I’ve (almost) never enjoyed Bad Ideas so much!

The three articles in the collection of Bad Ideas were, by far, my favorite readings this week!  Tyler Branson’s “First-Year Composition Prepares Students for Academic Writing” was an excellent essay that highlights the disconnect between the expectations of students as first-year writers, and the expectations of teachers of first-year writers.  Branson’s essay was thoughtful from a pedagogical point of view, evidenced by likes such as, “Writing is a process of brainstorming, composing, revising, having your work read by others, and then revising again.” (p. 19)  But it was also genuinely human, heartfelt, and connected in that he points out that even good composition can be bad, when it is used, for example, by unscrupulous politicians and pundits to score points rather than express and exchange ideas.  And Branson’s article was real, in the sense that it honestly urged people to look at what we are teaching, and question whether or not we are actually teaching our students, or children, to “sift through the bullshit” as a way of not only writing a good “research paper,” but of engaging effectively in all aspects of civic life.

Julie Myatt Barger’s “Reading Is Not Essential to Writing Instruction” brought up many relevant points for me as a teacher, but also as a mom.  A while back, I was upstairs cooking dinner, and I could hear my frustrated husband yelling the following directions at my son, who is three: “Clean!” “Come on!” “Clean up, Evan!” “Now!”  I literally left a pan of frying meatballs sizzling on the stovetop, and walked down the stairs, wooden spoon in hand, and feeling a-little-too-like-my-mother, and proceeded to mom-splain to him that, “You can’t just yell orders at him! He doesn’t know how to clean! You have to teach him! Show him what you want him to do.”  Then, I condescendingly modeled what I meant: “Here, Evan.  This is a truck.  Put the trucks back in the truck bin.  This is a dinosaur. Where do the dinosaurs go?”  It was a moment of sheepishness for my husband, and a little clarity for me in that classroom things don’t always stay in the classroom.  I brought home a “telling is not teaching” moment.  Thankfully, I think my husband “got it,” and I haven’t had to use the wooden spoon for anything other than stirring the Sunday gravy!

The point is, Barger brings up these key points in her essay: telling is not teaching, testing is not teaching, and teaching reading and teaching writing are not the same thing, although they are two sides of the same coin.  I really enjoyed the validation of this article, in that it underscored the idea that reading can be revised, redone, revisited, just like writing can (“reading, like writing, is a recursive process” (p. 47)), and that reading should play an integral role in the teaching of writing. A fantastic example of this is a text we use for Multicultural Lit, called The Bedford Reader.  It’s a series of mentor texts that are literary in nature, although mostly personal essays.  But The Bedford Reader doesn’t teach reading, as its name would suggest.  It teaches writing.  Beautiful, huh?

Barger also brings up the lack of training for teachers, and the lack of context that many student assignments have: “All too often, [the research paper] has no audience other than the teacher, no purpose beyond earning a grade, leaving students with little motivation to locate quality sources and use them thoughtfully.” (p. 46)  This is where blogs like this one come into play, or asking your high school student to choose a research topic of personal importance, then submit their paper to a local newspaper editorial board, or your middle schooler to make a submission to an essay contest, or your elementary schooler to give the booklet they created to a family member as a gift.  Writing should have an audience, and it should matter

And the third, buy by far my favorite, Bad Idea was in Allison D. Carr’s “Failure Is Not an Option.”  (Even before reading it, my initial thought was, “Says who? Yes, it is!”)  Her style was highly effective, especially in the beginning.  The whole pattern of diction in the first paragraph badgers the reader with a verbal onslaught of negative associations of the word “failure,” and gives the effect of mirroring the anxieties many students have regarding a fear of failure, particularly in an academic setting.  She then swings the pendulum too far in the other direction (narrowly missing a kitten on a rainbow), in order to highlight the dangers of being overly rosy about the usefulness of failure- if

The rest is pure gold!  The freeing permission: “To fail willingly in writing is to be empowered by the possibilities that emerge.” (p. 76)  The horrible realization that literacy, something that is supposed to be a tool to free human expression, was for so long used as an instrument of othering: “…a social marker to divide the literate from the illiterate, the worthy poor from the unworthy, ‘us’ from ‘them.’” (p. 77)  The “integral connection between failure and risk” (p.77) she refers to as being responsible for “innovations discovered by accident” among which she neglected to mention Viagra… But I digress… Now for an awkward segue to children’s lit:

One of my favorite books for my daughter is Rosie Revere, Engineer.  It’s about the great, great grand-niece of Rosie the Riveter, and her trials and failures at inventing things.  And I love it not only because it’s a fantastic quasi-historical fiction book, but because of its overarching message: “The only true failure can come if you quit.”  What a powerful message for a child, and one we should be teaching to all our students, regardless of their age!  I really enjoyed the encouragement this essay offered, the empowerment, the permission, just all of it!

Which is why I was so deflated and confuddled when I read (or, rather, attempted to read) “Envisioning possibilities: visualizing as enquiry in literacy studies.”  My brain is melted.  Like an orange and vanilla swirled frozen custard with rainbow sprinkles (or are they jimmies?) after fifteen steps down the boardwalk in the hot July evening air, just running down the back of my hand.  That’s how my brain felt after this essay.  Three essays.  My vision is off…

What I could salvage from this essay were the following points:

1. Static data lacks the dimensionality to foster true analysis;

2. I know nothing about music beyond how to play “Happy Birthday” poorly on a piano;

3. Pencil noises and the sound of tapping keys makes kids nervous, because they think the other kids “get the assignment,” so it makes them write, even if they have no idea what they are talking about, just to keep up with the Joneses;

4. In comics (and I suppose “graphic novels,” for all of us who want to pretend to be adults) images are just as- or perhaps more- important than words;

5. Scientists like to draw things; and 

6. I’m not Oxford-smart.

Help me, Hugo!  I’m a puddle on a sandy plank, and the seagulls are nigh!