Category Archives: Thinking

Checking the Facts

 

princintellfreed

Knowing what’s true and what isn’t, what’s opinion and what’s fact are important aspects of intellectual freedom. Fake news is not true and we and our students need to know how to #FactCheckit.

Sunday, April 2, is the first International Fact-Checking Day, a day to point out and celebrate that FACTS MATTER. Dozens of fact-checkers from around the globe have gotten together with the Poynter Institute (and NCTE) to develop a lesson plan for students grades 6 and up , along with fun activities like a Trivia Quiz  and a Hoax-Off. 

One example of the importance of the need to check the facts is the reaction of some to the book Jacob’s New Dress, which was removed from a first grade curriculum in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

jacobsnewdress

“The book, which is about a boy who gets teased by classmates after electing to dress “like a girl” at school one day, sounds like it would’ve been a great addition to an anti-bullying program for 7-year-old kids. Unfortunately, angry teachers and conservative groups have ensured that message won’t be disseminated to young students.”

Teachers, parents, lawmakers and others complained and the authors, Sarah and Ian Hoffman, “have been forced to clarify that reading a book can’t ‘turn someone gay.’” [fact-checking italics mine]

On Facebook NCTE member Jessica Lifshitz stated these wishes and facts:

“I wish we could have heard from the children reading this book. Every time I have read it with students, the students walk away with an increased understanding of the human beings they share this world with. They are not scarred. They are not harmed. They grow. They learn. They develop empathy. Asking at what age students should encounter books about trans and non binary youth is a dangerous question to ask. It is insulting. If you are a transgender or non binary youth or human should young children not be introduced to you either? These books. They give kids a chance to better understand people in this world, often times before they’ve met a transgender or non binary person. It gives them a chance to gain the necessary empathy to then treat others with kindness and respect.”

The Essential Work of English Language Arts—and ELA Teachers—in Our Democracy

This post is written by member Dana Maloney. 

“We must awaken in order to continue our efforts to build a just, compassionate, and meaningful democracy.”Maxine Greene

danamaloneyThe longer I have taught English Language Arts (ELA)—28 years now—the more I have come to understand that what we do is not trivial or incidental; it is essential.

We can start with two reasons why our work is so important:

  1. Literature is life. When we read imaginative literature—whether prose, poetry or drama—we explore what it means to be alive and to be human. As one of my students remarked years ago, “Literature humanizes us.” We help students understand themselves, others, and the world. We help students crisscross the globe, step into other people’s shoes to see the world through their eyes, and more. Through all of this, we also help students deepen understandings of themselves and of their lives.
  2. We teach the most essential human skills: how to receive information from others and how to transmit information. This is literacy. Through reading and listening, we receive information; through writing and speaking, we transmit information.

Those reasons are so important in the lives of each of our students. However, they are not the only reasons why I think our work is so essential—and why I would posit that it is perhaps the most essential work within the school.

Here is why our work is absolutely essential: What we do in our classrooms protects and perpetuates democracy. John Dewey taught us this long ago, but we need to remind ourselves of this ultimate purpose and context of education.

In ELA classes, we empower students to use their voices and to be able to use the tools of literacy, including digital tools, to contribute to our democracy and to the world. Democracy is a system of government in which people use their literacy skills in order to run a country “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address.

The discourse in our democracy today, continuing even after the inauguration of the new president, illustrates the need for strong literacy skills. I believe that the following ideas help us cultivate strong literacy skills in our students:

  • Critical thinking is the essential filter through which we process information so that we do not simply believe everything we read or hear and so that we think before we speak or write. We encourage thinking when we give students hard questions, when we allow students to craft their own questions, and when we allow them to own the answers. We have to encourage students to ask good, open-ended questions—not leading ones. We have to offer students opportunities to exercise high-level critical thinking.
  • We can also ask students to synthesize across texts—including texts that offer different points of view (as many news sources do today). Our curriculum can reach for the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including synthesis and creation that is informed by the consideration of multiple texts that present opposing information or perspectives.
  • We should not read texts for our students. As teachers, we have to be careful not to own the interpretations of texts. We should not present the text as a mystery for which the teacher has all the answers (e.g., a list of themes and symbols). Instead, we should offer texts to our students and ask students for their engaged readings of them. Of course, we want students to back up their readings with textual evidence and with strong reasoning. Great literature is ambiguous and thus allows for multiple ways of reading. This is one reason why high-merit, classic texts should have a strong place in our classrooms, even as we also embrace student choice in reading selections. Students need to own their questions; we need to create room for students to read texts through their own inquiry lenses.
  • We need to create opportunities for student exchange of readings and ideas via active listening and speaking. We need to require them to listen to each other—and to respond to each other. Discourse is a means through which we strengthen our thinking and our articulation of perspective.

To go one step further, I believe that not only is the discipline of ELA essential to the world today but we ELA teachers are as well.

As ELA teachers, we are in a unique position to help moderate readings of the news and of the world—and we can help cultivate healthy dialogue via spoken and written word. There are many ways in which this might happen, including via school and community events and via social media.

I have started to explore how we can view social media—not just the public forum of Twitter but also the “private” world of Facebook—as a form of digital classroom, with ourselves as moderators of civil discourse or even as discussion leaders (AKA teachers). I believe we can be creative in the ways in which we might do this.

I have been prompted by election and inauguration discourse to attempt to create some impact even in Facebook. This means some risk—moving beyond the easy, friendly discourse that characterized Facebook communication for me before. I am working on a book focused on “reading the text to read the world,” and I have started to transfer some of the content of the book to my Facebook posts.

I will leave off by sharing some of my posts from January 22, 2017. Through these, I also want to share with you some additional thoughts about how we can see the power of our work—and the potential impact all of us can make in our classrooms as well as outside of them:

As a teacher of reading, I would just encourage everyone to read well: Read the whole book, not just one page, and not just the Cliff Notes version. The book here is, of course, the one we are living in today—our world. We have a beautiful democracy which many men and women—including our ancestors—sacrificed their lives to build and to defend. At this moment, many people have their lives on the line for all of us–for our liberty, for justice, for all our rights. Therefore, I encourage everyone to defend our country by seeking the actual truth, not just a limited or false perception of it. Beware of blatant lies. Be aware that lying is an actual strategy, to manipulate people; diversionary tactics are also intentional strategies. Whether you are conservative or liberal, please do not give away our democratic ideals, which include those expressed in the First Amendment—including freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protest. Do not just believe all that you are told—all that you might want to believe. Seek the truth.

In response to this post, I received a comment, which prompted me to write:

Great literature may be fiction, but it is about truth: truth of human experience and more. Moreover, in true literature there are always multiple perspectives offered. Propaganda is one-sided; a true story has many sides, many points of view, and many voices—like democracy. I think we all have to LISTEN to and READ many perspectives to maintain our healthy democracy and to avoid losing it.

After the Facebook friend replied again to me and as we moved closer to agreement, I added:

Another thing I would add is that we have to be careful what we “say” in the social media world—with regard to selecting and sharing information. An English classroom can be a good analogy and training ground for discourse—if we encourage students to speak what they think (after time is given for thoughtful reflection) and if students also respond to each other, to challenge (civilly) each other’s’ statements—and thus to push every person’s separate thinking. We don’t push particular beliefs or interpretations (because literature, like life, is ambiguous), but we encourage thought—not just fast or shallow thought but careful thought that has processed perspectives and that continues to do so. This is also how public schools help nurture democratic citizens who not only tolerate but also embrace diversity of perspectives— not bullying of perspective, not control of truth.

Dana H. Maloney is the chair of the NCTE Achievement Awards in Writing Advisory Committee, the 2012 winner of the CEE James Moffett Award, and an Executive Board member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. She teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey. Her Twitter handle is @danahmaloney.

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.

NCTE Citizenship Campaign, February Focus: Black History Month

handsonglobeThe following post was written by members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

February—Black History Month—offers an opportunity to encourage good citizenship when it comes to issues surrounding race while still meeting your content standards. To encourage personal citizenship1, discuss with students how they can be friends with and support peers from backgrounds different from their own. Their everyday interactions with people are a way of being a good citizen.

To help students be participatory citizens, have them look at the history of laws and/or current laws and policies that may be unfair to people of color or of different faiths. When it comes to justice-oriented citizenship, students could be asked to analyze and think critically about the laws and policies they looked at before and come up with a variety of solutions.

Grades K–5

For students at this younger age, we think it’s important to encourage them to maintain friendships with children outside their race or religion. Have class discussions about what it means to be a good friend and why it can be a good thing to have friends who are different from you.

Books to consider: The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson or Across the Alley by Richard Michelson

Grades 6–8

Middle school is an age where friendships can be complicated. It’s a great time to discuss with students how they choose friends. At this age they can start to think critically about whether or not their friend group is diverse and why. In addition to thinking about friendship you can have students conduct a mini research project. They can look through their curriculum and see how many black or nonwhite authors they have read in class, or people they have learned about in history, science, or math. This is a great way to look at your own curriculum and see who is represented and to consider why. Students can continue with the research project from the participatory citizen activity above and discuss and analyze their findings. They can determine whether or not they think there is an issue and write an argumentative paper as to why there is or isn’t. Perhaps if they all think there is an issue, they can come up with ways to fix it.

Book to consider: Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper

Grades 9–12

In high school students are being asked to do more critical thinking and analysis. Consider having your students examine your school’s dress code. Is it fair to people of all races? Genders? Why or why not? Can they write a proposal for a revised dress code if it isn’t? A research project looking at a person of color would be a great project too. You can use a nonfiction anchor text to help students write the paper while still working on reading skills.

Books to consider:

Other Ideas from ReadWriteThink.org

Note

  1. As in our previous post, we draw on the three types of citizens proposed by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne in their article “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy” (American Educational Research Journal, Summer 2004, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 237-269): personally responsible citizens, participatory citizens, and justice-oriented citizens.

 

Frederick Douglass

Why I Think It’s Important to Know Frederick Douglass

The following post is written by NCTE member Scott Filkins. 

As I prepared to read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography with my 11th-grade students this fall, I thought through what I value about his work, both to frame how I would teach it and to make these ideas part of the conversation about why we read certain texts in a class called “American Literature.”

  • First, it’s an important historical document. Most of my students have not read a first-hand account of slavery, and they have much to learn from the writing of someone who lived under America’s most depraved institution.
  • Second, it’s a memoir of a key American figure. Deeply entwined with the historical significance of the work is its value as the story of a particular man who survived slavery and went on to devote his life to work for its abolition.
  • Third, his autobiography is a literary work rich with potential for discussion of the power of language. Even students who are reluctant to talk about an author’s word choice or sentence structure are easily convinced of the value of this work with a text as beautifully and carefully written as Douglass’s.

These reasons are more than sufficient, both to justify the work’s inclusion in the textual dialogue we call American literature and to give our specific conversations of his autobiography focus and meaning. But the past few times I’ve taught the book (thanks to my endlessly smart colleagues) I’ve been focusing on Douglass’s work as an example of political activism, writing for change. I feel foolish that this isn’t the approach I took in the past, given that ending massive human injustice was in fact Douglass’s goal in writing it.

It turns out that it’s not easy to make this focus central to our study, though. Students have trouble imagining what a historical audience reading the work would have had to feel, think, and believe in order to be convinced that slavery is antithetical to American values.

“How is it not completely obvious that slavery is inhumane?” they wonder. “Why would you have to do all this to persuade someone that this kind of inequality is unethical?” The enormity of these questions energizes students’ study of the text and brings them to appreciate the complex and disturbing significance of the very fact that it had to be written.

Knowing Frederick Douglass as a political activist who used his considerable literate gifts–as a writer, as a reader of other texts, and most importantly, as a reader of his fellow human beings–to make change in the world for the benefit of others is, it turns out, the most important outcome of our shared reading experience with his autobiography.

I only hope that everyone gets the chance to know him this way.


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Scott Filkins teaches in the Champaign Unit 4 Schools. He co-directs the University of Illinois Writing Project and is a doctoral student at Illinois in curriculum and instruction.  Scott is the author of the NCTE publication Beyond Standardized Truth: Improving Teaching and Learning through Inquiry-Based Reading Assessment (2012).