Friday, February 15, 2013

The Life and Death of a Girl in Chicago

"She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss."

I have been feeling guilty for not writing anything on this blog about the gun death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who attended Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School, the selective enrollment high school where my next-door neighbor teaches drama. For the climax of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama began to describe Hadiya, whose parents were seated next to the First Lady, using the above sentence. He went on to embellish his portrait, but it is an interesting starter to me, because, delivered in Obama's signature matter-of-fact style, it portrays her as just, or merely, a girl.

A girl who, instead of going straight home after school got out early, decided to go hang out in the park with some friends. It is not a big leap of the imagination, when put this way, to believe that Hadiya could have been a student at the school where I taught. We sometimes hold our breath on the days that students get out early, fearing that just these sorts of feuds will have just enough more daylight for the worst to happen.
When the Newtown shooting happened in December, I was certain that it would prove to be the catalyst for real anti-violence reform at the federal level. I was wrong. The real catalyst was not the death of two dozen innocent children; rather, it was the death of a single, defenseless girl.

It matters, too, that Pendleton was just a girl. And she, like so many young women, was such a wonderful girl: she was beloved by everyone around her. Had she been male, the outpouring of grief over her death might have been more easily tempered by questions about what she was doing in that park that afternoon. Equally significant, then, is that the first reform program announced in the wake of Hadiya's death is one from which she would not benefit at all: a $3m investment in the mentoring program known as "Becoming a Man." It does not necessarily need pointing out that Hadiya Pendleton probably had no desire to become a man. This mentoring program, which, like many mentoring and tutoring and after-school programs, has had some success in keeping young men and boys occupied so that they will not be "sucked in" to other, more violent pursuits. It begs the question, then, that "Becoming a Man" might have saved Hadiya, if indirectly, by preventing her killers from becoming involved in a gang. But, as I have written before, programs for teens tend to be very heterosexist in the ways that they insist on strict boundaries between two genders and the behaviors (stereo)typically practiced by those two genders. It deserves pointing out that there are plenty of young women and girls who get up to no good after school, too, and they need things to do after school, too.

Last year, one of my students told me about an argument she had with her father when she wanted to become involved in such afterschool programs as the newspaper and sports teams. Her father didn't want her walking home after dark, which, in these Chicago winters, comes all too quickly. She argued, in response, that he would not make the same interdiction against a male child. And that's almost definitely true. But, considering Hadiya Pendleton or the countless unnamed innocent victims of poorly-targeted gun violence, who can blame him? 

A school that offers every possible sport, that keeps its gym and weight room open, that has a newspaper and a ballroom dance club--that school is preventing violence every day, and, at least at my school, our principal knows it.

Unfortunately, most of these things happen because teachers are willing to donate their time and sponsor these extracurricular activities for no pay. Coaches get paid a small sum, but club sponsors do not. There can be a lot of pressure on teachers to offer activities, because we, too, know what goes on out there if we are not making life interesting enough inside the building.

So you know what? I'll take Becoming a Man. It took the prominent death of an ordinary girl and some journalists pointing out that the park in which Hadiya was shot and killed is just a mile from the President's own Hyde Park-Kenwood mansion. But what a mile! As friends and readers who live in Chicago know, Hyde Park and Bronzeville often appear much farther apart than that, as do Austin and Oak Park, also only a mile apart. It bears pointing out that Harlem and the Upper East Side of New York City are also about a mile apart. A mile is a long way in the big city.

The President's address began to swell into oratory on the note of Pendleton's death. In the style of the man whose name graces Hadiya's school, Obama listed the locales that give a name to other American gun massacres. Newtown. Aurora. Gabby Giffords. There were more, but I sort of lost track, except to notice the places he didn't name, because they are too old, too long gone, to name: Virginia Tech. Northern Illinois University. Fort Hood. The oratory culminated on the refrain, "They deserve a vote." I lost count of how many times the President said it.

But what kind of vote? A vote on what? It will take more than $3 million to memorialize Hadiya Pendleton, the children of Newtown, and the other untold hundreds killed every year in Chicago, and elsewhere.

Yesterday I was listening, as I always do, to Chicago Public Radio, and I heard two pieces that, to me, say more than I can ever try to about the life and death of a girl, or any child, in the city of Chicago. So here they are. 

The first is the story of the violence interrupter Ameena Matthews. Matthews grew up in Chicago and is the daughter of Black P Stones founder Jeff Fort. Matthews is so poised and full of grace about her past life as a gang member that she leaves me speechless.

The second is the story of the recent gun death of another Chicago teen, this time on the west side. Unlike the case of Hadiya Pendleton (whose tragic proportions I by no means want to diminish), this murder will probably go unsolved.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

James Baldwin's Schools Now

James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, and he attended three New York public schools. Recently while doing some writing on Baldwin I became curious about how Baldwin's schools were doing now, so I looked them up. This kind of research is inspired by one of my writing heroes, Jonathan Kozol, who analyzes symbols like the names of schools to express his vivid outrage about educational injustice.

The short version of my discoveries is this: all of James Baldwin's schools are now "college prep," non-neighborhood high schools. His elementary school is a charter high school, his middle school is a "contract" high school, and his high school is a magnet-ey neighborhood high school. NYCPS prides itself on offering families "options." So, if you want your child to go to high school, move to New York. But plan to pay for private school until high school (about which, in New York, we've heard plenty).

Backstory: A friend of mine wrote me a sweet and incredibly thoughtful note about my post about sisterhood. Because she was writing so much personal stuff about herself, she didn't want to comment publicly on my blog, so I'm going to keep her anonymous here, but she's an awesome woman. One thing she mentioned in her note was something that I had not known about her before: her grandfather was a classmate of Baldwin's at the very storied Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Celebrity Shortlist: Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and Tracy Morgan, as well as dozens of influential people in prestigious mid-century New York professions: fashion (Ralph Lauren), essay-writing (Lionel Trilling), filmmaking (George Cukor).

Basically if you were born in Harlem or the Bronx, but then moved to Greenwich Village when you grew up, then there's a good chance you went to DeWitt Clinton. If producing celebrities is one of the measures of a school, then DeWitt Clinton is one of the greatest college-prep-cum-liberal-arts public schools ever. But, by today's measures, DeWitt Clinton is a "bad" school: New York State got a D on Michelle Rhee's recent and instantly infamous, completely disgusting report card, which makes me want to vomit so much that I refuse to link to it. Suffice to say, it seems pretty clear to me (and to most teachers I know) that Michelle Rhee was not a good teacher.

He is pissed.

OK, so that was the backstory. Here is the real story. Baldwin attended three New York schools, which he often referred to in public only by the P.S. numbers, which have all changed.

In this interview, one of Baldwin's earlier television appearances (on public television, Boston's WGBH), Baldwin names two of his three schools, at first only by number: P.S.24 and P.S.139. When I looked these schools up in the New York City schools database, however, they were no longer the numbers of schools in Harlem, and Baldwin often got their numbers wrong anyway.

For elementary school, Baldwin attended New York P.S. 24 in East Harlem. The school as it was no longer exists, and so I could not find its former name. Thanks to the magic of Google Street View, however, I was able to find out that the school building does still exist (as they often do). The school is now called--wait for it--Harlem Renaissance High School!

Wow. There is so much to say about this, but, to be brief: it does not surprise me, after my decade studying education off- and on- (as a hobby), that James Baldwin's elementary school would have been shuttered, renovated into a charter high school, and named for the Harlem Renaissance, which now goes by many other names in academia.* There is so much irony going on with this school that it makes my head spin. Baldwin would be pleased, but also pissed. Why? Because they couldn't be bothered to name the school after one of the many dozens of brilliant African Americans who actually went there--like Countee Cullen, or like James Baldwin.

In the video interview with Kenneth Clarke cited above, Baldwin notes (with a sardonic grin) the irony that his all-black middle school in Harlem is named after Frederick Douglass. How is Frederick Douglass Junior High doing now? Well, its name has changed, as well as its number. When Baldwin attended, it was P.S. 139, and now it goes more strictly by its name. When Baldwin attended, it was Frederick Douglass Junior High. Now, it is Frederick Douglass Academy High School, Jewel of the Westside, Where Failure is Not an Option. In brief: Baldwin's middle school, named for the most legendary black man in the history of America, "failed" and was reborn as a high school where Failure is Impossible Just Because the School Says So.

Baldwin's high school is probably the most well-known of his three schools. As noted above, the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton boasts a stunning list of notable alumni on this Wikipedia page. DeWitt's own website does not have a list of notable alumni, but DeWitt has an alumni association, a rare thing for a public school in an urban or a rural area, but a definite font of cash for most schools that have one.

So, the only one of Baldwin's three schools that still exists is the one that is the best endowed. Endowments matter. The two richest college prep schools in America--Phillips Exeter and Phillips Academy in Andover--have larger endowments than most colleges. Endowment also comes in the form of cultural capital, or fame. When your school has low test scores, but you have successful alumni, their success redounds to the school, which, in turn, makes the students from the school more successful, and usually in creative or scientific fields. (Stuyvesant, the most famous New York Public High School, has bragging rights to a number of Nobel Prizes.) Basically, if you want to find a famous urban high school, go to a hipster neighborhood and walk around a little bit. In Boston's Jamaica Plain, the old high school has been converted into condos. It's the virtuous circle of capitalism: philanthropy, prestige, and--oh yeah--pulling yourself up by your bootstraps--will make up for deficits like endemic generational poverty, about which this country seems more or less committed to doing nothing. Baldwin would not be pleased.

Now, you may call this a travesty of history, and it is indeed comical. But, as with most histories, it says more about who we as a nation are now than it does about who James Baldwin was when he attended these schools. An institution has a history that inheres in infrastructure--a name, a building--even if the school changes numbers or changes leaders. Think about how easy it is to recognize a school from the outside. School architecture matters, and we can think of any school's architecture as an artifact of our nation's architecture. A school is like a magnet: it can attract or repel wealth. I'm guessing there are people who still give money to DeWitt Clinton, easily the most "successful" of the three former-Baldwin schools, because it is the school of Stan Lee, or James Baldwin, or Charles Rangel, or Tracy Morgan. For comparison, if you live in Chicago, you might want to arrange a visit to the storied Wendell Phillips [Academy] High School, where many of my friends teach (because, disclosure: it is now operated by AUSL).

The Horatio Alger story is older than Horatio Alger, but, like all old stories, we should be careful not to love them just because they are old. This particular fairy tale, known as the American Dream, inspires many Americans to believe in a system that is terribly unequal, particularly if you want to do anything that was historically done by a woman, or a man playing a woman onstage (a "queer" man)--professions like teaching, librarianship, stay-at-home-motherhood, nursing, art-making, writing, acting, directing, designing, or anything involving left-handedness.

If the U.S. wants to fix poverty by fixing schools, they're going to need to look for what teachers call "modifications," but what might otherwise be considered, in contemporary Supreme Court jurisprudence, affirmative action. The first thing would be to invest in the impoverished communities that surround most "failing" schools, such as what Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada calls "Baby College" for at-risk parents and Head Start programs. The second thing, after early childhood spending, would be to provide extra supports for students who learn in different ways. At the Quaker school we called these students "students with learning differences." In CPS most people call them "Sped kids," but the more appropriate way to describe them is "students with disabilities." When I was a kid, we called these students by names that adults don't use in polite conversation anymore, but students use all the time, and names that I refuse on principle to reproduce in this context. But if you ever were called one of these names, called someone one of these names, or watched someone call someone one of these names, then you know what they are. And they all mean pretty much the same thing: either "cool" or "not cool."

Here's the thing, though, and maybe I can be so bold as to guess what James Baldwin might have wanted to see if he were alive today. Maybe the way to fix poverty is to address poverty, rather than attack the profession and the dignity of the teachers and administrators who work with the children of the poor every day of their working lives, and the dignity and work of the families that those schools serve.

Here's a fascinating note to end on. There is one James Baldwin School that shows up in a Google search. It is a private alternative high school in Greenwich Village. They refer to the school as JBS, just like my school, which was named after a transcendentalist naturalist: John Burroughs.

*Most academics who study African American literature now call it the New Negro Renaissance or, for academics who do not wish to distinguish activity by black artists from activity by white artists, just plain modernism. This is mostly because to say that the movement was "centered" in Harlem is inaccurate, as this diagram illustrates nicely--half of the people on this diagram never lived in Harlem, many of them were white, and Washington, D.C., Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Detroit, Boston, Seattle, St. Louis, and Cleveland, and later L.A. and Oakland, were also hubs of black intellectual activity. Let's put it this way: basically, in any major American city with an immigrant/migrant population, a strong settlement house movement, or a "university" vibe, there were black intellectuals being born and being raised. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Money Matters: Solorio Teachers Have Raised over $10,000

Sorry for the radio silence, readers! I have been in the process of absorbing some very big news, on which more in a few days or so. In the mean time, here's a post I wrote about the fact that teachers from Solorio have raised over $10,000 since Solorio opened its doors in the fall of 2010. That's pretty amazing. It also shows that "miracle schools" don't perform miracles without tens of thousands of dollars of extra money--literally.


Many people have bought the education reform line that money doesn't make a difference in educational outcomes. But, if you are a classroom teacher or a leftist, you find this argument highly suspicious on its face. Money always matters. I'm proud of Solorio this year, because, even in its short existence, people who teach at Solorio have raised over $10,000 for students through Donors Choose alone. They have also won outside grants for art and public art projects, and sold lots and lots of baked goods, to the tune of probably double that. Add to that the largesse of AUSL, and the newest green building in all of CPS, and it's not hard to fathom why Solorio would be on everyone's "schools to watch" list.

My school boasts a wonderful staff of about 70 people who are mostly young, smart, and nice. Everyone tries to get along with everyone else. We have a lot of meetings. I like working there because it reminds me of another school I worked in like that--a Quaker school, where every decision had to be made by a committee.

I was on 4 committees at Westtown, not counting my two departmental affiliations (English and Theater) or the full faculty meetings, which were scheduled for 90 minutes after dinner every Wednesday. I probably spent 10 hours a week in meetings, 30 hours a week teaching, and 20-30 hours a week prepping for class and caring for students. I loved it, because I love meetings and I love students.

A lot of teachers will tell you that teaching in a high school often feels like being sent back to high school, and they're right. If you were an outcast in high school, you can become a quirky misfit on a high school staff pretty easily, especially if you're friendly and like to volunteer to do dirty jobs nobody else wants to do. In other words, schools are political environments for everyone: all of the adults and all of the children are citizens of the empire, and everyone is a member of a smaller polis ("clique" or "crew" or "bromance") outside the Capitol, which is The Main Office.

You will know you have entered the Hunger Games in a high school building when you realize that what you are wearing matters way more than you thought it would when you put it on that morning. It is very risky to wear bright colors or use the words "folks" or "people" at any urban high school. It is also very risky to use a vast array of other loaded words if you are in a school with a lot of turbulence. The turbulence is just waiting to erupt into violence at any moment. You know you are in such a school when: the school has metal detectors, armed security, a dress code, or a uniform policy that excludes any kind of self-expression through fashion (piercings, nails, earrings are forbidden, shoes must be black or brown with no markings whatsoever).

When a charter school claims to "produce" better students at a more "efficient" rate than its comparable neighborhood school, you have to ask these questions: how much money is spent per student in real dollars? And where does the money come from? Words like "produce" and "efficient" and anything that treats a school like a factory should be treated with caution.

People who feel like they are "other" know this. "The Other" is a word from postcolonialism that is an English adaptation of the word "subaltern," used influentially by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s. Gramsci loved populism and hated Mussolini, whose government put him in prison. Reading Gramsci helped me understand why it might be OK to write an Italian romantic comedy about the Holocaust, which the younger me (The Old Me) would never have thought was OK.

Subaltern people are any people who identify themselves as being "mis-fits" in high school: nerds, LGBTQQ, people with physical, mood, and intellectual disabilities, women, people of color, people with a threatening, "weird" faith--basically, those who get bullied and those who do the bullying. Does that sound like the "bad people" list of anyone you know? Probably not anyone you know personally, because if you're reading my blog, and you've read this far, you probably think it's OK to be Politically Correct, at least when you're not trying to be ironic.

Basically, I'm talking about the same people who are always cool: hipsters, the youth, teachers, and fashionistas. These are people who have learned, either by nature or culture, to find the language of the market highly suspicious. They are the same people as those who also want to try to fit in without looking like they're trying. Teenagers are the most brutal audience there is. If you honed your wit as a social outcast in Chicago, like Tina Fey or Steven Colbert or Gwendolyn Brooks, then your wit can cut like a knife, or tear your flesh (which most people will recognize as the etymology of the word "sarcasm").

We all know or suspect that anything that claims to be "new and improved" or "cool" is actually old and cheaper than it used to be. When I first met Solorio's students, I told them that my favorite store was Target and they could smell the dork on me like I had just bathed in the dollar bins.

Aside: When you let the students ask you questions about yourself, there's a standard list. Top of the list are where you buy your car and clothes. If you're dressed nice that day, they're impressed. If you're not dressed nice and you don't drive a cool car, you reek of loserdom. The best thing about kids these days is that the majority of them are much nicer to adults than my peers were to me when I was young. But the bad news is that all that kindness and courtesy usually masks an ugly underbelly of bullying and deceit and mean girl drama. The way a society treats its children is a sign of the times. When society treats children like objects instead of people, you know times are tough.

In high school, fashion that is cheap rules the day: short or otherwise low-maintenance hairstyles; glasses, facial hair, painted fingernails, and tattoos; and good taste in popular culture are the badges of cool. (I know what you're thinking: those things cost money! Well, they do and they don't. They cost money for some people, and they cost a lot less money for other people. If you've ever wondered why, Google Chicago Sociology or Worlds Columbian Exposition, or read the Sparknotes of The Jungle, or visit a Target.)*

What makes me sad? Educators started using the same value-laden language as the market to describe the kids. Too many educators have so bought into the narrative of modernity that they actually believe the hype. They believe that adults are naturally smarter than young people, that men are naturally smarter than women, that realistic fiction is naturally better than romantic or fantasy fiction. These are all of the cultural lies of modernity: late modernism, which some people choose to call "postmodernism," taught people of my generation to hate the old and love the new. But you only have to visit a high school for a day to be reminded that the old is always new again to a teen.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Follow up about Writing and Some Blogger Love

Recently I was talking to a friend, who also teaches in an urban high school, about writing, and my friend (we'll call my friend "Sam") was making a joke about how a writer doesn't have to be aware of his or her audience. Sam said:
"I just answer whatever questions are on the graphic organizer assuming that whoever the reader is will know what the questions were."
What makes this joke hilarious is that Sam knows that this is not a "good" way to write, but that being aware of your audience is extremely important to good writing. Sam also told me that s/he was always taught not to assume that the teacher is your audience, but rather that you're writing for a general audience with less background knowledge than you. When my students write about literature, I always tell them to write as if their reader has read the book, but not recently, and that the writer can't expect the reader to have the primary text open right next to them. (This usually helps to cut down on the phrase "On page 21....") And yes, I'm teaching my students to write the way I write. Most of the literature I write about is unfamiliar to most people. Where I get in trouble is when I try to write about something that everyone has read before. That's when it's the hardest to tell how much you need to show the reader to get your point across.

I've decided to start calling this approach "writing with empathy," even though empathy is a loaded word in some circles. The idea is to understand what your audience already knows, so that you don't insult them. This often gets confused with "trying to sound smart," which is not the same thing. Often, in an effort to help, high school English teachers teach their students how to posture, because posturing is an important component of writing well in any genre. That is why personal narrative is the most authentic-sounding kind of writing for most non-experienced writers: they are following that old rule: write about what you know.

Sam went on to explain that graphic organizers can be great, but often lead to these sorts of simplistic, bathetic (for a teacher) answers: "Yes, and..." or "No, because..." When Sam was in high school, at a well-resourced school, s/he didn't have "graphic organizers," because they are a relatively new invention.

For more on this matter, see the conversation I had with Ray Salazar in the comments on my post about the 5-paragraph essay. Writing is Power, people. We have to remember that "good writers" are often (though not always) people with a lot of cultural and economic capital--people who either were taught how to write very well by experts, or taught themselves how to write very well by reading a lot, and reading widely. Now, I hesitate to make a broad generalization without backing it up. So, if my description doesn't sound like it describes you, I will just say this: I am an English teacher and I learned how to write in school and from my family. My friend Sam is not an English teacher and Sam learned how to write in school and from Sam's family, both of which are different from mine.

Now for a piece of happy news: I was linked to (no idea how one should say that, but it seems like it must be rendered in the passive voice. An ed blogger linked to me? An ed blogger wrote about me?)--anyway, I was linked to by a great ed blogger, Alex Russo. Russo is not very popular in some of the circles I run in, because he doesn't like ed reform rhetoric very much, and he also doesn't like union rhetoric very much. He likes to be in the middle. But I've been reading his blog for years, since my days as a full-time grad student. His blog about CPS is already on the blog roll, but I thought it only right to give him a shout-out here. If you're less interested in issues in CPS and more into nation-wide coverage, check out his blog This Week in Education.

Lastly, my parents have complained that my posts have been very long of late. So I will try to write more like a blogger (which, between us, I think of as writing more like a man). Anyway, I read a lot of blogs, so I just try to write like I'm writing a blog--which is to be a little bit personal, but not too personal, and to talk about the things that interest me in a semi-organized fashion, without going through 10 drafts before posting something.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Brothers and Sisters, Sisters and Brothers: the Autobiography of an Ex-Only Girl

Dear reader,

I am an only girl. Or, at least, I was once an only girl. Just like the Ex-Colored Man in James Weldon Johnson's novel, I'm not sure what it means to be an only girl, or when and whether I get to decide to stop being an only girl. But I've been thinking about it a little bit lately. I started to write a review of my year, just like all the education bloggers did, but it was so depressing that I decided to focus on one of the highlights instead, so here's one: In 2012, I became a sister.

My first delegates' meeting for the Chicago Teachers' Union was not an especially eventful or exciting one--those would come later--but it was much more thrilling than I could have hoped for. I arrived late, so I missed the part where I, as a new delegate, would be "recognized," but, as I slinked into the meeting already in progress, I was first overwhelmed by the sheer number of delegates. It seemed way more than one per school, I thought, and I was soon to learn that there are, indeed, multiple delegates per school--as many as one for every fifty or so teachers in a school building. What a proportion of representation! If only we could be so lucky in every aspect of our representative government.

At House of Delegates meetings, the officers always speak in reverse rank order. I missed the report of Michael Brunson, the recording secretary, and came in to the middle of financial secretary Kristine Mayle's report. I had met and already knew that I liked Kristine, but I was surprised at her sober tone on the stage. Then came the Vice-President: Jesse Sharkey. I had also met Jesse and I had already been tickled by how he called us teachers "trade unionists." Trade unionists! I guess that is, technically, what we are, but it of course feels like a throwback to a long-gone era, one I've become certain that Sharkey, a history teacher, knows plenty about, and one that I also know plenty about, having written a dissertation on it.

Sharkey has a fiery, extremist style of oratory that reminds me of the best moments of Huey Long, and his knowledge of the long and--apparently, very much still living--history of trade unionism was tremendously impressive and exciting to me. Had I, as a Chicago Public School teacher, really become a part of the history I was writing about? Had I, really and truly, become a sister soldier? When Karen Lewis said "Sisters and Brothers"--which she does, repeatedly, when she speaks--it made my heart flutter, like I finally belonged to a big family fighting for a real cause.

But what was the family, and what was the cause? That's still a little bit unclear to me. Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s, in a non-union family, I was raised to treat trade unionism with the same suspicion as almost every other educated person in this country who has not belonged to a union. In college and early in graduate school, I had been skeptical about efforts of graduate students to organize, particularly because, to my mind, these were elite institutions who were making the lives of their graduate students pretty darn nice. I also remember explaining to a friend why it made me so uncomfortable: we are not sweatshop workers, I said. We were, in point of fact, grateful, at the University of Chicago, to receive any teaching appointments at all; we were not the overworked, underpaid graduate students of the large state universities. At the time, I thought it somewhat high and mighty to be demanding free health insurance when we were already getting so much for free--a tremendously prestigious education in exchange for little-to-no tuition, for example. (This is not to say that PhDs do not "pay" for their education, in blood, sweat, and tears. But, with some frugality and austerity, the living stipend we are given is not unlivable. Most of the payment comes in the form of tears.)

To be clear--at the University of Chicago, the first whisperings of graduate student organization came at a time when PhD students were not universally funded at the same level. In fact, it was through the efforts of organized graduate students--in some cases, against the professed wishes of their professors--that the University finally agreed to fund all PhD candidates equally, which meant a dramatic drop in enrollments in the Humanities and Social Science divisions. But it was being around and intimate with this organization and seeing its effects--only just before the whole world watched the United Auto Workers let themselves get royally screwed in order to save their existence--that made me think twice about the power of collective action, if not of collective bargaining.

So, when Karen Lewis called me "sister," it was as if she had said my name, even though I was just one among nearly 30,000 Chicago Teachers' Union members. It would be several months before I became more familiar with the various caucuses and curmudgeons, the in-fighting that happens in every big family.

In my own nuclear family, I am the only girl of five children. That's a big family, by the standards around which I grew up. And being the only girl could be a lonely existence, at times. It was sort of like being an only child, while also being a middle child--which I also am. When I tell people that I'm the only girl, they respond in one of two ways: "I'm sorry, that must have been rough" or, "You must have been really spoiled." Well, of course, both are true, as far as these things go. It was rough and I was spoiled. I was treated like an only child and like everyone's annoying kid sister, all at the same time, and by everyone in not only my immediate family, but also my extended family, in which, in my generation on my dad's side, there is but one girl: this one.

The second girl to come along came along around 1989 or thereabouts, and she was my first real sister: my sister-in-law, the one I wrote about some weeks ago who is Tim Kreider's sister. When I read Tim's essay in We Learn Nothing titled "Sister World," I felt an uncanny, and misplaced, sense of concern and anger when I read this paragraph, worth reproducing in its entirety:
I'd always thought of being adopted as being about as interesting and significant a fact about myself as being left-handed or having family in Canada. What seems freakish and fascinating to me is something so commonplace most people take it for granted: being related. As an outsider and a newcomer to this phenomenon--what people call kinship, or blood--I may have a privileged perspective on it, like Tocqueville visiting America. What's so familiar to you it's invisible still seems outlandish to me. For most people the bonds of blood and history are inextricable, but I experienced them in isolation from one another, just like my transgendered friend Jenny has had the rare vantage of living as both a man and a woman. Meeting biological relatives for the first time in midlife, I felt like one of those people, blind from birth, whose vision is surgically restored, and must blunder about in an unintelligible new world, learning, through trial and error, how to see. You can't understand the word blue until you see the sky for the first time.
My first thought when I read this, truly, was, "Hey! You can't talk about my sister like that!" Of course, that makes no sense--she is my sister by the law of marriage, and his by what seems like a firmer, more permanent law, the law of adoption. But it shows, with some clarity, the difference in idea that I might have about "relatedness" than someone like Tim, who grew up adopted and therefore always-already alone. You'll notice, for example, that he slyly equates being adopted with singularity: the "freakishness" of being left-handed and having relatives from Canada, both of which are, I think, true about him. I don't have figures in front of me, but I can recognize that being adopted puts one in a silent minority, just like having Canadian relatives or being left-handed does. (My sister-in-law is not left-handed, but my nephew is, which means left-handedness runs in her family, by law and by blood, as it does in mine, by blood and by law.)

Now that I re-read the passage with new eyes, I see that Tim is more ambivalent than I thought about having blood relatives vs. having legal relatives. He rightly historicizes blood relation as only one kind of "kinship," but he comes frighteningly close to qualifying it as a better kind of kinship than the other kind. If one could only have sisters by blood, then I still wouldn't have any. I could, in fact, never have any, a fact that became clear to me when I was 5 years old, and, when my fourth brother was born, I asked my mom, while still in the hospital, when she would be having another child. She responded, with memorable vehemence, "never!"

Walter Benn Michaels (that guy again), makes a very strong case in his book Our America that the idea of the nuclear family as it is developed in modern American literature is a cover story for another very American idea: race and racialism. One of the novels he reads (attacks) on these grounds is one of my favorites: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In that novel, Walter reads everyone's love of Caddy, the absent sister, as not incest, per se, but rather, as a version of racism: preferring your family means preferring those of your own race. Similarly, the Ex-Colored Man in Johnson's novel endorses racism by his very renunciation of it: you can only refuse to be colored and choose to pass if there is something to being colored other than the color of your skin--something like blood, as in the famous "one drop rule," or, in Walter's argument, something like culture.

Learning this argument from taking a class with Walter and reading his book made me initially uncomfortable, as I have written before. I am a mixed-"race" child, and therefore a mixed-culture child, and that part--the culturally-other-part--of my identity has always been strong, even though I sort of "got over it" when I was in college and learned of more interesting and worrisome dilemmas having more to do with racial inequality, and less to do with me. But, in spite of Walter, and maybe, just a little bit, to spite him, I care about my people. The the reading of Faulkner, who I already knew as a white supremacist, was almost more painful than the reading of Johnson, who I already knew was not a white supremacist. I loved that novel! And I loved it first and foremost, I am ashamed to say, because I automatically love, blindly, all stories about families in which there is only one girl, from Duck Tales and Voltron to Emma and The Corrections. Caddy Compson's status as the only girl in her family is the least of the Compson family's worries, and The Sound and the Fury is, as even Walter admits, a great work of art, for other reasons. But, for me, just like he does in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner had me at the one girl, freaks though they are. Like me, the women in these stories have no sisters. It is my oldest, and weakest, soft spot.

Like Walter, Tim goes on, in his story, to discover that having cultural values in common can feel more like brother-sisterhood than having family in common. His biological sisters are more "like him": they are humanists, they like--oddly--the same kinds of food. But I have to say, though all four of my brothers are doctors, and we don't always find a lot to talk about, I still love all four of them tremendously, with much of the room in my admittedly roomy heart. And I love my sister who is Tim's sister. She and I have a lot in common, too: she is a fiery, assertive, professional woman, and she has been an inspiration to me ever since I met her, when I was very young and had very, very high expectations for my first sister. She is also, as it happens, a great mom. To say the least, it's not easy, these days, to be a fiery professional woman and a great mom at the same time.

My expectations were met not only by my sister-in-law, but also by my sister Karen Lewis and my 30,000 brothers and sisters in the Chicago Teachers Union when we went on strike and won. For the first time in my life, I closed ranks with my union family and Won! An! Argument! The argument was about more than just one thing, as they usually are: it was about teaching and teachers, about dignity and workers' rights, and about real education equality for students. But, in some ways, it didn't matter that what I was fighting for wasn't the same as what every single one of my sisters and brothers was fighting for. The fight, itself, felt good and right. And what we won has benefited my students, my colleagues, and me, personally, and other teachers, throughout the nation. And no one, not even Karen Lewis, knows just what causes or what people the CTU will benefit next, but the strike sure gave people a helluva lot of hope. There are only a few things I have done in my life of which I am prouder. And, after the strike, at my dissertation defense, I was able to say that I know, for a fact, that participating in a strike is fun. Like (I wrote "just like" and then decided to delete the "just") the workers and humanists in my dissertation, I sang songs and marched in the streets. I even sang one of the same songs, with different words. For Langston Hughes, Theodore Ward, and many others, the song was both "John Brown's Body" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." For me, it was "Solidarity Forever." I sang it over and over. It's my favorite.

Family really is forever, and forever is a long time. Has being a sister paid off for me? In the Barton family, I can say with certainty that it has. In the family of the brotherhood of teachers and educators? In the family of man? It remains to be seen. I am no longer a CTU delegate. I had to relinquish the position because I needed the time and energy I put into it for other purposes, being, as I was, a wounded soldier. But, happily, I have not yet had to give up being a sister in the struggle. What that struggle is remains for me to find out, in the only way we sometimes can find out: waiting.

I had a chance to see Walter Benn Michaels speak last week, and I also had the chance to ask him and his fellow panelists what should be done about the fact that very few people in K-12 teaching take any notice of him or the other impressive literary historians in his company. He told me that I should stop worrying about what goes on in the high school English classroom and keep following Karen Lewis! If that's not having my life come full circle, then it is something like that--a good ending to my story of sisterhood, at the very least.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

English and English Education in the Tower of Babel, Part 2: The Dread Five Paragraph Essay and Teaching Expository Writing

They are bad words: Five. Paragraph. Essay.

Last year, I assigned three full-length expository or persuasive essays to my honors students per semester, and two to my regular-level students per semester. That was about all I thought we could do in a year, and the grading still nearly crushed my spirit. I began to discover that my students almost routinely wrote one very good "body" paragraph, along with several less-good ones--something of a waste, it seemed. But then I figured that even these "summative" assessments could have a "formative" component: in other words, I could assess my students on their ability to write an organized and thoughtfully argued paragraph, while still having them practice writing an organized and thoughtfully argued essay, a skill to be mastered next year, or even further down the line. People learn how to write slowly by emulation, feedback, repetition, and coaching, and when you have between 28 and 35 students in each of 5 classes, that kind of work turns into formulas all too easily. If all a student is expected to do on, for example, the Illinois State Acheivement Test, or the ISAT, is to write a "three-part response," then that is what we will teach. And we have terrific formulas, and mnemonics, as I noted above. Here are some more:

For an introduction:
A. Attention Grabber
B. Background information
C. Claim

For a body paragraph:
P. Point
E. Evidence
E. Explanation
E. Evaluation

But here's the kicker: when I was teaching my first class of AP literature students a couple of years ago, and I wanted to prove to them that these formulas were Useful to Know in the Real World, I was able to point to any number of editorials in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times that look exactly like this. I was also able to point to one of the chapters of my dissertation, which as a five-page introduction, but still follows the ABC formula:

A: intriguing Anecdote, followed by a "close reading" of the anecdote.
B: Background of what other scholars have thought about the problem presented by the close reading of the anecdote, and why they're wrong about the problem (in the "Little Red Schoolhouse" style of the University of Chicago, this is called "stasis/destabilization").
C: Claim: my "take" on the problem.

In the two pedagogy courses I took for my English PhD, I was told again and again how silly the writing instruction in high school is. When I took the University of Chicago's course called Pedagogies of Writing, they were very intent on insisting that the "stasis/destabilization" introduction was extremely different from the "inverted paragraph" introduction. Likewise, they hated the words "topic sentence" like they were the work of the devil, but they used the words "paragraph-level claim" or even "point sentence" as if these were new inventions.

In Pedagogies of Writing, the instructors were really brutal toward high school English teachers, which, as a Once and Future high school English teacher, I found insulting. They actually showed us a graphic organizer from a Nebraska high school and everyone had a huge chuckle about it! They also showed us a sample essay from a student who had been taught the inverted-pyramid formula for an introduction. The essay was about Beloved. The introduction started with a generalization: Life is full of choices. It then went on to explain that in the novel Beloved, Sethe has a choice about whether to murder her baby or not murder her baby.

I certainly hope that this student never knows that his or her essay is used in this way to teach this course, year after year after year. So little teaching of writing goes on, even in freshman intro courses, that students are more often than not left to their own devices (in this case, literally: the rhetorical device of the inverted pyramid, general-to-specific, which, in this one case, turns out to be quite bathetic). By the time they get to some colleges, students are expected to show up already knowing how to write the way their professors want, or else they are given just one writing course, taught by an exasperated English professor, in which they are told that everything they learned in high school is hopelessly, worthlessly, wrong. It's deflating to the students, to say the least.

The worst part is, high school teachers combat the superiority complex of English professors by giving their students arbitrary rules: "don't use 'I.'" Use "transition words" like however, moreover, thus, and--be still my soul--in conclusion. I have taught my students, more than once, to begin an essay of literary analysis with the phrase "In [author]'s [novel/play/poem] [name of novel/play/poem]...."e.g., "In Richard Wright's novel Native Son..." Gag me with a chainsaw! But it sure is better than seeing something like "In the book Native Son by the author Richard Wright he says..." Where we could be teaching rhetoric, we teach formulas that look like rhetoric.

But formulas are a useful teaching tool. Teachers call it scaffolding. A scaffold is a temporary structure that is used when another structure is being built or repaired. What has to come next is the dismantling of the scaffold, to be sure, but it's the old you-have-to-learn-the-rules-before-you-can-break-them argument. I sort of believe this argument. When I taught theory, I found Audre Lorde's formulation "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" extraordinarily useful for teaching the various Marxist/subaltern--postcolonial, feminist, and African American--versions of poststructuralism. But I also always pointed out that word "dismantle" to my students--Lorde's claim is a fallacy. If you want to dismantle the master's house, you must either use the master's tools, or move at a frustratingly slow and careful pace with more rudimentary tools--for example, you can remove a screw with pliers, but it is much easier and faster to remove it with a screwdriver. But Lorde, herself an academic as well as a poet, didn't want to destroy the master's house. She wanted to live in it on her own terms. She had to learn to write like them before she could claim to write like herself.

I am also a firm believer that the relentless teaching of expository writing kills the love of writing in students, much like the relentless teaching of explication kills the love of reading--a Writicide to go alongside Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, if you will. The great majority of the high school students I have taught love to do things with words--they freestyle, they rap, they text, they chat, they gossip. The key is to harness this energy and creativity to the pursuit of improving their writing. It's a bare, biologically verifiable fact that teenagers are  going to be obsessed with themselves. So we let them write about themselves endlessly. And I would rather read 150 mediocre personal essays than 150 mediocre poetry explications any day. But that's because I love teens and their problems don't bore me.

I see so many articles and Facebook comments from my friends who teach in other environments that go along the lines of this one, with the attendant hand-wringing on both sides about how high school students aren't giving high school teachers what they want, and high school teachers are not giving college freshmen what they need, so the freshmen aren't giving the comp teachers what they want. I used to feel this way, and I still go nuts, in my own way, about the your/you'res and the their/there/they'res and the "In my honest opinion I think thats" of this world. (I borrow a tool from my senior high school teacher's box, thanks to whom I learned what a comma splice was. I draw a little spiral in these sorts of mistakes. If the student doesn't learn the error, the spiral gets bigger the next time. I don't remember what my former teacher called it, but I call it Ms. Barton's vortex of despair--my despair at your not having learned this simple rule or redundancy.)

Of course it's fun to laugh when a student misspells a word and, in so doing, creates an irony that is hilarious. Doesn't everyone do this all the time? When we publish the mistakes of those students, and get a good chuckle out of them, why are we laughing? At the incongruity of the error, for sure. But isn't some of the laughter also designed to mask our own anxiety for not teaching them how to spell a key vocabulary word? Or to congratulate ourselves on our own superior knowledge?

When I first started teaching high school, with absolutely no training, I would spend hours writing and revising elaborately written essay questions--usually multiple options for a single assignment--only to receive essays that were all plot summary. The first time this happened, the disappointment was devastating, and the tedium of grading only made the devastation worse. Eventually, I figured out better ways to teach writing in order to get my students to write the way I hoped they would, which was, of course, more like me. When I taught college students at U of C, I went to their Center for Teaching and Learning and found out more about what teachers call "alignment" of assessment and teaching.

But it was only when I took some real courses in education, when I got my M.A.T. a couple of years ago, that I discovered a whole other world of literature and habits of mind that could make me into a better teacher of writing. Most of the writers of my favorite books about teaching have been around for awhile--since the late 80s, in some cases, when I was learning to write as an elementary school student.

The new Common Core State Standards still, like the old standards, emphasize and expect expository writing with clear claims and supporting evidence and so on. But the shortcuts will stay the same. And CPS's new "Performance-Based Assessments" also expect the same, as well as a graphic organizer that must be completed in order to earn full credit.

I just wish that K-12 ed and English ed would actually sit down and talk to each other about the kind of writing they want to see, and how to get there, because I think we do a lot of un-teaching when we could actually be doing re-teaching or scaffolding, also known as "spiraling." I think we laugh because we feel out of control. But maybe, with a little bit more communication, we could spiral writing instruction into control.

Maybe, but no promises, I will write future posts on how English teachers teach writing and grammar. I think my friends who are English professors or trained as English PhDs might have something to gain from knowing about things like the 6 +1 Traits of Writing....just like one of my friends told me that "I do, we do, you do" (aka gradual release of responsibility) is very useful for teaching college students.

English and Education in the Tower of Babel, Part 1: Hand-wringing about writing

I work with another teacher who always gets annoyed when this happens: a student who is writing as fast as he can, in class, stops and dramatically shakes out the cramp he has developed in his hand.

Since I now work in a land where essays are often written by hand, even out of class, and revision is known as "corrections," and malapropisms are the order of the day, I always find dramas about "how students write now" pretty amusing, and also frustrating.

So, with that spirit in mind, let's wring our hands, and then shake them out:

Many prophets are now telling us that writing is one of the most important skills for students to learn to be competitive in the 21st century global economy. Throughout the short history of American universal public education, the teaching of writing has fallen largely on the shoulders of English language arts teachers, both in K-12 and in higher education. The thing is, when it comes to best practices in the teaching of writing, many of us are flying blind, on both sides of the high school graduation milestone. This is, in part, because English educators in K-12 are mostly listening to and reading books and articles by English and Reading specialists in the Education field, while English professors and graduate students in higher ed--the ones who inevitably teach freshman composition--mostly come from the English Language and Literature field or, in increasingly rare cases, the field of English Language and Rhetoric. As I have written before, these two fields--English Language Arts/Reading, as taught in Education departments, and English Language and Literature/Rhetoric, as taught in English departments, are like twins separated at birth (though born hundreds of years apart), or soul mates--sisters from a different mother--who can't recognize each other.

As the title of this post suggests, the two fields have become so alien to each other that they use different languages. For example, in English education, citations are formatted according the style used by most sociologists--the style of the American Psychological Association (APA style). In English lang & lit, citations are formatted according to one of the styles used by most humanists--the style of the Modern Language Association (MLA style), or of the University of Chicago Press ("Chicago style").

My professor of English methods at National-Louis, Katie McKnight, pointed out to our class that English teachers in K-12 (I will, for the remainder of this post, call these people "English teachers" and the college people "English professors") have to be "bilingual" in these two citation styles, which have, at least in my personal experience, somewhat annoying and pedantic differences. When writing one's teaching philosophy for an English department--a teaching philosophy that was first drafted for an Ed class--there is a lot of minute copy editing to be done. It's a pain.

It is with some bittersweet triumph that I can note that the style taught to most high school students, even in history classes, is a quasi-MLA style, which is so hegemonic that most people don't even know that they're using it. MLA style teaches us to underline or italicize titles, to capitalize each letter of the title, to put poem and article titles in quotation marks instead of underlining or italicizing.

But enough about citation styles. All of this is to say that, when it comes to writing, English teachers and English professors are definitely not on the same page. They're not even looking at the same book.

Either this fall or last spring, there was circulated, at the school where I work, an article that informed me that the most important skill for high school graduates to learn before college is to write an expository essay of 3-5 pages. Immediately, the pressure was on to assign such essays, and as much as possible, in order to prepare students for college.

Since I started teaching in 2002, however, I discovered that it is often much easier for students to learn, and for me to assess their learning of, the skill of expressing a clear point and supporting it with evidence in a much shorter assignment, such as a single paragraph, rather than in a whole essay, which takes longer for me to grade and return to them, and much longer for them to write.

I also discovered that students are much more motivated to write about themselves than they are to write about books or other people. And, from what I've seen and heard, when students get to write about what they want, which is, often, themselves, their writing style, mechanics, and voice improve. That is, after all, partly how I learned to write, and, I think, partly how most Americans I know (who, important caveat, like to write) learned how to write.

But teaching students to write personal narrative is obviously not enough. In 9th and 10th grades, which were the grades I taught last year, we were still very much working on the most basic skill of expository or persuasive writing--showing and explaining your evidence, in a single paragraph. In English Language Arts, this is known as a "three part response" or a "PIE" paragraph (Point, Information, Explanation) or a "PEE" (Point, Evidence, Explanation) or, to the chagrin of many a college professor, a hamburger (bread, meat, bread). Even many of a language arts teacher bristles at teaching such a rote form, but I view it as an important step to get pretty good at before going on to write an essay with a more complex point and multiple paragraphs with multiple pieces of evidence to support that point--what is also known, with some notoriety, as a "five-paragraph essay" or, for history teachers, a "DBQ" (Document-Based Question [Response]). Most hilariously, it has become common in my corner of the teaching world to call the point sentence in a DBQ response a "baby thesis," which I find a little too precious, but also apt--hey, at least that means that the main argument is a mother, right?

Incidentally, I have been told on multiple occasions not to call expository/persuasive essays "five-paragraph essays" anymore, because that term bears the taint of rote learning, and word of the genre's notoriety in higher ed has gotten back to secondary ed. We don't want to mess up in preparing our students for college (and, often, we worry about messing up because we will look bad, rather than because we want our students  to succeed in college). But, guess what? Although we changed the name and the number of paragraphs, I'm here to tell you that high school teachers still teach students how to write five-paragraph essays, and that this is because, barring that the student has developed into an exquisite writer before his or her junior year in college, the five-paragraph format is what's most likely to earn a good score on the writing section of the ACT, SAT, or AP tests. Mind you: a good score, but not a great score. The English Language Arts teachers who assess these essays have learned to treat the five paragraphs with suspicion.

But, to tell you the truth? I have written a five-paragraph essay on every standardized test that ever required one, and I have always gotten a very good score. And not only that: the traditional Anglo-American expository style, institutionalized by William Strunk and E.B. White (who, like me, loved George Orwell), has turned out, for me as an academic writer, to be a pretty great one to have in my pocket. So, for what it's worth, my empirical experience as a writer, reader, and teacher of academic writing shows me that the five-paragraph prejudice is not the fault of the expository organization, per se. In fact, traditional expository organization (charged with being "masculine" by none other than Virginia Woolf) is very useful for learning to write fast under time pressure, like in grad school or law school, or on a timed test. So I still teach students how to write point-example-explanation paragraphs, and to assemble them into very straightforward, traditionally-organized essays. But I don't call them "five paragraph essays." Instead, I call them "essays with an introduction, two or three or four body paragraphs, and a conclusion."

Click here to read part 2: The Dread Five Paragraph Essay and Teaching Expository Writing