Reflections on Coming Back to the Classroom

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I didn’t teach in a high school classroom for two years, and the year before that, my sole class was a group of seniors I had known for years in a “zero” period class that was designed to support their college applications and readiness, so not the most challenging class.  This year, I’m back in the classroom for one period, teaching 9th grade English Learners who inspire and motivate me every day, who show great resilience and character, but who also face numerous struggles.  I find myself, with two years of graduate school in Education intervening, a slightly different teacher than I was when I last left the classroom.

Certain characteristics remain the same: I talk too much, I’m better in front of students than on the back-end organization, I primarily try to “discipline” through engaging instruction that confronts power, language, and students’ cultures.  But I also find myself matured in a few aspects.  Here are three:

1. Self-Advocacy and Self-Monitoring.  I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this change, but I’ve become much more conscious than the teacher I was five years ago that I’m not only trying to inspire students and connect with them in my own class, but I’m trying to facilitate the growth of those self-monitoring and self-advocacy tools that they need in all areas of life.  I think this results partly from a combination of re-reading John Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers and from being exposed to the brain research that helps us understand the importance of executive function.  But even more important an influence is the thinking I’ve done (thanks to being a researcher) about how youth are positioned by their social world into particular roles and expectations, how having some say over those roles and expectations requires youth to be able to grab hold of who they are and to manage themselves, and how intensely interested adolescents are in that management of perceptions.

In concrete terms, rather than pull students aside and vent my frustrations or try to win a moral victory over them, as I was more likely to do in the past, I now resort more often to the reflective sidebar where I ask students what they are achieving, how they perceive themselves and their situation, what they would like to become, and what they should attend to in order to get there.  I talk a lot about who they think they are acting out, whether that’s true to who they want to act out, and what kinds of signals or tools they can appropriate to project the person they want to project.  I leave the decision-making much more to the student.

When students have difficulty, I’m more likely to put them in a meta-cognitive position of evaluating their social and interactional situations and considering what choices they may not know they’re making.  And I’m learning the long-term payoffs of this; students know I’m indeed on their side, invested in their development, not trying to antagonize them but to help them grow in their understanding, perception, decision-making, autonomy.

2. Language in Use.  I had the same tendency in the past that many classroom teachers had of expecting the classroom teaching and classroom assessment become the telos, the end or final product, while the rest of the world abstractly existed out there as “do well in school ->do well in the world one day in the future.”  I find myself much more conscious of the molding and shaping effect of the outside context interacting with the classroom context.  My previous tendency was to think, “before we read this text, I have to build background knowledge and activate prior schema about this thing we’re reading.”

Now, especially in my writing instruction, I’m more prone to recognize that reading and writing for real life audiences, as part of actual social interaction with stakes, makes those tasks more meaningful to students.  In the past, I used to do a project or a unit that involved writing some kind of text or piece that others would see, usually something about community or social change.  Now I realize that both those tasks and the aesthetic and cultural ones, the ones engaging about literature or arts, as well as the ones that weigh in on complex social issues that don’t lead to immediate action but do involve real deliberative dialogue, ought all be part of the students’ writing portfolio and purview.  In other words, everything should be written for real-life audiences.

Those real-life audiences who we hear from and speak to are the ones who shape, normatively, what language looks like, what’s acceptable, what’s powerful and persuasive.  This does include using more model texts and mentor texts, but it also includes underscoring the social messages, meanings, groups, and gathering places that give life to those texts.  Students see a text with “researchers at Brown University”– I have to show a picture, talk about what they think researchers are like and what they do to gather information and draw conclusions.

These are the people they are writing to and in dialogue with.  That perception needs to start early for them, so they grow up believing and habituated into the idea that they have the voice and power to interact with the broader community, where their voices have impact, and where they must therefore fine tune their spelling, syntax, and stances to be heard.

3. The Long Arc.  In my last stint of teaching before going to grad school, I got to stay with a group of students for several years, some of them for all four years of high school.  When I first started teaching, the push to get more of these students along the same path that I went on, SATs, Honors classes, four year universities, helped me to maintain high expectations and ambitions for students who others might have written off, and I think that was important.  But this time back in the classroom, part of the seasoning of years of experience is recognizing the longer arc that exists for students, the multitude of possibilities and pathways, and the actual constituent elements of lifetime positive change.  I am less gung-ho about college, more concerned about students’ reconciliations with their own communities and families, the broader academic and professional world, the potential varieties of schooling and the implications of social class and civic participation.  In other words, I’m less college-driven, more attentive to a broader range of social and human imperatives, all of which can matter, none of which is meant to crowd out any other.

With this year’s freshmen, I realize that I have to continue to instill a vision of college, but having sold previous generations of students that bill of goods without having equipped them with what they need right now to get there or succeed there, I recognize more clearly the steps in-between we need to build: the support structure, the socioemotional development, the sense of mastery over youth’s own current environs and immediate futures as roads to who they are becoming.

All this alongside a more mature concern over not just what individual students are becoming, but what we are becoming as a community, including the school, our families, and our collective generation.  Although I have always talked about returning to your community, serving your community, making an impact in your community, I think that notion always felt more ideal and abstract than it does to me today.  As Gustavo Gutierrez challenged, (paraphrase here), if you claim you care about the poor, then tell me their names.  I am differently aware of the struggles and challenges of my students’ families and communities, especially as they become and resemble more and more my own.

All this makes me more interested in the long arc of what students are becoming than the urgent, short-term payoffs of having this many students enrolled in this or that many who make it past that bar.  Those ambitions are often healthy, but can become self-serving.

Developing Academic Language (notes from a workshop presented for Hayward Unified, Summer 2014)

This past week I had the privilege of presenting a two day workshop with an incredible group of middle school English teachers in my school district. The workshop was part of a larger, four day Summer Institute on implementing Common Core, which we have structured around inquiry projects that we are encouraging our teachers and their departments to pursue. Mine was one of three workshop tracks that participants could have chosen, and I want to capture some of my presentation and our discussion on academic language in a series of posts here.

The presentation, like the training itself, was not meant to be a definitive “final take” on academic language, and we were more concerned about embarking together on inquiries than offering foolproof solutions or pre-packaged strategies. This is not because there aren’t a lot of curricular options when it comes to academic language. There are many. One that our district is starting to implement is Kate Kinsella’s English 3D program, targeted towards Long Term English Learners. More on that program later in these posts.

But I have to admit I’m not wholly satisfied with what’s out there. I’ve learned a lot about academic language from scholars like Mary Schleppegrell, Patricia Duff, Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli, and Douglas Biber; and from the world of practitioner/writers, Jeff Zwiers, Fisher and Frey, Benjamin and Oliva, Don and Jenny Killgallon, Janet Allen, and others I’ve probably forgotten. I’ve also learned a lot about approaches to teaching language and literacy from various scholars and teachers, too many to list. But I still have yet to find the combination of deep awareness of academic language, instructional approaches relevant particularly to youth who are pushed away from academic language, and language- and literacy-acquisition conscious approaches that satisfies me. I think this workshop was a first attempt at putting that together with teachers who I respect and enjoy working with.

As an introduction, I shared a bit about my own personal history with forms of standard and academic English (I think personal histories in this regard can be very relevant). I’ll spare some of those details except to say that in some ways, I have had a tenuous relationship with academic English and English in general, being an immigrant as a child, often feeling left out or locked out from certain kinds of discourse, and questioning the identities that I would be putting on if I spoke and wrote in certain registers of academese. On the other hand, I’m also the opposite, a kid who found great vistas of imagination in things written by Victorian writers, a school and media nerd who knew how to interpret Thoreau before he was super clear on the difference between stoves and ovens (not for lack of using those appliances, but because they were called their Chinese names in my house), and an adult who traffics in academic language all the time. My larger point was that it’s way too simplistic to say that some of us “have” academic language and others don’t, or even that there’s such a thing as a stable, bounded set of things that would be called “academic language.” It’s all continua, spectra, hybrid and cross-flowing features.

But the workshop as a whole was segmented into five parts, which are what I will write about in these posts. In a cheesy alphabetic AND logical ordering (I told you I was a nerd), they were:

“Aspects of Academic Language and Vocabulary.” We tried to understand what distinguished academic language, and focused in on dimensions of vocabulary.

“Beyond Sentence Starters: Syntax Impacts.” We tried out a particular way to build students’ generative syntactic repertoire, and considered how grammar could be taught in a way tied to expression, imitation, and creation.

“Conversations leading to Critical Thinking.” We considered the role of academic discussion, using Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s Academic Conversations as a set of tools for building critical thinking through discussion and tying those to linguistic pieces. We also considered sociocultural theory of learning and the relationship of talk to writing.

“Discourse is My Favorite Course: Motivation and Social Aspects of Learning English.” We thought about discourse (language-in-use) and how it is tied to identity and participation in social groups, and how we could introduce and connect students to academic language in ways that made it meaningful to their development as social creatures.

“Editing and Evolving toward Academic English: Elaboration, embedding, explicitness, and elevated diction.” I offered some suggestions for developing students towards academic language in their writing through workshops and mini-lesosns focused on certain aspects of academic language, aspects which tend to separate the typical 7th grader’s writing from a more academic register.

The participants were awesome. I learned so much from them and owe them gratitude for teaching me quite a bit. We had fruitful exchanges and I’m eager to learn from what they do in their classrooms, how they take the work we did and extend it further in their practice.

I’ll try to do one post a day for the next week or so, putting down some of the ideas that we conveyed in our workshop. Stay tuned!
Photo on 7-3-13 at 3.20 PMMe, the presenter of “Developing Academic Language,” in Someone Else’s Office

Long Term English Language Learners and Social Languages

I owe much to Laurie Olsen, Guadalupe Valdez, and Kate Menken, scholars who have studied English Language Learners and helped us to understand the dimensions of their experiences, needs, and schooling.  I also appreciate Kate Kinsella’s contributions to the practical and pedagogical arsenal of teaching ELLs, though I have to admit that I have absorbed most of it secondhand.  From that quite extensive secondhand exposure, though, I have to tease out a nuance, maybe a point of difference between my thinking about ELLs (and especially Long-Termers) and what I’ve seen Kinsella advocate.

First, if you don’t know what I’m referring to when I talk about Long Term ELLs, I encourage you to read Laurie Olsen’s Californians Together report, or for something shorter Menken and Kleyn’s article, or for something longer and broader Guadalupe Valdez’s book on Latino students and ELs.

Kinsella has provided really useful teaching tools to help explicitly teach academic language to English Language Learners.  In a similar philosophical vein to how Lisa Delpit overcame the thesis-antithesis of “teach standardized English” versus “honor children’s own languages and voices” by pointing out the need to explicitly provide students with the language of the culture of power, Kinsella has developed and popularized ways of giving ELLs the linguistic structures (with explicit tools but implicit modes of acquisition, I would say) of academic English.

She has also painted a picture of the English classroom being a place that often doesn’t exist for Long Term ELs, a haven of comprehensible and contextualized academic language, a place where “they get what they don’t get at home but other kids do.”  Not in what Kinsella says but in the way teachers often interpret this, I think there’s the idea that ELs are deprived of exposure to academic forms of language like one might encounter when one’s parents listen to NPR on the drive to school or indulge in reading passages of David Brooks at the dinner table or something like that.    It dovetails nicely with the research about kids in lower-income homes who have language or vocabulary gaps that are powerfully determinative.

But it also rings of the verbal deprivation arguments once made about African American children, and other such arguments throughout history, many of which have been debunked but all of which reflect a certain ideology about what language is valuable and meritorious and what language is less valuable.  I don’t want to get into the circular reasoning about languages of power (such as academic English) being valuable because they are powerful and being powerful because they are valuable.  But I do want to extend the metaphor of certain varieties and registers of language serving as a kind of capital, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated, or as a kind of currency with exchange value in particular markets.  Yes, languages are like currency or capital.  Yes, it serves children to teach them to how to acquire and use such currency so that in social settings with real economic and psychological consequences, they can transact in these symbolic markets.  Yes, we should explicitly teach kids academic English.

But the thing about currency and markets that we have remember as well is that they hold value because they belong to human, social systems of belief and belonging.  As such, the value differs depending on which social group you belong to or inhabit, or attempt to cross boundaries into.  Anyone who has ever tried to use foreign currency in a US store, or has struggled to understand why any kid (or grownup) would spend hundreds of dollars on a baseball card or Pokemon card or comic book, understands the idea that exchange value exists within certain communities and social circles because .  And that in fact, different exchange values interact, intersect, and conflict in various ways among different social groups, in different communities and institutions, and for different purposes.

This is true of language as well.  My favorite example is the frequently funny and often outrageous use of English words in signage or clothing in Chinese-speaking countries, which English speakers often find inconceivable until they understand that oftentimes the purpose of the English is not to accurately convey descriptive information so much as to serve as a kind of symbolic decoration.  It’s much easier to understand if you think of the phenomenon of tattoos of Chinese characters on non-Chinese Americans, where the meanings, nuances, and connotations of the words in their “native” settings defer to the aesthetics of the words in the new setting.  All of this to say that languages are currencies, but they are currencies that have differential symbolic value for different people, and they can’t always be given, taken, or used in a pure calculation of simple addition and subtraction.

Therefore, while I agree that there is power in teaching children to punctuate properly or use the appropriate pronouns in a job interview, my problem with the “my classroom will be the 100% haven of academic language for these children who are deprived of it” approach is that it assumes that children are already locked in and ready to take on the symbolic exchange values of academic language with the same meanings and same calculations as all other children.  I don’t think this is a safe assumption.  In fact, oftentimes the reasons they have been marginalized from acquiring and appropriating those linguistic markers is not that they have not been read to, had the chance to watch CNN, or been given lessons on subject-verb agreement, especially long term ELLs.  Oftentimes, they have been marginalized because those languages and lessons have not been socially meaningful to them, have not had the exchange value that they have for other kids, and in some cases have even had the reverse value.  For some of them, school language is the language of the other, even the language of the enemy, as much as it may also be at the same time the language of opportunity and important communication.  To teachers, such a resistant attitude seem like a counterproductive, self-inflicted wound, but for kids, there are often good and reasonable, real and often socially and historical rooted causes.

This is not to say that all Long Term ELs resist acquiring academic English or don’t value it.  It’s not so simple.  I would just put it this way: teachers of academic English have to think not only about making academic English explicit and accessible to students, but also to introduce and maybe reconfigure its significance, its contexts, and the people for whom it is meaningful and how students relate to those people.  We have to be thoughtful as teachers about the aspects of identity, belonging, participation, performance, and association that are involved in acquiring academic English for our students, and how we intervene in those social and cultural dimensions.  Besides teaching how to use and value the currency, we have to consider how the community that the currency counts is one that students know, feel part of, have reciprocal significance with, etc.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the classroom should be the haven of 100% academic English.  There’s great value in exposure, in comprehensible input, in saturation and immersion in the target language, in models and tokens and so on.  But if academic English is already somehow isolating to students, if there’s a need for teachers to be models of the way humans move between language groups, can identify with being a Spanish speaker or a culture consumer or a game spitter as well as an academic English teacher, then an injunction to rigid all-classroom-language monolingualism compels the wrong model.  I feel that long term English learners need models of mobility, not of fixity.  If the monolith of standard English was going to be intrinsically appealing to them as a language of the heart, a language of home, a language of expression, it would have become so already.  It has not, and we have to mitigate the alienating effects of it with a greater linguistic consciousness than a blunt either/or raw exposure effect.  This might mean being code-switchers and code-meshers in the classroom.  This might mean showing how different signifiers, different dialects, different registers can be meaningfully mixed and crossed.  This might mean cultivating multi-multi-linguals instead of just better academic English users.  Those social languages, of which academic English is but one, one that has to be made social and relational for students, can’t be artificially divorced and divided when we’re asking kids to manifest their mixing.




Diffendoofer Ethics and Common Core Assessments

Seuss/Prelutsky’s Vision of Schooling: Teach Creatively, Teach Creativity, Watch the Tests Take Care of Themselves

Anyone who talks about implementing the Common Core State Standards cannot be serious about the CCSS’s stated objectives if they are not simultaneously transforming the ways we learn about students, not just with the types (and media) of standardized assessments (PARCC and SBAC, that’s at you), but with different, ongoing, and authentic ways of assessing that help us to teach them better, as Linda Darling-Hammond describes in that link.  (And, as well, not serious unless they resource teacher professionals to do that work.)

Much of my work as a teacher-coach is shaped by the test-makers, and I don’t love that but it’s not a hill I will die on.  But whatever chance I get, I try to emphasize the principle I learned from Jack Prelutsky’s completion of Dr. Seuss’s planned, unfinished Hooray for Diffendoofer Day.  At Diffendoofer School, Miss Twining teaches “tying knots in neckerchiefs and noodles” and “Miss Vining teaches all the ways a pigeon may be peppered,” sparking and spurring creativity with all the eccentric and adventurous activity, until the fretting principal announces, “All schools for miles and miles around must take a special test, to see who’s learning such and such–to see which school’s the best.  If our small school does not do well, then it will be torn down, and you will have to go to school in dreary Flobbertown.”  The children are in shock, until they start the test and find, “‘Yahoo!’ we yelled. ‘Yahoo!’ For it was filled with all the things that we all knew we knew.  There were questions about noodles, about poodles, frogs, and yelling… there were questions about other things we’d never seen or heard, and yet we somehow answered them, enjoying every word.”  Diffendoofers teach with passion, experimentation, and the rigor of real-life engagement, and find the exams to be incidental.

It’s Dr. Seuss day or something, which we can celebrate by reading to our kids and encouraging reading.  But we should also demand that equity means much more than standardized thinking and test-driven instruction.  Let’s teach critique, let’s teach depth, but let’s teach it not because a computer will demand it of children in May, but because they world will thrive, because there are problems to solve and suffering to alleviate and stories to be told.


Thoughts on Developing a Writing Assessment

The focus of my teaching work of late has turned toward developing and administering a district wide writing assessment for middle school argument writing.  Amid warnings from the latest Rethinking Schools about all the extra baggage that makes Common Core implementation dangerous, like even higher stakes in testing and privatization, many of us on the ground are still working towards making something good out of what might be good.  The writing assessment we are crafting, like so many others being made in the likeness of the testing industry’s new Common Core assessments, involves a performance task requiring multiple sources students weave together as evidence to compose their own written argument.  It’s a tough task.  And we’re asking for teachers across disciplines to be involved in the endeavor with us: some English and Science teachers developed the test in consultation, teachers are administering it across the board, and most of the teaching staffs (including Science and History teachers, not only English) will be involved in the scoring process, learning to distinguish performance on various scales of a rubric.  The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary understanding and discussion, so that we’re all in the same boat.

My hopes are that teachers begin to give students credit for the sharp critical thinking they are capable of doing about problems of social, scientific, and cultural concern, and learn to express and argue with sophistication, nuance, and maturity across spheres.  I hope that all of this leads to teachers imagining engaging, cross-disciplinary units that involve interaction rhetorically with real-world problems and perhaps real-world audiences, cultivating civic voices and ethical commitments in the process of refining their linguistic repertoires. 

My fears are that teachers feel another wave of endeavors crammed down their throats without the time and space to formulate their own understandings, to take ownership and cultivate their own belief systems, and to hone practices that get students beyond surface understandings and procedural displays.  My fears are that students are being asked to do much, with the stick coming long before the carrot.  I am concerned about the ideology which attempts to drive teaching with evaluation, drive pedagogy with assessments, since evaluations and assessments often boil down to the most blunt and simplified versions of “the answers,” and what students need is complexity, individualization, and trust.  I tremble when I hear about computer-scored essays and merit pay schemes based on these assessments.

What teachers have to do (magically in the negative four hours of free time they have each day) is coordinated efforts of ownership, demonstrating that collaborative creation, scoring, and use of these assessment instruments by teachers for teaching is the only function that matters.  But it’s just impossible with all else that we have on our hands. Continue reading

Cultivating work of “a tough mind and a tender heart”

In a sermon reprinted in 1963’s Strength to Love, Martin Luther King calls for a dialectic of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness, which he encapsulates in nonviolent resistance, which “combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”  It’s a simplistic schematic, but it contains the best of what I appreciate about Dr. King, particularly as a thinker.  Resistance cannot be complacent, must not only be in a state of unrest, but must stir up unrest.  Academia’s complicity in reifying the domination and stratification of the ruling classes extends from its dependence on the means of corporate interests and warmongers, to its shirking of intellectual responsibility to be truth-tellers, as gadflies from Chomsky to Cornel West, from Gramsci to Bourdieu, have reminded us.  But nonviolence is a concerted effort of compassion and love, a hard-nosed and sustained, painful and dedicated commitment to humanizing oppressed and oppressors, of calling out the evil in others and recognizing it in ourselves, of strength enough to fight and sympathy enough to free.  I think my own tendency is to attempt to be a scholar of reconciliations, a tender-hearted embrace of as many perspectives as wish to sing kumbaya around the table.  But the organic intellectual must also speak forth what’s misguided, what’s hegemonic, what’s imperial, often in the very language and forms of communication which are designed to mark out, distinguish, separate, and exclude.  She must do so while suffering the schizophrenia of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness.

We must be in grateful and continued dialogue with those we resonate with, but also with those we disagree with.  We must engage them with clarity and force, but also in a spirit of understanding.  For instance, I think often of how I should write about our schools as a scholar.  Will my critique antagonize school leaders?  Get me pinned as a “critical” (read: irrelevant) voice, offering nothing substantive to the conversation?  Or do I compose myself with the same norms of research, the packaging of quantifiable, value-added economic efficiency-trained best practices, that I feel drain the work of its humane, particular, contextualized, and potentially revolutionary bent?  The answer is to do neither.  The answer is to step into the morass, to march up where other voices are uninvited, to speak with common moral language of authority, and if necessary to stand there with the courage to be flogged and hosed.  But to do so with the recognition that your opponent needs to hear something, needs to be reminded, needs to be called back to something which first put him in front of kids in a classroom, first compelled her to invest in children…

Education scholars must be endlessly critical, as a matter of critical hope, which is material hope, substantial hope.  But we must also be willing to be refined in good-faith dialogue.  We must continually find the veins of shared blood even among those with incommensurable perspectives and contrary positions.  For me, that means despite my significant concerns and critique of Common Core, David Coleman, and the Gates Foundation and so on, which I will have to write about one day, I can’t help but bristle at Susan Ohanian’s sometimes eloquent but often bitter screed against the “heart’s death” we are supposed to resist with Common Core’s onset.  In broad sweeps, I largely agree, and would like also for my daughter to have crayons and finger paints, but I wish our disagreement did not have to be such a whole-cloth dismissal.  In reality, earnest teachers are rolling with this momentary swinging pendulum, still instilling the distinctive and personalized passion for language and literature with or without CCSS, NCTE, or whatever body’s say-so.  Only those who believed in salvation by standards will perish in its flames, and would have anyway.  Instead of a “resisting the system,” we might, by our teaching, call the system to the carpet for its failures of vision and purpose, and struggle for children to be “college and career-ready” as incidental to the bigger project of human flourishing, civic empowerment, and cultural development that we are engaged in.  I’m not saying we should sell out, but can I hope we can retort transcendently.


Why teaching is political and why it’s worth it

Working together with some incredible colleagues today, I shared a thought that occurred to me years into my work as a teacher and a coach, that much of teaching and being a teacher leader was a matter of navigating politics. This often feels secondary, like a distraction, like ugly business and irrelevant to the real work of teaching kids. In many ways it is. But I came to understand at one point that working on those politics, building bridges with those lone ranger teachers, tactfully speaking up to or finding common ground with admins with different imperatives, working in solidarity with your union even when their protections require creative workarounds… Yes, it can be a lot of politics piled on to 8 hours of teaching plus evenings of lesson planning and grading.

But it is in fighting for the things that matter for kids in the midst of those politics, for the sake of the kids, that collective change and growth happens. As teachers we should have the ideal situation to support meaningful collaboration and colleagues ready to share the best they have, so that our focus is utterly on great instruction, assessment, and relationships with kids.

But in reality, those politics that seem constraining are the very territory over which the relevant battles are fought. The stakeholders don’t always have the best motives compelling them at each moment, but they very often have good intentions that you can appeal to. And even where people are the enemy, they are wolves we must protect our flock from, and worth our efforts. These stakeholders impact our kids. To engage them with integrity, strategy, commitment to equity and humanity, and love, is often to serve the kids and communities that are our bottom line.

Daily manipulables


These bathtub letters have demonstrated the versatility of manipulables of the alphabetic and numeric base units. My daughter learns orthographic conventions like placing letters left to right, phonetic stuff like peppering words with vowels to make them utterable, and symbolic conventions like this, her invention of a “new calendar” with different numbering systems. She pairs letters together which can be wedged together and makes boats out of them, asking what the paired letters might stand for: UV, HR, DA, and even two-letter phonemes and words. She made a label for a birthday present and produced the spelling to “to” and “from” and “hi” largely thanks to her play with these. Now if we could get her to willingly shampoo…

CLEVR, Argumentation, Logic, and Authorities/Audiences


As with so many across the country in the wake of Common Core, my partner and I, who share a job as middle school English coaches in our district, have been working on Argument Writing. The intrepid colleagues that we collaborate with have stretched our thinking about what argumentation looks like, how it’s taught, how it can be assessed, and what value it has.  The poster is a reinterpretation of George Hillocks’ schematic representation of Stephen Toulmin’s now-classic delineation of the elements of argument, which he arrived at inductively from a study of arguments in contemporary usage (in contrast, to, say, Aristotelian logic).  Trying to be conversant with the parlance of the field, we’ve used the language of claim, evidence, and reasoning.  That differentiation seems to have a lot of utility and currency in Science, Social Studies, and literacy in the Common Core standards themselves.  The teachers we work with now make reference to introducing “CLEVR” as a means of analyzing and evaluating arguments and of developing their own arguments.

Even as I applaud the rigorous thinking that elaborating this construct is developing, I admit I’m lukewarm on it.  Yes, much academic and professional writing is conventionalized to require an explicitness in the logic, premises, criteria, and so on, that undergird an argument.  The need for students to develop that facility is not lost on me.  (I could probably use a good dose of it myself).  Yet, consider this paragraph from Steve Coll in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column this week:

The Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism reflects a longer, deeper decline in the Republican Party’s ability to tolerate a diversity of iras and public-policy strategies, and to adapt to American multiculturalism. Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Latino voters in 2012 helped insure Barack Obama’s reëlection.  Republican leaders, chastened and without any other obvious way to increase their vote base before 2016, pledged earlier this year to revive a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.  Yet party leaders, in part because they have been tied down since July by the debt confrontation, haven’t found a way to move legislation past the nativist caucus in the House.

Try to isolate the pieces of claim, evidence, and reasoning from that paragraph and you’re likely to realize that New Yorker audiences would be insulted by such explicitness about inferences they do not need an author to make for them.  Indeed, the same goes for a television sketch that would feel the need to explain why it’s funny, or virtually any other form of discourse which makes some kind of point or claim.  “If I have to explain the reasoning to you, then what are you doing here?”

Of course, the very function of language of schooling is to not rely on such inferences, implicitness, innuendo, in-crowd language, inside jokes… to express all complexities on the surface of language.  But I think teaching students claims, evidence, and reasoning without a concomitant attention to the irreducible element of an argument’s situated-ness in particular authorities and audiences is an incomplete education.  What reasoning is good reasoning?  Depends on who you’re speaking to.  What evidence is good evidence?  Depends on your sources of authority, your notions of truth, your epistemology.  What claims are forceful claims?  Who knows but those from whom we learn and to whom we speak, in the dialogicality of real-life interaction?

It seems like Toulmin extracted a nice scheme from real-life arguments.  I argue that we need to teach with a relentless consciousness of putting arguments back into real life.  Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning, but lay bare the addressivity and addressees.  Identify the warrants and backing, but know those aren’t abstractions, but the narratives and worldviews of living and breathing speech communities, cultural groups, participants of discourses.  And when we unfold the dimensions of claims, evidence, and reasoning that belong to the scientific community or the field of historians or the lingo of BBoys or culinary patois, we should not withhold from students reflection on all their specificity of location, politics, and development.  “Copernicus derived these conclusions from these calculations.  And he analyzed in this way in contrast to these predecessors for these reasons.  He ultimately published in this fashion and was taken up in these ways by these proponents.”  No arguments without arguers.