In this letter, the executive director of the Tennessee Council of Teachers of English reflects on what literacy means in the age of “reform.” Is literacy the goal? Is literacy possible? Can we ignore “reform” and just talk about Frost and Whitman and literature? Or does “reform” require something else? The unspoken here, if I may interpret, is that the future of literacy is at stake; that “reform” may produce good test-takers who are unable to question what they are doing or why they are doing it.
Letter from the Executive Director of the Tennessee Council of Teachers of English:
On Literacy and Education Reform.
I would like to escape the tiresome topic of education reform. I would like to say, “Let’s get back to the subject itself! Let’s get back to the teaching of English, to the subjects of writing, literature, and literacy… .” And yet. You may have anticipated the coming of a yet. And yet, what I would like to write about writes me right back to the subject of education reform, the very subject that I would like to escape. I would ten times rather drowse in nostalgia, dreaming of a golden age, an age when writing, literature, and literacy were mostly all that teachers worried with and all in our world was well-enough to worry little more. Yet, as soon as the letters of literacy are typed and appear—like the reflex to stop anything when a bell is struck—the reverie ends. The reverie ends as a similar reverie ends, the brief and interrupted reverie of the narrator in Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” That reverie begins with the narrator watching woods fill up with snow and ends with the ringing “yet” of a horse’s harness bells—a “yet” that calls the narrator back to the yet of where he is and what it is that he must yet do.
If only in teaching I could escape education reform. If only I could watch words like snow fill pages of poems such as Frost’s. If only I could return to the midwivery of writing instruction, to the unlocking of minds that the keys of literacy bring. But then, there’s the word again, literacy. Something makes me hang upon the word. Something on which I halt, something that calls, something that rings with the meaning of literacy itself, something that will not let me sleep. That ringing something begins with this notion, the notion that literacy is not so simple as it sounds.
Being literate is more than an ability. It is more than an ability because in a larger sense being literate implies that one is not simply able to read. Being literate implies that one actually reads. Being literate further implies that one reads more than words—because in a stronger sense, being literate can refer to multiple kinds of literacy. Financial literacy, political literacy, and social literacy, for example, are kinds of literacies, a few of the literacies we use to navigate the world. We can also be literate in a metacognitive way; being literate implies that we can read between the lines. Being literate thus extends to perception and understanding, to experience and knowledge. Beyond these, even, literacy extends to wisdom and ethics, to being literate in the sense of purpose that calls us in our lives and in our professions. There is a literacy to intuition and more mystically a literacy to conscience, that ringing bell that sounds between our ears.
In our roles as teachers of literacy, we are today called to practice the art. We are called to become literate ourselves, to become literate where it is now most needed for us as teachers. We are called to become literate in education reform. The irony is that we are called to “reform literacy” at a time when we are stressed and fatigued by education reform itself, at a time when we would most like to lose ourselves in the woods of literature, woods lovely and deep. We are called to “reform literacy” at a time when we would most like to return to that joy that energizes and drives our passion for teaching. We did not enter teaching because we had a passion for political activism. We would all much rather be reading an article that fuels our knowledge and ability as teachers of English, not another article that refers to education reform.
And yet. Yet there is that rising clamor of bells clanging in our ears, a clamor that does not diminish but grows louder with the passing days. Like ringing bells, AYP, Common Core, teacher evaluation, failing school… We hear these “bells” ringing in faculty meetings, in the teacher’s lounge—and what newsletter or journal in our field today would be complete without an article on education reform? We can only cover our ears for so long. That same workhorse nature that drove us to teaching, that compelling drive to bring light to others and to make a better world, that same workhorse nature now shakes to wake us. It shakes to wake us from watching our woods fill up with snow, a snow that silently steals upon the sleeping until too late, and they are too deeply buried to escape. We hear it in our hearts, these compelling bells. Not yet can we sleep.
We who have loved literature must remember why we loved literature in the first place. We have loved literature in the first place for what it can be, the highest expression of literacy itself, a literacy lifted by words to that aether beyond where words can fly. What literature can be, in its highest expression, is a literacy of life, a literacy born of our collective human experience, collective experience that may warn, for one, when we must stop watching the woods fill up with snow and go to work.
I am tempted to mix (extended) metaphors and invoke the bells of Whitman’s “O Captain, M Captain.” I am tempted to say that similar bells now call us to our promise as teachers, a promise to be captains, leaders in our classrooms. I am tempted to say that similar bells remind us of our duty to those eyes that follow, to steady the keel while weathering the storm of reform, to develop the literacy we need to safely navigate our ship.
I am tempted to continue with metaphor, but I should be blunt. I should write in language plain and clear.
In mid 2011, I had been following education reform news for a while. I was not following it deliberately. I was simply subject to the haphazard news and rumors circulating in my small school. I read what news I ran across, but I did not give much time to looking more deeply into what I read. Of course in my daily life, I could not help but notice changes, to note tenure’s demise, to worry whether our school would manage to meet AYP for every subgroup of students, to be concerned with being evaluated and whether my students would show significant growth. Then about two years ago, I began by degrees to read with more direction, to research the facts of what I was told, to try to read between the lines. Increasingly, as I did so, I began to realize just how illiterate I was with respect to education reform, and the more I read, the more I read. I drew upon all of the literacies in which I had been trained: economic literacy, political literacy, social literacy, and drawing from each of these literacies, slowly began to make sense for myself of what is happening in education—or, what I would like to say, what is really happening in education. But here I’ll say no more. It rather goes against the grain of my point to share the conclusions to which I myself have come, save one. There is one conclusion that I will share.
The conclusion that I will share is this: no matter how much we would like to return to talking about the teaching of English, to the subjects of writing, literature, and literacy, we cannot escape the fact of education reform. We cannot escape the fact of education reform because—in epic irony—education reform purports explicitly to be directed at developing literacy on the one hand, and on the other hand, education reform seems only ostensibly to be directed at developing literacy—and may rather be motivated by aims quite unrelated to the development of literacy. Indeed, by some accounts, if the full aims of so called “education reform” should be realized, such aims will succeed in part owing to a general lack in the kinds of literacy needed for the public to develop well-informed opinions, for there is the worry that education reform’s true aims may in important ways differ from the stated aims generally cited to the public. Indeed, if the motives the more cynical ascribe to education reform prove true, then the aims of education reform are anything but literacy. Budget and profit-driven aims may, for example, depend instead upon illiteracy, the illiteracy of an all too trusting public, a public that uncritically accepts what figures of authority state to be true. Budget and profit-driven aims of education reform may, as it turns out, depend highly upon teachers and the public alike to take what they are told at face value, to fail to read, to fail to read further, to fail to read between the lines, and to uncritically accept and unquestioningly assume, for example, that if they are told that failing schools are epidemic in America, then it must be true that failing schools are epidemic in America.
I may hint at what I think the evidence shows, but one must draw one’s own conclusions. Yet, to draw our own conclusions, we first must read about education reform. We must find the extra time and energy to investigate education reform for ourselves. We must employ the literacy we uniquely have at our own command and be open-minded to the possibility that education reform may not be all that it purports to be—for surely bells that once sounded far away in the distance are now sounding closer and more numerous than before. It is hard not to hear these questioning bells today—and surely we can no longer ignore what we are hearing without our own investigations, applying the tools of the literacy we claim to teach.
We would like to sleep and dream of a world undisturbed with worries of education reform. We would like to think we could go on about the usual business of teaching English, returning to the subjects of writing, literature, and literacy—without making a new subject of “reform literacy.” We would like to ignore the bells and simply watch the woods fill up with snow, as if such snow were but a dream.
But perhaps we should “reform” our own ideas, particularly about the meaning of literacy itself. Perhaps we should think of literacy as always at root connected with the reading of reality, with the truth of circumstance, with the here and now, with truth itself. For if literacy loses its connection with the truth, with what is literally happening, then we would no longer be teaching, much less teaching literacy. We would be passively participating in what is antithethical to literacy, a kind of collective self-deceit.
The word literacy rings us to our senses, so to speak, and we have miles to go before we sleep.
Dwight Robert Wade
Executive Director, Tennessee Council of Teachers of English