Blog # 2: Defining Ourselves: Why Now? And to Whom?

If each of us had to define and describe in five sentences or less what we do as English teachers for our students—PreK-Graduate—what would we say? How would we define specifically what we do without using any of the following: grading, papers, long hours, inadequate remuneration, not enough time, trying conditions, and the list would probably continue. However, does such a list really define and describe what we do; who we are as English teachers, educators, intellectuals?

All too often, we rely on job-synecdoches—listing the descriptive “parts” of what we do in lieu of drilling into and revealing the “scope and sequence” of what we do—the order of units, plans, curricula. But what exactly do we do, and why is now, the critical time for us to know and share, and, yes, control, the narrative?

What We Do: The integral components requisite for a child, tween, teen, adult of all human and social iterations to function and succeed in daily living and career require that ELA teachers expose and provide the accesskeys through reading (fiction, nonfiction), writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, researching, and viewing. Sparking and fomenting sustained critical thinking contextualize the learning environment.

“What we do” has had resonance and consequence throughout the history of this country for educated and illiterate, for chattel and immigrant, indentured and migrant, for those born free and those who were later freed. “What we do” has enabled individuals to defy efforts to deny the vote, deny voice, deny one’s very presence, and to deny difference.

More importantly, students themselves articulate best what we do. Recently, I asked several groups of students—MS/HS—around the country to explain to me and to each other if their reading, writing, speaking, research, and listening in their English classes have or have not affected their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Their responses were thought-provoking. Here are a few nuggets:

• The books we read make me aware of different people and cultures I have not met yet.
• I understand better how to deal with difficult situations and when to speak and not.
• I did not know other people felt the way I do about split families; it was good to read about someone else and what he did when his parents left each other.
Who Is Our Audience and Why Must We Do Something Now ?
Emerson stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (Self-Reliance). To be sure, consistency and certainty are not wholly undesirable. English teachers are consistent and constantly embrace change, ever-reflecting the notion of Emerson’s thesis—that we need not fear defining and redefining, adapting and evolving “what we do:” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
Ours is an ever-changing audience: students from generation to generation who actually don’t age and mature from year to year with us. In addition, both teachers and students from year to year are in a different space and place, constructing meaning and building relationships differently. Parents, too are our audience, as are local, state, and federal policy makers. Finally, another factor to this list is any person who feels comfortable commenting on the state of education and on who we are, describing us as some innocuous group who have weekends and summers off. Well. . . In the midst of these varied audiences, our students and their parents represent our permanent audience that is never in stasis. What affects this audience directly affects us. Parents and their children today, more than in the past, contend with social change, upheavals, uncertainty, a technology juggernaut, and a general, expansive sense of dis-ease.

While some of our colleagues yet contend we need not pay attention to any of these audiences, and others contend students decidedly don’t qualify as audience, we must pay attention to our students as audience—an audience who remains with us for a significant portion of their lives.

Within the dis-ease, the cacophony of non-teacherly voices, and our generationally-shifting students, we must acknowledge the immediacy of our using voices, best practices, and students’ testimonies as to the import and efficacy of our profession and our expertise within it. For too long, we have allowed others to intuit what we do. For too long we have been satisfied with the notion that people just know and remember what we do and its import.

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

We, ELA teachers, represent the sustained, coherent, cohesive, and substantive instructional pathway Dr. King articulated. Now, the path before us requires that we define, articulate, illustrate, and model all we have done, are doing, and will continue to do for life.

This is what we do and who we are as English teachers.



2 thoughts on “Blog # 2: Defining Ourselves: Why Now? And to Whom?

  1. Dearest Jocelyn,
    These are beautiful words and ideas, At the Folger, we too are struggling to help teachers get through these times. I am happy to share this with our colleagues here.


  2. Jocelyn,
    Thank you for asking me to think about how I define myself as a literacy educator, as well as what I am willing to defend. It is hard to summarize the work that we do and the importance of that work. While I have spent years learning about best practices in literacy assessment and instruction, this is not really what defines me. It is not how my preservice teachers define me. Yes, they learn these things from me, and yes I expect them to apply those practices in their classrooms, but that is not what they remember. That is not how my work as a literacy educator is impacting them and their students. That is not how I whisper to them even when I am not present. Who I am as a literacy educator is deeply ingrained in the way that I use literacy to help them to see themselves, to believe in themselves.

    I work with preservice teachers who are often first-time-in-college students, who are minorities, who are parents and grandparents. I don’t teach many traditional students, and I like it that way. My preservice teachers come to me with many having been let down by our K-12 systems. They are in danger of repeating the cycle of oppression because so many fall back into doing what was done to them in school. I do not think they intentionally take this path; I think they often walk it because nobody has empowered them to believe that they can do something different. It is my job as a literacy educator to help them believe that they can do something different.

    How do I do it? I let them discover it. I read aloud books that make me cry, and I talk about how they have impacted who I am as a person and a reader. I thirst for more books like that, and I tell them that all of the time. They know that I love books because I bring them in to share and show. They see that I believe in myself as a reader, and I tell them the story about how this all started very late in life for me. I tell them that it is never too late for them to become avid readers, even when some of them have never finished a book. I help them discover their own favorites, and they share those with me and their peers. They talk to me about how their literacy histories have changed and how they now see reading as important. They want the same for their students because they were able to discover it for themselves. When they write to me, I celebrate every paragraph, sentence, or word that inspires me. I help them to see the power that they have as writers. They become comfortable sharing their thoughts with me because their thoughts matter. I encourage them to let their voices be heard and to make a difference with their words. The are bolstered as writers and as people, and I know that they will bolster their students too.

    You see, I could say that I teach teachers how to assess students and write lesson plans and conduct guided reading groups and develop literacy centers and so forth. I do. But, that is not the most important thing that I do. The most important thing that I do is that I see potential in each of my students, and I just simply use literacy to help them to see it too. In the long run, I hope that they do the same for their students.

    I have recently spent a lot of energy on ELAR standards revision in my state. I have listened to politicians worry about phonics, handwriting, and required reading lists. I have tried to bring them the voices of the teachers so that they can see what teachers need. As I talked with them, I was never sure how to explain what I have just said above. Maybe I was afraid that they might see me as a whole language hippie. I don’t see myself that way at all. I just see myself as a teacher who truly cares about all students and who really loves reading and writing. How can I get them to see that literacy education is about so much more than minute skills? I have tried, and because of your post, I am determined to keep trying until they really get to know the stories of my students and how my students, no matter how much phonics training they get, can never be great teachers if they have not been able to explore their own learning lives and develop the self-confidence that it takes to allow their own students to learn…to really learn for life.


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