Lit In America Part One

So: literacy is the key in fighting the power; or the key to oppressing the insufficiently literate. It’s funny how power flows along two paths, maybe more. This does explain the obsessive focus of the current regime on standardized testing. While sounding as if they want “no child left behind,“ I think it is more an attempt to destroy the public education system, because it is easier to control the ignorant. “Although in principle literacy is a foundation of American democracy it is in practice a troublesome source of inequity and disequilibrium in the administration of justice. Knowing how to read enhances political and economic rights, whereas not knowing how to read diminishes them.” (Brandt 2001, p. 47) Several years ago when this idea of the destruction of the public education system first popped into my waking life, I dismissed it as dangerously conspiratorial; and since I have had a couple of long friendships implode due to their being consumed pod-people-like by conspiracy theories, I am extremely leery when my own thinking drifts in that direction. Yet I see it stated fairly explicitly in much of the reading I have been doing in the last six months, “The knowledge that the elite’s control may be their strength but it also constitutes their vulnerability. Saul says of the elite’s that the ‘possession, use and control of knowledge have become their central theme-the theme song of their expertise.’ He(Saul) believes that ‘their power depends not on the effect with which they use that knowledge but on the effectiveness with which they control its use.” (Saul 1992, p. 8 as cited in Crotty, 2003 p.113) This would also explain the turn in what constitutes “knowledge,” especially in education, where only replicable positivist research is now being funded by the federal government. Science, which is not as exact as the myth perpetuates, can make us all into fact filled automatons which are easier to control because we are not taught to think on our own or accept our own authority as equal to the credentialized monolith. An ironic statement as I make an attempt to become a part of the credentialized monolith with this doctoral program.

Popping Off

I have never really had a problem with using pop culture in the classroom. I also am a strong advocate for “high” culture in the classroom. Any thing that gets a student to read, to start to analyze and reconfigure the world through text, is a good thing. I allow (quite magnanimous of me I know) my students to read whatever they wish to read as long as it is a book: that includes Inyashu as well as Stephen King and Jane Austen. Personally I would rather they read Inyashu than King, but then I have an unreasonable bias towards King since I read once that he had separate rooms in his house for drafting, revising, novels and screenplays. I privilege “high literature” explicitly poetry, through my use of it in mini-lessons and free response prompts at the beginning of class, but my students choose the book they are reading and write a response to that book at the end of class often reflecting the focus I created at the beginning of class with the “canonized” text. I think any text a student is able to read and enjoy is a step toward a better world. I would love it if all my students read “the great works,” but not all of my students are able to read them. They are difficult and often more complex than my students are able to manage. This does not mean that my students cannot think about complex issues, they manage quite well with the moral dilemmas that arise in the pop and young adult novels they choose to read. Many, after months of reading the same type of book, move to something different, sometimes even trying an “academic” book, discovering that there just might be something to these books the teacher wants them to read.
I’m not sure just how intense the anti-pop culture crowd is in its hunt to suppress the interests of the student’s literacies. Most teachers I have worked with over the years will do and allow anything in order to get their kids reading. The only elitist attitude I’ve run across comes from the AP program my district has bought into: a fellow teacher likes to have his senior AP students read “A Prayer for Owen Meaney” by John Irving the summer before class begins. He was told this year that he needed to have them read a book of “literary merit.” A term I have never really been sure of its definition; after all, Dickens was a pop writer in his day. The book the district decided to go with for the senior AP students next year will be “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse. Not that this is a bad book, but if they are going to require a book they want the teacher to teach, it should be one the teacher is passionate about rather than one that is taught just because it is a “good book,” or has the patina of depth because it can be a field for symbol hunters to play in.

When I look back at my first essays in college, I wish that I had had some kind of pattern to follow. I remember we read several essays by “real” writers as examples of the kind of essay we were supposed to write that week. I don’t remember this ever being directly stated, or much of any kind of teaching about how to go about actually writing an essay. Much of the talk in class was about the topics of the various essays we read, not on how to go about writing one. The class was taught by a graduate student in English: an English major more interested in Literature than composition. Why would anyone be interested in composition after all, the professors didn’t want to teach it. Literature was the model, not writing. Writing was simply a way to show off what you knew about the literature. No one seemed to realize that the literature was written by someone. My first English advisor as an undergraduate, James Sledd, when I told him I wanted to be an English major to learn to write, said, “One does not necessarily learn to write in English.” He turned out to be prophetic.
I discover as I age and write more that writing becomes easier. Not that I find the words coming to me faster or I express myself better, but rather I do not dread having to sit down and write as much as I did when I was eighteen. I remember the first fall semester of college in 1978, I was taking freshman comp where we had to write the various “types” of writing as laid out by Kinneavy: compare and contrast, persuasive, how to, etc. the standard ‘essays” that came to dominate the testing in Texas as I became a teacher nine years later. I thought I was being tortured; I went to the undergraduate library next to the UT tower found a table near a window and painstakingly wrote out my first college essay, classifying the types of students at my high school. What I can remember about that first essay are the simplistic clichés I stitched together. The brief paragraphs comprised of short choppy sentences. I was very fond of compound complex sentences which tended to contradict themselves; I thought it made me sound smart to have a sentence with a semicolon, not realizing I had little idea how to use one. But I had been taught in high school through drill and kill methodology to write sentences with punctuation, so I put in the punctuation marks. Not with the free abandonment of Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” but not too far from the complete disregard for any kind of sense. What I had to say was secondary to getting the sentences correct. I distinctly remember worrying about how my handwriting would effect my grade. I couldn’t type well enough on an old Underwood manual typewriter (a gift from my mother to her son going off to college) to make the attempt; it would have taken me days, what with all of the tedious corrections with whiteout, to type a thousand word essay. I kept a running account of how far I had yet to go, counting the words after each sentence I wrote. Correctness, or rather how I perceived correctness to be, was the be all and end all. Did I use that word correctly? Did I use a comma where I was supposed to? How many more words do I have to write before I was through? My words, my thoughts, were frozen in fear of violating the rules of correct grammar. How did I come to this? The same way many, if not all, of our students still travel today.
I write all of this after reading the Arnetha Ball article for class: don’t most people, especially first generation college students, go through a lengthy period of composition trauma as they learn the discourse of academia? It would make sense that African-American students would use AAVE in their writing that is after all the discourse community from which they are coming. But don’t working class southern Caucasians also write from the dialect of southern working class Caucasians? Or working class Mainers ? I am not trying to reduce everything, or be condescending; but, this is one of my ongoing conflicts: as a comp teacher . . . do I teach my students (a very cultural and ethnic and economic diverse community) the language of power and money, thereby tacitly oppressing their dialects, or do I work with them foregrounding the problems inherent in language, thus running the risk that I will not help them on the high stakes testing or in the mainstream academic world? The Sweeter the Berry article gives me hope that allowing my students to use “their own language” is the way. “If one does not laugh, then it is not the way” Lao-tze.

Spring Break is a day away. My students are anxious and tired. My seniors are ready to graduate, but still have ten weeks to go. My freshman, a few days ago, signed up for their sophomore classes. Some have come to the conclusion that they have failed for the year; for some in multiple classes, so they have stopped even the pretense of work. I have tried to convince a few of the freshman to take the pre-ap English class offered by the district. Not because I think the classes are all that great, or will help them all that much, but they need to be with other students who read (not necessarily for class) and think about more than the latest Nike offerings or who can beat whom in basketball. I think the students get more from each other than I can ever offer them on my own. Too often we teachers are so caught up in our own chatter we forget to listen to what the students have to say. They really are smarter than we give them credit for. Yes, they have a hard time decoding the texts we deem important, but that does not mean they are unable to decode the complex sets of “texts” they encounter every day in the class, the halls, and in their worlds. They can read the “texts” they are familiar with because these are the texts in which they are immersed. For many of my students (yes, this is anecdotal, but does that invalidate it?), they have read more books since the end of August than they have read during their entire career in high school English classes. This is sad. After spring break I change everything in my classes: we start Shakespeare’s 12th Night something they will begin with dread, but end up enjoying if my past classes are any indication. But for now, spring break is a day away.

The other morning in class one of my football boys, who recently had reconstructive surgery on his knee because of injuries playing, picked a dime off the floor and pointed to a large tablet hanging on the wall. “Look Mr. N, A dime!” Then he laughed. Before Christmas I had written on the tablet the poem from the Ted Kooser/Jim Harrison book which reads: “Sometimes all it takes to be happy is a dime on the sidewalk.” It was an epiphanal moment for me, and I’d be willing to bet for him as well. He had been brooding lately because his football coach had told him he was not big enough nor good enough to play football in college. He thought it to be wrong for a teacher to be so discouraging. He had been rather negative and gloomy as a result. Then he found a dime, and the poem he had been casually reading for weeks clicked in his head and he had to share it. He had made a connection, a dendrite grew.
I bring this up because of the discussion that came up in my doctoral class tonight. Is it ok to try not to bring your ideology into the classroom blatantly? I know that it is impossible not to bring it in. One’s ideology is always present whether one is up front about it or not. However, I also think that part of our purpose, my ideology if you will, is to allow space for the students to discover, construct, define what their beliefs are. As a teacher, I have to not be the moral authority telling them what is right or wrong with their world view, because to do otherwise would be to hegemonic ally impose my belief onto them. Often for that to occur, I have to listen to what I consider to be repulsive thoughts: ranging from neo-fascist interpretations stemming from Ayn Rand, to poorly interpreted versions of Christianity, to unintended slams against teachers. They are after all children. I could argue with them, or simply tell them they are subhuman for thinking such neanderthal thoughts, but that would do nothing except cause them to dig deeper into their beliefs. I try to create a language rich environment in my class. My students write about their lives and their concerns. Their ideas are half-formed most of the time, but it is not ethical for me to tell them what their ideas should be. They invest so much of themselves into their writing and are very rarely able to separate themselves from the words on the page. I try to “improve” them in subtler ways, by simply exposing them to the opportunity to engage through words with their lives in ways that are meaningful to them. The texts I select to use focus on themes around love, beauty, responsibility, and transformational experiences (my ideology, as middle class and sappy as it is), but I do not belabor the point nor ask them to agree with me. I point out figurative language, rhetorical devices, or just nice sounds in the use of the writer’s language. Anything else they get from it is just a dime on the sidewalk.

Today I am frustrated with my classes. My students are becoming more and more reticent about reading. A new student entered my zero hour from some Christian private school. She was shocked by my class. Not the freedom to read and write what she wished, but that I wasn’t going to teach: I wasn’t going to stand at the front of the class and lecture, what Robert Scholes in Textual Power described as the teacher showing off at the front of the room. What I was shocked by was the arrogance of a child who after being in my class for less than an hour had already made assumptions about the “quality” of my teaching. I was already in a foul mood from dealing with the students who had not brought anything to read, who rapped while they were suppose to be answering a quick write, who blew off the reading journal; the new student’s comments were the last straw. Some days I hate teaching; today was one of those days. The day to day managing of behavior is so wearing; it is amazing that any academic learning takes place at all. If it ever does.
My wife and I were discussing why we weren’t happy on our walk yesterday. We have most of the trappings of a soft middle class middle age American life: two ‘professional’ jobs, a comfortable house on the park, cars, electronics, a house full of books. Yet, we are dissatisfied with what we do. Lisa went to a gathering of neighborhood women Saturday evening because she felt that if she made an effort to be friendly then maybe friendships could develop. But at the event, the women sat around talking about their scrapbook projects, babies, and other people. Lisa felt that she was stuck listening to the adults of the old Charlie Brown cartoons, “Blah, Blah, Blah.” This reminded me of sitting in the English workroom eating lunch last week. One of the teachers remarked on some celebrity who was dating another. I casually asked, “How do you know this stuff?” And was immediately reprimanded by another teacher, “It’s popular culture, that’s all. I know it isn’t intellectual but . . “ I felt as if I had said something personally attacking her. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Small minds discuss people, good minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas,” I’m tired of the swamp of people and events. Is to want more elitist? Was Mao right to send the intellectuals out to work on the farms?

I’m out of my classroom today to attend a positive behavior team workshop. Last year instead of griping all the time about my demon freshman I volunteered to be on the PBS committee; as a result, I get to sit through day long meetings once a semester and learn about campus wide policies that can help improve behavior. When I taught middle school, our school went through the training for this, and it was effective because everyone on the campus bought into it. But the high school just sends a team. We have broken into sub committees, a few things have been implemented in a half-hearted way, and nothing seems to change. How do you get the faculty, when it is so large, to buy into any school wide program? A few months ago, the curriculum head for English came over to the High School and ran a workshop for the whole faculty on how to integrate, in just a small way, writing into non-English classes. There was great resistance. I often feel as if I am in some weird episode of the Twilight Zone except there is no Rod Serling to come in with a moral at the end, because there is no end.

I spent the weekend in Houston at the TCTELA convention. It was great. Once again I realize how bad I am as a teacher. There is so much to do, so many things I could be doing better. It is depressing. Maybe It is just the day. I read in the Austin-American that today is the day that most people will be at their low point for the year. I did remind myself in the middle of one of the better presentations I attended given by Valerie Taylor, that I do do much of what she talked about: I just need to refocus what I do do. All these “do’s” remind me of an old joke, which I will end this brief entry with because I have too much reading to catch up on:

Zen: do not be
Sartre: be not do
Sinatra: do be do be do

Last Thursday as I sat eating my frozen vegetarian dinner, she came into the English workroom with a multiple choice test in her hand. “I have a question Kelly,” she said as she shoved the test over my shoulder, pointing at one of the questions. “Is this correct, ‘could’ here?” The part of the sentence she was pointing to was not part of the possible answers on the question of the test, which are usually underlined; it was just part of the sentence. “My students always ask about this kind of thing.” A statement I doubted but refrained from commenting on.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” I said taking a last bite of my lunch, “I’m not a grammarian.’
“Aren’t you an English teacher? How do you get to pick and choose what you teach?” she asked pursuing me as I stood up from the table.
“I’m a composition and reading teacher,” I said throwing the remains of my frozen dinner in the trash.
“How do you teach them the rules if you don’t teach grammar?”
“Every study since nineteen hundred has had one thing in common: there is no connection between the teaching of grammar and the improvement of writing,” a piece of trivia I picked up at a National Writing Project site in 1987.
At that point I felt as if a pit bull had latched onto my arm. My colleague latched onto the argument I had not been involved in, or rather avoided as futile, for at least ten years: Why is the teaching of grammar irrelevant?
I have been teaching for seventeen years. Before I hired on to my first teaching job, I attended the Hill Country Writing Project. The first year I taught, what I had learned in the writing project provided me with a curriculum: my students wrote, and wrote and wrote. They still do. If students are to learn to write, they must write; if they are to learn to read, they must read, not drilled on the subjunctive or read to either by the teacher or round robin as a class. The students must do what you want them to do in order for them to learn how to do it. As in the old Nike slogan, “Just do it.” Maurine Stuart writing about zen said, “The practice is what you throw yourself into. Unconditionally. The practice is the teacher. Your practice is your teacher.” The real teacher for the students is through the reading and writing the students do on their own. The teacher, the trained adult in the room, should be the facilitator to the student, providing the opportunities and the help the students need as they read and write. Lucy Caulkin wrote that we are teaching the writer not the writing. Teachers who still focus on grammar and the “correct” way to write, speak, and interpret what is read are not focusing on the child in the room; they do not need students to teach what they teach, for even in an empty room the lessons would be the same.

So it goes.


I have decided to try and keep up with this space. I found it useful and I enjoy reading those of you still posting (Ann and Peggy thank you). I read a book of four lectures by Richard Rorty called Achieving Our Country right before Christmas. Rorty is a contempory philosopher who admires Dewey. He had some interesting perspectives on politics in America. The four lectures were published in 1998 so it was before 9/11 and the current administrations abuse of the horrific event, but after reading Rorty what the Repubs have done makes sense in a twisted kind of way. Rorty claims that one of the problems is that the left abandoned politics in the early sixties for cultural issues, which has made us all a bit nicer to one another, but has not acheived any real political gains like the ones that occured in the first sixty years of the twentieth century, like women voting, minimum wage, child labor laws. The book, because Rorty mentions Dewey a lot, has made me start reading Democracy and Education by Dewey. I hope to have it done before the spring semester starts. So far I find it interesting because many of the ideas that were brought up in both of the fall classes echo Dewey. Not directly but they are there, and it was written in 1916.

I also read a book by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison called “Braided Creek” a series of haiku-like poems the two men wrote back and forth to each other. Here is one:

Sometimes all it takes
to be happy
is a dime on the sidewalk.