Douglas Hesse

Life in organizations, classrooms, concert halls, and mountains

In Which I Write The New York Times

 

Image: Maddie’s Stink Eye

As our leading newspapers are wont to do, The New York Times published a semi-informed piece (better than most, actually) about the teaching of writing.  I sent the following letter to the editor three days ago.  I’m not holding my breath for publication at this point, so I figured some other folks might see  my 150 to 175 word take.

 

From: Douglas Hesse <douglas.hesse@du.edu>
Date: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 11:52 AM
To: letters@nytimes.com” <letters@nytimes.com>
Subject: “Wakeup on Writing” –Response from Past President of NCTE

To the Editor:

I wonder when the Times might publish an article on treating migraines that advises both Imitrex and trepanation. That was my question after reading “A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction” [August 2], which gets so many things right—and other things wrong.  Dana Goldstein aptly insists that teachers must know best practices in writing instruction.  The National Council of Teachers of English statement Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing distills fifty years of research to those ends.

And yet the article gives voice to an approach found wanting since 1963.  That’s when Richard Braddock’s comprehensive review of empirical research concluded “The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or. . . even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” Twenty years later, in a similar analysis, George Hillocks reaffirmed, “Every other focus of instruction. . . is stronger.” Studying grammar has some role in learning to write, but so–and more productively–does learning how to generate and organize ideas, how to fit content to specific purposes and readerships. It’s a complex interplay between parts and wholes.

The teachers that we rightly desire will know better than to start by drilling adverbial holes into skulls.

Douglas D. Hesse
Past President, National Council of Teachers of English
Co-author, The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers
Professor of English, The University of Denver

Brief Anatomy of an Essay

On January 3, 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article I wrote, “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition.” http://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Know-What-Works-in-Teaching/238792/.  The version that was eventually published had benefited from editing by Denise Manger, at the Chronicle, and by Jenna Fournel at NCTE, whose helpful, expertly ruthless chopping helped cut the original draft more than a third.  I thought some readers (especially writing teachers) might find it interesting to compare my original version with the published version; among other things, there’s an example of what gets cut (and probably should!) in moving to a broader audience.  I submitted the piece to the Chronicle in October, shortly after Professor Teller’s piece had appeared.  Within two or three weeks, I’d received an email that they’d like to publish it; then there was a long delay.  In mid-December I received a copy edited version, with a notice the piece would appear in the January 3 issue.  Anyway, for the amusement of a select few, pedagogical and otherwise, I offer the original draft.  I’m happy with the version that was published.

 

UNPUBLISHED EARLY DRAFT:  Disciplinary Knowledge, Lore, and Teaching College Writing

October 2016

 

When I came to The University of Denver in 2006, to start a new campus writing program, I frequently heard from faculty that “a lot of my students can’t even write a decent sentence.” So, when I read Joseph Teller’s recent assertion that “my students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives” (Chronicle, October 3, 2016) I recognized hyperbole when I saw it.

My response ten years ago, joined by my twenty new colleagues in the program, was to gather a corpus of 500,000 words of student writing, from classes across campus, then analyze them for error. We found that well over 90% of those sentences in fact coded clear and error free. Whatever my colleagues wanted in better student writing (and I surely acknowledged and valued their desire), it was clear that fixing sentences wasn’t going to do it. There were larger issues of idea development and deployment, matching disciplinary expectations, and so on. That we could work on.

Professor Teller’s claim joins a long lineage of complaint about the state of student writing. In 1878, Adams Sherman Hill, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, famously protested that “Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own commencements without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old.” Hill and others devised pedagogies grounded in their own experiences and common sense—though one man’s common sense was another man’s folly.

Teaching grounded in actual research took a scholarly turn in 1950, marked by the founding of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the leading journal in the field, now in its 65th year. By 1963, research on what worked—and what didn’t—in teaching writing had accumulated to a point of synthesis in Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer’s Research in Written Composition. In 1986, George Hillocks conducted a new meta analysis (Research on Written Composition, the title differing by a preposition), using studies published in the intervening twenty years. In the subsequent two decades, peer-reviewed research has accumulated in dozens of books and well-established journals including College Composition and Communication, Written Communication, College English, The Journal of Teaching Writing, Teaching English in the Two Year College, Composition Studies, Writing Program Administration, and The Journal of Writing Assessment, to name but a few. In a 2005 article in Research on the Teaching of English (“The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing”), Hillocks analyzed why formalist approaches—the kind that Professor Teller advocates—remained so popular despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other approaches.

What does the scholarly literature say about college writing pedagogy? In a passage now familiar to PhD students in composition studies everywhere, Kenneth Burke wrote: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.” Following Burke’s analogy, it’s reductively daunting to recount, for colleagues outside the field in a single brief article, the lines of argument and research in the teaching of writing developed over past 70 years (or the past two millennia, if one wants to go to precepts and practices at the field’s roots in Greek and Roman rhetoric, grammar, and dialogic). In Naming What We Know (Utah State, 2015) Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle gather the “threshold concepts” of writing studies—“the concepts that are critical for epistemological participation” in current scholarly deliberations on composition studies. Pedagogical traditions more specifically are outlined in Tate, Taggart, Schick and Hessler’s A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2014, Oxford), the latest in a long series of such analyses (for example, Donovan and McClelland’s 1980 Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition (NCTE)).

My simple point is that the teaching of writing happens—or should—within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in The Making of Knowledge in Composition (1987, Southern Illinois), called “lore.” Lore consists of teaching ideas and assumptions grounded in local experience (“what worked for me”) and passed along informally for the most part. Lore may be informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but it more often is not. It may be consonant with research practices, but that’s not its measure, and it frequently is not. North regarded lore with respect but also noted its limitations.

Professor Teller’s Chronicle essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well they represent national practices. For example, while his assertion, “Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses,” might speak for his own classroom, it surely doesn’t speak for mine or thousands of other professors’. Or consider his claim that students “do not use the basic argumentative structures they need.” Again, perhaps true of the students in Teller’s own classes—though, as in the case of the hyperbolic assertion about his students’ sentences, I’d need to see the evidence. But the broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field. If anything, students come to college armed with (even frozen into) a basic argumentative structure: thesis and support, assertion and evidence. If Teller had claimed, rather, that students don’t martial evidence as effectively as they need to, we’d have a starting point for discussion. But he doesn’t.

Where Teller departs most from actual scholarship in the discipline is his claim that “pedagogical orthodoxy” assumes that “composition courses must focus on product, not process.” He could hardly be more wrong. The two most dominant pedagogies in college composition today intricately mix process and produce. Genre approaches have students analyze and emulate conventions as they’re manifested in texts for different contexts, readerships, and discourse communities. (See Bawarshi and Reif, Genre: An Introduction to Theory, History, Research, and Pedagogy (2010, Parlor).) Rhetorical approaches teach what constitute evidence, reasoning, structure, voice, so on for different audiences and purposes, academic to public.

Both approaches use readings for content, certainly; college writers have to locate their ideas and arguments in relation to published sources. But both approaches use readings as examples of approach and strategy. Both teach analyzing the decisions that writers have made: what evidence, what reasoning, what organization, what tone, what assumptions about readers, and, crucially, why for a given writing situation and readership. They do this analytic work to develop the repertory of strategies that student writers can employ.

The key word here is practice, and on this point Teller and I surely agree. Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, then writing some more. What can be told to college students about writing can probably be encapsulated in a lecture of two or three hours. It parallels what meaningfully can be told about playing piano: music notation, the relationship between notation and keyboard, hand and finger placement, posture, pedal functions. But without sustained practice, the world’s best lectures will not—cannot—make a pianist. So, too, with writing. When might we declare that someone can “play piano?” When they can play Chopsticks? “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie?” “Für Elise?” “Take Five?” Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto 3 in D Minor”?

As students progress through school and college, teachers and professors reasonably assign them new writing tasks, related but different, requiring similar but new strategies, with similar but new subject matters and contents, for related but increasingly more specialized and demanding reading communities. The kinds of abilities that aptly serve us in fourth grade won’t suffice in high school, high school not college freshman year, freshman year not a senior thesis in the major, the major not graduate school. We should expect writing repertories to continue developing throughout college and beyond, as Joseph M. Williams famously analyzed in a body of work about stellar undergraduate writers struggling in law school and stellar law school grads struggling in firms (see, for example, “On the Maturing of Legal Writers,” 1991, in The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute). How to teach writing for transfer across time and domains has been a focus of research in the field; for a recent book, see Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s 2015 Writing Across Contexts.

Now that I’ve suggested, that there’s an extensive body of research and reviewed practice about teaching writing, let me distill a few characteristics of effective courses:
1. Students have ample opportunities to write. Professors expect them to write frequently and extensively, demanding and rewarding serious effort.
2. Professors carefully sequence writing tasks in ways that build from existing writing experiences and abilities to scaffold new ones.
3. Professors coach the process, giving feedback, offering strategies and advice, encouragement and critique, formative and summative assessments. Some of this coaching is perforce individualized, based on the skilled assessment of what this particular student needs at this particular time.
4. Courses provide instruction and practice on all aspects of writing. Attend to the form and conventions of specific target discourses? Yes. But also attend to issues of invention: how to generate content, not just how content should be deployed. Attend to grammar and style? Certainly, but also to logic, accuracy, and fit to various audience needs and expectations. The longstanding scholarly critique of “current traditional” approaches (a technical term in the field) is that they focus on imitating disembodied modes and models chosen primarily for instructional convenience.
5. Courses use readings not only as context and source materials (which is vital in the academic and civic spheres) but also as models—and not only static models of form but also as maps to be decoded as to how their writers might have proceeded, why, and to what effect.
6. Professors teach key explicit concepts about writing in order to help writers consolidate and transfer skills from one writing occasion to the next—but they recognize that declarative knowledge is made significant only through practice and performance. See #1.
7. Student writing and student writers are the course’s focus. Everything else serves those ends.

I could list more—including about writing as a mode of inquiry as well as of demonstration, about the centrality of rhetorical situations for both impelling writing and judging its success—but I don’t want to overspeak my stay in this Burkean parlor. Further reading is amply available, from the National Council of Teachers of English statement “Professional Knowledge and The Teaching of Writing” to the Council of Writing Program Administrators “Outcomes Statement for First-Year Writing” to the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s “Principles for the Post-Secondary Teaching of Writing.”

In pointing to the best teaching practices indicated by extensive research in composition studies, I don’t ignore the experience of individual teachers in particular situations. Lore is a form of knowledge in every field. Certainly, I could learn from Joseph Teller’s more detailed explanation and defense of his pedagogy and a systematic analysis of the student writers it develops; a fuller exploration of his class would contribute to disciplinary knowledge with which it can responsibly interact, even inflect. However, I can’t let pass unchallenged general claims about the way “we” are “wrongly” teaching composition, especially when they so dramatically misrepresent, even ignore, the field he would aspire to correct.

Presidential Address Opening

NCTE Presidential Address 2016

(Opening two pages of 16-page address, delivered 11/17/16 in Atlanta)

 

rope-tree-journalist

My talk begins in sorrow and ends in hope. It starts with a blunt question: “How do we teach reading and writing at a moment when traditional assumptions about the effective use of language seem so naïve, so wrong?” How can we possibly teach when evidence and reasoning, eloquence and ethics seem utterly optional?

Let me be concrete. Consider a picture taken November 7, by Reuters photographer Jonathan Ernst, in Minneapolis. It contains a multimodal composition, consisting of T-shirt and six words in American Typewriter font, white and red, caps and lowercase: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” These six words, and a host of similar tweets, memes, blogs, spray paints, stickers, and so forth have apparently been as effective as editorials, articles, and extended analyses.

Here’s the deal. I’m the father of two journalists. This shirt implies lynching my daughters. You may say, “Now, calm down, Doug. It’s just words, just humor. Paige and Monica are safe.” But I can’t assume that some mentally twisted Timothy McVeigh-grade patriot isn’t emboldened by declarations that writers deserve death.  In July, I was in Munich, where I saw an exhibit filled with posters and written artifacts from that city in the 1930s.

But let me suppose that this shirt is “just words,” just a guy havin’ some fun, to the delight of onlookers, near and far. That suggests two conclusions that are fairly chilling to teachers .

Conclusion 1: We live at a time where more than a few citizens deem it reasonable, even desirable, not only to censor, but even to suppress information.

Or Conclusion 2. We live at a time where language is perceived to have no necessary relation to reality.

It’s hard to decide which prospect is worse. What does an English teacher, a language arts teacher, a composition teacher, a literature teacher, a teacher of new teachers—in short, an NCTE member—do with the gap between the obvious power of texts like this picture, and pronouncements about the kind of writing deemed to produce readiness:

“Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  (Common Core Standards, Grade 11/12 Writing Standards)

How can we not be cynical? How can our students not find thesis and support but a quaint custom of schooling? I loathe false distinctions between the academic world and the real world, but the school world does look like reason, with patient lessons against logical fallacies. The real world, in contrast, is pathos, where truth matters less than results.

I want to be clear what I’m talking about, which is the state of language and not about elections or the state of politics, per se. I leave that to George Orwell.  I’ll just say that whatever our individual views, we collectively can’t help but feel  lost after the past year’s discourse.

 

 

NDOW Sampler

National Day on Writing Events:
A Campus Sampler

Compiled by Doug Hesse, U of Denver, President, NCTE. dhesse@du.edu

The National Day on Writing, created by The National Council of Teachers of English and designated by an act of Congress, is October 20.  Many campuses hold writing-related events that day.  Following are some people have shared with me.

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Sarah Stanley. sstanley2@alaska.edu

We call it CoW. 11-3pm on a Saturday in October on or around the 20th, sponsored by UAF English. This year’s theme is Food Tells Stories and we ( science outreach bridge programs, multiple non-profits) host interactive literacy workshops at the public library. Our audience is at risk youth and its all about reflective creativity and FUN! We are working to incentivize writing throughout the year–delicious food (soup and bread is served)

 

Arizona State University

Sean Moxley-Kelly (Assistant Director of Writing Programs). smoxleyk@asu.edu

This year we are planning on setting up a “Why I Write” photo booth on the campus mall. We will have people write why they write on a big sheet of paper, pose with it for a photo, and then encourage them to tweet that photo at NCTE (or give us permission to do so). We’ll set up an interesting background for the photos or a big frame for them to stand in.
Last year we asked people to write reasons they write on small colorful pieces of paper, then “quilted” those together into a large art piece. We’ve been able to hang these quits at other events we host. We also have used sidewalk chalk, notecards, etc. We always set up a booth on the campus mall for these activities.
Here are links to some photo albums from past years:
2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asuenglish/albums/72157660933343779
2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asuenglish/albums/72157667123211336 (you can see the process and results of some of our “quilting” halfway down this album)
2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asuenglish/albums/72157649386150270
2013: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asuenglish/albums/72157636887251823
2012: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asuenglish/albums/72157631884650369

 

U of Arizona

Dr. D.R. Ransdell, ransdell@email.arizona.edu

We have several contests going on, and we’ll have a 4-hour drop-in event with decals, pens, snacks.

 

Bowling Green State University

Lee Nickoson. leenick@bgsu.edu

We have a few things planned: we have permission to take over the University’s Instagram account for the day and will post #WhyIWrite pics throughout the day, we will have a Post-It party at the Union from noon-2:00 on 10/20 in which students will be asked to contribute via a Post-It to a collage on the Union’s windows around the #WhyIWrite hashtag, and from 2:00-3:00 we will host an all-university write-in on the Quad with food and drink provided.

 

Bristol Community College

Howard Tinberg. howard.tinberg@bristolcc.edu

On Oct. 20th, my students will be drafting and sharing inquiry-based research essays. They will be asking Big Questions (such as “Can Gaming Make a Better World?” or “Why Do We Dream?”) and will be reading widely during the inquiry process. The link for the assignment: http://bcceng101tft.edublogs.org/major-assignment-2/

 

College of Staten Island CUNY

Christine Martorana. christine.martorana@csi.cuny.edu

This year we are hosting an outdoor postcard writing campaign. We are going to invite people to write letters on the postcards to real or made up people, featuring real or made up events, based on the photo/image on the postcard. We will then display the postcards in the English Department following the event.

 

Colorado State University-Pueblo

Jason Saphara. jason.saphara@csupueblo.edu

CSU-Pueblo and its Center for Teaching and Learning will host a week of writing and create a “Humans of CSU-Pueblo” Facebook page. The week of writing will start with a workshop led by Dr. Genesea Carter from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. CSU-Pueblo students will then interview students, faculty, for the “Humans of CSU-Pueblo” page.

 

University of Denver

Doug Hesse. dhesse@du.edu

The University of Denver has a campus-wide “One Book/One Prompt” activity this year, led by the writing program, in which all faculty, staff, and students are invited to respond to a single invitation: a time when they encountered something strange, foreign, or new. We’re holding a showcase event, “Encountering Stories,” October 19, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. See the Writing Program website at http://www.du.edu/writing/. On the day itself, we’re setting up a photo booth; passersby will jot “why I write” on a sheet of paper, and we’ll photograph them holding the sheet. We’ll tweet out those who give permission, and we’ll make a collage of everything.

 

Fairfield University

Elizabeth Hilts. elizabeth.hilts@fairfield.edu

Colin Hosten. colin.hosten@fairfield.edu

We are planning two events, both focusing on “Writing as Healing.” The first is an interactive workshop featuring speakers who will share their experience of Writing as Healing and offer writing prompts for participants; in addition, University-sponsored groups will provide opportunities for students to consider how writing can promote social justice, humanitarian efforts, and personal growth. The second event is a reading/panel discussion featuring faculty members and grad students (who are also working writers) sharing their work and discussing the connection between writing and healing on any level.

We will host mini-workshops around the theme “Writing As Healing” during the day, followed by an evening reading featuring first- and second-year students, with a panel discussion about their individual writing processes.

 

Georgia Southern University

Natalie James. nataliejames@georgiasouthern.edu

We will set up tables outside our student union and department building. At the tables, we’ll have swag (and candy) and information about our Writing Major. For fun activities, we’ll be having group horror story writing (sometimes called “exquisite corpsing”) on large white boards or poster paper. The way this works is one student will start the story by writing 3 sentences. The first 2 sentences will then be covered, so the next student can only see the last sentence written and continue the story from there. We’ll also have a one-sentence horror story contest on twitter/facebook. We may also use a gumball machine to distribute writing prompts to students.

 

Hampton University

Craig Wynne. craig.wynne@hamptonu.edu

We’re planning a Taboo! tournament.

 

University of Louisville

Bronwyn Williams, Director of the University Writing Center. bronwyn.williams@louisville.edu

At the University Writing Center, our National Day on Writing Event this year will center around the “How I Write” series we run on our Writing Center Blog. In that series local writers, both at the university and in the community, answer a series of five questions about where and how they write, their favorite advice about writing, etc. For the National Day on Writing we will be encouraging people to answer these questions. They can take the time to answer all five questions for the blog or, if they just want to answer one, we will have sheets of newsprint out for them to write on that we will post on our windows or they can post on our Twitter feed. This year the National Day on Writing coincides with the first day of the Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, so we are also encouraging conference participants to stop by our new Writing Center space and take part in the “How I Write” activities. Our blog can be found at http://uoflwritingcenter.wordpress.com/ and the “How I Write” entries are tagged with that title.

 

Kaplan University

Amy Sexton. ASexton@kaplan.edu

We held a student workshop titled “How to Write Well in Your Classes”. The webinar covered why writing matters and gave students tips for writing well in various disciplines, including in technology and science.

 

Moravian College

Crystal Fodrey. fodreyc@moravian.edu

The past two years, I asked students to share “Why I Write” on poster boards in the student union where they could also engage in a number of writing-related activities. This year, Writing Center tutors and Writing Fellows are developing the activities for the student union, and my undergraduate research assistant is planning a roundtable discussion on “What is ‘Good Writing’ Across the Disciplines?” which many first-year writing students are required/encouraged to attend.

 

North Dakota State University

Kelly Sassi. kelly.sassi@ndsu.edu

Justin Atwell justin.atwell@ndsu.edu

Karen Peirce, karen.peirce@ndsu.edu

We are holding a “Write-In” on campus, during which we will support students in drafting and polishing a Letter to the Next President. Students can compose in a variety of forms, including editorial cartoon. Here is a link to our blogpost about the event, with additional links to more information: http://rrvwp.blogspot.com/2016/09/steve-stark-to-lead-editorial-cartoon.html

English dept. affiliates set up a booth in the student union, and as students pass, we ask them to contribute short writings on certain prompts around the theme of “I write because…”. Students have various options for what they can write, but my personal favorite is the six-word short story.

Please see our website at https://www.ndsu.edu/cfwriters/ndow/

 

University of Oklahoma

Matthew Jacobson. mjacobson@ou.edu

For National Writing Day, the Office of First-Year Composition at the University of Oklahoma is hosting our first annual Celebration of Writing event, which includes writing workshops for students, faculty, and staff; “Write Where You Are,” a keynote address by Rilla Askew, and an awards ceremony for outstanding first-year composition students and instructors. For more information, please visit http://cas.ou.edu/events2

 

Oklahoma State University

Elsa Klingensmith. elsa.klingensmith@okstate.edu

We are going to do Blackout Poetry, create a collaborative word cloud on what writing means to us (using post-it notes & a poster board), play Hangman & Boggle.

 

Texas A&M University at Qatar

N: Dania Jalees; I: E: dania.jalees@qatar.tamu.edu

Our learning center has a large space on our campus that is normally reserved for the event. This gives us the flexibility to spread out and plan several activities/games or booths of various types. Some of our activities from previous years are: lipograms, giant scrabble (made with letters written on post-its stuck on a large board) and calligraphy; this year, we had our student peer tutors brainstorm ideas for activities that they get to conduct on the day, like “Blackout Poetry” where the end result is to be mailed to a recipient; “Can you Haiku?” where multiple students work together in two teams to compete for the best haiku; and “Mini-Journals” with writing prompts inside balloons or paper cubes, and notebooks that students can keep to continue writing in, and possibly contribute the material to our annual student anthology for 2017.

 

Utah State University

Joyce Kinkead. joyce.kinkead@usu.edu

We have a National Day on Writing banner that is posted in the main hallway of the English Department. Passersby are invited to write post-it notes: “why writing matters to me.” We feature responses of students and faculty in an article in our newsletter.

Star Coulbrooke, Logan City Poet Laureate

Poetry Walkabout: Group walks along river reading poems and talking of poetics on the theme of birds, water, willow; writes together from a prompt; each writer reads their new work aloud to the group.

You Can Sorta Go Home Again

my-old-english-classroom-1I was back in my hometown, DeWitt, Iowa, over the weekend to receive a generous award from my high school alma mater.  My daughter Monica surprised me from Washington, DC, and both of us sat Thursday afternoon in a sophomore English class. It was the same classroom where I took junior English  43 years ago with Mr. Raikes.  I should be more precise: the classroom is in the same place, though it’s massively transformed, along with the school around it.  For example, in the last century we performed musicals on the stage in the school gym, where backstage right was filled with a weight machine.

Above I’m standing with Ms. Julie Murphy, the teacher who kindly humored me.  She’s dressed in school spirit for Farmer’s Day. (Homecoming, you know.)  Julie was terrific–and about the same age as my youngest daughter, as if I needed reminder of the ancientness of high school.  To indicate just how long ago, I’ll note that when our band performed the 1812 Overture, Mr. Raikes and Mr. Bielenberg stood in the back of the band and fired shotguns into 55-gallon barrels, for the cannon effect. Like that could happen these days.

The class started with students writing five minutes in their journals (“What would you do with a million dollars?”) and lots of students volunteered to read their writing aloud–no small thing for kids this age.  The class then read several pages of Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, picking out passages and discussing why sentences stood out.   Julie put us in groups for a bit of this.  We joined a girl with purple highlighted black hair (maybe for homecoming, maybe not), who had some smart insights, humored us outsiders, and confessed she’d rather be reading a graphic novel.  Then the class divided into small groups for upcoming class presentations.

Of course, more than the classroom had changed: the reading, the writing, the discussion.    The class was 90 minutes long, and several kids were reading an ebook version of the novel.  A projector hung from the ceiling, amid with multi-colored paper lanterns. White boards, no chalk.  Even on the most patriotic of homecomings 43 years ago, no teacher would have dared teach without a jacket and tie or a skirt and blouse. The tenth graders were simultaneously more worldly than and just as nerdy as I remember us being long ago.

But this was a fine young teacher working personably with a group of fine young  students, in a school snugged against the cornfields and soybeans, fall in early Iowa when the town smells like wet maples and toilet paper streamers drape the park.

The school song, by the way, is still the Minnesota “Rouser:”

Central Sabers, loyal are we.
On we fight to vict’ry,
(Fight on you Sabers.)
To our colors, true we will be.
Central Sabers, fight tonight!
Fight, fight, fight with all your might.
Fight on, you Sabers, fight.

Seems to me, the lyrics might benefit from a little variety.  I think the point about needing to fight is pretty clear after 3 or 4 fights.  Eight are overkill.  Maybe we Sabers could establish a motivation for fighting or delineate the benefits of this unfettered rancor.  Just a thought.

 

 

Fifty Years After Dartmouth

Squire Memo after Dartmouth croppedAugust 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the “Anglo-American Seminar on the Teaching of English,” a landmark juncture for how English teachers in America and Great Britain viewed their subject, responsibilities, and classrooms. Participating in the month-long seminar were 21 British teachers, 24 Americans, and a Canadian, with a generous handful of consultants attending part-time.

Two official books about the conference, appearing in 1967, and shorthand synopses ever since have characterized the meeting as a clash of cultures. In this formulation, the Americans were methodical, preoccupied with structured curricula, and focused on the subject matter. The British, on the other hand, were spontaneous, concerned with language in practice, and focused on student personal growth. To the British, the Americans seemed stodgy and authoritarian. To the Americans, the British seemed muddling and slack. Or so the characterization goes. It’s fair to say that participants from both countries marked respective avant-gardes, so their rank-and-file representativeness is a question. It’s also fair to say that contrasts make better drama, as in the ill-fated 2016 block-chipper Batman v. Superman. Nonetheless, the issues that framed the meeting were generative then and remain so today. More on that later.

The meeting was held at Dartmouth College, a circumstance that led to its usual shorthand reference as the Dartmouth Conference. James Squire, then Executive Secretary of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote a grant proposal to the Carnegie Corporation, which funded the event. Partners in the collaboration were MLA and NATE (the National Association of Teachers of English, the British counterpart of NCTE), and the representatives from each group (overwhelmingly male, not surprisingly) are a sort of who’s who of the era: Wayne Booth, James Britton, James Moffett, Albert Kitzhaber, John Dixon, and so on.

Of course, the seminar organizers perceived early on that this largely professorial entourage had scant input from classroom teachers. I was happy to come across a letter in the NCTE archives from Squire to Dorothy Saunders, an elementary teacher in Bethesda, Maryland, inviting her to serve as a consultant to talk about her students’ writings, offering “air jet travel expenses” and a $200 honorarium.

A few things stand out as I glanced back to the archives and to the official books, Herbert J. Muller’s The Uses of English (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967) and John Dixon’s Growth in English (NATE, 1967). For example, Squire’s funding proposal uses a rationale that will sound familiar in our present-day STEM-centric circumstances. Needed changes in theory and practice for English teaching, he wrote, “are not less in volume and importance than those which have been taking place in science and mathematics.”

The relationship between “the creative” and “the practical” also remains familiar, at a current moment that weighs education primarily for its economic and vocational benefits. British teachers were found then to put considerably more stock in creativity as foundational to “developing the child’s capacity to explore and express his inner world” (Muller 116). Americans were skeptical. In his book A Long Way Together: A Personal View of NCTE’s First Sixty-Seven Years, J.N. Hook describes how “British children wrote more, and they wrote more freely,” while “American children almost certainly wrote less than they needed to, and their teachers were beset by a compulsion to correct not only every jot but also every tittle” (221).

I’m fairly confident that teachers on both sides of the ocean have long modulated this polarity. We know, for example, that people learn to write by actually writing, not by being told rules and strategies, just as people learn to play piano by actually playing piano, not by hearing lectures on finger placements. We know that effective writers have learned, through long practice over time, to adapt their writing to meet readers’ expectations in specific situations and their associated genres; no writer is wholly “free” from history and expectations. But we also know that all writers, especially young ones, need engaging and authentic tasks to foster the long hours of practice needed to develop their skill and craft. The best encapsulation of what we need to do to develop student writing is the NCTE statement on Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing 

Fifty years after Dartmouth, English teaching in America still tries to find the right line between spinach approaches (“teach what can be practically tested, to demonstrate that you have achieved skills”) and ice cream approaches (“create opportunities for exploration and engagement”). Clearly, there needs to be a mix. Even more fundamental is the very purpose of the English curriculum at all. The most vocal and powerful pundits and policymakers tend to prize reading and writing almost entirely as pathways to employment, with a dab of cultural heritage, through literature, on the side.

I surely don’t discount economic advancement as a vital consequence of literacy. English teachers K-16 need to have that aspect centrally in mind. But job skills can’t be our only focus. In framing the “Anglo-American Seminar,” James Squire underscored the significance of speaking, reading, and writing for “the development as a whole human being of every young person who will be tomorrow’s adult. Will [he or she] have judgment; will [his or her] thinking in words have depth; will words serve [him or her] or will [he or she] be inarticulate in daily life—in [his or her] thought, feeling, and decisions?”

As I view our current social and political scene, surely we need “thinking in words” with depth and judgment. We need articulate ideas, not slogans or factless bravado. We need words—understanding as well as expression—a whole lot more than we need bullets or bombs or trucks down a tourist-filled boardwalk.

Two other thoughts, looking back on Dartmouth.

In his concluding chapter, John Dixon notes that “modern industrial society has recently moved strongly to a discussion culture,” one that emphasizes “public exchange of ideas rather than private writing and reading” (111). Dixon contemplates a multimodal world in which print literacy is but one mode of many, going on to forecast that “by the 1980s two-way television and telephone references libraries. . . may well be widespread” (112). If he’d only known.  One of the earliest tasks of the Dartmouth participants was answering the disarmingly simple question, “What is English?” by which they realized the territory was considerably more expansive and complex than grammar rules and a certain literary canon. It was a body of knowledge, yes, but also a set of experiences with and dispositions toward language, in all its multiple forms. We’re still pursuing that question, quite rightly.

Last, a more personal note. In one of my first graduate courses at Iowa, back in 1978-79, we read James Britton’s The Development of Writing Abilities, 11-18, a study of British school children. I remember grasping his idea that language was a tool for thinking, not just a vehicle for conveying thought. Children—all of us—use language for making sense of things, for interpreting the world and putting it together. Schools needed to make a place for that kind of engagement. The idea underpins the whole notion of writing to learn and the writing across the curriculum movement. Britton’s idea struck like lightening, one of those few times that I can distinctly perceive a fundamental shift in my understanding.

A year or so later, Britton came to Iowa City, as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities Iowa Institute on writing led by Jix Lloyd-Jones, Carl Klaus, and many others. I was star struck. Here was one of the Dartmouth Conference Brits embodied in the heartland, in fact drinking beer with American colleagues and lowly grad students in George’s on Market Street. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, here it is fifty years after The Anglo-American seminar, a fine moment for NCTE as a leader along with its sister organizations, and here I am, its unlikely president.

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Summer Reading

Hey You ReadThe end of July is fast approaching, which means a dwindling window for Summer Reading. Summer reading is a phenomenon marked by suggestions for generally lighter, easier fare, books suitable for hot vacation months, when brains deserve breaks from more sturdy menus. If winter reading is a stout or porter, summer reading is a pilsner.

An article by Craig Ferhman in the Boston Globe (August 12, 2012) traces this tradition back to the 19th century, when “effortless” novels began appearing on the summer lists that publishers and newspapers running, sort of as a public service. Fehrman quotes an 1872 Chicago Tribune characterization that “The best summer book was one ‘the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.’”

The apotheosis of such lists are things like Real Simple’s  promising “beach reads,” which includes, to my surprise that venerable 1960’s The Valley of the Dolls. Most every newspaper from The New York Times to the LA Times publishes recommendations each June. Variants on mere lists include “What I’m Reading” stories, in which people of various stripes recount what’s currently on their night stands or in their backpacks. There’s a kind of one-upmanship quality to these compilations, which are often heroic in their scope and challenge. See this New Yorker story for an example of the genre.

Of course, “summer reading” means something else to legions of American students.  I’ll set aside the many library reading programs, where kids check off titles for pizza or prizes.  For many students, summer reading  means assigned reading: a book or two that students are “responsible for” by September. Denver East High School publishes a pdf of books required for individual classes, with the somber advice, “The books need to be completed by the first day of school, August 2016.” It provides a 7-bullet answer to “Why Summer Reading?” (including “provides academic focus for the 1st day of school” and “helps shrink the achievement gap.”)  English I students, for example, are to complete Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, while Creative Writing II students face Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

For other students, summer reading lists are suggestions accompanied by some Benjamin Franklin-grade injunction for self-improvement. Overland High School, in Aurora, Colorado, heads its list with a multi-colored, in-your-face all-caps warning, “Hey, You!” which I’ve pictured above. Colleges often participate in “one book” projects, while some, like Berkeley, put out an annual “nonrequired summer reading list” for incoming students.  Berkeley’s 20 titles range from The Little Prince to The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  Occasionally, school summer reading becomes controversial; in a recent blog post, Millie Davis describes how the National Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom Center receives requests for help with book challenges (i.e. censorship cases), including one where librarians in one school district were accused of promoting pornography through their summer list.

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Forty years ago, I was home from college after my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, and I read hugely. I’d go to work with Dad at 6:00 am, heaving garbage into the back of the trash truck he owned with Fred Behr. Most days, we’d finish the route by 2:00 or so. Until supper time, I’d read in the living room, the only one with a window air conditioner or, maybe on the porch. A couple days a week I’d go the DeWitt Public Library. After supper, I’d play tennis at the high school courts, sometimes with my girlfriend, Dianne, sometimes with Paul Carlson or Dave Farus. Regularly, we’d go after dark over to Becky and Sara Ash’s house, where there’d be two tables of bridge until 11:00 or so. Repeat the next day.

I remember that summer of reading because it followed my first year as an English major. I realized there was no chance of reading everything in classes. So I’d better step up my game. I read Jane Austen, who I liked a lot. I read Robert Penn Warren, John Dos Passos, and Dickens. I remembered three books in particular, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, E.F. Shumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance, which troubled me. (I read it again a couple years later and experienced the same effect.) At the library, I read magazines, most notably as much of The New Yorker as I could, especially the long nonfiction pieces, which really confused me. In particular I remember reading these long essays by Saul Bellow about traveling to Israel. I’d encountered Bellow in two classes at Iowa: Herzog in Carl Klaus’s writing class focusing on style, and Henderson the Rain King in an American lit class, so I figured I should pay attention to him. The pieces perplexed me, as I remember, a mixture of memoir and journalism and some political commentary. They didn’t fit any genre that I knew, and it was sort of exciting to see pieces that were breaking all the rules in my limited understanding.

I remember enjoying all this reading, though I suspect my odd assortment didn’t quite fit the beach reading bill. It was a lot of serious stuff, even the Dickens. I was an earnest kid who knew time was short and the world was wide.

Now, forty years later, time is even shorter, the world even wider, and I’ve resigned myself that hundreds and thousands of important books will go unread. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve given up or sold out, but this summer I’ve finished reading Walter Moseley’s smart detective series, both the Easy Rawlins novels set in Los Angeles and the Leonid McGill novels set in New York. I’m reading an OK murder mystery, Los Alamos, by a writer new to me, Joseph Kanon, and I’ve got the latest Stephen King book queued up on my Kindle.

Maybe next year I’ll get to the most recent work by Slavoj Zizek. Or maybe next. Or the one after. After all, summer waves are gently lulling, even here at the foot of the Rockies, miles from any lakes or oceans.Hey You Read

Doug

This Time, Orlando

chair - 1After 26 school kids and teachers were slaughtered in Sandy Hook, we collectively shrugged at even minimal measures to reduce gun violence. (For the record: I grew up in a hunting culture, and while I no longer hunt, I understand and respect owning shotguns and rifles.  My Uncle Harold was a national champion trapshooter, and I understand the culture of target shooting and even the joy for many of shooting for pleasure.)

So when a hateful man with an AR15 decides to kill 49 people in an Orlando club, people singled out because they’re gay and/or latin@ and/or there, I sadly can’t muster nearly as much political outrage as I once could.

Grief and despair, though: that I have plenty.

It is not only the dead, slaughtered because a deranged man is offended or inspired by Holy Delusions, because he manages to channel the  hatred so virulent in the larger culture.  It is not only the dozens wounded, their physical and emotional lives shattered.  It is not only the “uninjured” people of Pulse, shot psychologically through by horrors that would be terrible on a battlefield, but are unspeakable on a dance floor, during a date, on a night with friends.  It is also the hundreds and thousands affected directly and indirectly: partners, family, friends; co-workers, teachers, classmates; softball teams, choruses, neighbors.  The Orlando LGBTQ community was immediately and directly devastated and, most surely, so too LGBTQ communities everywhere.  But these communities enmesh with every other community, everywhere.

I’m a member of multiple communities, and one in particular is in my mind tonight.

Every person killed, every person injured in Pulse was some teacher’s student at some time, probably in the past, though some still in the present before Sunday.  So many shot were young.  Every teacher carries memories of his or her students, and beyond those memories, we bear ineluctable traces.  To learn that one of our students has been killed in a car wreck or felled by cancer hurts.  To learn that he or she was senselessly shot: that’s a cruel order beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. A teacher’s loss pales in relation to those of families or lovers or friends.  And our collective social loss (of what, innocence? Please) is also more profound; the boundaries of inhumanity have been pushed back just a little further.  Consolation that we live in a reasonable world is just that much harder to summon.  And so when I grieve and despair about those destroyed and damaged by a  madman in Orlando, I think of all those diminished, near and distant, thinking most of those dear ones closest.

But among those hurt, in some middle-distant range, are teachers who spent weeks and months and years, nurturing that little boy, that young woman, that transgendered kid who always sat over there, in the third row next to  Emma, caring teachers who helped those student craft futures, those futures now hatefully slain.

 

Appreciating English Teachers

teachers - 1Teacher appreciation week 2016 conjures many strong English teachers that have made a terrific difference in lives of people close to me. I think foremost to my own children’s teachers, in high school and earlier.  Susie Thetard, Diane Walker, Claire Lamonica, Bob Neuleib, and Kathy Clesson, each at various times NCTE members, taught my three kids extraordinarily well, in both the practical and the creative arts of language.  They inspired writing as well as reading, speech and theatre as well as classroom English.  Like so many good teachers I know, they’ve followed with keen interest what my kids have been up to well after graduation.  Normal, Illinois, did well.
       I think, too, on my own English teachers, now decades ago.  Mr. Leahy in 7th grade, in a small town Iowa junior high, had us do a radio play.  I performed as a ghost.  Mrs. Smith, in high school, was the first person to comment generously on my creative writing.  Whether she saw quality in the prose or poetry or whether she simply sensed a boy who liked words, she helped me publish in the local paper.  Two years ago I had a chance to meet my eighth grade teacher once again, Mrs. Scherer, now in her 80s, and she congratulated me on being elected president of NCTE.  That’s a humbling thing.
       So many of my college professors were active in NCTE, and they introduced me to the professional world of teaching, a world in which smart people knew things about what worked and why—and also knew what we didn’t know.  I got the important sense early on that if you were going to be an English teacher, you needed to be in concert and community with other English teachers.  Carl Klaus, Louise B. Kelly, and Jix Lloyd-Jones (a past NCTE president) were all foundational.
       I know I’m looking back, but partly that’s to remind all of us about the long sweep forward of good teachers, whose efforts ripple gently into the future, now and then washing up on a late shore of realization and appreciation.  When I talk with NCTE members today, whether they’re teaching in a university or in a grade school, I’m struck by the new constraints they face.  Folks who haven’t been in a classroom since they were themselves students certainly aren’t shy about the “common sense” wisdom they have regarding literacy and assessment.  I so appreciate those teachers—and they are legion—who put up with everything from well-intentioned bad advice to outright ignorant criticism, finding ways to teach their students what their professional expertise compels them to do.  That might even include helping a nerdy sophomore boy write a short story when the conventional wisdom “knows” that doing so is a waste of time.

A Sonnet for Seniors Singing

four flowers - 1April is poetry month.  I thought of this poem I wrote years ago, for Andrew’s last high school chorus concert.  (The school colors were green and yellow).

 

 

 

 

A Sonnet for Seniors Singing

for the U-High class of 2002

 

In green and yellow music time you hear—

if you’re a parent—childhood float away

with every lyric note. Its echoes lift

a wish for more: more madrigals, more jazz,

more Bach, more Billy Joel, more freshman year

when they began, and you were younger, too.

Composers know their songs belong to time,

and so do singers, fathers’ fondest scores.

 

One person cannot make a chord. One chord

will make an empty song. One song is not

a concert or a life, which needs the whole

of harmony: a choir. So, seniors, sing

the past into the now, all notes, all times,

all time to come, all hope, all dreams, all love.

 

–Doug Hesse

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