Direct experience

I somehow failed to transfer this six-year-old post to my blog’s current WordPress iteration. A friend wrote me today about Texas’s new slavery-neutral history textbook, and it reminded me of my post’s subject – my class’s seventh-grade history textbook. I’ve lightly edited the post. As best I can tell, the lesson plans my post refer to have been removed from the Internet.

The Internet is a sweet place for finding lesson plans.  While looking for ideas to sharpen my students’ critical reading skills recently, I came across a set of plans entitled, “Using Excerpts about Slavery.”  The plans employ excerpts from four different works: a history textbook serving Virginia students in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a slave narrative, an Englishman’s travelogue, and a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1850.  According to the brief “Notes for the Teacher” that preface the material, the teacher should require students to consider and discuss the excerpts in small groups on successive class days, focusing on the excerpt’s credibility and engaging with a set of “Questions to Consider” that follow each excerpt.  It looked promising.

The notes begin with the lesson’s goal: “Students need to be cognizant that any historical account is one person’s truth. An author’s point of view is colored by his or her own experiences and belief system. Lack of direct experience can result in an author making assumptions that are not borne out. As an example, who but a slave could effectively understand the perspective of a slave or what the life of a slave was like?”

In order to judge the lesson’s utility for my own classroom, I read the first excerpt and the questions related to it, and I answered its questions. Here’s the excerpt (ellipses original):

Excerpt from Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964[1]
“How Negroes Lived under Slavery,” pp. 368-376

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.

Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

1Textbook used in Virginia schools as late as 1972.

The “Questions to Consider” and my answers:

1.  How long after the Civil War was this written?

Not quite a century.

2.  Who do you think the authors were?  Could they have been former slaves?  Why or why not?

I think all three of the textbook’s authors were Virginians.  I don’t have any direct knowledge about two of them, but the third was my aunt.

My aunt was not a former slave.  I presume that all of the authors, and not just my aunt, were white, and that the authors wrote the textbook somewhat contemporaneously. So, no, they could not have been former slaves.

3.  How do you think they came up with their account of slavery?

My aunt would entertain us from a black-leather wing chair pierced with brass tacks in a small library lined on all four sides from floor to ceiling with books, mostly leather bound, standing muffled on shelves caged by glass panes.  The house was always clean and slightly musty, like my college’s rare books room I would discover years later, and it had no air conditioning, serviced as it was continually from before the War with a fairly dependable breeze from the tidal Rappahannock River, which was framed by the library’s only window.

Years after college, my eldest niece, who was then about the age I had been when I first visited my cousins on the Rappahannock, held forth on visits to my parents’ house as the first and (at that time) only grandchild. She dished out nicknames at a holiday dinner, and my somewhat loquacious father became “Grandfather Sit-in-Chair.”  Similarly, I can’t remember my aunt anywhere else but sitting erect at her chair’s edge – the back of her chair serving more as a reflection and an extension of herself than as a support – with her legs crossed and her index and middle fingers slowly incising a long cigarette that accentuated her small, slim build.  She’d waive the cigarette back in conversation, and sometimes throw her head back in laughter, but her posture always held firm and her elbow always seemed to hold the chair’s arm under subjection. Her smoke smelled like elegance and hazed the fading and cracked binding on the red and tan and black books behind her.

My father was a raconteur, but my aunt was more of a conversationalist.  She would turn her head from my parents to my siblings and me and ask us questions with a frankness that serves adults better than the sugary tone many of them employ with children.  Our answers would elicit a comment from her that would get the adults laughing, but we never felt ashamed or excluded.  We were happy to sit on the antique, Oriental carpet and play with the wooden toys she and my uncle favored for our cousins.  If my generation had been raised on my aunt instead of on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, it would have had a better inkling of what an interviewer and conversationalist could be.

The old house sits on a large tract of land down several country roads from my uncle’s law practice at the county seat.  After paying our respects to the adults for a suitable length of time, my two siblings and I would reacquaint ourselves with the antique-filled first floor, and then, with our cousins, we’d head outside.  At some point we’d always see Floe and Sammy.  Floe worked in the house and Sammy worked outside in the fields, helping with the garden and keeping things in repair.  I don’t remember ever seeing Floe and Sammy together, but my siblings and I liked both of them immensely.

One day, when my brother and I were both teenagers, we became conscious that our conversations with Floe always started and ended with the same subject: our growth.  My mother would take us through the narrow kitchen blocked entirely by Floe, who was either ironing or, more often, baking.  “Ummm-mmm!  My how you grown, child!  My how you grown!” Floe would say to us, wagging her face at us with a hand on her hip but sometimes just glancing at us out of the corner of her eye as she prodded the family’s dinner around on a skillet.

Sammy was also genial – a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows – but our conversations with him were equally limited.  I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives and pointed questions, responsess like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.”  My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit.  I grew up addressing all adults by their titles and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names.  I don’t think I addressed them at all.

Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter.  He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words.  His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.

When my brother and I were in our late teens, we speculated that the pay must have been pretty good for Floe and Sammy to act the way they did, and we suspected that they shed their roles with my cousins’ family when they were off duty.  But we didn’t know for sure.  We never really talked to them.  They didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything that animated us: news or politics or sports, for instance.  Looking back on it, I would have been surprised, I think, to have stumbled on Floe with her feet up, reading the newspaper at my aunt’s place, even though she lived there for a while, or to have seen Sammy in front of my relatives’ black-and-white TV.  In fact, I would have been shocked to have caught him in the house at all, now that I think about it.

To answer the question, I’m not exactly sure how my aunt came up with her account of slavery, but I know that she was a real historian and that she was certain of her facts.

4.  Do you believe the account is an accurate portrayal of slavery? Why or why not?

I first read this account in history class as a seventh-grader in the Newport News public school system.  It’s funny reading it now, word for word, because none of the wording surprises me but only bolsters my recollection of what I was taught.  I remember the general points from my textbook: the slaves were happy, happy to work hard, appreciative of their masters for taking the risk and the responsibility out of life – appreciative in a way children never are – and disdainful of the far-away, brooding political storm that centered on them in the abstract.

I don’t think I believed it or disbelieved it.  I remember wondering about it.  I remember trying to put myself in the slaves’ shoes for a little while in our all-white classroom at Riverside Elementary, not a half mile from the James River near its mouth.  My aunt’s words seem to paint a picture in my head of how the slaves could have enjoyed a simple life of labor under the beneficent hands of their masters.  But (I remember thinking) who would want to always do what someone else said?

Maybe they were dumb, I remember reasoning.  Too dumb to survive on their own or too dumb not to know it was not much of a life.  We had two blacks among our four classrooms of seventh graders when I was there, a girl and a boy.  I wasn’t friends with either of them, but both were popular and seemed smart enough.  They seemed to act like white children, mostly, except for certain phrases they would use as well as a manner of speech that ran counter, in some critical respects, to what we were learning in English.  I remember thinking how long it had been since the Civil War and wondering how much the slaves might have been like these two.

I remember my mind working on Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year before my seventh grade, on the Watts riots I saw on the news, and on the vandalism King’s assassination had occasioned in my town’s downtown, which seemed as far from home as Watts.  I thought two ways, and I had two pictures in my head – one of happy slaves and one of angry slaves.  I don’t remember either picture winning out.

I do recall reading my aunt’s textbook and concluding that slavery would not be a life that I would choose for myself.  But if the Negroes really liked it, I thought, more power to them.

5. The excerpt is from a book that was once used to teach children in Virginia about slavery. Why would a textbook want students of Virginia to believe slavery was a positive experience for slaves?

You may or may not learn your roots in history class, but you learn your place.

On rubrics and reading

On Grading like readers. I’m going over the following piece with my college comp students this week. I’m overly sanguine here about the possibility of objective readings even under the guise of a rubric, but teachers must play along.

Some of you have given me your papers for me to critique ahead of the due date. You’ll probably discover that my comments, now that I’ve graded your papers, are to some extent different from my comments then. I’d like to tell you why this is both unavoidable and good.

I hope I’m consistent with how I grade your paper. In other words, if I grade your paper one day, have a memory lapse, and grade it again another day, I hope I’d reach the same result. That’s not hard since we English teachers must use rubrics for our more important assignments.

But I think my grading of your paper with a rubric is not as helpful to you as my reading of your paper. Before I tell you why, I want to explain the difference between grading and reading. When I grade with a rubric, I am not doing the kind of reading your piece deserves. Instead, I am reading for: reading to see if your paper meets some preordained criteria. Your paper exists outside of those criteria, however, and it deserves a subjective reading.

Readers are subjective, thankfully, but rubrics, no matter how loosely they’re written, are inherently objective. The premise behind a rubric is that all teachers reading your paper would judge it the same way. Is that the way people really read, though? When you annotate a text with connections you find between it and your experiences, realizations, and previous reading, you are making explicit what your mind does when your read. Do you expect those annotations to mirror your classmate’s? Good reading is always subjective. I can be objective when I grade your paper, narrowing myself to a rubric’s strictures, but I can be only subjective when I read your paper.

Rubrics anticipate, but good writing often turns those anticipations on their heads. Shakespeare, you must know, would have gotten some bad grades using some of the finest rubrics English teachers have ever written. But, for some odd reason, I choose not to read Shakespeare with a rubric.

Because reading is subjective, my first reading of your paper is different from my second reading of it. Isn’t the difference between one’s readings of the same text the unstated assumption (the warrant) supporting every English teacher’s assignment to reread a text? The realizations, the connections, and sometimes the laughter and tears a student’s text gives me — would they be the same each time I read the text? And do you consider your writing so facile as to think that someone could exhaust all of its charms and faults in a single reading?

So I think I should model deep reading — subjective reading — when I can. I can’t make it the basis of a grade, but I can make it the basis of my celebration of your work and part of the basis of my suggestions for your subsequent drafts and for your writing in general. I just won’t often look terribly consistent if I do it to the same text twice.

The bad teacher

3PictureHelenKellerCenturyCoverA teacher must be selfish. While her classroom must be something other than her private laboratory, it must also be her private laboratory. In fact, her classroom cannot be something other than her private laboratory – something dynamic and good other than her private laboratory, I mean – unless it is also her private laboratory.

She must be selfish not because she will be more dynamic for it. I’m done with dynamic teachers: learning is dynamic enough. She must be selfish because she must be awake.

This past summer I learned more about why I teach metaphor the way I do. I do not say that I learned how to teach metaphor better. Being awake with my students over past few years taught me that. The three graduate composition courses I took this summer were flexible enough for me to walk my own intellectual paths, and one of my paths was metaphor.

Here’s what I learned, teaching. I want my students to write with metaphors, particularly implied metaphors. Stealing from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, I ask my students to list ten nouns in one column and ten cooking verbs in another. They combine them. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth” is one of Goldberg’s combinations (87 – 88).

I want to show my students why metaphors work, so I break down how I think we experience them. Take Paul’s aphoristic implied metaphor “the letter kills.” First we’re in shock: letters can’t kill. Then we see that the writer speaks metaphorically. We’re relieved and open to him again, and we make the connection between sign and signified. The final stage of experiencing metaphor is meditative and results in our greater understanding of the metaphor’s subject – in this case, the written word.

I illustrate my three stages of metaphor with a viewing of “Metaphor,” a British ad for Tango, the European soft drink. An office manager watches as his Tango-sipping employee gets hosed by a fireman, cooled by a palm-wielding Polynesian, and dumped with ice by an Eskimo. She explains to the manager that the fireman, Polynesian, and Eskimo are “not really here. They’re just a metaphor.” She takes another sip, and the three repeat their actions, just as we’d reread a metaphor at this stage. By the end of the ad, the manager and the viewer have, presumably, a greater appreciation for Tango’s capacity for refreshment by having gone through the three stages of experiencing metaphor.

I learned this summer that, as Ann Berthoff puts it, “meanings are not elements but relationships” (Berthoff, Sense 36). She means that metaphors, analogies, allegories – something and something else, however they relate – are how we learn anything (Berthoff, Mysterious 129 – 131). The novelist and theorist Walker Percy equates metaphor with naming and therefore with the onset of language in general. He discovers “the delta factor” – the way we humans learn – from Helen Keller’s transformational moment at the pump house, the moment when she associates the water flowing over her hand with the word “water” that Anne Sullivan spells onto her other hand. Keller is seven, and her more-self-conscious age allows her the metacognition most two-year-olds can’t muster, though they learn speech the same way. Percy goes so far as to claim that Keller discovers what separated us from the beasts long ago: “the spark jumped, language was born, the brain flowered with words, and man became man” (Percy 42). Keller discovers how we make meaning, and how we became human.

Bertoff and Percy help me see how I often make meaning. I feel my way toward it in the classroom. Then I read and write to understand what I start to teach.

They also help me see what I’ve been up to these last few years. In teaching metaphor, I’ve been unconsciously extending to education what I had been learning in other fields. Over the past decade I had learned to put the reader at the center of Constitutional, biblical, and literary interpretation. Without the reader and the experience and spirit that animate him, we misconstrue text. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. We make meaning; we don’t receive it predigested from our teachers. The reader is the fulcrum of meaning-making, as Louise Rosenblatt posits in her transactional theory, and not an afterthought, as in New Criticism and structuralism. In the classroom, I had felt my way to how metaphor models this understanding. This summer, I merely fleshed it out.

The classroom had been my lab, then, and the papers I wrote this summer were my belated lab reports.

You can see Berthoff working the same way I prefer to – classroom as personal lab – but in the other direction. She theorizes first. Then, steeped in Charles Pierce’s triadic semiotics and I. A. Richards’s triadic rhetorical theory, she writes a freshman composition textbook, Forming, Thinking, Writing, as a means of testing her theory in the classroom. Forming is credited with introducing the world to the dialectical notebook, a tool I’m using in my own dual enrollment composition class. My students are making meaning, discovering how much they have to say through their examinations of overlooked organic objects, such as plums and sprigs.

I’ve read four of Bertoff’s books, so I can see where her textbook and classroom-as-laboratory fit in her intellectual and spiritual journey.

Bertoff teaches me that even some textbooks should be selfish, like teachers. Students should hear some of their authors think (we call it “voice”), and they should watch their teachers learn. Composition teachers may wish to journal beside their students and model their messy rough drafts. They may wish to send their classroom-generated writing to publishers, just as they may ask their students to do with their own writing.

Our selfishness in our professional practice can make us seem somewhat unprofessional, I admit. But I think one can be too professional. I practiced law before I began teaching, and sometimes I was my most professional in my sleep. On three or four occasions, I counseled in my sleep. I don’t mean that I was in bed asleep, dreaming. I was in my law office with my eyes open but lulled by my own voice into dreaming. Twice I fell asleep telling clients what to expect at their depositions and how, in general terms, to answer questions there. I’ve always wondered if those clients knew that I was talking to them in my sleep. My advice was necessary, honed, and rote. And I was learning nothing.

Teachers, like lawyers, must be conscious. Perhaps they should be conscious first of what teaching school has the misfortune to supersede – apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is the better model because we can teach only in the context of our struggle to work at our calling. Apprenticeship is the better model because we are the better models. Discipleship is at the center of apprenticeship because our struggle is at the center of our callings.

Classrooms are inherently silly.1 They don’t call, and they betray no signs of a calling. Teachers return each August to redeem them a little, to cover over the walls and the confinement. To rearrange the desks, at least. And many of them do silly work for maybe twenty hours a week as the price for spending at least twice as many hours on the important parts of teaching, including the selfish part.

I’ve heard an administrator call some teachers selfish, teachers who resist teaching in lockstep, teachers who lose sleep at night, working extra hours to keep from teaching in their sleep. They know that covering material for the sake of tests leads, metaphorically speaking, to dropping the fish predigested into their babies’ beaks. It is education completely stripped of apprenticeship. It is a bland, dyadic misapprehension of learning, and of what it means to be human.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Print.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Helen Keller, 1880-1968.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

“Tango Clear Metaphor TV Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

  1.  My view about a classroom’s inherent silliness may seem to denigrate my own profession. It doesn’t. I’ve come to believe that we teachers can’t teach well unless we know what we’re up against. Worse than the current public policy and budget cuts is the classroom – or, rather, what the classroom symbolizes and reinforces. Our educational system trains students to act like consumers receiving an “educational package” and not like sovereign individuals discovering things for themselves, to use Percy’s distinction. The classroom’s four walls are part of the package: the sonnet, for instance – Percy’s example closest to my own field – “is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators for some reason believe to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins – these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves” (57). We struggle against a centuries-old mindset reinforced by the classroom – the environment and the system. Our struggle is to guide a student into his or her own sovereignty. Someone making a genuine discovery “is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He . . . could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife” (57 – 58). But a student’s sovereignty over his or her own education is impractical, given our educational system, as well as essential. Thankfully, some districts and schools, including my own – and, more importantly, a great many teachers – are taking steps to avoid, to an extent permitted by the environment, “the educator’s direct presentation of the object” (59). Teachers may wish to model genuine discovery as a necessary but insufficient step toward returning sovereignty to students; hence, the personal laboratory.

Grading like readers

At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment.  The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.

– From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler

Last week Meagan[1], one of my struggling ninth-grade writers, wrote a compelling essay on the subject of personal tragedy. The essay transitioned smoothly among narrative, analytical, and expository modes, and the command of language was strong enough to convey energy and deep thought. I don’t know much about Meagan’s family background, but over the course of the year I have received enough signals to piece together that something in her upbringing has been particularly painful. She alluded to this pain briefly in her essay in an effective and unaffected way, and she was careful not to become explicit about it. That care, in this first salvo fired on behalf of her freedom, only added to her essay’s force. Even in skirting the issue, Meagan had found ways to use language to better understand her experience and to record a kind of desideratum regarding it.

I thought about Meagan’s essay when reading Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” which describes her years teaching basic writing to “ghetto students,” inner-city adults whose journey into writing coincided with – or perhaps hastened – their journey into “a frontier of self-determination” of a personal, political, and social nature (18, 24). To Rich, a composition teacher gets across grammar, mechanics, organization, style, and the many other skills traditionally associated with her job. But Rich believes that a composition teacher also aims to “release [her students] into language” – that is, to help her students discover that “they would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them.” By way of explanation, she states the inverse by paraphrasing Simone Weil: “those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering” (26). Meagan, too, is taking small but firm steps in the direction of self-determination, and her paper benefitted from the power of those steps.

Rich understands her primary job, then, as reading her students’ writing. Putting herself in her students’ shoes, she realizes that “in order to write I have to believe that there is someone willing to collaborate subjectively, as opposed to a grading machine out to get me for mistakes in spelling and grammar” (23). This passage’s two key words for me are “collaborate” and “subjectively.” Regarding the former, literary theorist Louise M. Rosenblatt believes that literary critics and many of her fellow theorists have let the reader escape their collective peripheral vision as they’ve focused exclusively on the author and the text. Her own theory, on the other hand, centers “on the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (ix). Her ideas have given me the theoretical bottom for my understanding of the teacher’s most essential role in a writers’ workshop – that of a model reader.

Rosenblatt believes also that the reader, as a collaborator with a writer, must be subjective. The subjectivity comes through an immediate awareness and reporting of his response to the text – the kind of metacognition, then, that we train our students to do in their reader responses:

[A reader or critic] can avoid the dessicating [sic] effect of excessive abstraction by incorporating as much as possible the personal matrix within which the work crystallized. Hence my insistence that much greater concern than is usual should be accorded the “first step,” the registering or savoring of the literary transaction. Whatever the reader may later add to that original creative activity is also rooted in his own responses during the reading event. His primary subject matter is the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that he weaves between himself and the text. (136 – 137)

Of course, Rosenblatt recognizes that critics go further than their initial, subjective impressions, and I think she would agree that composition teachers also must go further: critics and teachers also have a necessarily objective response. She warns, though, against subsuming the subjective response into a fully text-oriented, objective response:

The “close reading” of the New Critics centered on the text. The transactional view also assumes close attention to the pattern of signs. But it assumes an equal closeness of attention to what that particular juxtaposition of signs stirs up within each reader. (137; emphasis original)

Rich quotes Sartre to the same effect: “the literary object has no other substance than the reader’s subjectivity . . . . Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (23). Sartre and Rosenblatt believe, in other words, that people don’t write to be critiqued. They write to persuade and move the reader, and they write to be understood. Like Sartre’s collaboration model, Rosenblatt’s subjective transactional model, with its consequent avoidance of desiccation and undue abstraction, allows the reader to come out from the shadow of the professional critic. From a less theoretical perspective, it allows the reader as well as the writer to move toward their respective freedoms. Rosenblatt’s model, then, is perfect for a basic composition course and aligns well with Rich’s practice.

My first, subjective response to Meagan’s essay involved wonder and, eventually, tears. Against the backdrop of my reading experience, her essay’s academic context wasn’t irrelevant, but it stood out to me at that moment as tangential, even cold; her writing was her second draft of the culminating essay assigned for a yearlong, inquiry-based-learning project. Early in the academic year, all high school honors students in our district select or create a “big question” and, throughout the year, examine the course’s texts through their chosen question’s lens. From an administrative standpoint, the essay assignment is our district’s answer to a relatively new state requirement: a district school system may allow English honors students to earn a half-point bump of their grade point averages only if the students complete an assignment that demonstrates the honors courses’ rigor relative to the district’s academic English courses. For the final draft, which counts as half the student’s final exam, a student’s essay is graded using a district-wide rubric by an anonymous English teacher who is not permitted to be her own teacher.

In anticipation of the final draft’s requirement, I used the district’s rubric in assessing Meagan’s second draft. Of course, this formal assessment based on the rubric didn’t begin to express my reaction to the paper as a reader. After I had read and graded her essay, I spoke with Meagan about how her paper had interested and moved me, and she took the compliments with genuine excitement. She asked me specific questions about what I had found to be powerful in her writing, and I answered her questions in detail. I had lots of suggestions for revising her essay for its final draft, but I left those in writing on the draft’s electronic version. Despite the suggestions, she had scored well on that second draft under the rubric’s categories. She approached her final draft with a resolve to make it even better than her second draft.

TheRubricA rubric’s necessarily canned response, as Maja Wilson points out, is the antithesis of Rosenblatt’s engaged reader: “Instead of emerging from what Louise M. Rosenblatt would call the transaction between an individual reader and text, the feedback offered by a rubric made bypassing that interaction all too easy” (63). Wilson finds that most rubrics don’t place value on things that matter in Rosenblatt’s transaction, such as risk-taking and voice. Rewriting rubrics to include better or more subjective values, however, only makes the rubric’s insult to the reader-writer relationship stand out more:

Writing rubrics to include risk-taking or promise didn’t help matters much since not every paper needed to meet all of my values about writing: while Krystal’s writing forged new ground, Felicity was a more traditional thinker and I didn’t think it fitting to hold her writing to the same set of values demonstrated by Krystal’s writing. The standardized criteria didn’t capture the nuances of students’ writing. More importantly, I found that my values shifted as students approached writing in new ways and we talked about their work and purposes. (Id.)

What’s an alternative to rubrics? Something straight out of Rosenblatt is in order, something that involves an awareness of ourselves as model readers collaborating with writers who need them. Wilson suggests that “we make ourselves transparent as we read – that we pay attention to what goes on in our minds and try to put our reactions and questions and wonderings and musings and connections and images into words – that we give students the gift of a human response. We are, after all, their audiences, while a piece of paper is not” (63 – 64). Humanity can replace paper. Conferences and revisions can replace bad marks. And we can still assess for specific, formative matters of grammar, syntax, usage, craft, and the like. Summative work, however, should be read by readers qua readers.

I don’t blame myself or my fellow English teachers for rubrics as long as we have looked into the matter, registered our complaints, and done what we can do to minimize rubrics’ negative influence. It’s hard to blame the teachers; after all, it cannot be said that rubrics are for the convenience of English teachers since they spend far too many hours grading with or without rubrics. Instead, rubrics help districts and states get away with sky-high writer-to-writing instructor ratios and help them also perpetuate the myth that, even in the English classroom, all assessments must be quantifiable to be qualitative. Rubrics also perpetuate the related notion of an objective standard for good writing with its usually unstated warrant that objectivity is preferable to subjectivity. Paulo Freire’s ethical pedagogy, in contrast, was founded on the reality and superiority of subjectivity: “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings. I never was able to be an adherent of the traits that falsely claim impartiality or objectivity” (Freire 22). Rubrics as a genre make the kind of false claims that Freire eschewed.

If one admits, for the sake of argument, to an objective writing standard, one must also deny any writing a subjective reading. “It’s possible,” Alfie Kohn points out, “to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things” (13). When teachers agree on what a paper must have and look at no other attribute with which it may present, they are refusing to read that paper on its own terms.

Rubrics therefore perpetuate the idea that a text can be read only one way and is, consequently, subject to a single standard. The rubric’s poor example, therefore, helps to keep poor readers reading poorly. How can we encourage students to explore our chosen texts if our exploration of their texts ends in facile objectivity before it even starts? Part of fostering the art of reading, and the art of writing with it, is “rejecting the preoccupation with some illusory unspecifiable absolute or ‘correct’ reading or ideal reader” (Rosenblatt 140), the notion of a false absolute that rubrics tend to perpetuate no matter how subjectively their cells are written.

Despite any rubric’s reassuring, pseudo-mathematical claim to objectivity, teachers often find that even the same paper graded with the same rubric receives two different – sometimes widely different – scores from two different teachers. A few days ago I received Meagan’s final draft back from the committee that had graded it. The teacher assigned to her essay gave it the lowest possible mark. The mark was without explanation – each of us graded all day and didn’t have time to give feedback – but I have no reason to doubt that the grade was the teacher’s honest attempt at applying the rubric to Meagan’s essay.

In a writers’ workshop, a teacher must model not only writing but also, and just as importantly, reading. Deep revision – and therefore good writing – comes only from someone else’s deep reading. Young writers need deep readers. If a teacher can model the deep reading of a student’s writing, she will, in so doing, tend to help the student grow to give the same close attention to the teacher’s selected texts. Though I’ve never heard anyone else express this relationship, a teacher’s transactional and initially subjective reading of student writing is the foundation for teaching students to read like writers.


Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Print.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble with Rubrics.” English Journal 95.4 (2006): 12-15. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Fourth ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 12-26. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 62-66. Print.

[1] Not my student’s real name.


“Because you haven’t lived.”

– a friend on why writing was not coming easily for me

Thursday, as I walked the aisles, a kid asked an odd question: had I any lead? He raised his mechanical pencil and, by way of explanation, clicked it vainly.

I walked to my cart. When I returned, I held before him the same pencil, down to its bright, green plastic barrel — a Pentel Twist-Erase Click 0.7, PD 277. He reached for it, but I opened it and instead gave him two leads. He opened his, too, smiling.

I asked him, as the class finished its freewrite, if he had found that the eraser retracted into the barrel as he rubbed it against the paper, but he didn’t know. There hadn’t been much to erase.

I’m writing this post with a black version of the same pencil — my home version, perhaps no older than my student’s. I hope I don’t lose it. I want to find out if its eraser, once you have to start twisting it out, retracts with use, too. If it doesn’t, then my school one may be an aberration and I’ve found my pencil.


Photo “Palimpsest” by waterboard. Used by permission.

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

Preschool suspensions

I don’t think the New York Times‘s “outrage” over preschool suspensions or the implementation of its suggestions found in today’s editorial will amount to much. I submitted this comment:

I wonder if the inappropriate discipline of preschoolers is in part due to, and not counter to, what the editorial board describes as “the very mission of early education, which is to promote school readiness.” I hear in this standard mission statement a sickening preparation of children for institutionalization. Compare this “prep school” notion of early education with, say, Montessori’s: “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers… At no other age has the child a greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.” Instead of preparing the youngest children for school, then, we should prepare schools for the youngest children. I don’t believe Montessori had to suspend anyone despite teaching children from some of the poorest families in Italy. Once we stop putting the cart before the horse and begin to guide with understanding the youngest among us in their education, we’ll find that preschool suspension issues will evaporate.

Trompement: Making the grade

[This] is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a racecourse, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Kindle Locations 2678-2683)

To teach literature as if it were some kind of urbane trade, of professional routine, is to do worse than teach badly. To teach it as if the critical text were more important, more profitable than the poem, as if the examination syllabus mattered more than the adventure of private discovery, of passionate digression, is worst of all.

George Steiner, Language and Silence (page 67)

And yet perhaps, after all, it is better for a country that its seats of learning should do more to suppress mental growth than to encourage it. Were it not for a certain priggishness which these places infuse into so great a number of their alumni, genuine work would become dangerously common. It is essential that by far the greater part of what is said or done in the world should be so ephemeral as to take itself away quickly; it should keep good for twenty-four hours, or even twice as long, but it should not be good enough a week hence to prevent people from going on to something else. No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it. There can be no doubt that this is what our academic bodies do, and they do it the more effectually because they do it only subconsciously. They think they are advancing healthy mental assimilation and digestion, whereas in reality they are little better than cancer in the stomach.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon (Collected Works of Samuel Butler, Kindle Locations 2953-2961)


Above: Karl Popper

Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.