Think Piece #1: CCSS and ELA Teacher Identity

“We do not teach in an age of whitewashed, shared experiences where each pupil is of the same complexion, background, and creed, nor in a time when the canon of white privileged authors of yore can inexplicably cut across cultural identities and satisfy a diverse student body’s need for their voices to be reflected in a standardized curriculum”

One of my classes this semester requires me to complete a few think pieces. I have decided to share them with a broader audience. Take them up as you will, but this first one I really enjoyed cultivating. I’d love for others to share their thoughts and start a broader conversation.

As a preservice teacher, I took for granted the changing tides rippling across the field I was being apprenticed to. In a form of innocent ignorance, I soaked in my English courses in the early years of college giving no thought to greater pedagogical implications these classes may have moving into my major courses. Even as I entered methods classes that sought to marry pedagogy with teaching English as a specific and specialized subject, I took my professors lectures and projects at face value and worked my way through the program–hoop after proverbial hoop. When I finally entered the field devoid of the university’s support systems with my own classroom, I believed in my abilities and always trusted that the university had prepared me for that moment. This is a belief I maintained; I never found myself questioning my training or assimilation into the field of English education. I was also blind to a standardization movement that had begun just before I became a teacher and had slowly crept its way into the national spotlight. After years in the classroom, two more degrees, and the pursuit of a doctorate, now is the time that I can read Brass (2014), Luke (2004), and Pasternak, Caughlan, Hallman, Renzi, and Rush (2014) reflexively and take up a position that is no longer ignorant but is also far more complex than I could have imagined in 2007 when I first graduated.

I have stated before–and I will again now–that I am not anti-Common Core. On the contrary, I see a value in having a shared narrative and vocabulary to discuss English language arts classroom practices. The issue has always been the designers and puppetmasters of the Common Core. Brass (2014) nicely frames the issue stating, “Much of [the stimulus] federal money has worked directly and indirectly to subsidize entrepreneurs, testing companies, and the educational technology sector to displace the curricular and pedagogical leadership of elected public representatives…at the public’s expense” (p. 25). While not an immediate issue of my classroom practice, the money exchanging hands between private entities and government bodies have direct and indirect implications for my students and colleagues. Directly, I am faced with the politicization of my profession–forced to take sides or chose stances for or against political figureheads and companies invested in reaping financial rewards from the political turmoil embedded in current education policy. The dilemma of political schisms in my profession is indeed cancerous. I spend more time than I care to admit being concerned with the choices Georgia’s next governor will make in conjunction with my profession and which companies will be awarded the next round of monies dedicated to test, curriculum, and “support” resources generation. All I know for sure is that they will not be asking me to participate in those choices in any meaningful way: “states have written and rewritten English content standards (often with very little input from English teachers and teacher educators), distributed curriculum frameworks and established regimes of test taking” (Pasternak et al., 2014, p. 4). The result is a distraction that pulls me away from my primary concerns of aiding my students in becoming literate, free-thinking, empathetic, and democratic citizens. Indirectly, I see the forces these political and money decisions place on my colleagues of English education and our students. English teacher and student alike are filled with perplexing anxiety over high-stakes testing, college admissions, and future economic stability. I have matured to understand that some of the complexity of my occupation is based at least in part to political contexts that I have little control over, nor do I feel empowered to rally against outside of my classroom. Teaching English is more complex than ever, not only due to globalization and technology, but because of political stratification and stigmas rampant in the Common Core era.

The most insightful of the three pieces read is easily Luke’s (2004) introspective look at the shifting nature of what it means to teach literacy in an age of standardization and globalization. While the piece is ten years old now, Luke’s words ring as true as ever considering the challenges facing an English language arts teacher. Luke writes:

Our trainings, histories, and own linguistic biographies are blended and complex, as are those of our students. Far from being seamless, linear and coherent, our field, then, is utterly troubled by diversity – that of our students, of our own disciplinary and trans-disciplinary trainings, and of the very historical dynamics of English as living cultural and social, political and economic entity. (p. 87)

I love this. Running the risk of being too informal as I reflect on Luke’s words, they ring terribly and wonderfully true to me. The complexity he shares above is the complexity I readily embrace, and a complexity that I think makes teaching currently so interesting and purposeful. We do not teach in an age of whitewashed, shared experiences where each pupil is of the same complexion, background, and creed, nor in a time when the canon of white privileged authors of yore can inexplicably cut across cultural identities and satisfy a diverse student body’s need for their voices to be reflected in a standardized curriculum. Rather, we are, as Luke pointed out many years ago, “troubled by diversity” and by a collision of identities that force all English teachers to consider the implications of their own practice. Teaching English language arts today is more exciting and terrifying than ever. While the threat of standardization exists by way of the Common Core, an English teacher is still left with the choice of how to take up those standards in his or her classroom. Certainly, many English teachers, both young and old in their careers, will feel cornered, stuck, maybe even disenfranchised by standardization, but I posit that perception and identity as an English teacher is most important in combating such feelings of hopelessness. Rather than fretting over finding a common, sustaining method for teaching all children (an impossible task I assure you), Luke offers, “teachers [need] to develop flexible repertories of field-, discourse-, and text-specific pedagogies, suited to particular textual artifacts, technologies, social and linguistic/interactional outcomes, and adaptable for students of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds” (p. 90). A practice such as the one Luke describes is the one worth fretting over, worth losing sleep over. A concentration on flexibility in the English classroom–a type of elasticity on the part of teacher and student–may be the best combatant against the fears of the politicisation of curriculum. For instance, allow the Common Core to provide a common language across a diverse field, but allow the approach and the methods taken up in the English classroom to remain diverse. History has tended to prove that while Angelo-Europeans’ attempts to assimilate other peoples and cultures into its own show signs of early success (imperialism, colonization, enslavement), those assimilations (oppressions?) ultimately fail every single time (apartheid, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, Indian independence, etc.). How could we as English teachers ever expect a single-narrative approach to instructing reading and writing to be successful for us or our students? Common Core or no Common Core, the English language arts teacher must embrace diversity both in students and in pedagogical practice.

The Pasternak et al. (2014) research review provides one particular comment I find myself currently grappling with at this point in my doctoral pursuit:

Because standards are political documents written by committees largely composed of non-educators, standards can work to maintain status quo assumptions about literature and writing and may not reflect recent scholarship on literary study, writing pedagogy and K-12 student engagement. (p. 24)

A stagnation of innovative teaching is being reinforced through Common Core. While I stand by my statement earlier that I do not have an inherent problem with Common Core standards, I do recognize the wider consequence these standards are having on many of my colleagues. Many with whom I work along side fear the consequence of not maintaining the status quo. I have a guttural reaction to such a mindset that easily dismisses these fears and I openly scoff at the notion of my alternative teaching techniques being admonished and repressed by administrators or higher-ups. I need to acknowledge, however, that my mindset is unique in many regards. Instead of rudely scoffing, I need to continue to build confidence in my colleagues that they can try different approaches to teaching and experiencing reading and writing. The end of the quote above also reminds me that I need to find ways to get digestible research in the hands of my English language arts colleagues as well. A teacher leadership approach I had not considered really before this year has started to unfold; I see a need for beleaguered teachers to have renewed support for trying dynamic approaches to teaching English, which are often times messy and don’t readily translate into quantifiable results. Research assures us our current techniques are outdated and many times culturally irrelevant and insensitive, yet many of us continue to teach the same way we were taught–it’s a consistent model that is easy to embrace because it appears to work for the mass majority. The issue is that mass majority is shifting and along with it the identity of the English language arts classroom. My students rarely look like me, but it is my duty to them to try and look like them–to embrace and recognize their backgrounds as genuine sources of literacy practices. Literacy practices that can and should be co-opted into the emergent English classroom. Because while the need to apprentice students to writing that is valid for an assessment exists, the need to pursue literacy as acts of creativity and a way to broker understanding across peoples and places remains greater.

Questions for Consideration:

  • How do we shift the identity of the English language arts teacher from that of apprenticing literary and writing mini-scholars to an identity of apprenticing culturally attuned and multiliteracy robust designers of language?
  • How do we promote innovative pedagogical practices supported by research in the English language arts classroom in era of Common Core politics and one-size-fits-all resource delivery?
  • What ideological (paradigmatic/pragmatic) shifts need to take place in preservice methods classes and ongoing professional development in order to facilitate a research-focused English language arts teacher corpus that can confidently confront the Common Core while continually innovating its practices?

References:

Brass, J. (2014). Reading standards as curriculum: The curricular and cultural politics of the Common Core. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 11(1), pp. 23-25, DOI: 10.1080/15505170.2014.907551

Luke, A. (2004). At last: The trouble with English. Research in the teaching of English, 39(1), pp. 85-95.

Pasternak, D. L., Caughlan, S., Hallman, H., Renzi, L, & Rush, L. (2014). Teaching English language arts methods in the United States: A review of the research. Review of Education, ?(?), pp. ?-?.

 

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