12 Winters Blog

Why e-learning should continue this fall

Posted in July 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2020

I understand why so many people want students to return to their classrooms this fall, along with their teachers and coaches and all the other school personnel who make education possible. I understand because I’m one of those people. I’m entering my 37th year teaching high school English, and nothing would make me happier than to sit down with a group of enthusiastic students and have a boisterous discussion about Macbeth or Beowulf, or to hear my speech students inform their classmates and me about their most beloved topics.

I miss the students. I miss talking to them, and teaching them, and making them laugh every so often. I miss it all.

Nevertheless, after staying abreast of the latest developments regarding COVID-19, and thinking through myriad scenarios, I’ve come to the conclusion that having in-school attendance in August would be foolhardy. The risks are too great, and the logistical challenges are too overwhelming.

Even though here in Illinois we were largely successful in flattening the curve — the mantra in the early days of Covid — we certainly didn’t vanquish the virus. Some of our neighboring states, like Iowa and Missouri, did very little to contain the spread. Locally there are people testing positive for the virus, and we’ve had several deaths in our community. Because of our early success in dealing with Covid, we’ve been moving from one reopening phase to the next like clockwork — but the reopening itself is due to economic and political pressure. It’s not based on the best advice of medical science.

As a country, we are losing our battle with the virus. Nationwide there are nearly 3 million confirmed cases, and we’ve recorded over 130,000 deaths (many epidemiologists believe our numbers are under-reported because in late 2019 and early 2020 we were not identifying people with COVID-19, and attributing their illnesses and deaths to other causes). I believe I had the virus in mid-March, just as our state was shutting down, but I was neither a movie star nor a professional athlete so I couldn’t get a confirming test. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly without medical assistance. Weeks later an antibody test came back negative, but the antibody tests are unreliable for several reasons.

Having in-person school this fall would be a logistical nightmare. The one-two punch that the CDC has been recommending from the beginning — wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart — would be all but impossible to maintain in schools. Besides, recent studies have suggested social distancing isn’t very effective indoors since COVID-19 stays in the air longer and is more contagious when airborne than first believed.

To quote a recently published article, “Global experts: Ignoring airborne COVID spread risky” (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 6 July 2020): “The authors [of a recent study] said that handwashing and physical distancing are appropriate—but not sufficient—to provide protection against respiratory microdroplets, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor environments such as those that have been at the center of several ‘superspreading’ events.”

I’m familiar with “poorly ventilated indoor environments,” more affectionately known as classrooms in my world.

The researchers concluded: “In order to control the pandemic, pending the availability of a vaccine, all routes of transmission must be interrupted.”

All routes of transmission must be interrupted. If we open schools this August, even in some modified way (with alternating days of attendance, for example), we will be providing countless routes of transmission. Even with our best efforts to enforce the wearing of masks and keep students as far apart as possible, there are going to be routes of transmission. In classrooms certainly. There are also buses, cafeterias, locker rooms, restrooms, hallways.

If a student tests positive for Covid, or if they find out they’ve been exposed, what then? What if that exposure was, say, on a Sunday and it’s now Wednesday when they find out their situation? Every student, teacher, custodian, cook that they’ve been around — should they be quarantined? Tested? What will that quarantining mean for their families?

Throughout my career, teaching at various schools, we’ve been figuring out ways to encourage students to come to school no matter what, with rewards and punishments. The goal has always been perfect attendance. Now we must reverse course and tell students to stay away if they have even the hint of a Covid symptom. Fall allergy season is fast approaching. Farmers are about to harvest their fields. Many, many students suffer from seasonal allergies and many suffer from asthma. From August to December every year they have coughs and runny noses and dripping sinuses.

How will we know if their Kleenex addiction is an allergy or COVID-19? How will they?

Ask any teacher. Ask how many boxes of tissue they go through in a normal year.

And what about teachers? Nationally one-third of schoolteachers are 50 or older. I’ll be 58 in September. According to the CDC, by the end of April more than 90% of the Covid deaths in the U.S. were people 55 or older. (link) Many older teachers have chronic health issues that put them further at risk. But even younger teachers can have health issues that place them in greater jeopardy in spite of their age.

If a teacher is exposed to Covid, or tests positive, they’ll have to be out of the classroom for at least two weeks (even with no serious medical consequences). In every school I’ve taught in, most of the substitute teachers were retired teachers in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Even if they’d be willing to step in for a few weeks, should they? Should we ask them to? Is it even ethical? (After reading my post, a colleague pointed out that if substitute teachers step forward, they generally work in different buildings and for more than one district, which means subs could easily facilitate an outbreak themselves.)

I know that keeping children from going to school in person has significant drawbacks. I know it creates all kinds of obstacles for parents. Students suffer in many ways, especially perhaps special-needs students. I get it, I sympathize, and if I could I’d wave a Harry Potter-like wand and make it not so. I’d do it in a heartbeat.

In addition to nearly four decades of classroom teaching (seniors in high school predominantly), since 2016 I’ve also taught online graduate courses in a university’s MFA program. I learned that online teaching and in-person teaching are inherently different. A teacher must approach them differently, with different methods and different expectations. There’s a learning curve. It’s instinct to try to recreate your classroom curriculum in the virtual environment — to just shift everything from one to the other lock, stock and barrel.

Unfortunately, for the most part, that approach doesn’t work very well. Even for classroom veterans, online teaching requires rethinking and retooling. In order for it to be effective — to be meaningful and hopefully even enjoyable for students — requires considerable thought, investigation of online tools and platforms, development of methodology that is unique to web-based environments, and so forth.

For that matter, students have to learn to be online students, too. How they learn, how they keep track of their assignments, how they submit them, how they respond to feedback — everything is different online, and students, like teachers, will have a learning curve also.

This past March teachers in Illinois and many other states suddenly found themselves teaching online — literally with no preparation whatsoever. Teachers are professionals, and we adjusted as quickly and as best as we could — but it was far from ideal. The online teaching that students and parents experienced in March, April and May was not representative of what online teaching can be, with the requisite time to prepare.

The people who are in charge of deciding whether or not we return to the classroom in August, and, if so, under what circumstances and conditions, are under a great deal of pressure. I don’t envy them that. Various surveys and news stories have suggested that the majority of parents want their children to go back to their physical school this fall. I understand it. Like I said earlier, I want that too.

Also like I said earlier, in spite of the majority’s desire, the reality of the pandemic makes it ill-advised, even dangerous — for students, teachers, other educational personnel, students’ families, teachers’ families, the school’s community, and even the state and the country . . . even the world.

Here’s what I recommend: School this fall should be exclusively online (for all the reasons I’ve cited in this post, plus a lot more that I didn’t but could). Teachers should begin their professional duties in mid-August (or whatever their contracts dictate), and they should start the challenging and time-consuming process (if done well) of preparing for online teaching. Then have students join their online courses about mid-September. Hopefully by the end of 2020, the virus will be better contained (right now it’s skyrocketing out of control), and there will be a legitimate expectation for a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for COVID-19. Perhaps, with luck, we could resume in-class teaching in January 2021.

It may seem like a slow start to the year — having teachers begin serious preparation mid-August and bringing students into the mix mid-September — but even with an online approach there are innumerable details that must be attended to. Families, for instance, are going to need time to figure out how to make their life work if their children are not returning to the classroom in August (remember that teachers have families too). Schools must make sure they have everything they need to make online learning effective (which may require purchasing hardware, buying subscriptions, setting up platforms); and school districts need to help students have what they need at home to be successful (adequate computers, reliable web connection, etc.).

At present, the laws regarding school calendars would be problematic under the recommendation I’m making — but to my way of thinking those nuts and bolts shouldn’t supersede an approach that is best for students and all those concerned. The pandemic presents the most challenging educational situation in at least a century. Lawmakers should consider revising the rule book given these extraordinary circumstances.

I’ll reiterate that I don’t envy the people who have to make the tough decisions. I’m glad that many years ago I decided to spend my career hanging out with kids in the classroom, and leaving the big knuckle-biting decisions to others. Whatever they decide, I and every teacher will do our best to make schools safe and effective learning environments, as we always do.

We love and respect kids, and we’ll get them through this pandemic one way or another. Hopefully we’ll survive it too.

Another kind of Trump obstruction

Posted in December 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 23, 2019

On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump on two articles: abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress. The latter was largely based on Trump’s refusal to recognize the House’s authority of oversight, and therefore not turning over requests for documents while also instructing witnesses not to cooperate, including in defiance of legally issued subpoenas (in both instances, regarding documents and witnesses).

Many on the Left (and many on the Right, for that matter) felt that there should have been other articles, including an article for obstruction of justice. Based in large part on Trump’s actions as described in the little-read Mueller Report, over a thousand former federal prosecutors, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, signed an open letter that stated, “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” (link)

The purpose of this post is to suggest that there could be a third charge of obstruction added to the list, and this one may be even more insidious than the other two: obstruction of education.

While many schools across the country have used the Trump era as an opportunity for teaching real-world issues, others, especially those located in the heart of Trump country, have become complicit in Trump’s actions — both the illegal ones and the unseemly ones — by not allowing teachers to discuss Trump and Trump-related events with their students. Some have gone so far as to threaten teachers with disciplinary action for pointing out easily verifiable statements of fact about him or his administration.

While classes in history and government may seem the most obvious for discussing Trump and his policies, English, speech, journalism and other communication courses should also be sites of Trump-related analysis, as it is through the manipulation of language that the President and his allies have managed to consolidate and maintain support among nearly half the country (but well beyond half in Trump country).

Perhaps the chief way that the commander-in-chief has retained his followers is through the promulgation of misinformation (i.e. lies). According to The Washington Post, whose fact-checkers have maintained a running list throughout Trump’s presidency, as of Dec. 10, 2019, he had told 15, 413 “untruths.” What is more, the number of false statements has been accelerating, and in 2019 he had made more false claims than in the previous two years. (link)

Between untrue tweets, false statements to the press during his frequent White House lawn gaggles, and utterances to his favorite personalities on Fox News, Trump and the Republican Party have been able to construct an alternate reality that paints Trump as a heroic figure standing against a deep-state conspiracy. Anyone who attempts to cut through the fog of misinformation to reveal a truer picture — journalists, activists, teachers — is a co-conspirator with the deep state.

Never mind that most of Trump’s misdeeds — including the impeachable ones — have been stated or acted out in public. In a downright Orwellian moment, Trump said to a group of veterans on July 24, 2018: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.… Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening …” (link)

In retrospect, it is frightening to see how well Trump’s tactics have worked: his followers literally do not believe what they see and hear themselves. A key element in Trumpian obfuscation has been the erasure of the line between fact and opinion. There are no hard, verifiable facts in Trump world. Everything is an opinion; therefore, his followers can dismiss statements of fact — by educators, for instance — as mere opinions. Then Trump-supporting students, parents (and perhaps even school officials and board of education members) charge teachers with pushing their own opinions on their innocent, doe-eyed students.

Teachers who are trying to share fact-based information with their students are cast as Rasputin-like brainwashers of young minds and therefore silenced, so that even the students from families who do not support President Trump are prevented from considering the ramifications of his presidency. The topic of Trump, in any context, is taboo in the heart of Trump country — which, as it happens, tends to be in the key Midwestern states that Trump must win in 2020.

Many of the students who are prevented from pondering the Trump presidency will be voting age by Election Day in November, making the Trump taboo in the classroom another variation of voter suppression, which the GOP has been using to maintain power for years. In fact, a recently leaked audio recording suggests Republicans will be ramping up their suppression efforts in 2020. Trump adviser Justin Clark told a group of supporters on November 21, 2019, that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” (link)

Again, it is largely through propaganda via social media that the iron curtain has been erected between the distracted public and the true nature of Trump and his presidency. To that end, many schools have added courses, or at least units, that teach students how to navigate spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to help them avoid falling prey to propaganda and gaslighting. (link)

In fact, professional organizations have officially advocated for this kind of educational experience in particular. In March of 2019, the National Council of the Teachers of English released its “Resolution on English Education for Critical Literacy in Politics and Media.” It reads that the NCTE

  • promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in civic and critical literacy, going beyond basic reading comprehension to the thinking skills that enable students to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined;
  • support classroom practices that examine and question uses of language in order to discern inhumane, misinformative, or dishonest discourse and arguments;
  • prioritize research and pedagogies that encourage students to become “critical thinkers, consumers, and creators who advocate for and actively contribute to a better world”;
  • provide resources to mitigate the effect of new technologies and platforms that accelerate and destabilize our information environment;
  • support the integration of reliable, balanced, and credible news sources within classroom practices at all levels of education;
  • resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation; and
  • model civic literacy and conversation by creating a supportive environment where students can have an informed discussion and engage with current events and civic issues while staying mindful and critical of the difference between the intent and impact of their language. (link)

I will highlight in particular that English teachers are called upon to “resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.” Trump-supporting students and parents — and school officials who bow down to their pressure by not allowing teachers to discuss with their students current affairs related to President Trump (especially issues related to his impeachment) — are clearly “influenc[ing] civic discussion through … prejudicial ideas … and attempts to shame or silence.” Moreover, school officials who threaten teachers with disciplinary procedures are applying “other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.”

It would, of course, be unprofessional and unethical for teachers to employ classroom practices meant to sway young minds — like using grades to reward anti-Trump commentary and punish pro-Trump commentary, or subjecting pro-Trump students to hostility — but it seems that what Trump supporters are afraid of are facts themselves being influential, so therefore teachers must be muzzled, no matter how easily verifiable the facts are, or how publicly Trump laid bare the deeds himself.

Preventing educators from discussing Trump and Trump-related issues with their students via intimidation is textbook fascism, “forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism,” which is part of the first definition at Dictionary.com. Historically, fascists have targeted journalists, writers, educators and intellectuals in general because they share the common characteristic of trafficking in the truth — and truth is the number-one enemy of authoritarians. It must remain veiled at all cost.

A final point I will make is that parents certainly have the right to shield their children from certain topics and specific ideologies, and that is why homeschooling and private schools exist, so that parents who do not support the diverse nature of public schooling can educate their children in another manner. I have no problem with that: it is democratic; it is quintessentially American. But parents should not have the right to turn public schools into private ones by dictating curriculum and classroom practices which impact all students.

When they do (or when they are allowed to do it), it becomes yet another sort of Trump obstruction: the obstruction of education.

The New Lost Generation

Posted in October 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2019

Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase “the Lost Generation” in referring to the young Americans who emerged from the First World War years with shattered belief systems. The brutality and totality of the conflict left them confused, hopeless and directionless. The values that previous generations could believe in, could rely on, had been eviscerated and subverted by the war’s carnage.

As a high school English teacher, as someone who has been teaching predominantly seniors for the last 37 years, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the image of a “lost generation” in the context of today’s seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. These are young people who have grown up with technology, who have had their own tablets and cell phones from an early age, who have lived much of their lives on social media.

The term “social” media seems, in retrospect, ironic because in fact their technology has cut them off from each other in meaningful and fruitful ways. They tend to exist in digital enclaves of like-minded others who repeat and reaffirm their view of the world — no matter how misguided or downright false that view may be.

Their Snapchat threads and Twitter feeds are filled with trivial details about each other’s lives, and “news” regarding athletes, entertainers, and flash-in-the-pan Internet celebrities.

Most do not read books, even for school if they can help it.

But the furthest lost of this New Lost Generation are those young people who have grown up in a Trump-supporting environment, which is almost without exception a Fox News environment, a Breitbart environment, an InfoWars environment. What little awareness of the broader world they have is refracted through these deliberately distorting lenses.

young women at trump rally

They wholeheartedly believe things like . . .

Mexicans and other Hispanic people are pouring unchecked into the country through an all but nonexistent border, murdering and raping and selling drugs while also reaping the benefits of hardworking Americans’ tax dollars with free housing, healthcare, and schooling.

Muslims are terrorists, and many such Muslim terrorists have crept into the United States through the southern border, embedded among the hordes of Mexican murderers, rapists and drug dealers.

Guns are inherently good, and the more “good people” who own guns the safer other “good people” would be. Mass shootings wouldn’t take place if more good people were carrying guns — apparently all the time, everywhere.

Christians are inherently better than non-Christians. The separation of Church and State is at the root of all our country’s problems. The government needs to be more overtly Christian, and so do public schools.

Socialism is inherently bad. Only lazy people want “free stuff.” Government handouts make people weak — and increase the national debt.

Public schools and universities are filled with liberal teachers and professors who want to indoctrinate conservative young people into being liberals with their radical and dangerous leftist ideas. Discussing issues related to ideologies and public policies is a form of leftist brainwashing that must be guarded against.

Journalists are the enemy of the people. Any reporting on the President and his supporters that is negative must be false, made up for malicious purposes.

Democrats advocate ideas that are not simply wrong: they are dangerous.

Meanwhile unwavering support of Donald Trump has taught this New Lost Generation that . . .

Disrespectful, name-calling rants on Twitter are fine. Even if those rants are racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic.

Spreading misinformation and baldfaced lies is fine. In fact, opinions are the new facts for the New Lost Generation.

Infidelity to your spouse is fine. Lying about it is fine. Paying off people to conceal it is fine. Conspiring with others to keep it a secret is fine.

Women are to be used, cast aside and (if necessary) bought.

Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are fine people.

Coequal branches of government is a myth. The Executive branch, especially the President, is supreme.

Checks-and-balances is a myth. Any attempted check is a conspiracy and a coup.

The Rule of Law is a myth. Officers of the court, members of Congress, requests for information and interviews, even subpoenas are powerless and meaningless. Laughable in fact.

The Constitution is meaningless.

Majority-rule is meaningless. Democracy is a pointless concept. The minority can rule if they play dirty enough, if they band together single-mindedly enough.

Accepting and even encouraging assistance from another country — including a geopolitical enemy — to win an election is fine. Only results matter. The method is without substance or consequence.

Making money — as much money as possible, in any way possible, partnered with anyone who can make it happen — should be one’s greatest goal in life. One shouldn’t let ethics, common decency or even the law stand in one’s way of making money.

If people or the environment is harmed, even destroyed, in the service of making money, so be it.

Claiming oneself a Christian without adhering, even remotely, to values associated with Christianity is fine. Saying the word is all that matters. Actions are something else entirely.

Donald Trump will be out of office someday, but his corrupt legacy will live on exponentially via the New Lost Generation — unless they can manage to find their way and save themselves. In spite of it all, I hold out hope. I must.

(Photo found here.)

Locating Our Common Humanity through Expressive Writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 24, 2018

The following was the opening keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Language, Society and Culture in Asian Contexts, “Inclusiveness and Sustainability of Asian Societies,” Hue City, Vietnam, May 25 – 26, 2018.

Expressive Writing 14 - title frame

When the conference committee graciously invited me to speak to you, my first response was to go to the conference’s website and read about its overarching objective, which, I discovered, has to do with breaking down cultural barriers between nations. Even though I do not regularly travel between nations, it is an idea with which I am profoundly familiar. In the United States, the election of our current president has dramatized the theory that we have within our borders two distinct cultures, two dominant ideologies, two divisive world views which threaten to tear us into two separate nations. Or perhaps a better way of contextualizing the situation is to say that the wound caused by our Civil War which nearly broke us in two 150 years ago has never actually healed—and the current administration has merely made us painfully aware of what has always been true.

One can despair when one considers the seeming hopelessness of bridging political, ideological and cultural divides. Emotions run deep, and people are quick to anger and to become defensive when their worldview, when their belief system is challenged. In my classroom, I encourage my students to engage in discussions of the issues that divide them: gun control, immigration, gay rights, reproductive rights, among many others. I daresay that little progress appears to be made in convincing either side to alter their perceptions.

However, when my students access other aspects of their lives—when they move away from issues related to ideologies—they instantly have things in common. In fact, I would assert, they have everything in common. When I ask them to access their emotions—their joys, their disappointments, their frustrations, their achievements—they speak the same language, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, straight or gay, gun-owning or gun-controlling, gendered or gender-neutral, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. That is to say, when they are asked to communicate expressively, students, above all else, are human.

Expressive Writing 1Which brings me at long last to my thesis: Through expressive writing, we can locate our common humanity. In other words, what divides us tends to be the product of intellect, while what unites us is our emotional responses to the world.

Allow me to take a moment to define some terms, especially to define them as I am using them in this presentation. The key term, obviously, is “expressive” writing, by which I mean writing that explores and communicates one’s emotional reaction to a given situation, generally a situation that one has experienced personally. I am adopting and somewhat adapting concepts discussed by James Britton, who identified three writing functions: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Briefly, “transactional” writing aims to inform and/or persuade the audience through the manipulation of primary- and secondary-source material (i.e. “research”), and in this transactional mode the writer’s self all but disappears. Transactional writing, in academic settings, takes the form of analyses and research-based reports, wherein personal experience, even in the form of anecdotal evidence, is frowned upon almost to the point of nonexistence, especially in the sciences but even in the humanities.

As Jeff Park remarks in his book Writing at the Edge, transactional writing is by far the dominant mode in the academy, while expressive writing “continues to be underdeveloped” (25). Returning to James Britton’s terms, the other modes besides “transactional” are “expressive” and “poetic.” Here things can become confusing. By “poetic,” Britton means something made out of language for language’s own sake but having little to do with writers’ expressing their feelings on the subject. Riddles, puns, acrostics, limericks may be examples of poetic language use in the way that Britton is defining the term.

Generally, though, poetry refers to writing that is highly personal and expressive. Therefore, when I use the phrase “expressive writing” I am using it as synonymous with what, in the U.S., we most often term “creative writing,” which includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (or the personal essay). Adding to the confusion is the fact that writers can certainly create stories, novels, poems, and essays that are not especially expressive of their emotions. They may be trying to entertain, to titillate, or to expound on some subject, but they are not trying to communicate a personal experience and how it affected them on an emotional level.

Here, today, I am specifically advocating expressive writing as a means to breaking down or through cultural barriers.

Educators have long advocated reading as a key to developing empathy in students, including empathy for people of other cultures. I certainly agree that reading about other sorts of people can spark interest and understanding, which can in turn lead to empathy. More often that not in the U.S., however, reading literature is the sole means of encouraging empathy in the humanities. Empathy development is not bolstered routinely with expressive writing, and that, I believe, is a mistake. We should be having our students write expressively—and, importantly, sharing their writing through some means of publication (more on this in a moment).

While literary study may be only one component of fostering empathy, it is through literary study that we can most vividly see evidence of our common humanity, which is so often obscured by our politics and competing ideologies. I do not want to get too sidetracked here, but I am referring to the concept of archetypal narratives which seem to spring from a common past that transcends geography and culture. I give as just one example, in brief, the narrative of the woebegone sailor who, driven off course, finds himself and his men trapped inside the dwelling of a man-eating giant. Through his cleverness and courage, the sailor manages to blind the giant and escape the dwelling by hiding amongst the giant’s grazing flock. Whether one recognizes this as the story of Odysseus, or of Sinbad, or of the Man with No Legs depends on whether one is familiar with a Greek, Persian, or Korean literary tradition.

In essence, then, the tale of the woebegone sailor is foundational in Western, Middle Eastern, and Eastern cultures (to use Western distinctions)—a tale so ancient no one can cite its precise origin. These parts of the world are sharply divided when it comes to religions and political ideologies, yet the tale of the woebegone sailor must speak to us all: the disorientation and frustration of being lost, the primal fear of being trapped by a predator of superior power, the exhilaration of resourcefulness, and the joy of our life-preserving escape: all peoples, everywhere, can relate to these emotional registers in the common story.

Through expressive writing—that is, writing that accesses and communicates our emotions rather than our ideologies—students from diverse backgrounds can locate their common humanity, and see there is as much that unites us as there is that divides us.

Expressive Writing 2This topic is obviously complex, and I can only begin, here, to outline some of its component parts, but I will touch on the following areas: the theories which underpin the effectiveness of expressive writing for fostering empathy; the likelihood of students engaging in traumatic writing when given the opportunity to express themselves; some of the side benefits of expressive writing; the importance of publishing, and not just creating, the results of expressive writing; and some concrete classroom practices if one is inclined to use expressive writing in their curriculum.

Theories about expressive writing & empathy

First, then, how does expressive (or creative) writing create a connection between writer and reader that goes beyond, that goes deeper than other sorts of modes of communication? To respond, I turn to the work of Marcelle Freiman, who is especially interested in the cognitive connections between creative writers and their readers. Building on the work of cognitive scientists like Gerrig, Oatley and Djikic, Freiman asserts that “human long-term memory” is not only “‘based on memory’” but also “‘actively generates meaning’” (133). Thus, the act of writing helps writers to organize their thoughts and reconstruct memories—including all the associations those memories evoke—and it creates “an extended, externalised mental model” which readers are invited to enter. A well-wrought narrative can make a reader experience the story as if they had direct involvement in it. I am referring to the phenomenon of being lost in a story, to which nearly everyone can relate.

Freiman theorizes that the phenomenon is caused by the reader in essence “‘writing’ the text (in the mind) while reading” (134). Here she quotes Hawkes directly: “[Writers] thus involve us in the dangerous, exhilarating activity of creating our worlds now, together with the author, as we go along” (135, emphasis in the original). Freiman is suggesting that the relationship between writer and reader goes beyond being complementary into the realm of genuine partnership; the writer and reader are literally working together to create meaning. This process of shared responsibility in the text is true of all writing, says Freiman, but it has an enhanced dynamic when it comes to expressive writing: “This capacity for the writing of the creative or literary text occurs, perhaps, even more vividly ‘as experience’ because now the process involves imagination, including experiential representations of referents such as perceptions and emotions, in the language that writes what is imaginatively construed, to be read by a reader” (135). I want to underscore the words perceptions and emotions as these are key elements in an act of empathy. Understanding how others perceive their world and the emotions their perceptions elicit is absolutely vital to seeing people as people and not merely avatars for the ideologies they appear to represent.Expressive Writing 3

Likelihood of students writing about trauma

Let me move on to the question, why are students likely to write about trauma when given the opportunity to write expressively? When left to choose their own subject, many students will, of course, elect to write about happy things, which is valid. Writing about successes, about favorite memories, about the love of family and friends are all legitimate responses to an open-ended task to compose; and others can relate to positive experiences. But many, many students will choose to write about a traumatic experience in their lives, and it is due to the nature of trauma. The term “trauma” is slippery, and it is used to describe a vast array of life experiences; thus, depending on how widely or how narrowly one defines what constitutes “trauma,” the number of people who are suffering from some level of traumatic stress fluctuates up and down. Various studies identify between a quarter and three-quarters of the U.S. population as having had some kind of traumatic experience.1 People who have been traumatized tend to want to write about the experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Studies in the field of neuropsychology have suggested that trauma-related language dominates the linguistic functioning of victims.2 As MacCurdy observes, “Invariably writers gravitate to their difficult stories, the ones that cause the most pain and confusion . . .” (15).Expressive Writing 4

Because the academy does not privilege expressive writing, relatively few educators are trained to facilitate it, and, consequently, to respond to students’ writing about their traumatic experiences. When students elect to write about traumatic episodes in their lives, the complexities of the writing classroom multiply exponentially. The most immediate question educators must ask themselves is “Which is more important: the student’s acquisition of writing skills, or the student’s emotional welfare, which may be improved by engaging the traumatic event?” Before responding to my own question, I should say that communicating one’s trauma is a standard practice in therapy, either through one-on-one discussions with one’s therapist, in a group-therapy setting, or through writing (or some combination of these basic approaches). Once a teacher encourages students to engage their trauma in the classroom, the distinction between teacher and therapist can become murky. MacCurdy attempts to draw a distinction when she writes, “Teachers are advisers, mentors, and role models. Listening with compassion helps to fulfill those responsibilities and creates the trust needed for the student to delve into a difficult topic. . .  . However, teachers are not therapists. While a therapist may listen and then counsel, teachers listen and, if appropriate, suggest counseling and other professional services” (6).

I find no fault with MacCurdy’s assessment other than to say that she makes it plain why teaching—and perhaps especially teaching writing—is more art than science. Knowing when and how to respond to students’ work relies almost entirely on professional judgment; there are no clear-cut guidelines to follow, as much as we may wish at times there were.3

Benefits of expressive writing

So, writing about trauma can have therapeutic benefits for students. If one looks at that aspect of trauma writing—potential emotional benefits—certain pedagogical difficulties emerge regarding the sort of work students produce (in essence, how fragmentary or how complete it may be or must be), the ways in which it should be assessed (according to traditional guidelines for written work or by some other kind of rubric), and whether or not it should be shared with others (that is, published). How one responds to each of these issues may depend in large part on the end goal. If the end goal is for students to produce something that is most definitely going to be shared with others (versus something mainly for their own experiencing of the process), then the pedagogy must shift accordingly.Expressive Writing 5

Again, we are in the realm of art more than of science. The difference between students writing something only for themselves and students writing something which will be shared with others may lie in how the teacher contextualizes the act of writing and the possible benefits of sharing highly personal experiences. Allow me to say what may be needless to say: The best writing—the best art—is generally rooted in the highly personal experience. In order to create texts that are meaningful, and emotionally and intellectually engaging for readers, writers must be willing to reveal their most personal and their most private experiences and ideas. Marguerite MacRobert recommends that writers use techniques similar to those employed by method actors (à la Stanislavski). She says, “Writers are often spoken of as observers, and many writing workshops hone observation skills, but what Stanislavski says of acting could be emphasised in writing too: openness to experience as it occurs and being able to access emotional memories are crucial writing abilities. . . .” (353).

I will add anecdotally that when I took fiction writing workshops with the novelist Kent Haruf, in the opening class session Kent would always ask us to share something personal about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone else. The point of his exercise was that to be effective fiction writers we must be willing and able to share our most personal thoughts and experiences with our readers. Holding back leads to writing that is less than it could be. This sort of openness may seem like a tall order to expect of young students, but recall that traumatized students generally want to write about their traumatic experiences. In fact, they need to write about them. The pedagogical trick is not to get them to write personally, but to be willing to share their personal writing with others: to instill them with confidence, and to teach them that their sharing can benefit others, namely their readers.Expressive Writing 6

Given our setting and the conference’s overarching mission it is vital to note that expressive writing can transcend language barriers, and in fact can benefit from them. That is, students writing in languages other than their primary language (in English for instance) can be beneficial to the expressive-writing process in several ways. Here I will turn to the work of Owens and Brien, who developed a project in which international students attending universities in Australia wrote expressively in English with the goal of producing a published journal. Too often, international students’ language skills are viewed as a weakness or an obstacle to be overcome; however, Owens and Brien, among others (I included), advocate seeing these students’ language skills as a strength and an opportunity. They write, “[P]erceptions about the English skills of [Learners of English as an Alternative (or Additional) Language] have serious implications for large numbers of students, teachers, employers and, more broadly, the higher education industry. . . . [R]ecognising these learners as linguistically complex (rather than deficient) and finding new and enhanced methods to support their language needs . . . could transform both university practices and the students’ experience of those practices” (361-362). In particular, Owens and Brien advocate the use of creative writing as a way to foster these learners’ acquisition of alternative languages and to ease their assimilation into unfamiliar environments.Expressive Writing 7

In Owens and Brien’s project, they found that international students were drawn to writing about the difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. While writing in a language other than their mother tongue did present some challenges, there were also numerous benefits. They write, “[Alternative Language speakers] have both less (English) and more (languages other than English) lexical-syntactic-semantic knowledge than monolingual English speakers. They rely on a more restricted English resource but have alternative language options available to express meaning. . . . So, whilst mother tongue speakers may use their language creatively in response to situational characteristics, Alternative Language speakers may use English more creatively . . .” (362). What is more, the way Alternative Language speakers approach language may lead to particularly poetic constructions, say Owens and Brien. As someone who has taught Alternative Language speakers in creative writing workshops (especially speakers of Asian languages and, most often, speakers of Chinese), I can attest that even beginning creative writers can compose some startlingly beautiful phrases and images in English because of their knowledge of multiple languages, not in spite of it.Expressive Writing 8

Importance of sharing & publishing

It definitely goes without saying that if expressive writing is going to help break down cultural barriers, it must be shared across borders (both geographic and ideologic), which is where publication enters the discussion. Though discussing their project in the microcosm of their university settings, Owens and Brien found that Alternative Language students writing expressively benefited both the writers themselves and their audience: “It allows readers, such as academic staff as well as other students, to gain insight into the cross-cultural experience and develop greater empathy for the cultural sojourner” (369). Moreover, “the act of authoring such texts” can be “empowering” on multiple levels: “Promoting the creative and unique English language capacities of [Alternative Language students] . . . across English speaking host-communities, can help . . . build empathy, understanding and appreciation in a language context where they are conventionally de-valued” (369). Moreover, Jess-Cooke believes that students’ producing “a completed piece of work is a significant part of building self-esteem, and therefore contributes to wellbeing” (254).Expressive Writing 9

Fortunately, we live in a time when sharing writing (or video or audio) across the globe is relatively simple. Material can be posted to the Web of course. Texts can be made available to download to various sorts of e-readers (Kindle, etc.), and print-on-demand options make physically published anthologies readily and cheaply available via outlets like Amazon among many others. Speaking as a publisher and author, the challenge is not to make students’ writing available across cultural boundaries, but rather how to help others realize it is available in the flood of material that is published, one way or another, every day. Some estimates put the number of new book titles alone released each year in the neighborhood of a million. On any given day, several thousand new titles may become available. Unfortunately I have not solved this conundrum. I would say, as with any project, the way to begin, at least, is to start small. That is, micro-target specific audiences, perhaps via university networking opportunities, as afforded via conferences like this one. Work with colleagues in other countries to produce expressive writing and share it beyond physical borders. Perhaps combine the work of students from several countries in a single anthology to be shared and distributed amongst the project participants. Students’ texts could be captured via audio recordings and video performances, adding additional contextual layers to the communicated experiences.

Concrete classroom practices

I would like to end with a practical suggestion for a writing prompt. I have found that students respond quite effectively to what I call “A Moment of Clarity” narrative essay. I ask them to write about a time when they came to understand something about themselves or about their world due to a specific event in their lives. (I have provided the specific assignment and pre-drafting activity as an appendix to this presentation.) Some students write about positive things in their lives: learning the importance of teamwork or dedication, discovering what they want to do with their lives, embracing their spiritual selves, accepting their true sexuality, and so on. More students, though, tend to write about traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of a loved one, a near-death experience of their own, the separation of their parents, the crushing loss of a best friend or first girlfriend or boyfriend.

Allow me to share some brief excerpts of papers my students wrote this past year as a response to the “Moment of Clarity” prompt (the students have granted their permission, and I have obscured their identities):

Expressive Writing 10From a student whose boyfriend was driving recklessly and lost control of his car: “The convertible Mustang [car] flipped, pinning me underneath the vehicle. The only thing that kept me from getting my head smashed was the headrest that held it up just enough. I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the sound of the blood dripping on the ground. I tried to move my right arm and couldn’t.”

Expressive Writing 11From a student who struggled with the death of her grandmother after a long illness: “Now I understand that death occurs in everyone’s life and everyone is affected by it differently. She was in pain because of the cancer and all of the medicine she was taking. Seeing her in the casket was different because she looked peaceful and beautiful compared to the cancer’s effect on her. I have to let her go because I love her and she would not want me to be afraid or sad. She would want me to strive and achieve my goals and to live my life.”

Expressive Writing 12From a student who attempted suicide: “I spent my teenage years begging myself at night not to give up, not to kill myself. My first attempt at suicide was in 2015. I remember sitting in my room and the feeling rushed upon me. ‘You’re not good enough . . . you don’t deserve to live . . . just do it.’ I felt numb in that moment. I didn’t feel like a person. I got up and grabbed the bottle of pills. I begged myself to get help and go get my mother, but all I could think about was swallowing the pills and not being here anymore.”

Expressive Writing 13From a student who has given up her Christian faith: “I think how many Native Americans think. How we’re all connected and that you should put out what you want in return. I feel life is sacred, but so is the afterlife. The two worlds co-exist with one another. Death doesn’t mean the end of life, it’s just the beginning.”

These narratives were written by young people living in a small town in the heart of the United States, but I daresay they express feelings and concerns and issues that young people—that all people—face daily, no matter their culture, no matter their country, no matter their ideology.

Notes

  1. See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, editors. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Guilford, 2007, p. 5.
  2.  See Jennifer J. Vasterling, and Chris R. Brewin, editors. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, Guilford, 2005. In particular see Joseph I. Constans. “Information-Processing Biases in PTSD,” Vasterling and Brewin, pp. 105-130.
  3. See Ted Morrissey. Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts: The Psychological Basis of Postmodern Hermeneutics, Edwin Mellen, 2016. In particular see Chapter 7, “Pedagogical Implications and Conclusions,” pp. 185-224.

Works Cited

Freiman, Marcelle. “A ‘Cognitive Turn’ in Creative Writing — Cognition, Body and Imagination.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127-142.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249-259.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrodian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. U of Massachusetts P, 2007.

MacRobert, Marguerite. “Exploring an Acting Method to Contain the Potential Madness of the Creative Process: Mental Health and Writing with Emotion.” International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 349-360.

Owens, Alison R., and Donna L. Brien. “Writing Themselves: Using Creative Writing to Facilitate International Student Accounts of Their Intercultural Experience.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.

Park, Jeff. Writing at the Edge: Narrative and Writing Process Theory. Peter Lang, 2005.

The myth of ‘best practices’ in education

Posted in August 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 20, 2017

Last Wednesday I began my thirty-fourth year as a schoolteacher. To be sure, teaching has changed in those years, kids have, too — although neither as much as one might think. There is one thing, however, that has been amazingly consistent: the number of people who, year upon year, insist that I and my peers adopt a method which they bill as a “best practice” — some technique that they know will improve my teaching because, well, how could it not? It’s a best practice.

Not once — in all those innumerable workshops, inservices and presentations — has a purveyor of a best practice offered a shred of evidence that what they’re promoting will actually lead to better (let alone, the best) teaching. It’s always offered under the implied guise of common sense. It’s the epitome of the logical fallacy of begging the question: Dear Teacher, accept the fact that what you’ve been doing (whatever it may be) hasn’t been as effective as what I’m about to tell you to do. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

And teaching is, allegedly, an evidence-based profession. Schools claim that what they’re doing is “evidence-based,” but oftentimes, if there is something like evidence out there, it’s contrary to what’s being prescribed. On the one hand, I don’t really blame folks for not presenting the evidence to support their claims of the effectiveness of the practice they’re advocating, because (as I’ve written about before) testing in education is fraught with problems. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate data which can be reliably analyzed. In any given testing situation, there are simply too many variables to control, and many of them are literally beyond the control of educators. Students are not rats confined to the tiny world of a lab where researchers can effect whatever conditions they’re studying. Imagine scientists sending their rats home each night and asking them to return the next morning for continued research; and periodically the group of rats they’ve been studying are replaced by a whole new group of rats whose histories are a total mystery. (Apologies for comparing students to rats — for what it’s worth, I like rats … and students.)

All right, so I don’t blame purveyors of best practices for not presenting their (nonexistent) evidence; however, I do blame them for suggesting, implicitly, that evidence does exist. It must, right? Otherwise how could they say some technique, some approach is “best” (or at least “better”)?

The reality is, best practices are a myth. Forget good, better, best; let’s turn, instead, to effective versus ineffective (and even that paradigm is nebulous). Effectiveness must be considered on a case by case basis. That is, we want all students to benefit as a result of our efforts, but what works for Bobby versus what works for Suzie on any given day at any given moment, for any given skill or knowledge acquisition, may constitute completely opposite approaches; and tomorrow the reverse may be true. And quite honestly, whether an approach is effective or ineffective may be unknowable, in the moment and even in the long term. The learning takes place in the student’s mind, and the mind is a murky, complicated place. Hopefully the skill or knowledge is identifiable and assessible (via a quiz or test or paper or project), but it may not be, especially in the humanities, which are more concerned with creative and critical applications than in the sciences or the vocational area, where right-or-wrong, black-or-white distinctions are the rule rather than the exception.

Generally the purveyor of a best practice is able to communicate the technique in a few bullet points on a handout or a PowerPoint, but the differences — the vast differences — between grade levels, subject matters, demographics of students, backgrounds and knowledge-levels of teachers, etc., etc., etc. make such simplistic declarations ridiculous. Imagine going to an agricultural convention and telling an assembled group of farmers that you have for them a best practice, and here it is in six bullet points. You’re welcome. No matter what they’re growing, where they’re growing it, what sorts of equipment they have at their disposal, what the climate models are suggesting, how the markets are trending — This is it, brother: Just follow these six steps and your yields will be out of this world. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

The farmers would be nonplussed to put it mildly. Plug in professionals from any other arena — business owners, attorneys, medical doctors, engineers — and the ridiculousness of it (that a single set of practices will improve what they’re doing, regardless of individual situations) becomes clear. It’s so clear, in fact, I can’t imagine any presenter doing it — telling a room full of surgeons, for instance, to do this one simple procedure all the time, no matter the patient’s history, no matter their lab work, no matter how they’re responding on the table — and yet it happens to educators all the time.

Almost without fail, techniques that are presented as best practices are observable. It’s about what you say to students or what they say to you; what you write on the chalkboard; what you write in lesson plans or curricular outlines. It simplifies the process of evaluating teachers’ performances if the evaluator can look for a few concrete actions from every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to calculus teacher, from welding teacher to reading teacher; from the teacher of gifted students to the teacher of exceptional students. It makes assessment so much simpler if everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

I deliberately used the word performances in the previous paragraph because so often that’s what evaluation boils down to: a performance for the audience-of-one, the evaluator. We often hear the term “high-stakes testing” in the media (that is, standardized tests whose results have significant consequences for test-takers and their schools), but we have also entered into a time of “high-stakes evaluating” for teachers, performance assessments which impact their literal job security. Teachers quickly learn that if their evaluator claims x, y and z are best practices, they’d better demonstrate x, y and z when they’re being observed — but quite possibly only when they’re being observed because in truth they don’t believe in the validity or the practicality of x, y and z as a rule.

In such cases, teachers are not trying to be insubordinate, or mocking, or rebellious; they’re trying to teach their charges in the most effective ways they know how (based on the training of their individual disciplines and their years of experience in the classroom), and they disagree with the practices which are being thrust upon them. Teachers do no take an oath equivalent to doctors’ Hippocratic oath, but conscientious teachers have, in essence, taken a personal and professional vow to do no harm to their students; thus they find themselves in a conundrum when their judgments about what’s effective and what isn’t are in conflict with the best practices by which they’re being evaluated. For teachers who care about how well they’re teaching — and that’s just about every teacher I’ve had the privilege to know in the last thirty-four years — it’s a source of stress and anxiety and even depression. More and more teachers every year find that the only way to alleviate that stress in their lives is to leave the profession.

Again, much of the problem is derived from the need for observable behaviors. I like to think my interactions with students in the classroom are positive and effective, but, as a teacher of literature and especially as a teacher of writing, I know my most important and most valuable work is all but invisible. My greatest strengths, I believe, are in developing questions and writing prompts that navigate students’ interactions with a text, and (even more so) in responding to the students’ work. When a student hands in an essay based on a prompt I’ve given them about a text, it is essentially a diagram of how their mind worked as they read and analyzed the text (a novel, or story, or poem, or film) — a kind of CAT scan if you will — and my task is to interpret the workings of their mind (in what ways did their mind work well, and in what ways did their mind veer off the path somewhat) and then, once I’ve interpreted their mind-at-work, I have to provide them comments which explain my interpretations and (here’s the really, really hard part) also comments which will alter their mental processes so that next time they’ll write a more effective essay. In short, I’m trying to get them to think better and to express their thoughts better. (I should point out that to do all of this, I also have to possess a thorough understanding of the text under consideration — a text perhaps by Homer or Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce or Morrison.)

It’s the most important thing I do, and no one observing me in the classroom will ever see it. If my students improve in their reading and thinking and writing and speaking — largely it will be because of my skill to interact with them productively, brain to brain, on the page. The process is both invisible and essential. This is what teaching English is; this is what English teachers do. And we are not unique, by any means, in the profession. Yet our value — our very job security — is based on behaviors that are secondary or even tangential to the most profound sorts of interactions we have with our students.

I know that purveyors of best practices mean well (for-profit educational consultants aside). They are good, smart people who sincerely believe in what they’re advocating, and frequently a kernel or two of meaningful advice can be derived from the presentation, but we need to stop pretending that there’s one method that will improve all teaching, regardless of the myriad factors which come into play every time a teacher engages a group of students. It makes teaching seem simple, and teaching is many, many, many things but simple isn’t one of them.

(Image found via Google Images here.)

 

 

 

The paradox of uniformity

Posted in April 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 13, 2017

Nearly a year ago I posted “Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson” and it has generated far more interest than I would have anticipated. As of this writing, it has been viewed more 130,000 times. It has been shared across various platforms of social media, and cited in other people’s blogs. The post has generated copious comments, and I’ve received dozens of emails from educators — mostly from North America but beyond too. Some educators have contacted me for advice (I have little to offer), some merely to share their frustration (I can relate), others to thank me for speaking up (the wisdom of which remains dubious). To be fair, not everyone has been enthusiastic. There have been comments from administrators who feel that Charlotte Danielson (and I) threw them under the school bus. Many administrators are not devotees of the Framework either, and they are doing their best with a legislatively mandated instrument.

Before this much-read post, I’d been commenting on Danielson and related issues for a while, and those posts have received a fair amount of attention also. Literally every day since I posted about Danielson criticizing the use of her own Framework the article has been read by at least a few people. The hits slowed down over the summer months, understandably; then picked up again in the fall — no doubt when teachers were confronted with the fact it’s their evaluation year (generally every other year for tenured teachers). Once people were in the throes of the school year, hits declined. However, beginning in February, the number of readers spiked again and have remained consistently high for weeks. Teachers, I suspect, are getting back their evaluations, and are Googling for information and solace after receiving their infuriating and disheartening Danielson-based critique. (One teacher wrote to me and said that he was graded down because he didn’t produce documentation that his colleagues think of him as an expert in the field. He didn’t know what that documentation would even look like — testimonials solicited in the work room? — and nor did I.)

It can tear the guts out of you and slacken your sails right when you need that energy and enthusiasm to finish the school year strong: get through student testing (e.g. PAARC), stroke for home on myriad learning outcomes, prepare students for advancing to the next year, and document, document, document — all while kids grow squirrelier by the minute with the advance of spring, warmer weather, and the large looming of year’s end.

But this post isn’t about any of that, at least not directly. The Danielson Framework and its unique failures are really part of a much larger issue in education, from pre-K to graduate school: something which I’ll call the drive for uniformity. I blame Business’s infiltration and parasitic take over of Education. It’s difficult to say exactly when the parasite broke the skin and began its pernicious spread. I’ve been teaching (gulp) since 1984 (yes, English teachers were goofy with glee at the prospect of teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984, just as I was in 2001 to teach 2001 — we’re weird like that), and even then, in ’84, I was given three curriculum guides with precisely 180 pages in each; I was teaching three different courses, and each guide had a page/lesson for each day of the school year. Everyone who was teaching a particular course was expected to be doing the same thing (teaching the same concept, handing out the same handout, proctoring the same test) on the same day.

Not every school system was quite so prescriptive. I moved to another district, and, thankfully, its curriculum was much less regimented. Nevertheless, it was at that school that I vividly recall sitting in a faculty meeting and the superintendent uttering the precept “We shall do more with less.” The School Board, with his encouragement, was simultaneously cutting staff while increasing curricular requirements. English teachers, for example, were going to be required to assign twelve essays per semester (with the understanding that these would be thoroughly read, commented on, and graded in a timely fashion). At the time I had around 150 students per day. With the cuts to staff, I eventually had nearly 200 students per day. This was the mid 1990s.

The point is, that phrase — We shall do more with less — comes right out of the business world. It’s rooted in the idea that more isn’t being achieved (greater productivity, greater profits) because of superfluous workers on the factory floor. We need to cut the slackers and force everyone else to work harder, faster — and when they drop dead from exhaustion, no problem: there are all those unemployed workers who will be chomping at the bit to get their old job back (with less pay and more expectations). CEOs in the business world claimed that schools were not doing their jobs. The employees they were hiring, they said, couldn’t do math, couldn’t write, had aversions to hard work and good attendance. It must be the fault of lazy teachers, the unproductive slackers on the factory floor so to speak.

Unions stood in the way of the mass clearing of house, so the war on unions was initiated in earnest. Conservative politicians, allied with business leaders, have been chipping away at unions (education and otherwise) wherever they can, under the euphemism of “Right to Work,” implying that unions are preventing good workers from working, and securing in their places lazy ne’er-do-wells. The strategy has been effective. Little by little, state by state, protections like tenure and seniority have been removed or severely weakened. Mandates have increased, while funds have been decreased or (like in Illinois) outright withheld, starving public schools to death. The frustrations of stagnant wages, depleted pensions, and weakened job security have been added to by unfair evaluation instruments like the Danielson Framework.

A telltale sign of business’s influence is the drive for uniformity. One of the selling points of the Danielson Framework was that it can be applied to all teachers, pre-K through 12th grade, and even professionals outside the classroom, like librarians and nurses. Its one-size-fits-all is efficient (sounding) and therefore appeals to legislators. Danielson is just one example, however. We see it everywhere. Teaching consultants who offer a magic bullet that will guarantee all students will learn, no matter the subject, grade level, or ability. Because, of course, teaching kindergarteners shapes is the same as teaching high school students calculus. Special education and physical education … practically the same thing (they sound alike, after all). Art and band … peas in a pod (I mean, playing music is a fine art, isn’t it? Duh.).

And the drive for uniformity has not been limited to K-12 education. Universities have been infected, too. All first-year writing students must have the same experience (or so it seems): write the same essays, read the same chapters in the same textbook, have their work evaluated according to the same rubric, etc., etc. Even syllabi have to be uniform: they have to contain the same elements, in the same order, reproduce the same university policies, even across departments. The syllabus for a university course is oftentimes dozens of pages long, and only a very small part of it is devoted to informing the students what they need to do from week to week. The rest is for accreditation purposes, apparently. And the uniformity in requirements and approaches helps to generate data (which outcomes are being achieved, which are not, that kind of thing).

It all looks quite scientific. You can generate spreadsheets and bar graphs, showing where students are on this outcome versus that outcome; how this group of students compares to last year’s group; make predictions; justify (hopefully) expenditures. It’s the equivalent of the much-publicized K-12 zeal for standardized testing, which gives birth to mountains of data — just about all of which is ignored once produced, which is just as well because it’s all but meaningless. People ignore the data because they’re too busy teaching just about every minute of every day to sift through the voluminous numbers; and the numbers are all but meaningless because they only look scientific, when in fact they aren’t scientific at all. (I’ve written about this, too, in my post “The fallacy of testing in education.”)

But this post isn’t about any of those things either.

It’s about the irony of uniformity, or the paradox of it, as I call it in my title. Concurrent with the business-based drive for uniformity has been the alleged drive for higher standards: more critical thinking, increased expectations, a faster track to skill achievement. Yet uniformity is the antithesis of higher standards. We’re supposed to have more rigor in our curricula, but coddle our charges in every other way.

We can’t expect students to deal with teachers who have varying classroom methods. We can’t expect them to adjust to different ways of grading. We can’t expect them to navigate differences in syllabi construction, teacher webpage design, or even the use of their classroom’s whiteboard. We can’t expect students to understand synonyms in directions, thus teachers must confine themselves to a limited collection of verbs and nouns when writing assignments and tests (for instance, we must all say “analyze” in lieu of “examine” or “consider” — all those different terms confuse the poor darlings). This is a true story: A consultant who came to speak to us about the increased rigor of the PAARC exam also advised us to stop telling our students to “check the box” on a test, because it’s actually a “square” and some students may be confused by looking for the three-dimensional “box” on the page. What?

But are these not real-world critical-thinking situations? Asking students to adapt to one teacher’s methodology versus another? Requiring students to follow the logic of an assignment written in this style versus that (or that … or that)? Having students adjust their schoolwork schedules to take into account different rhythms of due dates from teacher to teacher?

How often in our post-education lives are we guaranteed uniformity? There is much talk about getting students “career-ready” (another business world contribution to education), yet in our professional careers how much uniformity is there? If we’re dealing with various customers or clients, are they clones? Or are we expected to adjust to their personalities, their needs, their pocketbooks? For that matter, how uniform are our superiors? Perhaps we’re dealing with several managers or owners or execs. I’ll bet they’d love to hear how we prefer the way someone else in the organization does such and such, and wouldn’t they please adjust their approach to fit our preferences? That would no doubt turn into a lovely day at work.

I’ve been teaching for 33 years, and over that time I’ve worked under, let’s see, seven building principals (not to mention different superintendents and other administrators). Not once has it seemed like a good idea to let my current principal know how one of his predecessors handled a given situation in the spirit of encouraging his further reflection on the matter. Clearly I am the one who must adapt to the new style, the new approach, the new philosophy.

These are just a few examples of course. How much non-uniformity do we deal with every day, professionally and personally? An infinite amount is the correct answer. So, how precisely are we better preparing our students for life after formal education by making sure our delivery systems are consistently cookie-cutter? We aren’t is the correct answer. (Be sure to check the corresponding squares.)

Education has made the mistake of allowing Business to infect it to the core (to the Common Core, as a matter of fact). Now Business has taken over the White House, and it’s taken over bigly.

But this blog post isn’t about that.

Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson

Posted in April 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 27, 2016

I’ve been writing about the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation for a couple of years, and in fact my “Fatal Flaws of the Danielson Framework” has been my most read and most commented on post, with over 5,000 hits to date. I’ve also been outspoken about how administrators have been misusing the Framework, resulting in demoralized teachers and unimproved (if not diminished) performance in the classroom. (See in particular “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army” and “Lowered teacher evaluations require special training.”) At present, teachers are preparing — at great time and expense — to embark on the final leg of the revamped teacher evaluation method with the addition of student performance into the mix (see ISBE’s “Implementing the Student Growth Component in Teacher and Principal Evaluation”). I’ve also written about this wrongheaded development: “The fallacy of testing in education.”

Imagine my surprise when I discovered an unlikely ally in my criticism of Charlotte Danielson’s much lauded approach: Charlotte Danielson herself. The founder of the Danielson Framework published an article in Education Week (April 18 online) that called for the “Rethinking of Teacher Evaluation,” and I found myself agreeing with almost all of it — or, more accurately and more egocentrically, I found Charlotte Danielson agreeing with me, for she is the one who has changed her tune.

My sense is that Ms. Danielson is reacting to widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and principals with the evaluation process that has been put in place which is based on her Danielson Framework. Her article appeared concurrently with a report from The Network for Public Education based on a survey of nearly 3,000 educators in 48 states which is highly critical of changes in teacher evaluation and cites said changes as a primary reason for teachers exiting the profession in droves and for young people choosing not to go into education in the first place. For example, the report states, “Evaluations based on frameworks and rubrics, such as those created by Danielson and Marzano, have resulted in wasting far too much time. This is damaging the very work that evaluation is supposed to improve . . .” (p. 2).

Ms. Danielson does not, however, place blame in her Framework, at least not directly. She does state what practically all experienced teachers have known all along when she writes, “I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off a checklist.” Her opinion is a change from earlier comments when she said that good teaching could be easily defined and identified.  In a 2012 interview, Ms. Danielson said that her assessment techniques are “not like rocket science,” whereas “[t]eaching is rocket science. Teaching is really hard work. But doing that [describing what teaching “looks like in words”] isn’t that big a deal. Honestly, it’s not. But nobody had done it.”

Instead of her Framework, then, Ms. Danielson places the lion’s share of the blame with state legislators who oversimplified her techniques via their adoptions, and — especially — with administrators who are not capable of using the Framework as it was intended. She writes, “[F]ew jurisdictions require their evaluators to actually demonstrate skill in making accurate judgments. But since evaluators must assign a score, teaching is distilled to numbers, ratings, and rankings, conveying a reductive nature to educators’ worth and undermining their overall confidence in the system.”

Amen, Sister Charlotte! Testify, girlfriend!

Danielson quote 1

Ms. Danielson’s critique of administrators is a valid one, especially considering that evaluators were programmed, during their Danielson training, to view virtually every teacher as less than excellent, which put even the best-intentioned evaluators in a nitpicking mode, looking for any reason, no matter how immaterial to effective teaching, to find a teacher lacking and score them “proficient” instead of “excellent.” In her criticism of administrators Ms. Danielson has touched upon what is, in fact, a major shortcoming of our education system: The road to becoming an administrator is not an especially rigorous one — especially when it comes to academic rigor — and once someone has achieved administrative status, there tends to be no apparatus in place to evaluate their performance, including (as Ms. Danielson points out) their performance in evaluating their teachers.

Provided that administrators can keep their immediate superior (if any) content, as well as the seven members of the school board (who are almost never educators themselves), they can appear to be effective. That is, as long as administrators do not violate the terms of the contract, and as long as they are not engaging in some form of obvious harassment, teachers have no way of lodging a complaint or even offering constructive criticism. Therefore, if administrators are using the Danielson Framework as a way of punishing teachers — giving them undeservedly reduced evaluations and thus exposing them to the harms that can befall them, including losing their job regardless of seniority —  there is no way for teachers to protect themselves. They cannot appeal an evaluation. They can write a letter to be placed alongside the evaluation explaining why the evaluation is unfair or invalid, but their complaint does not trigger a review of the evaluation. The evaluator’s word is final.

Danielson quote 2

According to the law of averages, not all administrators are excellent; and not all administrators use the evaluation instrument (Danielson or otherwise) excellently. Some administrators are average; some are poor. Some use the evaluation instrument in a mediocre way; some use it poorly. Hence you can quite easily have an entire staff of teachers whose value to the profession is completely distorted by a principal who is, to put it bluntly, bad at evaluating. And there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.

Another crucial point that Charlotte Danielson makes in her Education Week article is that experienced teachers should not be evaluated via the same method as teachers new to the field: “An evaluation policy must be differentiated according to whether teachers are new to the profession or the district, or teach under a continuing contract. . . . Once teachers acquire this status [i.e. tenure], they are full members of the professional community, and their principal professional work consists of ongoing professional learning.” In other words, experienced teachers, with advanced degrees in their content area and a long list of professional accomplishments, shouldn’t be subjected to the same evaluation procedure as someone who is only beginning their career and has much to learn.

In fact, using the same evaluation procedure creates a very odd dynamic: You oftentimes have an administrator who has had only a limited amount of classroom experience (frequently fewer than ten years, and perhaps only two or three) and whose only advanced degree is the one that allows them to be an administrator (whereby they mainly study things like school law and school finance), sitting in judgment of a teacher who has spent twenty or thirty years honing their teaching skills and who has an advanced degree in their subject area. What can the evaluator possibly say in their critique that is meaningful and appropriate? It is commonplace to find this sort of situation: A principal who was a physical education or drivers education teacher, for perhaps five years, is now sitting in an Advanced Placement Chemistry classroom evaluating a twenty-year veteran with a masters degree or perhaps even a Ph.D. in chemistry. The principal feels compelled to find something critical to say, so all they can do is nitpick. They can’t speak to anything of substance.

Danielson quote 3

What merit can there be in a system that makes evaluators omnipotent judges of teachers in subject areas that the evaluators themselves literally are not qualified to teach? It isn’t that veteran teachers don’t have anything to learn. Far from it. Teaching is a highly dynamic, highly challenging occupation; and the successful teacher is constantly learning, growing, self-reflecting, and networking with professional peers. The successful principal makes space for the teacher to teach and for the student to learn, and they protect that space from encroachment by anyone whose design is to impede that critical exchange.

Ms. Danielson offers this alternative to the current approach to evaluation: “An essential step in the system should be the movement from probationary to continuing status. This is the most important contribution of evaluation to the quality of teaching. Beyond that, the emphasis should be on professional learning, within a culture of trust and inquiry. . . . Experienced teachers in good standing should be eligible to apply for teacher-leadership positions, such as mentor, instructional coach, or team leader.”

Ironically, what Ms. Danielson is advocating is a return to evaluation as most teachers knew it prior to adoption of the Danielson Framework.

(Grammar alert: I have opted to use the gender-neutral pronouns they and their etc. even when they don’t agree in number with their antecedents.)

 

 

The fallacy of testing in education

Posted in October 2015 by Ted Morrissey on October 18, 2015

For the last several years education reformers have been preaching the religion of testing as the lynchpin to improving education (meanwhile offering no meaningful evidence that education is failing in the first place). Last year, the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) made its maiden voyage in Illinois. Now teachers and school districts are scrambling to implement phase II of the overhaul of the teacher evaluation system begun two years before by incorporating student testing results into the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness (see the Guidebook on Student Learning Objectives for Type III Assessments). Essentially, school districts have to develop tests, kindergarten through twelfth grade, that will provide data which will be used as a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation (possibly constituting up to 50 percent of the overall rating).

To the public at large — that is, to non-educators — this emphasis on results may seem reasonable. Teachers are paid to teach kids, so what’s wrong with seeing if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth by administering a series of tests at every grade level? Moreover, if these tests reveal that a teacher isn’t teaching effectively, then what’s wrong with using recently weakened tenure and seniority laws to remove “bad teachers” from the classroom?

Again, on the surface, it all sounds reasonable.

But here’s the rub: The data generated by PARCC — and every other assessment — is all but pointless. To begin with, the public at large makes certain tacit assumptions: (1) The tests are valid assessments of the skills and knowledge they claim to measure; (2) the testing circumstances are ideal; and (3) students always take the tests seriously and try to do their best.

assessment blog quote 1

But none of these assumptions are true most of the time — and I would go so far as to say that all of them being true for every student, for every test practically never happens. In other words, when an assessment is given either the assessment itself is invalid, and/or the testing circumstances are less than ideal, and/or nothing is at stake for students so they don’t try their best (in fact, it’s not unusual for students to deliberately sabotage their results).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the PARCC test (primarily) in terms of these three assumptions; and let’s restrict our discussion to validity (mainly). There have been numerous critiques of the test itself that point out its many flaws (see, for example here; or here; or here). But let’s just assume PARCC is beautifully designed and actually measures the things it claims to measure. There are still major problems with its data’s validity. Chief among the problems is the fact that there are too many factors beyond a district’s and — especially — a classroom teacher’s control to render the data meaningful.

For the results of a test — any test — to be meaningful, the test’s administrator must be able to control the testing circumstances to eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) factors which could influence and hence skew the results. Think about when you need to have your blood or urine tested — to check things like blood sugar or cholesterol levels — and you’re required to fast for several hours beforehand to help insure accurate results. Even a cup of tea or a glass of orange juice could throw off the process.

That’s an example that most people can relate to. If you’ve had any experience with scientific testing, you know what lengths have to be gone to in hopes of garnering unsullied results, including establishing a control group — that is, a group that isn’t subjected to whatever is being studied, to see how it fares in comparison to the group receiving whatever is being studied. In drug trials, for instance, one group will receive the drug being tested, while the control group receives a placebo.

Educational tests rarely have control groups — a group of children from whom instruction or a type of instruction is withheld to see how they do compared to a group that’s received the instructional practices intended to improve their knowledge and skills. But the lack of a control group is only the beginning of testing’s problems. School is a wild and woolly place filled with human beings who have complicated lives, and countless needs and desires. Stuff happens every day, all the time, that affects learning. Class size affects learning, class make-up (who’s in the class) affects learning, the caprices of technology affect learning, the physical health of the student affects learning, the mental health of the student affects learning, the health of the teacher affects learning (and in upper grades, each child has several teachers), the health and circumstances of the student’s parents and siblings affect learning, weather affects learning (think “snow days” and natural disasters); sports affects learning (athletes can miss a lot of school, and try teaching when the school’s football or basketball team is advancing toward the state championship); ____________ affects learning (feel free to fill in the blank because this is only a very partial list).

assessment blog quote 2

And let me say what no one ever seems to want to say: Some kids are just plain brighter than other kids. We would never assume a child whose DNA renders them five-foot-two could be taught to play in the NBA; or one whose DNA makes them six-foot-five and 300 pounds could learn to jockey a horse to the Triple Crown. Those statements are, well, no-brainers. Yet society seems to believe that every child can be taught to write a beautifully crafted research paper, or solve calculus problems, or comprehend the principles of physics, or grasp the metaphors of Shakespeare. And if a child can’t, then it must be the lazy teacher’s fault.

What is more, let’s look at that previous sentence: the lazy teacher’s fault. Therein lies another problem with the reformers’ argument for reform. The idea is that if a student underachieves on an exam, it must be the fault of the one teacher who was teaching that subject matter most recently (i.e., that school year). But learning is a synergistic effect. Every teacher who has taught that child previously has contributed to their learning, as have their parents, presumably, and the other people in their lives, and the media, and on and on. But let’s just stay within the framework of school. What if a teacher receives a crop of students who’d been taught the previous year by a first-year teacher (or a student teacher, or a substitute teacher who was standing in for someone on maternity or extended-illness leave), versus a crop of students who were taught by a master teacher with an advanced degree in their subject area?

Surely — if we accept that teaching experience and education contribute to teacher effectiveness — we would expect the students taught by a master teacher to have a leg up on the students who happened to get a newer, less seasoned, less educated teacher. So, from the teacher’s perspective, students are entering their class more or less adept in the subject depending on the teacher(s) they’ve had before. When I taught in southern Illinois, I was in a high school that received students from thirteen separate, curricularly disconnected districts, some small and rural, some larger and more urban — so the freshman teachers, especially, had an extremely diverse group, in terms of past educational experiences, on their hands.

For several years I’ve been an adjunct lecturer at University of Illinois Springfield, teaching in the first-year writing program. UIS attracts students from all over the state, including from places like Chicago and Peoria, in addition to students from nearby rural schools, and everything in between (plus a significant number of international students, especially from India and China). In the first class session I have students write a little about themselves — just answer a few questions on an index card. Leafing through those cards I can quickly get a sense of the quality of their educational backgrounds. Some students are coming from schools with smaller classes and more rigorous writing instruction, some from schools with larger classes and perhaps no writing instruction. The differences are obvious. Yet the expectation is that I will guide them all to be competent college-level writers by the end of the semester.

The point here, of course, is that when one administers a test, the results can provide a snapshot of the student’s abilities — but it’s providing a snapshot of abilities that were cured by uncountable and largely uncontrollable factors. How, then, does it make sense (or, how, then, is it fair) to hang the results around an individual teacher’s neck — either Olympic-medal like or albatross like, depending?

As I mentioned earlier, validity is only one issue. Others include the circumstances of the test, and the student’s motivation to do well (or their motivation to do poorly, which is sometimes the case). I don’t want to turn this into the War and Peace of blog posts, but I think one can see how the setting of the exam (the time of day, the physical space, the comfort level of the room, the noise around the test-taker, the performance of the technology [if it’s a computer-based exam like the PARCC is supposed to be]) can impact the results. Then toss in the fact that most of the many exams kids are (now) subjected to have no bearing on their lives — and you have a recipe for data that has little to do with how effectively students have been taught.

So, are all assessments completely worthless? Of course not — but their results have to be examined within the complex context they were produced. I give my students assessments all the time (papers, projects, tests, quizzes), but I know how I’ve taught them, and how the assessment was intended to work, and what the circumstances were during the assessment, and to some degree what’s been going on in the lives of the test-takers. I can look at their results within this web of complexities, and draw some working hypotheses about what’s going on in their brains — then adjust my teaching accordingly, from day to day, or semester to semester, or year to year. Some adjustments seem to work fairly well for most students, some not — but everything is within a context. I know to take some results seriously, and I know to disregard some altogether.

assessment blog quote 3

Mass testing doesn’t take into account these contexts. Even tests like the ACT and SAT, which have been administered for decades, are only considered as a piece of the whole picture when colleges are evaluating a student’s possible acceptance. Other factors are weighed too, like GPA, class rank, teacher recommendations, portfolios, interviews, and so on.

What does all this mean? One of things that it means is that teachers and administrators are frustrated with having to spend more and more time testing, and more and more time prepping their students for the tests — and less and less time actually teaching. It’s no exaggeration to say that several weeks per year, depending on the grade level and an individual school’s zeal for results, are devoted to assessment.

The goal of assessment is purported to be to improve education, but the true goals are to make school reform big business for exploitative companies like Pearson, and for the consultants who latch onto the movement remora-like, for example, Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Group; and to implement the self-fulfilling prophecy of school and teacher failure.

(Note that I have sacrificed grammatical correctness in favor of non-gendered pronouns.)

Interview with Melissa Morrissey: Shawna’s Sparkle

Posted in August 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 23, 2015

When I founded Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I didn’t anticipate establishing an imprint for children’s literature — nor did I anticipate meeting my (now) wife, Melissa. Besides our both being educators, Melissa and I are bibliophiles (if not -maniacs). She’d always written and had in mind that she’d like to publish books (like her father, Larry D. Underwood, who wrote and published several history books and even an historical novel). In particular, she had some ideas for children’s books, but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting them published. I told her I’d be happy to show her the ropes — how to look for an agent … and wait and wait and wait … or submit directly to a publisher … and wait and wait and wait … Or, instead, we could direct our time and creative energies to establishing our own children’s literature imprint, and bring out her books ourselves.

Shawna's Sparkle - front cover 1000

So that’s what we’ve done. This past year we established Shining Hall, and our first project was to publish Melissa’s book Shawna’s Sparkle. As Melissa was writing the book, she had characters in mind in the style of one of our favorite local artists, Felicia Olin. When the story was completed, we crossed our fingers and contacted Felicia about possibly doing the illustrations. She agreed, in spite of her busy schedule getting her paintings ready for upcoming exhibits and various art shows. Earlier in the summer of 2015, Felicia sent us the illustrations that she’d created. We were blown away. We’d only had a brief meeting with Felicia over coffee at Wm. Van’s in Springfield, and gave her very little in the way of direction, trusting her artistic instincts — and our trust was well placed.

I went to work designing the book (my first children’s book), and on July 10 Shawna’s Sparkle was released in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions. So far response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, to both the story itself and to Felicia’s wonderful illustrations. It’s become something of a tradition that I interview the authors I’m publishing about their books, and even though I of course already know a lot about Melissa’s book, I didn’t see any reason to suspend the tradition on account of our being married. I gave Melissa some questions about the book and her writing of it, and what follows are her unedited responses. We have other books by Melissa in the works, and Shining Hall will begin publishing books by other children’s authors in the near future. We’re also planning a children’s book contest for early 2016.

Melissa 1

What made you want to write a book for children?

I am a teacher, so I feel I can easily relate to children. They are so open. They love to read and people love to read to them.

For most authors, their characters are composites of different people they’ve known, maybe mixed with a healthy dose of self. Who is Shawna, would you say?

She is a part of me, of course. Anytime you write, a part of you comes out. I have changed some details, such as only having a brother. However, as a child, I felt very much like Shawna and sometimes still do.

You’ve said that you want the book to teach children to love themselves and appreciate their special gifts. Why do you think that’s so important for kids?

Children are born with a connection and lots of sparkle. Put a child in a room and every eye in the room is transfixed. They have such light. Life, and unfortunately sometimes school and adults, makes their sparkle dim. They can forget that connection. Kids that struggle in school have it especially hard because they have to go to school all day and practice things they are not good at or comfortable doing. What torture! As adults, we mostly do things to reinforce talents. School doesn’t always work that way. We all have gifts, however, and capitalizing on them makes us sparkle in all areas of our life. Any child who learns this early, has a leg up on life so to speak.

In what ways does Shawna’s Sparkle reflect your interests in meditation and mindfulness?

My interests in meditation and mindfulness come out in Shawna’s dream, especially. The book is simplistic in that a simple dream changes everything; however, it can be that easy. One moment can change your whole life. Reconnecting with your “sparkle” occurs naturally when you meditate or become more mindful of your gifts. I am passionate about people becoming more mindful because as we all increase our sparkle, the whole world is filled with more light. There are a lot of children hurting right now. I believe learning mindfulness would equip them with tools that would serve them their entire lives.

Shawna seems to be something of a throw-back to an earlier time in that she loves books and reading, and there’s no mention in your book of modern technology — no iPad, not even any TV. Why do you think reading, and maybe especially reading old-fashioned books, is so important for children?

There is so much to be learned about life, humans, and empathy through the characters in literature. There is currently a push to read more nonfiction, and indeed nonfiction has its place in education, but purely reading nonfiction makes your brain lazy. I think that is why struggling readers and kids on the spectrum can be drawn to nonfiction. When you read literature there are all kinds of characters and emotions to keep straight in your brain. It is a real workout but so rewarding! We can see through a character’s eyes and experience a side of life and a point of view that we may not have otherwise considered. I like to think that if we knew how others were feeling we would all be gentler and kinder.

What about artist Felicia Olin’s work made you think she’d be the perfect illustrator for Shawna’s Sparkle? How did you feel about the illustrations she created?

When writing Shawna’s Sparkle, I pictured the characters as if created by Felicia. I actually mentioned the book to one person who suggested I contact her. He was amazed when I told him I already had her in mind. People that know me know I don’t believe in coincidences. I was very thankful that she agreed to do this project. Felicia brought the book to life in a way I certainly could never have done. I am eternally grateful and continually wowed by her work.

How much do you think your father’s example of being an author impacted your desire to write and publish?

My earliest childhood memories were of sitting on my father, author Larry D. Underwood’s, lap and stating that “when I grow up I’m going to be a teacher and a writer just like you!” He inspired me to challenge myself in both my reading and writing. I wrote a teen novel for a contest in high school. It wasn’t chosen, so I stuck it in a drawer. However, I continued writing various articles and editorials including one in Springhouse magazine. I always planned to get back to writing more seriously. Since my dad has been “in spirit” I feel the urge to write more strongly, which can no longer be ignored.

You spent two decades teaching special education students. How did that experience influence your writing of the book?

My father encouraged me to go into special education and the career has served me well.  I am perfectly suited to smaller groups and children who respond to love, attention, and my gentle nature. My administrators and supervisors always commented that I had a calming effect on students. I was grateful that they recognized and appreciated that in me because I do not believe in yelling at children to motivate them. I am now in special education administration and miss that classroom connection immensely. This book, I feel, is allowing me to reach a larger audience than my single classroom, including all the people I never had the honor to teach.

Why is it important to you that your book was published in Dyslexie font, which is designed to be easier to read for learners with dyslexia?

I was always bothered by my inability to “fix” dyslexia, which was really the wrong way to approach it because students with dyslexia have so many other gifts, like their ability to see the world in a different way. However, I feel that the font will help students access print more readily. I also intend to release the book in an audio format soon.

What other writing projects are you working on?

I am working on a teacher’s guide for Shawna’s Sparkle that will align with Common Core.  I have other books written that teach social emotional skills. We are working on getting illustrators for them. Also, I am working on a new series of books that center around our rescue dog, Einstein, and will help teach the Next Generation Science Standards. We are hoping to release the first one soon, if we get an illustrator on board.

Melissa Morrissey, an Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, has been a special education teacher and administrator for over twenty years. She holds degrees from Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and University of Illinois Springfield. Shawna’s Sparkle is her first book. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

Destroying Public Education for Dummies

Posted in April 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 28, 2015

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

It’s the iconic line from the 1976 film Network in which news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is pushed beyond the breaking point and implores his viewers to get mad, go to their windows, open them and shout: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” — and people do . . . by the thousands.

This is essentially the message of Williamsville (Illinois) school superintendent David Root in the District Dispatch he sent out yesterday in which he writes: “So, want to destroy public education and prevent people from wanting to teach? Not a problem. It’s actually pretty simple.”

David Root

Superintendent David Root

 

Root uses the metaphor of the how-to books “for Dummies” to say that the dummies in charge of state government — recently elected governor Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly as a whole — have managed, without breaking a sweat, to destroy public education and the morale of educators by slashing funds, mandating a litany of pointless tests, and demonizing and demoralizing teachers. One of the points I especially appreciate alludes to the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation and how its adoption by the state is part of a scheme to make teachers in Illinois look ineffective (and thus, I say, pave the way for the lucrative privatization of schools) — an argument I’ve been making for months, especially in my August 17, 2014, post “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army.”

Please read superintendent Root’s superb jeremiad in its entirety here. (Or you can also access it via the district’s webpage here.).

Some people were surprised at Root’s vitriol, even though it’s been building for some time, and suggested that perhaps Mr. Root should have held off sending it out until he’d calmed down a bit. But I unequivocally disagree: I say we are long past the point of civility. We need more — all! — administrators, teachers, school board members, parents and students to raise their windows and shout: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!

And we shouldn’t stop our raging against the “education reform” machine until public schools and public educators receive the support and the respect they deserve. Because, ultimately, our students deserve no less.

Bravo, superintendent Root! I too am as mad as hell!