Cary Edington sat in front of me clicking through his teaching portfolio. Hair in a tuft, eyes bright, and wearing a huge smile at the accomplishment and ideas, he's always been tireless and strident in pursuing his belief that all students deserve engaged and engaging Math and English classes. The portfolio features lessons, activities, and his philosophy on teaching diverse learners, oftentimes through problem based lesson plans. A lesson plan on addressing discrimination in a community, for instance, will teach argumentative writing based on an analysis of statistical evidence gathered during the Math lesson. I admire him deeply for the ways in which he's trying to create the types of educational opportunities for his students not seen in our reports and tests about teaching. He'll soon be entering his first year of the Teach for America program. He decided to leave MSU's top education certification program to take a route more likely to place him in the kinds of classrooms and with the types of students he hopes to teach. Students not unlike himself.
Cary has been raising himself since the age of 13 when he became an emancipated minor. He worked his way through college at MSU as a janitor cleaning schools and rode his bike between campus and work or took the bus when the snow got too deep. Categorized a female at birth, he identifies as a man. When his students ask if he's a boy or girl, he smiles and asks them: "What do you think?" Whatever they answer, he smiles and turns their attention back to the lesson at hand.
Cary's teaching portfolio represents that hard-won place where possibility can emerge in curricular and pedagogical designs created for students' in urban and impoverished schools. In his well-written and provocative revised edition of Why School?, Mike Rose takes up "the experience of eduction when it's done well with the student's well-being in mind" (34). Tracing his own educational journey alongside the students he's taught and observed in master-teacher classrooms, Rose explores questions about school reform, adult education, cognition, work, development, and the possibility of public education in a society with staggering poverty rates and that too often fails to hear the stories of students like Cary. But what do we listen for when we hear a story like Cary's?
Some will hear evidence of a bootstrap story of hard work, perseverance, perhaps even, bravery. In a new chapter on, "Being Careful about Character," Rose takes up the problem of reading stories like Cary's as an indicator that meritocracy in our educational system works. Bootstrap stories (and their newest iteration in character building exercises that emphasize teaching perseverance) amount to little more than placing the onus to change squarely on the very people who are most oppressed by poverty. "If you work hard in school, through sheer perseverance, you will succeed," the thinking goes.
Cary's story is exceptional in large part because it is an exception-- an exception that offers evidence of the rule: Too few people in Cary's position actually make it out of high school, let alone through college, let alone through Math AND English. Even fewer of them actively pursue a teaching career, especially in the hopes of working with students in schools hit hardest by poverty. Rose reminds us that stories like his own, like Cary's, like so many others, are really examples of what is wrong with a capitalist society that tolerates poverty, broken social safety nets, and very unequal access to education.
Cary's curriculum will surely have impact and be helpful to students he teaches. But his success and his teaching are small doses of medicine that will only treat the symptoms of what ails the United States today: unchecked capitalism, institutionalized racism, vast and growing inequities, and failing infrastructures. We need more teachers like Cary teaching students like Cary; we need educational policy bold enough to provide the best educational practices for students in poverty without finding fault with their characters; and we need broad and smart social policy on the scale of Roosevelt's WPA projects and the scope of Johnson's War on Poverty— policy that treats all people humanely and provides safe, clean, state-of-the-art learning spaces.
One theme of the 2014 Writing Research across Borders conference in Paris, France concerned research that promotes social equity, an especially important topic in a time when teachers around the world are seeing demographic shifts in their classrooms and communities. Here are a few trends in writing research that hold promise for addressing questions of equity.
Methodological Innovations Writing research continues to develop more robust ways of approaching language learning. Promising trends include cognitive ethnography, ethnolinguistic studies, mapping, neuroscience research, and cross cultural genre studies. These approaches might offer the scale and depth needed to understand language learning in diverse communities and across multiple languages.
International Research Teams Increasingly, humanities, engineering and sciences, and education scholars are working together to develop large-scale projects. Their research questions are tending to address cross cultural understandings and approaches to questions of the transfer of writing skills and strategies, genre studies particularly across disciplines, the materiality of literacy, and assessment.
Ecologies and Materialities of Writing This longstanding area of research pays attention to the interconnected, networked, collaborative, material, infrastructural, systemic ways in which writing unfolds or is hindered in workplaces and communities. A new dimension to this research, ethnolinguistic studies of writing codes in contact, traces the imperialistic introduction of new writing technologies in cultures and communities.
Professional Development for Teachers in all levels and educational settings remains an important development in writing research. Along this line, look for didactic learning and teaching methods, competency based approaches to teacher education, as well as mentoring and professional development initiatives for faculty.
Global writing networks, digital contact zones, connectivity, citizenship, social networking, and activism all remain important areas of theorizing and research. While not a new area, look for interesting pedagogical innovations between teachers and researchers uniting classrooms across the globe to enhance learning of all students through project based assignments.
Trans (insert noun here) Cultures. Languages. Disciplines. Nations. All of these areas were represented by several presentations from scholars around the globe. The results of these studies show how learners develop metalinguistic awareness as they develop abilities to transfer skills and strategies; they show how literacies travel and accrue across life spans; and they reveal deeper understanding of the translating process as it unfolds in learners' texts. This important trend in writing research promises better understandings of circulations of power in literacies and language learning.
Interested in learning more? Browse the convention program here.
One of the the brightest, most enthusiastic and creative preservice teachers I've had the pleasure of teaching, Elizabeth (psuedonym) is in her internship year in a mid-Michigan school district. I hardly recognized her voice on the phone when she called in tears. Just one week into her unit on Zora Neale Hurston, a parent sent her a note lambasting her for the unit's content and focus on African American Language. This parent thought that only the classics and standard English should be taught. Elizabeth had developed this unit throughout her senior year in Michigan State University's top-ranked teacher education program. As well prepared as she was, little in her teacher education preparation readied her for this person's horribly racist remarks about the content of the class and her abilities as a teacher.
It's hard for me to decide which I loathe more-- the parent's explicit racism or implicit sexism.
For Elizabeth, this was just a taste of what will likely be a steady stream of oppressive, demeaning, and exhausting encounters with parents she'll have as a teacher. Her story isn't that unusual. Read through some of the 3,400 or so comments in response to futurist's Ron Clark's CNN editorial, "What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents." It's not clear why parents have so little respect for teachers or when this phenomenon starting taking root, though Richard Worzel has a few ideas.
If the entire profession had more males, though, my hunch is that teachers would be much more respected and well compensated, and recognized for work they do.* Between 1961-2006, the profession has remained consistently 70% female, but the number of those holding a MA degree has increase from only 23% in 1961 to 60.4% in 2006 (NCES). Despite the increased educational attainment of teachers profession, their income increased by only 2.7% between 2000 and 2011 (NCES). Compare this to the anemic 5.7% growth of the average US worker and the absolutely obscene 527% growth in CEO pay from 1978-2011 (ThinkProgress).
The disrespect for the profession and disregard for the teachers flies in the face of what we know about the demanding nature of the job. "Teaching done well is complex intellectual work," Mike Rose reminds us. "Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others." I'm not sure how much growth Elizabeth would have been able to foster in the parent whose racism and disrespect were everywhere present in that note.
I do know she was trying to educate all of her students equally well. And for that she should be well paid, respected, and recognized. The everyday struggle for equity in classrooms unfolded here on two fronts -- in the curriculum AND in how teachers are recognized as professionals. Both link back to an ongoing struggle with patriarchy that place white males at the top of the chain of being.
Not quite finished with her internship year, Elizabeth asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for graduate school. But it turns out she didn't need it after all. She's accepted a teaching position teaching in Saudi Arabia where, she was assured by the search committee, the teachers feel respected, have autonomy to make sound decisions based on their professional training, and have opportunities to refine their craft. Why does she have to go so far for respect?
* A recent UNESCO sponsored study "Women and the Teaching Profession: Exploring the Feminisation Debate," reviewed by Kate Greany for Gender & Development 20.2 (2012): 379-380, seems to suggest this as well.
Models of change, change agents, teaching, learning, expressive tools, and everyday struggles for dignity, resources, respect, and cultural perseverance.