Roland Martin thinks he’s a teacher, a common problem in education

I got into my first “Twitter fight” with, of all people, former CNN contributor and host of News One Now Roland Martin. Up until now, I only really knew about his ascot that Jon Stewart made famous. I don’t follow him on Twitter, but as someone in education who likes to stay plugged in, I do follow Michelle Rhee. She retweeted the following tweet by Mr. Martin:


To which I responded with “@rolandsmartin Do you have a background in education?” He didn’t like that. He immediately fired off about 4 tweets in defense, starting with :

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But then came my favorite:

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Full disclosure, I probably deserved this last one. I egged him on a tad with a poor analogy of sitting on a healthcare committee because my son goes to a doctor. Honestly, I think it’s great that he is involved in education, and Students First surely needs many voices. However, his attitude–dare I say “arrogant”–is another example of how our education system is being run by those with the biggest mouth and/or the most money. And what’s worse is that they all use the same reasoning as Mr. Martin: I went to school, so I know what I’m talking about. This thinking not only demoralizes an already declining profession, but it makes it more difficult for research-based approaches to find their way into the classroom.

Teaching is both an art and a science, and really only those who have been a teacher understand this concept. There is a lot of research that needs to be balanced with practical knowledge, and there are plenty of practices that need to be checked by research. What tends to happen when we have those who do not teach, or who have never taught, weigh in on education reform is that they more often than not scream the latest buzz words that sound good. High standards, cultural literacy, charter schools, text-dependent questions, Common Core, critical thinking–these are the latest talking points that make people feel like they care about education, so people like Mr. Martin get behind the machines that are pushing these ideals without really knowing where it’s headed. I know the destination is well-intentioned, but let’s have the researchers and teachers figure this out, not billionaires and media pundits.

We have a whole list of major players in k-12 education who have never seen the inside of a k-12 classroom as a teacher: Bill Gates, David Coleman, and even our US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to name a few. I certainly wouldn’t put Martin’s role with Students First on the same playing field as these guys, but I do think that his know-it-all demeanor on twitter speaks to the bigger issue. Just like those influential in education who lack the experience, Roland Martin is another neoliberal who knows as much about education from being a student as I know about fixing my car from driving it (a better analogy than my one on healthcare).

Oddly, I started my teaching career at a charter school in Houston, TX, close to where Mr. Martin went to high school. I surely admire his accomplishments, and I’m proud to see a fellow Texan on the main stage. I don’t mind that he shares his opinions, and I would hope that he is a part of his nieces’ education. But I’d ask that he reconsider his expertise, and show more respect for those out on the front line. More important, he needs to remember that his way of thinking is the status quo, and one that has proven to fail our children.


Nonfiction: The Great Equalizer

My mentor at University of Houston used to always tell me that “no other genre can speak to the reader’s interest like nonfiction.” He’s right, and the research agrees with him. We are a nation of nonfiction readers, since no other genre can offer such a specific slice of we want to read. If you like bugs, there’s a book for it, and if you like a specific bug, like the Asian long-horned beetle, then you can read plenty about it. We all have specific interests that only nonfiction can satisfy. Whether we need to read it–my wife is reading a book about two-year olds–or if we just want to read it, nonfiction plays a big role in our development as readers.

This week’s book, Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weaponis certainly for history buffs, but can also interest even those who prefer to read their romance novels in a hot bath with candles everywhere (note: I’ve only seen this on TV). Sheinkin does a great job of weaving narrative with description, detailing how the atomic bomb works without intimidating his readers, and puts a good story together about an important part of our history in way that would make anyone enjoy learning about history.

I think what Bomb does for adolescents is something that history textbooks need to pay more attention to. If I had access in high school to books that told me about history as this one does, I might have had a different career path. But instead, I was forced to read a textbook that maybe spent a paragraph or two on the atomic bomb, which was structured just like every other paragraph in the textbook: topic sentence, example, detail, detail, detail, restatement of topic. No stories, just drab exposition attempting to give me our past, our culture–and others–in a structure that is so disconnected from how it happened that it is no wonder only a small portion of the population enjoys reading about history.

While I didn’t fall in love with history sooner, I was lucky enough to register for Dr. Irsfleld’s Vietnam War Literature class in college. We read novels about the Vietnam War that were written from soldiers from each section of the military, and even some that were written by Viet Cong soldiers. I read everything I could get my hands on that pertained to the Vietnam War during that semester, and today I still can’t pass up a documentary, article, or book that covers this particular time in our history. And it didn’t stop there. I read novels about other wars, too, such as WWI and WWII. Dr. Abrahamson used to say that the only true history book is a biography, so I started reading biographies of famous Americans from the Revolutionary War. What they all have in common, other than the history part, is that they all tell a story. They don’t present the facts in a cold, I-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-important way; instead, they tell an intriguing story.

And isn’t that really what history is? One long intriguing story? The power of narrative is well documented with regard to learning and memory. It would be nice if our curriculum would reflect this.

So what’s your story with nonfiction? If you don’t really have one, then talk about what you liked about this week’s reading.

Poetry on Crank

In my first year teaching high school English in a reputable district, I eagerly applied to be the sponsor of the Creative Writing Club. Students, mostly 10th and 11th grade girls, had expressed interest in a club that allowed them to share their writing, so I volunteered to facilitate this forum in my classroom once a week. What I found to be most interesting was that when it came time to write and share their work, it was all poetry.

The main topic that was shared was about breaking up with their boyfriends and girlfriends, with themes that revealed jealousy, revenge, loyalty, love, and, for the most part, being a teenager in love. Occasionally, there would be one on nature or some event, but usually those were “inspired” by the writer’s muse, who happened to either do something special for them or something awful (you guessed it–a break up). But the other topic that was covered frequently was drugs, and, again, either the drugs were the “muse” or the poem attempted to describe the effect the drugs had on them.

Let me take a moment here to clarify that this experience does not exemplify my overall experience as a high school teacher. The overwhelming majority of my students didn’t concern themselves with drugs, nor did it take up so much of their thoughts that they felt it necessary to write about it. The students in this creative writing class were a unique bunch, and their ability to discuss these issues came with limitations, which were strictly adhered to.

With that said, let me continue…

I am reminded of this club (which was about 8 years ago and only lasted for one semester for the reasons aforementioned) because the novel Crank tackles the topics of drugs and teenage relationships in poetry form. And it does it very well, I might add. The economy of the language is what impresses me the most. Hopkins is able to create the characters and develop the plot with a brevity that would usually have the reader asking for more. (However, I made a similar point about Crutcher and got slammed for it.)

And while the poetry form is even fun at times (the topography creates images that represent what the text is saying), it always comes back to the content when discussing its usefulness in classrooms. I remember this book being a hot topic in my own home state of Texas, and nationally it has attracted even more attention. But again, it seems to me that this book is speaking to an intended audience, so to what extent, if any, do we allow this novel into secondary English classrooms? Moreover, to what extent, if any, does this novel help with the teaching of poetry?

Feel free to discuss the questions at the end, or to simply talk about what you did or didn’t like about either of this week’s novels. As long as your comments show thoughtfulness, anything goes.

Kate Gerson: Her Rhetoric vs. Her Research

Last Friday, Kate Gerson spoke at the first regional conference in New York devoted to Common Core at Roberson Museum in Binghamton, NY. Her hour presentation covered a variety of topics, including the shifts in thinking, both for ELA and Math, as wells as ELLs and addressing the needs of all the students in a classroom. As I expected, her presentation was thoughtful, and I don’t wish to take issue with each of her points here. But I do think her overall message falls short of her intent, and her research only supports this assumption.

Gerson’s rhetoric doesn’t represent a balanced curriculum, which is what the research she presented on Friday morning supports.  Gerson presented pertinent research in reading, citing Adams’s 2010 article in American Educator, which claims that “if students read several texts on a single topic,”  then this will allow students to “be ready for texts of greater complexity” (p. 9). Gerson made this easy for us, “a kid who reads a lot about sharks gets better at reading about sharks.” More important, she notes that those skills are transferrable. Gerson’s power point slide accompanied this with research-based approaches to reading that included strategies grounded in both intensive and extensive reading methods. 

However, her mantra, and the one from David Coleman and NYSED, is “less texts; more depth.”  This repeated statement along with modules from the state that spend days on a single text, and Coleman claiming teachers should spend 3 days on two paragraphs, and you pretty much guarantee that teachers will avoid extensive reading strategies that are essential for growth in reading ability.

Research is clear on this: the more you read, the better you get. And not just for comprehension (Krashen, 2004, Power of Reading). The very first English education study done in 1927 by Nancy Coryell at Columbia’s Teachers College shows that extensively reading literature is more effective for improving analysis and evaluation than closely reading a few texts. More impressive, the results show an even greater impact on low-level students in the extensive reading classes. For my dissertation, I replicated this yearlong study and my results were identical, and, as my literature review covers, many studies in between support these findings.

I’m not arguing for an English class that only employs extensive reading. Close, intensive reading methods are important, and certainly have a place in the classroom. But we can’t forget that the intent for reading literature is to simply enjoy the experience, so we need to give students the opportunity to experience this. If we never offer these authentic experiences to students during school, then we have failed them. Voracious readers are not created through assignments that require close reading analyses. They become voracious readers by enjoying what they read, and making reading laborious every time it happens only ensures that we’ll produce a generation of nonreaders.

This all comes back to the “cult of efficiency” model for education (or as Diana Senechal more recently refers to it in, ironically, American Educator“The Cult of Success”), for which Gerson and NYSED are arguing. The thinking behind the “text dependency” derives from this obsession in today’s reform movement to make everything “accountable” and “measurable.” It seems easier to hold students accountable with “text dependent questions” than it would be to simply allow them time to read. However, there is too much literature out there on wide reading strategies, like individual reading programs, that it is not too much to ask of Gerson and NYSED to do a better job of touting them.What’s even more frustrating, though, is that Adams’s (2010) research suggests choice and wide reading (continuing with Gerson’s example, a kid who is interested in sharks should be allowed to choose books about sharks and read them extensively), so all Gerson has to do is highlight this within her presentation.

I know Gerson wants to see a balanced curriculum, and I feel confident that if we sat down to discuss all these points, then we’d agree on pretty much everything. However, I’d ask that she be more clear on this in her presentation. I’d ask that she argue for both intensive and extensive reading instead of repeating “less texts, more depth.” Her research is arguing for this balance, but that is not what her audience heard Friday morning.


Censorship: An Argument for Choice

Censorship and young adult literature are almost synonymous. When I taught high school English, I remember hearing many stories about how parents challenged novels and short stories that they felt were inappropriate. One year, a colleague argued in front of the district board of education against a parent who wanted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings taken off the English curriculum because of a rape scene. Of course, Maya Angelou’s novel is not considered YA, but it stands to reason that if a rape scene in a novel that has been taught in schools for years, think of the censorship that goes on with today’s young adult literature as these books make their way into public classrooms.

Before you have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately throw around the argument presented in Fahrenheit 451let me say that there are valid points in favor of questioning the works we teach. I am reminded of a story by Professor Adam Laats about teaching a certain book to kids at a private Catholic high school. (He tells the story much better than I could, so I recommend you read it.) In his story, he suggests that a teacher who requires the reading of a book is just as guilty of imposing beliefs on others as those who try to censor said book. This certainly had me thinking differently about censorship and my liberal perspective of the books we teach.

If I believe that a certain book has something important to offer a child, then out of respect for the upbringing of the child I must also place equal importance on whether or not the parent shares these same values–or at least whether or not the parent shares the values of simply challenging their child’s beliefs. As a teacher, I believe that a life that goes unchallenged is not a life worth living, but who am I to impose these challenges within the readings I assign? Couldn’t I possibly be challenging ideals and principles that parents work so hard to instill in their children? And if we don’t question these impositions, aren’t we telling parents that we know what’s best for their children?

Personally, I think all of this can be solved through the element of choice. We know too much about how kids develop as readers, so the use of whole class novels shouldn’t be commonplace (sadly, this is not reality). So even if you don’t agree with the research on choice and reading instruction, you should at least consider what it is you’re imposing on your students by requiring them to all read the same book. We have no problem accepting that students have different reading abilities, so we should just as easily accept that they come to us with different sets of values, and these values require the same amount of respect from their English teacher.