What I’m Reading: The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

I’m reading Yvonne S. Thornton’s The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astonishing Success Story. Thornton will be our speaker at New Jersey City University’s Convocation on October 5, so I turned to her story to see how I could use it to prepare my students for the event.

Thornton’s story, written with Jo Coudert, is not the slick or simple tale of uplifting success that the blurbs on the book’s jacket suggest. It may be an inspiring story but it is not adequate to describe it as a “guide to success,” despite the Star Ledger‘s claims. The story of Thornton and her sisters’ journeys from girlhoods in Long Branch, New Jersey to success in medicine (Thornton is a distinguished perinatologist) and in other careers (dentist, educator, nurse, and court stenographer) is uplifting but it is also harrowing. Dangers and obstacles are a constant in Thornton’s journey.

Ditchdigger cover

If there is any key to her success, it is her father’s unvarnished credo: “You’re black and you’re ugly and you’re girls, and the world’s already written you off. You can grow up and be a bag lady. You can be on the streets and the world won’t give a damn whether you live or die. But if you listen to me, we can get out of this” (255). Thornton’s father’s lessons to his daughters about the realities they face are brutal and blunt, even as he pushes them towards success.

I’ve paired an excerpt from Thornton’s text with a recent piece from The Atlantic: “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color,” by Melinda D. Anderson. Anderson explores research that “traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem” (emphasis added) and “implode” when they are hit by “problems they can’t control.” Hard work without an understanding of the myths that undergird our American Dream can not only be insufficient in the face of obstacles, it can be counter-productive and damaging.

I’m eager to hear what my students think about these two pieces and what we will learn from Thornton in her address to us on October 5.

Written and posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of EnglishNew Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

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What I’m Reading: The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

English Language Arts the Write Way: Transformative and Digital

NJCTE Fall Conference

English Language Arts the Write Way:  Transformative and Digital

October 28, 2017, 8:30 until 1:00 P.M, Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton, NJ 08540.

Visit our website njcte.com to register.  Choose vegetarian or traditional small sub boxed lunch when you register.  Wegmans will make one just for you. Mail $20 check payable to NJCTE. Send your check to Denise Weintraut, 8 Elizabeth Place, Sicklerville, NJ 08081.

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
English Language Arts the Write Way: Transformative and Digital

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”: What Do You Think?

We are happy to say right up front that we know the value of branding.  We see that NCTE has moved from stodgy blue and gold to vibrant lime green that makes all stop and look twice.  This new look is akin to seeing Queen Elizabeth II, the bastion of propriety, don a Lady Gaga meat dress and strut her stuff.  Lady Gaga has millions of followers.  Branding works for her.  So why not use this same approach for the teaching profession?

Consider a recent article in the New York Times about Kayla Delzer, a third-grade teacher from Mapleton, North Dakota. She is characterized as a new kind of teacher who “is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology.”

These teachers influencers attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks” and “are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.”

Natasha Singer, author of the Times article, states that teachers like Delzer have grown in number “as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.”

Delzer and other teachers like her serve as “brand ambassadors,” and through their work in the classroom and as trainers of other teachers, “promote the products and services” of many companies and receive as rewards for their efforts, gifts like t-shirts, gift cards, and some more costly items such as travel expenses to conferences.

Singer goes on to say that these brand ambassador teachers continue to use and promote products and services despite the fact that “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.”

This article has generated some fervent reactions in the education blogosphere. Check out these links to the responses of a few noted educators:

Douglas Hesse, former President of NCTE, Executive Director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver and Professor of English, responded to the article on NCTE’s Connected Community. (If you are not already a member of this digital community, we encourage you to join.)

connected community

Meanwhile, we quote his entry here for those readers who are not yet members:

Original Message:
Sent: 09-04-2017 11:37
From: Douglas Hesse
Subject: Teachers as Brand Ambassadors –NY Times Story

I’m still pondering a story I read in yesterday’s New York Times (9/2/17) about teachers establishing themselves as brand ambassadors, primarily for technology companies who provide both classroom/school and personal benefits for promoting devices and/or applications. A certain chunk of the teacher’s time and efforts is to make visible, primarily through social media, themselves and their classrooms: to promote themselves as brands, famous for being famous teachers, “emulatable,” as it were.  Now, there’s certainly nothing entirely new about this.  There have long been famous teachers, famous at least within the profession, whose teaching practices and ideas get noticed and circulated, some of them even achieving status as “The Smith or the Lujan Method.”  But those fame-garnering accomplishments have large occurred, historically, through professional organizations: presenting at conferences at various levels, publishing journal articles, occasionally authoring books.

Historically, there has been some sense of an implicit disciplinary vetting that occurred within knowledge communities; sometimes ideas and practices passed through levels of peer review (as in conference selections or publishing), but not always.  And of course there’s been a version of “brand ambassadors” when the “apps” being promoted were textbooks, not software; publishers sponsored professional development led by one of their authors.  The relationship within English studies between not-for-profit professional expertise and for-profit circulation of materials has always been a complex one.  (As a textbook author myself, I’ve tried to resist what have felt to me the crassest requests for promotion.) What strikes me as different in the NYT article is the more overtly entrepreneurial cast.  The tools of social media allow folks largely to bypass the professional associations and channels–organizations like NCTE–that traditionally provided authorizing (or sanctioning) functions.  Instead, there’s more or less direct marketing, with the teacher him or herself being the brand.

The NYT article raises questions about ethics, noting that teachers treading roads that other professionals (especially physicians) have trod: the possible tension between obligations to one’s students through professional standards and enticements to one’s self-interests through business opportunities on the side.  As the story points out (and as I concede), the nature of both school funding and teacher salaries–not to mention, the erosion of teacher status–makes the enticements pretty reasonable and understandable.

Now, as I said at the outset, I’m still pondering this all.  I have concerns, but I want to be thoughtful before pounding my shoe indignantly on a desk.  I am struck, however, by the consequences of these practices for what it means (or doesn’t, really) to be a professional whose professionalism is both signaled and sanctioned by membership in professional associations.

Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, former social studies teacher, and extensive researcher on education history and school reform responds on his blog

Steven Singer, a middle school language arts teacher and on-fire blogger comments on the role teachers play as pawns in the technology industry money machine and the problems it can create for the profession and kids.  While he is not addressing the Times article in particular, it is clear that he has strong opinions on seductive forces of the technology industry.

What do you think? We invite you to share your thoughts on this article on NJCTE Blog, or if you prefer, you may email responses to us at njctefocus@gmail.com.

Written by Susan Reese, NJCTE President, and Patricia Schall, NJCTE Board Member

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of EnglishNew Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”: What Do You Think?

NJCTE  FALL CONFERENCE 2017

NJCTE colleagues: here’s your autumn refresher! 

Come to Princeton’s Chapin School

on Saturday, October 28th from 8:30 AM – 1 PM.

Stimulate your senses with interactive writing, SPARK (a.k.a. ignite) mini-presentations, and traditional PD workshops featuring writing, literacy, intellectual freedom, and publishing.  

More details coming soon.  Sign up now!  email NJCTE President@gmail.com  with a request to save a seat for you. Only $20. Send check later or pay online.

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
NJCTE  FALL CONFERENCE 2017

NJCTE Wins Affiliate Excellence Award

As Millie Davis explains, the NCTE Affiliate Excellence Award “honors NCTE affiliates that meet high standards of performance for programming and promote improvement in English language arts teaching.” This year, the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English is one of the affiliate winners.

affiliate award

Jean Boreen, chair of the Standing Committee on Affiliates and the Excellence Award committee chair, wrote of the NJCTE affiliate’s work:

Your publications and social media continue to be an exceptionally strong means of communication in keeping members informed and aware; your website is also a strong mechanism for reaching out to your membership. I loved your development of the virtual Hall of Fame; what a wonderful way to highlight great leadership and support of the affiliate. I’m also very impressed with your plans for new members as well as the consistent updating and goal-setting your group is doing; I love the energy that is clearly emanating from the good work you are all putting forward.

We are thrilled to receive this honor. But we aren’t satisfied. We need to continue to grow and improve. We can and will learn from the good work of the other winning affiliates. And we hope to learn more from the teachers of English in New Jersey, as you tell us what you need and want. Let us hear from you!

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
NJCTE Wins Affiliate Excellence Award

Teachers: “You Gotta Believe”

True Story:
September 28, 2008. Last Game at Shea Stadium: Mets v. Marlins. Somehow, we secured boxed seats, which were behind the Marlins’ dugout. Thrilling day – we were celebrating my birthday. I’m not a big baseball gal, but I love watching any game live – and it was Shea’s finale.  mets

I sat next to this guy, whose name I don’t even remember, but I’ll call Carl. I mentioned it was my birthday.

“No kiddin’?” Carl says, and then calls out to the Marlins’ ball boy: “Hey, it’s this lady’s birthday. Can we have a ball?”

The kid grabs a ball and tosses it to us. Carl– a guy I did not know – proceeds to get several celebrities to sign the ball for me, telling them it’s my birthday. (I’m talking Jerry Seinfeld, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close and some baseball players who I don’t know).

But that’s not the best thing.

What really got me was Carl himself. The Mets were struggling most of the game. Carl had several signs that he would hold up periodically. My favorite: “You Gotta Believe!” Whenever the Mets messed up, Carl would hold up the sign and sing a little ditty: “You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe, You Gotta Believe!”

I LOVED IT.  Mets sign-guy-300x205

I had never before connected to the Met’s famous saying (from pitcher Tug McGraw in 1973). But it was the highlight of that awesome day in 2008. Better than the signed baseball, better than the iconic experience. I loved Carl’s reaction to setback.

The Mets lost. (Marlins 4 – Mets 2).

I still have that signed baseball, but I really treasure meeting Carl and hearing the Met’s chant.

This is what we teachers need in our lives: Carl’s faith, even when our team is down. It is a tough time now for teachers. The testing culture seems to be like the Dementors from Harry Potter – sucking our souls with each contact. It can feel debilitating and deflating.

We have to remember Carl. Even if we don’t have his sign, we “Gotta Believe,” we need to keep the faith. The students need us.

Mets YouGottaBelieve1

Written by Liz deBeer, NJCTE Board Member and editor of New Jersey English Journal    

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
Teachers: “You Gotta Believe”