This is (with alterations for the genre of a blog post as opposed to a keynote) the keynote I delivered at Old Dominion University for the 38th Annual Spring Conference on the Teaching of Writing.
Liminal is one of those jargon-y words that I wish were less so. Mainly because it is a place where many of us find ourselves—and many of our students are—much of the time. It is in-between—not here, but not there.
Being in a liminal space means making choices about how much time to spend looking ahead, and how much to enjoy the proverbial moment. As a parent of young children I’m often told to enjoy this moment because it’s too brief—and then I picture the wry grin emoji as my 8-year-old twins are fighting about some imagined slight. As a teacher, I move through the liminal space of preparing teachers—being them as they re-imagine their student selves as teachers—move from Cedric to Mr. Smith (but that’s my dad!). I’m also living in a liminal space right now as my house burned down—as some of you may have discovered from Googling me and yes, we’re all fine—so we’re in-between. Looking ahead to when we can be back in our own house and move back into what we imagined our life to be, and trying to enjoy things like picking out new flooring.
The essential paradox of teaching writing—at any level—is that we need to both teach students where our students are, and for where they are headed. We are in a liminal space with students as they figure writing out, whether they are in elementary school, 11th graders looking ahead to college, or sophomores in college looking ahead to the world of work. Adolescent literacy and writing scholars have clearly found that teaching writing centered in students’ lives and interests increases engagement, which leads to stronger writing development. That’s the focus on the where they are. Bazerman, though, admits the challenge to that position, that students who only write from their lives and where they are at are not forming the habits that will allow them to engage with the broader world, and the creation of knowledge.
An intellectual exercise I try when I’m working to understand a slippery concept like liminality–here and there-ness–is to look at an extreme example. So if we were to consider writing, the teaching of writing, and what this means for high school and college students, looking at a first grader’s writing would serve as an excellent extreme example.
My son loves nonfiction and reads it voraciously. While history is his preference, animals work too. He has been surrounded by nonfiction ever since I read an article in some graduate class (probably from Nell Duke) that talked about young children not having enough exposure to nonfiction texts. So, being the over-education mother I am, I went out and bought nonfiction picturebooks and have always kept the supply high. And, my son’s teacher is deeply knowledgeable about writing instruction, particularly writing instruction for young children. She engaged her students in a month-long genre study of nonfiction picturebooks, the culmination of which were these page samples.
What I see when I look at these, as both his mother and someone who spends a lot of time looking at and thinking about writing–is a fair amount of experimenting with the design possibilities of composing on a computer. He’s having fun exploring the colors and fonts available to him. These books were published to an online portfolio and shared among classmates during a publishing party. While Jack’s nonfiction picture book would not be published by a company looking for profit, we acknowledge his need to be doing the work he is where he’s at. This text serves his needs now—experimenting with technology, trying out design, putting together a whole piece for publication, and doing lots and lots of drafts (which aren’t pictured here, but I still have). We know he’ll develop more better writing—the product—as he ages, though he’s also learning an authentic process now, that he can carry with him as he ages.
Questions that a teacher of young writers may ask themselves could include the following:
- Where is Jack with his writing?
- Is he where he should be?
- Where is he headed?
When looking at Jack’s writing, we know he is developing as a writer. We acknowledge that as a first grader, he isn’t going to ‘get it right’ because he is just learning. When we shift to an appreciative lens, we can actually see a lot of strength here. He matches the purples in the background and text. His headings on the pages have the same font. A lot of the text is red. His drawn picture includes the pull-out captions that are features of nonfiction picturebooks. Elementary teachers only have 20-25 students, typically, and are predisposed to looking at a child’s development. Elementary schools often do an excellent job of vertical alignment, meaning the first grade teacher often knows what fifth graders are expected to know and be able to do. In many ways, we can look at this and feel confident that Jack is a successful writer in this moment, and he’s well on his way to being a successful writer long term.
But do we position our secondary and university students in the same way? I, and others (PDF), would argue that we don’t.
If we position writing as developmental–looking at where students are and where they’re headed–then we have to give more attention to where they are than we typically do. We have to ask the kinds of questions that teachers of young children ask about their young writers.
These questions transcend any one assignment, and often transcend state standards in writing. They purposefully look more broadly, but also acknowledge that our expectations of student writing are nested within the larger culture which, for the moment, values education for its economic expediency. Though given recent politics, there’s a growing sense that students need to be more critical readers and writers who are engaging with the world. Writing instruction is also part of “education”–that large, gangly thing which we all agree is important and disagree hotly about what a good education means. It, too, then is beholden to the culture and society in which it rests.
So, how to understand writing instruction in this moment? Look to the past. We did not get here magically, but through series of decisions and histories made day-by-day by all kinds of people in all kinds of places.
Legislation often gets passed in buildings like this by people who may or may not know much about schools, teachers, classrooms, students, etc. Trying to engage in something this complex can be overwhelming. While there tends to be a lot of focus on things like the confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos or HB 610, that energy may or may not be well-spent. The resistance around DeVos’ confirmation was, on the whole, a good thing in that it engaged a lot of people in the political process and likely muted her ability to go really radical really quickly. HR 610 (your knowledge of which likely depends on your social media feeds) is the bill to eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/Every Student Succeeds Act, among a few other things. I’ve read the bill itself and it is terrible. It also only has 2 cosponsors, which means it’s not going anywhere. Now, DeVos’ confirmation and stance toward the federal government certainly opened up the opportunity for a bill like this to be filed. The rhetoric around education matters, no question. But these federal laws and policies themselves have, relatively, little power over K-12 education and even less over higher ed. Part of considering policy is knowing where it came from, but also knowing what to ignore.
[Writing instruction has been the] scene of struggle over competing claims about the purposes of education, more specifically about the society the school and college should advocate and the kind of individuals they should encourage… (Berlin, 1990, p. 184)
In my context, in Texas, I’m far more concerned about the school finance bill that may or may not make it out of the Texas legislature this session. How Texas distributes money to its schools will have far more of an impact on writing instruction than Secretary DeVos. And there are several bills up about testing, some of which actually have a chance of passing and may well help classroom teachers to focus on the teaching of writing, not on testing. Those kinds of bills–ones focused on testing, assessment, standards, and accountability–are the ones that are really worth paying attention to because those are the ones that are going to make a difference in the classroom. Those bills will affect the kinds of instruction HS students get, and–by extension–what they’re prepared for when they enter the composition classroom.
Legislation turns into policy in buildings like this and that transformation is performed by people who are not elected. Legislators, given the last 60 or so years of policy focused on standards and accountability (You can thank Regan and A Nation at Risk.), want to make sure that our tax dollars are being well spent. For Texas and the rest of the nation, this charge has been translated as assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. Such assessment has then been farmed out to for-profit testing companies. These policies focused on assessment of state stardards, then, push districts and school to teach to those standards and that test. Because whatever the details of your state context, when assessment enters the picture we know from research (Au [PDF]) that the curriculum narrows to the test. Teachers, for very valid reasons, shape their instruction to the test.
So, for writing instruction, teachers have narrowed it and limited it to a great extent to fit the writing tests that exist. Hillocks said it best.
…the testing program becomes a kind of surrogate theory of discourse for most teachers. It tells teachers the boundaries of knowledge about composition and it stipulates what should be taught… (2003, p. 86).
This limiting is real and problematic. In Texas, it expresses itself by writing being taught at the 4th, 7th, and 9th and 10th grade years because those are tested years. I’m sure Virginia has it’s own hiccups to the ways in which the state’s test limits and narrows your ability to teach. And while it becomes apparent in a room where the audience is comprised of HS, dual-credit, and composition teachers: the way in which writing is taught K-12 directly affects how writing can be taught after. Many students are landing in college with a very limited repertoire of what writing is, because it is the test, and what they can do with writing. The irony is, of course, that all these standards and accountability is aimed at making students college ready.
My theory is that this is what legislators think of when they think of college ready, a particular strand of policy focused on standards and accountability. And, like other policies, it’s far more complicated than this picture, or the phrase ‘college ready’ would lead one to believe. Texas and Virginia share a history here. Both our states said no to the Common Core State Standards, which are driving instruction in much of the rest of the country, even as state legislatures dismantle the system or do other kinds of things. Our states did it for different reasons. Rick Perry decided rejecting CCSS (PDF) would position him as a state’s rights kind of presidential candidate; Virginia’s politicians recognized the shortcomings and decided to take another path. So both Texas and Virginia have their own sets of college readiness standards or initiatives. And, in both places, those policies/standards don’t actually drive instruction–the existing state standards–TEKS/SoLs do. But we still hear a lot about college readiness.
There’s an unspoken privilege to college readiness that also much be acknowledged. Schools where students generally meet the SoLs have room and time to address college readiness. In schools that struggle to meet the SoL’s, where instruction narrows to move students through these limited assessment, there are fewer opportunities to expand to college readiness. But, in the grand scheme, the SoL’s and the assessments they spawn do not produce college ready students. Further complicating matters is that what HS teachers think college readiness is, often differs from what composition instructors think HS is preparing students for, and policy usually runs afoul of both.
So, let’s return to those questions about our students: Where they are, where they should be, and where they’re going. And let’s ask two different questions, given this brief gloss of history, policy, and college readiness:
- Where do your assumptions about where your students should be and where they’re going come from?
- Is what you’re doing now supporting them to get where they’re going?
It’s worth pausing to consider the answers to these questions. No matter what age student you teach, at least part of the answer to the first question comes from your memory of what you experienced in whatever step comes after the one you currently teach. So, when I taught high school, I was preparing my students for my memories of writing in the first years of college. This stance was was incomplete at best, and harmful at worst, for all kinds of complicated reasons. State standards, and the Common Core, are similarly incomplete when considering the range of skills and abilities necessary to meet the diverse writing opportunities that exist in the world today. And I’m not even simply talking about technology–which Common Core ignores completely. Common Core elevates particular types of writing, as do the state standards, via the tests that are given to assess students’ progress toward meeting the standard.
In my experience no standardized test of writing prepares a student to write a police report, craft an email to a customer, or write a press release. And all three are examples of actual writing that real humans have done in the world as part of their work. There’s a great book that explores this territory of our assumptions about what comes next in writing, which I’d highly recommend. But for the purposes of this talk (and this post), I’ll focus on a smaller, more powerful way to reframe the work that writing instruction can do.
More immediately and practically, though, I’ll offer The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. This framework was written by the Council of Writing Project Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project as a compliment to the poorly conceived and limited writing stand of the Common Core State Standards. This framework consists of eight habits of mind that, when cultivated in student writers, transfer to writing success in whatever context students find themselves in wherever they end up.
In the next series of posts, I’ll offer my thoughts about each of these habits of mind, examples of my own intellectual pursuits that helped me think through the meaning of the particular habit, examples I’ve seen in classrooms I’ve worked in–including my own, and what these habits could look like in a typical ELA classroom.