Tag Archives: Inclusion

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.

Setting the Captives Free

This post is written by Joanne Yatvin, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst for Oregon. 

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The events described in this story took place in the rural Oregon school district with a high poverty level where I was superintendent/principal for twelve years. We had only two schools: an elementary and a middle school, with no more than 400 students between them. Our goals were not to make all students “college or career ready” but to help them become the best individuals and citizens they could be. We focused on respect and personal attention, and changed our program for students classified as “disabled” in order to give them a chance to be winners instead of losers.

In 1990 we closed our special education classroom and set the captives free. Our intention was to return them all to their regular classrooms full time. This happened because we, as educators and caring adults, could no longer tolerate the daily pull-out system that made those students miss out on important teaching and practice in regular classrooms and caused them to be labeled “dummies” by their classmates.

What you would have seen if you had visited our special education room was a relentless dance of children drifting in, filling out workbook pages, getting them graded, and drifting out again. Their specialist teacher could not deal effectively with the wide range of student needs arriving every hour or with the students’ resentment about being there. He felt he had no choice but to use commercial self-instruction programs that required little or no teaching. What he and I both saw was that the kids weren’t learning much, but at least they were busy and quiet for a while.

One thing you have to know about special education at that time—and maybe still today—is that such teachers were often trained to manage student behavior rather than to teach skills and knowledge differently from regular teachers.

Usually, the elementary and middle school combined had about 25 students classified for special education. Most of them were classified as “learning disabled,” about five were called “emotionally disturbed,” and three, “mentally retarded.” Since we were not equipped to deal with children with severe disabilities who needed constant personal assistance, the state provided placement for them in a county school with a range of services full time. We paid their tuition fees.

What I felt was that most of our kids with disabilities should have been more accurately called intellectually or emotionally battered. The cruel irony was that our school was battering them too, by separating them from their classmates and the meaningful instruction part of every day and labeling them as deficient in everyone’s eyes. Worst of all, there was no way out; nobody ever got “unclassified.”

After deciding to free our students with disabilities, we did not just dump them into regular classrooms to flounder while their teachers fumed. Instead, a committee of our most experienced teachers and I worked out a plan that would support everyone, and then we reallocated our modest resources to implement it. First, we assumed that all teachers could teach students with disabilities as long as they had appropriate materials, instructional aides, common planning times, and consultations with our special education teacher. For example, at any given time, one group in a classroom might be doing silent reading, another one discussing what they had read, and a third one writing. Instructional aides—each one assigned to only two classrooms, so they would become well acquainted with the teaching and students’ needs in each place—helped students practice and master what their teacher had taught. Our special education teacher also worked in each classroom a couple of times a week, helping individual students or small groups.

Second, we decided that our mission was to teach students strategies above subject matter and to value resourcefulness above mastery. We accepted the fact that our students with disabilities might learn less and more slowly than their classmates. But we believed they would come away with enough skills and knowledge to manage the basics, get along with their classmates, and also acquire the exigencies of living in a complex society. Over the years that I was part of our full-inclusion program, we saw better teaching, better learning, better behavior, and much greater harmony and respect among our students in our mixed classrooms.

Over her 45 year career Joanne Yatvin was a teacher of almost all grades 1-12, an elementary and middle school principal, and a member of The National Reading Panel.  Since retiring she has done independent research in high poverty schools, written three books for teachers, and served as president of NCTE.