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My NCTE

Posted: 2010-01-31

I'd like to explain why NCTE's current policy makes me ache. . . and weep.


Back in 1978-1979, Yetta Goodman was President of NCTE. Although I'd been a member for a number of years and even had an article in the November 1979 English Journal, I'd never been to a convention. Teachers in my district did not go to out-of-state conventions.

Even so, I wanted NCTE to know that I was upset by their choice of keynote speaker for their convention, and so I wrote Yetta (not knowing that the vice- president, not the president, chooses the program). Yetta answered, thanking me for writing and inviting me to get involved in the organization beyond my membership.

I figured Yetta must have put my name on a list, because the following summer I received an official invitation to be a reactor/recorder at the 1980 convention in Cincinnati. District officials were as astounded as I. None of us had a clue what a reactor/recorder did, but it sounded official and important, and I was off to my first national convention.

You might better understand the stir this created when I tell you that I was a language arts teacher in a district where the language arts chair person reacted to my comment about NCTE policy on the teaching of grammar with "NCTE? What's that?"

The next year I was invited to be on a panel and was off to Boston. And then I went to meet with my new-found colleagues in Washington, D. C, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle, and so on.

I became an active participant in NCTE affairs--committees and presentations, and that participation, introducing me to colleagues who embraced, informed, and expanded my vision of teaching, saved my professionalism. In those courageous days, I served on a committee, chaired by Sheila Fitzgerald, that recommended that NCTE advocate for the abolition of textbooks.

Currently, IRA advocates the same policy toward LEARN (sic) and the Common Core Standards as does NCTE, and I remain relatively silent about IRA because, although I have been an occasional member, the organization never touched the essence of who I am as a teacher. My past relationship with NCTE still stirs my intellect and my heart. This is an organization that, though embracing national standards and determined to write those standards, invited me--a vocal dissident--to participate in standards retreats. That NCTE was not afraid of dissidence; they even paid the air fare and hotel for a critic to come sit at the table. I lost the argument but remained loyal to the organization that honored my voice.

And then, English Journal editor and later NCTE president Leila Christenbury had the nerve to ask me to write on the subject of standards, knowing full well that I would be very critical of NCTE and that what I wrote would create a firestorm both within and outside of the organization. I remember when she called. I said, "Leila, what I write will make a lot of people unhappy."

She replied, "I know. Go ahead."

In that article I discovered I had a lot more to say on the subject, and it became the beginning of One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards.

That article received the NCTE Edwin M. Hopkins English Journal award. That's what I've long admired about NCTE. Not only do they tolerate dissidence, they encourage and honor it.

Or they used to.

Years later, I learned that Leila faced enormous flack for the article. She stood up to it with a grace and dignity that I continue to admire.

Recently, when the editors of Language Arts invited me to write a big article on assessment, I warned them that I would be critical of NCTE. They replied, "Go ahead," and did not ask me to change one word in "On Assessment, Accountability, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night."

This is why I took such offense when my current attempts to communicate with NCTE leadership have met with silence--except for a public statement by NCTE Executive Director Kent Williamson that "name calling is easy." He was reacting to a Washington Post observation that Stephen Krashen and I think NCTE should award the Doublespeak Award to itself.

As noted above, I have been a member of NCTE for decades, contributing to committees and panels and journals whenever called upon.

I, for one, don't call Stephen's vast research on literacy "easy." Or his indefatigable zeal for sharing this information with the public. Take a look at his voluminous letters to the international press. They look pretty serious to me.

And speaking of mail, I answer my mail.

Of Note: Neither the NCTE Executive Committee nor the Executive Director has seen fit to respond to our concerns about their support of the LEARN [sic] Act, but it seems the Washington Post is able to get a response, calling us "easy."

One Executive Committee member told a list that they're supporting the LEARN (sic) Act to get a seat at the table. Read Malcolm X on this topic:

I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate.
--Malcolm X Speech at Cory Methodist Church, Cleveland, Ohio, April 3, 1964
I wonder whom NCTE has hired as food taster.

At present, my membership to NCTE is hanging by a thread. If I decide not to renew it will be with deep regret. The organization has meant so much to me. But what other avenue do members have when they can get no response to their concerns?

References
Leila Christenbury, "Entering the Whirlwind: Editing English Journal, 1994-1998," January 2000.

Susan Ohanian, "Whither Urban English?" English Journal, November 1979.

Susan Ohanian, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, Heinemann, 1999.

Susan Ohanian, "On Assessment, Accountability, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night," Language Arts, May 2009.

Valerie Strauss, "Should the National Council of Teachers of English win its own Doublespeak award?" Washington Post: Answer Sheet, Nov. 24, 2009.

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