names on the spines in the library.

Look up an author’s website.

This is not only good for fun facts about authors, but it’s also an opportunity to learn about an author’s past and future books, professional life, and upcoming author appearances.  If authors are active on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, their websites are a good place to start.  Did you know that teen author e. lockhart and nonfiction picture book author Emily Jenkins are the same person?

Connect with independent bookstores and libraries.

Independent bookstores and libraries are terrific resources for learning about author events.  Some bookstores and libraries may hold major author events and author panels, while others may have programs like “Comic-Con,” where comic book fans and creators congregate.

Do you want books signed by YA celebrities like John Green, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black?  That’s easy if you know where to look.  Check out the signed book inventory from Odyssey Bookshop in western Massachusetts and Books of Wonder.  You can also call these bookstores to see if a favorite author has stopped by to sign books!

Become part of the fan community and make an online presence for your reading life.

Write fan letters, create fan art, and make fan fiction based on favorite books and series. Some fans use blog platforms like Tumblr to talk to authors (check out Maggie Stiefvater’s tumblr as an example of an author engaging with fans) and other authors will post fan art to their website, like Gina Damico.

I’ve also experienced authors reaching out to readers.  Some authors have offered via Twitter to Skype with book clubs where their book was a selection, and one award-winning author offered to Skype with our book club after she saw an announcement online that we were reading her book!

Attend festivals and conferences.

If you have ever been to a national conference like NCTE or ALAN, you already know that it’s an enormous author party, drawing authors from around the globe together for a few days. There are also smaller events, like the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival or a #nErDcamp event.  Some of my favorite author memories include attending #nErDcamp Long Island eating a turkey sandwich in a middle school cafeteria next to one of my students’ favorite authors.  A conference doesn’t have to be big or far away to be rewarding.

Use what you learn in lessons with students.

Authors can be honest about their writing process in front of a crowd, and a lot of what I learn from listening to authors becomes part of the wisdom I pass on to students.For example, Jason Reynolds watches a lot of movies when he is writing. Steve Sheinkin wrote an entire book because he saw a photograph of a filing cabinet and started asking questions. Janet Taylor Lisle writes by sound rather than image. Kelly Barnhill writes in her head as she runs and can remember up to two pages at a time. The author of a book that won two major awards mentioned how painful the writing process for the book was, that it constantly felt like the book was going to kill her before she finished a draft. These writers remind us that there is more than one way to write and no one right way to do it.

Make engagement personally meaningful to you and your students.

If I am going to an event, I look at the author list carefully, plan out the authors I know I want to see and talk to, and think about what I want to say before I get starstruck or too nervous.  I also have little games.  For example, I collect signed copies of books that I think will win a Printz or a Newbery Award.  If an autographing line is short, I will sometimes ask authors to include an encouraging note to young writers in their personalizations. I have some lovely notes from Newbery medalists that were written just to my students.

If you’re taking students to an author event, consider passing along the following bits of advice: Bring a sticky note so you can handwrite your name neatly and an author can personalize it.  Depending on the event, the line might be 100 people long or it might be zero people long.  Some authors will ask lots of questions and engage in conversation with every reader in a line, while others might be more efficient in keeping the line moving.  Asking for a selfie is okay, but don’t ask for free books or free stuff—that’s not the author’s job to give out stuff for free!

Authors are the silent partners in helping our readers grow.  By helping students know them better, we are adding to the conversations we are having with students and the conversations that students are having with the world.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York. She blogs at Teaching Transition and is on twitter @HMX_MSE.

2017 Annual Convention Updates: Local Engagement Committee

The Annual Convention is only seven weeks away and NCTE volunteers and staff have been working tirelessly to ensure that the experience is meaningful for all who attend. This work includes everything from videotaping interviews with students who will be participating in our general sessions to providing top-notch customer service to ensure members have all their questions answered when registering to attend. Book donations from publishers are filling up NCTE’s warehouse, and community members from St. Louis are in discussion with volunteers about connecting to our event.

Alongside the content we have been planning since last fall, we have also enhanced engagement efforts to illustrate the anti-racist teaching work of our members.  Today we offer an updated look into the progress being made.

In August, members were invited to nominate themselves or others to join the Local Engagement Committee. Additionally, members of all NCTE caucuses were invited to join. Everyone who applied was asked to take part in carrying out this charge:

  1. Work carefully to understand the needs of local NCTE members and community stakeholders, then propose one or more OUTREACH activities or events to occur during the Convention in St. Louis. Identify what NCTE can do to promote equitable, just, responsive teaching and learning conditions and practices in St. Louis and Missouri.
  2. Propose one or more member-focused activities or events to occur during the Convention that meet member needs and desires to advocate for equitable teaching and learning conditions.
  3. Become well versed on long-established NCTE plans related to diversity, inclusivity, and equity, both for the St. Louis Convention and beyond.

Read the full charge here.

The Committee currently includes the following members:

Local Engagement Committee Co-Chairs

Alfredo Luján, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Middle Section Rep-at-Large, NCTE Executive Committee
Valerie Taylor, Austin, Texas, Secondary Section Rep-at-Large, NCTE Executive Committee
Jeanette Toomer, New York, New York, College Section

Local Engagement Committee Members

Damián Baca (Tucson, Arizona), Melissa Biehl (Chesterfield, Missouri), Mollie Blackburn (Columbus, Ohio), Barri Bumgarner (Columbia, Missouri), Heather Coffey (Charlotte, North Carolina), Susan Crosby (St. Louis, Missouri), Bob Fecho (New York, New York), Lorena Germán (Austin, Texas), Lauren Gonzales (El Paso, Texas), Charles Gonzalez (Buffalo, New York), Julie Gorlewski (Richmond, Virginia), Tracy Hinds (St. Louis, Missouri), Laura Kay Jagles (Sante Fe, New Mexico), Rick Joseph (Royal Oak, Michigan), Richard Meyer (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Cornelius Minor (Brooklyn, New York), Jennifer Paulsen (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Leilya Pitre (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Keisha Rembert (Plainfield, Illinois), Julia Torres (Denver, Colorado), Velma Valadez (St. Louis, Missouri), Allen Webb (Kalamazoo, Michigan), Julie Zurgable (Rochester Hills, Michigan)

The work of the committee is ongoing. They spent many hours in meetings in September and will do so throughout October. Here are some of the things they have put in motion so far:

A New Roundtable Session
This session will take place on Friday. Three topics will be discussed: police brutality, characters of color in children’s literature, and “taking a knee” as political protest (social and historical contexts).

Workshops
Planning is underway for two workshops that will address curricular resources and the theme of ending racism.

Taking Action
Plans are underway for a public display of solidarity. Both a petition and organized protest are under discussion.

A Town Hall
A panel discussion is being assembled for Friday afternoon. Confirmed speakers will include St. Louis NAACP president Adolphus Pruitt; Superintendent of University City (Missouri) Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley; a Missouri student; and leaders of various groups within NCTE.

Events external to the Convention are also being planned, and possibilities currently under development include visits to St. Louis schools, opportunities to connect visiting authors with St. Louis students, film screenings, and workshops.

Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick has been on the phone every day with meeting planners, community leaders, teachers, and convention center staff in order to:

  • Allocate staff and funding resources to provide support for new projects like the Local Engagement Committee.
  • Secure a discounted shuttle service to and from the airport.
  • Build a relationship with the St. Louis NAACP whose president, Adolphus Pruitt, will speak at the Convention.
  • Arrange for adding more convention space to hold local engagement committee activities and for permits to carry out the evolving ideas of members and organizational leadership

Everything described above is new or improved upon for the Convention this year based on changes we knew we needed to make in early August. That’s much to pull together in a short time! But long before August, this year’s convention General Sessions, featured panels, and sessions were already focused on how we privilege student voices and literacy skills. Inclusion, empowerment, lifelong literacy, and the power of language were key components of this year’s program from the start, and we believe these recent additions will make the experience all the richer.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more updates. We are so grateful for the time and effort staff and volunteers are putting forth right now. I have every confidence this will be a powerful and inspiring experience for us all.

Teaching Social Media Ethics Using Visual Rhetoric

This post is written by member Anne Mooney.

Walking down the halls, sitting in my room before the bell, and speaking with students at my school, I’m struck not only by how much my students are using Instagram and Snapchat, but also by how integral they have become in their lives. As these image-based apps increase in social and cultural importance, it’s imperative that we teach our students how to responsibly and ethically engage with them. When trying to teach something more abstract like ethics, it can be helpful to approach it through a more concrete route. Teaching visual rhetoric, we enable our students to read these image-based posts, allowing them to more effectively assess the ethicality of certain posts.

Visual rhetoric provides students with a concrete way to read image-based posts, both others’ and their own, enabling them to more clearly see the potential repercussions of their social media usage. Examining the rhetorical decisions in Instagram and Snapchat posts, students can make more educated decisions about what they should and shouldn’t post online in order to be ethical and responsible members of our online community.

Teaching Visual Rhetoric

Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers define visual rhetoric as the relationship between images and persuasion. Breaking that down for my students, I define visual rhetoric as the study of images and their ability to communicate a specific purpose to a specific audience. Visual rhetoric asks students to analyze components of the image-based post including author, subject, audience, purpose, and context. By assessing these components, students clearly understand how to read an image as well as the rhetorical situation of the post. Additionally, teachers should urge students to examine these components in relation to the caption, determining how the caption potentially alters the reading of the image.

How Does Visual Rhetoric Teach Ethics of Image-Based Social Media?

Once students are effectively able to read the image-based post as a whole, they will be better equipped to analyze the ethics of the post. Exploring the same components of the post, students can be guided to take their analysis further with the following questions:

  1. Who is the creator?
    • In what way does the author insert their self and their identity into this post and how does that impact the audience’s experience?
  2. Who is the subject (if there is one)?
    • If there is someone in the image, what is their relationship to the author? Do they seem aware that their image is being taken or that it was posted online?
  3. Who is the audience?
    • Who is the author posting for? Is the image only available to a specific audience or is it public? Do they use any specific hashtags? If so, what kind of expectations would this audience have? How has the audience responded to the post?
  4. What is the purpose?
    • Could this post be considered negative towards a particular person or group of people? Does it aim to hurt, undermine, or attack anyone or any group?
  5. What is the context?
    • Is there any backstory, drama, or underlying issues involved?

By providing these questions, we encourage a more thorough rhetorical analysis, thereby enabling students to authentically and effectively assess the impact on the digital community.

Teaching visual rhetoric provides students with the skills necessary to critically engage with our increasingly visual world. With these skills, students will be better equipped to determine the ethicality of both their own and their peers’ image-based social media posts; they will be able to more clearly understand the effects of their online actions. Teaching these skills may not be easy, and, at times, it may seem as though it’s outside our scope as teachers, but if we fail to teach our students digital citizenship, we risk them never understanding the power of their compositions through these apps.

 Anne Mooney teaches eleventh- and twelfth-grade English at Malden High School in Malden, MA. Her academic interests of digital literacies and trauma theory have inspired both her classroom and her scholarship. Follow her on Twitter at @ammoons or on her blog, www.habitsofela.wordpress.com

 

For more information, please read A Pedagogy of Rhetorical Looking: Atrocity Images at the Intersection of Vision and Violence  by Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Scott Gage, and Katherine Bridgman.